Nutrition, writes the talented journalist Michael Pollan, is a science in its infancy. Nutrition science is where surgery was in the 1650s. But what we do know, he says in his brief eater’s manual “Food Rules,” is quite enough to make Americans healthy.
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual By Michael Pollan. Penguin Books, New York, 2009. 140 pages. $11.
Nutrition, writes the talented journalist Michael Pollan, is a science in its infancy. Nutrition science is where surgery was in the 1650s. But what we do know, he says in his brief eater’s manual “Food Rules,” is quite enough to make Americans healthy. Cultural wisdom, from America and abroad and supported by the science we do have, can and should be our teacher. So what Pollan gives us is Grandma’s sage advice supplemented by his years spent studying and writing about food.
It all boils down to these seven words, says Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He’s given us this directive before, but this time he adds 64 rules to clarify the three main parts of his directive.
This pocket-sized eater’s manual makes healthy eating seem doable. But Pollan, like all of us, understands the challenges. The same culture that cautions us to slow down and chew our food also flashes TV images of hot cheesy pizza at us at 10 p.m., mere hours after our last meal of the day. We have all we can do to stop from punching the speed dial and indulging in a late night binge of beer and pizza and maybe that perfect combination of fat and salt and sugar, a Snickers bar. Few people are immune to the genius of food marketing and processed food manufacturing.
Yet you must immunize yourself against the lure of the so-called Western diet, made up of processed foods and meat, added fat and sugar, and lots of refined grains. The Western diet has “lots of everything,” Pollan writes, “except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.” Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to the Western diet. Men, on average, are 17 pounds heavier and women 19 pounds heavier than in the 1970s.
It won’t be easy. As many as 17,000 new foods make their way into supermarkets each year and two-thirds of the food advertising budget is for processed foods. We need to circle the wagons if we are going to get healthy as a nation.
No doubt timed to coincide with our well-meaning New Year’s resolutions to eat better, the book could in fact be just what you’re looking for. If you follow even a fraction of his rules, you will improve your health. Most popular diets and most research into nutrition, says Pollan, look for the singular culprit, such as fat or carbs or sugar. If you look at the eating habits of other cultures, such as the French, you’ll see that the healing approach is holistic. We must alter our habits. Seek and cook good food, slow down and eat with company, avoid snacks, and eat less. Have a little wine and some fun and beloved friends or family with your meal. And perhaps redefine the very idea of “meal” to include all these meaningful variables. Unfortunately, there isn’t one good or bad food that’s going to save Americans from obesity and chronic disease.
Be flexible and honor those special occasions, Pollan reminds us in conclusion. What matters is your everyday practice — your default habits. Change those and then enjoy, guilt free, your special celebrations.
Rae Francoeur’s new book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” comes out this April. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.