Selecting a healthy diet can be complicated and frustrating. Words like “polyphenols” and “gluten” are tossed around. Fad-diets come and go. We are encouraged to eat the “good” fats and avoid the “bad” ones. Nutritional science can feel like an inverse relationship between increasing vocabulary and decreasing understanding. With our expanding waist-lines and chronic diseases, Americans still don't know how to eat.
Michael Pollan's Food Rules
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and The Botany of Desire, is one of our nation's most engaging and convincing industrial food critics. In his newest book, Food Rules, he outlines simple, practical guidelines for healthy nutritional and lifestyle choices. He begins the book with three facts:
1. Western diets lead to Western diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. A Western diet consists of processed foods, meat, added fat and sugar, refined grains, and very few vegetables. Of the Western diet, Pollan says we “have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!”(Pollan, 2009, p. xi)
2. Populations eating a “traditional” diet do not suffer from these chronic diseases. The Inuit in Greenland eat primarily seal blubber, yet their arteries do not clog as rapidly as ours. Central American Indians consume tons of carbs in rice and beans, yet their weight does not balloon uncontrollably. The Masai in Africa feed primarily on cattle blood, meat and milk yet this protein addiction does not corrode their hearts.
3. People who jump off the runaway-Western-diet-train see great improvements in their health. By changing our habits we can attain true health and wellness.
So Why does the Western Diet Still Exist?
Pollan explains that “there's a lot of money in the Western diet. The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes. The healthcare industry makes more money treating chronic diseases (which account for three quarters of the $2 trillion plus we spend each year on heath care in this country) than preventing them.” (Pollan, 2009, p. xiv)
How Can We Eat More Healthily?
Here is Michael Pollan's answer: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By following most of the 64 rules he enumerates, we can lead more rich and productive lives. Following are some of the rules and suggestions found in the book.
1. Eat What? Eat Food.
•Eat Food. Avoid what Pollan calls “edible food-like substances” which are highly processed, concocted in a lab, often derived from corn and soy, and chocked full of chemical additives that have never been a part of the human diet.
• No High Fructose Corn Syrup! It can sneak up on you in bread, condiments, and snack foods.
• Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.
• Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce. If you have children, here's a great way to get them involved.
• Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
• Get out of the supermarket whenever you can. Check out the farmers market!
• If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.
B. Eat What Kind of Food? Mostly Plants.
• Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
• Eating what stands on one leg [mushrooms and plant foods] is better than eating what stands on two legs [fowl], which is better than eating what stands on four legs [cows, pigs and other mammals].” Chinese proverb.
• Eat animals that have themselves eaten well. Animals are often fed a high-energy diet that their bodies are not made to process. In order to avoid sickness caused by this inflammatory diet, industrial farmers also feed their animals a steady stream of antibiotics.
• Eat well-grown food from healthy soil. Soil feeds the plant. If the ground that surrounds the plant is full of chemical fertilizers or devoid of nutrients, the plant will suffer and so will you.
• Eat wild foods when you can. Try tasting purslane, lamb's quarters, nettle leaf, and many more delicious, easily distinguishable and local wild plants.
• Eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi. Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, and sourdough bread provide vitamin B12, which you can't get from plants. Also these foods contain probiotics that improve digestive and immune systems and likely reduce allergic reactions and inflammation.
• Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
• Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.
C. Eat How? Not too much.
• Pay more, eat less.
• Eat less.
• Did we mention eat less?
• Eat slowly.
• “The banquet is in the first bite.” Pollan (2009) writes that “no other bite will taste as good as the first” due to what economists call “the law of diminishing marginal utility” (p. 111). So savor the first few bites and stop eating sooner.
• Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.
• “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.” An old adage that bears repeating.
• Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does. Pollan (2009) jokes that gas stations should be called “processed corn stations” where we get “ethanol outside for your car and high-fructose corn syrup inside for you” (p. 125).
• Do all your eating at a table. The one in the kitchen, that is. Not the one where your computer hangs out, or where you rest your feet when you watch TV.
• Try not to eat alone. Make it a pleasurable, communal experience. You will eat less and enjoy more.
• Break the rules once in a while. Greasy french fries and flourless chocolate cakes are great...once in a while. Life is short!
Here's to New Beginnings
As Pollan points out in his book, we don't need to be scientists to eat more healthily. With simple and straightforward guidelines we can easily maintain healthy bodies, minds and spirits.