Michael Pollan’s Simple Rules For Healthy Eating

Avid reader Bomboniera sent me an article by Michael Pollan from the January 28th issue of the NY Times entitled, “Unhappy Meals.” Unfortunately, one has to pay to read it on the Times site as it has already been archived , however, it is available on Pollan’s site for free.

I wanted to point folks over to the article, which, while it is long, is quite worth reading, because Pollan makes several points that I hope more Americans try and take to heart.

The essay starts out thusly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I can hear the “duhs” already when people read the sentence, “Eat food.” What else would a person eat?

Well, what Pollan is talking about is he wants folks to eat more fresh, whole foods that our great grandmothers would have recognized as food, not the highly-processed, instant, fast-food industry’s frankfood offerings.

I cannot agree more on that point.

Later, he enlarges his recommendations to nine rules for good eating, but before he gets there, he indicts the entire system of scientific reductionism in the study of human nutrition and health. He also makes the point that I have been harping on for years, that the dietary requirements of each human are highly individual because of their genetic heritage. As omnivores, humans have adapted to live in nearly every environment here on earth and as such, individual populations have different abilities to digest different forms of food in a healthy fashion.

Northern Europeans developed the ability to digest cow’s milk through adulthood, unlike most other humans who lack the enzymes necessary to digest milk after childhood, while the peoples of the Arctic Circle can thrive on high-fat and protein diets filled with whale blubber and seal flesh, but very little in the way of green vegetables. Asians can stay slender on high-carb diets that include a great deal of rice and vegetables, while many Americans will grow fat if fed a great deal of carbohydrates.

He also encourages us to enjoy our food and stop treating it like fuel. He is of the belief, and he may be quite correct, that that the stress of worrying over what to eat inflicts as much damage as eating poorly does. He cites the French, who eat a lot of saturated fats and drink a good deal of wine, as an example of people who manage to eat smaller portions than Americans because they eat smaller portions more slowly in the context of a social setting, instead of wolfing food down solo, as a means to simply fuel the body. In addition, he notes that eating from a cultural tradition seems to help diners get the sort of truly varied diet that it seems we humans evolved to eat.

I don’t want to go over all nine of Pollan’s “rules” here; for that, you can click on the link above.

But, I do want to point out one factor in healthy eating that he ignored: humans do not only need to eat food, mostly plants and not too much in order to live well.

We must also move.

Humans did not evolve to be as sedentary as most Americans are these days, and the fact that most of us sit in front of desks and drive our cars everywhere does not help us out in the health department.

In my experience, so long as I am physically active, I have much more leeway in what sorts of foods and amounts I can ingest without harm to myself. In addition, I find that I feel better and I tend to enjoy my food more when I am genuinely hungry because I have worked up a true appetite by moving my body in ways in which it was meant to move.

So, I would amend Pollan’s opening statement to read: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Move around. Enjoy yourself.”

With those four extra words in two short sentences, I think that Pollan’s philosophy is made complete.

11 Comments

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  1. I don’t like this article, partly because of its tone. I’d love to eat the way Pollan wants Americans to eat, but I’m unemployed now and live in a small apartment and don’t have my own car in a town without an incredibly good public transport system. I don’t always have great access to reasonably priced, delicious fresh vegetables, so I have to rely on frozen ones, or eat the same, tired-looking ones over and over again. Guess what, I HAVE to eat processed foods, if you count frozen veggies! I’m a bit of a food snob, but Pollan’s too much of a food snob even for me, to be honest. Plus, if I really stuck to the idea of not eating what my great-great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food, that’d let out a lot of the ethnic goodies I love so much. How about tofu? You don’t get too much more processed than tofu.

    There’s common sense in the article, but I just can’t see it as the Gospel According to Pollan. Plus, I’ve had it crammed down my throat about 60 times by now. Sigh.

    Comment by Kiwi C. — February 7, 2007 #

  2. I enjoyed Pollan’s article, personally.

    As for the “eat what your great-grandmother would recognise” rule, I am not sure he meant it to apply specifically to YOUR great-grandmother as our great-grandmothers’ generation worldwide. That is to say, my Austrian great-grandmother and my Irish great-grandmother might not have recognised spaghetti or dim sum, but SOMEBODY’s GGM would.

    On the other hand, the point about “I’ve heard this all 60 times” is well taken – I sometimes wonder if those of us who are interested in this kind of article are sadly just preaching to the converted. I’d like to see a version of this article in something like USA Today. (Hope that doesn’t sound too snobbish!)

    Barbara, your comment about moving around and enjoying yourself is a good one. However, it made me giggle because one of the commercials for a very sugary chocolatey kid’s breakfast cereal running in the UK at the moment has a little text at the bottom of the screen saying “Run around and have fun and eat a healthy breakfast!” and it makes me wonder a) how many of the kids watching the very lively ad can or will read the text and b) what the last part has to do with the breakfast cereal which, despite added vitamins, is decidedly NOT a healthy breakfast!

