I have had Michael Pollan's new book, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, sitting on my desk for a few weeks now. I read it cover to cover when I first bought it, and now refer to it from time to time. I am letting it sink in slowly. I have already noticed changes in the way I think about my food and the way I eat.
The book is short, just 139 pages, many of which either have only a short amount of text or a graphic. Yet it is packed with useful information. There are 64 guidelines, or 'rules'. They are so practical and make so much sense that I had a tendency to think "Well, of course, I knew that". But Pollan's gift is taking complex ideas and distilling them into short, meaningful phrases. Remember edible foodlike substances from In Defense of Food? When I first read that, I felt the light bulb switch on in my head. What a perfect description of everything that is wrong with the American food landscape, summed up in a simple, catchy phrase. It stuck with me. Every time I went to the supermarket or a restaurant, those words popped up as a warning flag in my head.
Pollan does that again in Food Rules, many times over. Little of the information is new; we have heard most of this before. We all know that eating fresh vegetables is better for us than eating highly processed fast food. I have read many excellent articles by and interviews with Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist Walter Willett which included dietary recommendations based on the amazing long-running Nurses' Health Study. As a long-time subscriber to Cooking Light magazine, I have observed the evolution of nutrition science as that publication has gracefully changed its course away from 'dietary-fat-is-the-enemy'. But I was still confused, like Pollan at the beginning of his quest to answer the question "What should I eat?". Food Rules answers the question in practical terms, with no numbers or calculations (calories, fat grams, percentages) in sight. Nutrition science is translated into, and in some cases replaced by, common-sense concepts and guidelines. No need to follow all 64 rules; taking one or two of them into consideration as you make your food choices can help you change how you eat.
Part I addresses the main question of what to eat, and gives the short answer: "Eat food". The goal of the section is to help us distinguish real foods from those ubiquitous edible foodlike substances. Some of my favorite rules are "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't" and "It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car". The best one, in my opinion, is "Buy your snacks at the farmer's market"! I have been putting that one into practice, first by learning to snack on our own vegetables. I was quite surprised to find that raw green beans make a pretty decent snack. Also, I've been buying some of the prepared foods available at our farmer's market. Those foods are likely to be made by humans (Rule #17) and contain only ingredients a third-grader can pronounce (Rule #7).
I'll get to Part II and Part III in a future post.