Food guru Michael Pollan puts eating advice on a diet in new book

Brian Mackey

Michael Pollan, the writer who has been out front on the recent push for organic and locally grown food, has been publishing shorter and shorter books on the subject of what we ought to be eating.

Since before his magnum opus “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006, 450 pages), Pollan has been urging us to heed seven simple words of advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

That phrase was on the cover of his follow-up book “In Defense of Food” (2008, 244 pages). Both of those books were thoroughly reported and richly detailed.

In “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan traced four meals — organic, industrial and otherwise — from the origins of the raw ingredients to the table.

“In Defense of Food” was subtitled “An Eater’s Manifesto,” and it was more proscriptive in describing what Americans could do to reclaim the type of diet that sustained our species for millennia.

Now, with “Food Rules” (2009, 140 pages) he has reduced the ideas in his previous books into easily digestible nuggets. Roughly half the slim paperback’s 140 pages contain text, the rest are given over to simple drawings of whole foods and ample white space.

This time, Pollan keeps the science to a minimum and focuses on simple rules intended to guide us into a healthier diet. His basic premise is that much of the processed food we eat today is a departure from what the human body is accustomed to. Instead of eating food our grandmothers would recognize, we consume what he calls “edible foodlike substances.” (Mmm. Twinkies, anyone?)

Because of that, our bodies have a hard time coping with this stuff, resulting in the epic rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other ailments plaguing America. But Pollan is not opposed to science.

“This book is not antiscience,” he writes. “To the contrary, in researching it and vetting these rules I made good use of science and scientists.

“But I am skeptical of a lot of what passes for nutritional science, and I believe that there are other sources of wisdom in the world and other vocabularies in which to talk intelligently about food.

“Human beings ate well and kept themselves healthy for millennia before nutritional science came along to tell us how to do it; it is entirely possible to eat healthily without knowing what an antioxidant is.”

Hence, there’s the notion that your great-grandmother should be able to recognize something as food (Rule 2). Or that you should only eat foods “made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature” (Rule 14).

Other rules are more whimsical, such as “It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (think Big Mac, Cheetos or Pringles)” (Rule 21) or “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car” (Rule 20).

It’s a quick read, but unfortunately easier said than done. Most people don’t have farmers markets for more than half the year, meaning organic, local produce is not always a viable option. There’s also the fact that buying whole foods is more than a lot of people can afford. And wishing one could cook at home more often does nothing to create more hours in the day in which to do so.

Besides, Pringles and Cheetos taste good — as Pollan says, food companies scientifically designed them that way.

Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.