    Comment by Meg — February 8, 2007 #

  3. Following that latest Times piece, there was a snarky article in Slate by one Daniel Engber, critiquing Pollan’s “nutritional Darwinism.” He makes the point that Pollan’s condemnation of modern nutritional science (certainly the most interesting and novel part of the Times article) is a bit silly, considering that Pollan’s “common sense” evolutionary model of good eating has its own problematic flexibility. Engbar aptly observes that such a model has been employed by the likes of the Zone Diet to justify eating large quantities of meat, just like our pre-agricultural ancestors. Still, even if I don’t think that evolutionary propriety is going to convince me or anybody else to eat properly, I do appreciate the light that Pollan shines on our contemporary cultural habit of allowing the marketing world to sell us the latest science–as if buying it could make up for our continuing failure to eat a balanced diet and get some exercise.

    Comment by mdvlist — February 8, 2007 #

  4. Meg, that cereal advert makes me think that the kids are running around because all the sugar and additives have made them hyperactive!

    Comment by Steph in the UK — February 8, 2007 #

  5. Kiwi: There’s a difference between outlining an ideal diet, and telling people that they’re inadequate for not following it.

    Individuals can only do so much to help themselves. Governments and municipalities need to step in and ensure that their people have access to what they need, especially when it comes to people without money or transportation or close proximity to the food.

    The first step, though, is deciding *what* people need. If we think it’s good enough for people to subsist on canned pasta and Wonder Bread, nobody will work for change. If it’s determined that people need fresh whole foods, government might sit up and take notice, or neighborhoods might organize good food box programs through volunteer labor.

    Comment by Indefatigable — February 8, 2007 #

  6. Guess what, I HAVE to eat processed foods, if you count frozen veggies!

    But I don’t. I would consider green beans, picked and frozen, minimally processed at best. It’s certainly no Chef Boyardee. Hell, even when I do hit the farmers market every week, a portion of those fruits/veggies wind up frozen or pickled. Same thing with something like canned tomatoes. What I hear the article saying is – the closer one can stay to the food’s original form, the better.

    Comment by Bomboniera — February 8, 2007 #

  7. Hey Barbara,

    I definately agree with the addition of getting moving and enjoying oneself. Diet alone is only part of the story. For me regular exercise and peace of mind as equally important. If I neglect either of these I end up feeling like crap regardless of how good my diet is.

    Cheers – Gordon

    Comment by Gordon — February 8, 2007 #

  8. I totally agree with your additions, though I really liked the article originally as well, and I liked that he was willing to step up and criticize the beliefs that we know all we need to know about food.

    As for activity, I really love riding my bike and walking and I have to eat lots to make sure I get enough food when I’m pretty active. Quite a novel problem to have!

    I am currently reading “Divorce Your Car”. I don’t know what your transport situation is but I think it’s quite a good book so far, very thoughtful.

    Comment by Alexis — February 9, 2007 #

  9. It’s an interesting article, but he hasn’t convinced me to stop taking my calcium supplements.

    And I have to say, my great-grandmother would have looked at one of those fruit-and-grain bars and said, “Okay, it’s rather flat, but it’s obviously jelly rolled in dough and baked; I recognize that.” Now, if she’d read the ingredients label…. (She would, however, consider it unnatural to be eating fresh leafy foods in January and early February.)

    Anyway, I agree that you need to add exercise to that equation to be complete. My ancestors lived fairly long healthy lives on what we’d currently consider an unhealthy diet because they walked, did farm and heavy household labor, and generally burned a lot more calories than I do sitting at my computer and driving my car!

    Comment by Castiron — February 10, 2007 #

  10. I don’t consider frozen veggies processed food (unless they are coated with sauce or something similiar).

    Indeed, most nutritionists agree that frozen veggies can be quite a bit more healthful than fresh veggies–especially if said fresh veggies have been trucked in from out of state (or from out of the country) and have sat under florescent lighting for a week. Traveling and exposure to light can destroy the nutrient profile of vegetables quite a bit.

    Frozen vegetables and fruit, on the other hand, are harvested at the peek of ripeness and are flash frozen within hours of being harvested–making them far superior in taste and nutrition to about 75 percent of what’s in the produce isle.

    And tomatoes? PULEEZE! I don’t buy fresh tomatoes unless I’m getting them from a local farmer at the farmer’s market, where I know they have just been harvested and have never been chilled; otherwise I always use good quality canned tomatoes (my favorite is Muir Glen). Supermarket tomatoes are simply gross and way to expensive to justify their poor quality.

    Frankly, I think our food system is just way to large. It’s become an unmanagable beast.

    But what do you expect when the average American demands fresh spinach and lettuces all year round?

    Here’s to eating seasonally and locally!

    Comment by Roxanne — February 11, 2007 #

  11. [...] I cannot imagine ever being on a low carb diet! That thali is going to look very forlorn if I take out the rice or roti from it. And I’m going to look very unhappy. Rice and wheat have been our staples forever; our systems have evolved to deal with such diets. As Barbara notes, “Asians can stay slender on high-carb diets that include a great deal of rice and vegetables, while many Americans will grow fat if fed a great deal of carbohydrates.” [...]

    Pingback by Food Glorious Food « A Mad Tea Party — August 9, 2007 #

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