The idea for this book came from a doctor — a couple of them, as a matter of fact. They had read my last book, In Defense of Food, which ended with a handful of tips for eating well: simple ways to navigate the treacherous landscape of modern food and the often-confusing science of nutrition. “What I would love is a pamphlet I could hand to my patients with some rules for eating wisely,” they would say. “I don’t have time for the big nutrition lecture and, anyway, they really don’t need to know what an antioxidant is in order to eat wisely.” Another doctor, a transplant cardiologist, wrote to say “you can’t imagine what I see on the insides of people these days wrecked by eating food products instead of food.” So rather than leaving his heart patients with yet another prescription or lecture on cholesterol, he gives them a simple recipe for roasting a chicken, and getting three wholesome meals out of it — a very different way of thinking about health.
Make no mistake: our health care crisis is in large part a crisis of the American diet — roughly three quarters of the two-trillion plus we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases, most of which can be prevented by a change in lifestyle, especially diet. And a healthy diet is a whole lot simpler than the food industry and many nutritional scientists — what I call the Nutritional Industrial Complex — would have us believe. After spending several years trying to answer the supposedly incredibly complicated question of how we should eat in order to be maximally healthy, I discovered the answer was shockingly simple: eat real food, not too much of it, and more plants than meat. Or, put another way, get off the modern western diet, with its abundance of processed food, refined grains and sugars, and its sore lack of vegetables, whole grains and fruit.
So I decided to take the doctors up on the challenge. I set out to collect and formulate some straightforward, memorable, everyday rules for eating, a set of personal policies that would, taken together or even separately, nudge people onto a healthier and happier path. I solicited rules from doctors, scientist, chefs, and readers, and then wrote a bunch myself, trying to boil down into everyday language what we really know about healthy eating. And while most of the rules are backed by science, they are not framed in the vocabulary of science but rather culture — a source of wisdom about eating that turns out to have as much, if not more, to teach us than nutritional science does.
What follows is a small sample of Food Rules, a half dozen policies that will give you a taste of what you’ll find in the book: sixty-four food rules, each with a paragraph of explanation. I think you’ll see from this little appetizer that Food Rules is a most unconventional diet book. You can read it in an hour and it just might change your eating life. I hope you’ll take away something you can put to good use, and maybe get a chuckle or two along the way. And do let me know if have any food rules I should know about. I’m still collecting them, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
#11 Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
Food marketers are ingenious at turning criticisms of their products — and rules like these — into new ways to sell slightly different versions of the same processed foods: They simply reformulate (to be low-fat, have no HFCS or transfats, or to contain fewer ingredients) and then boast about their implied healthfulness, whether the boast is meaningful or not. The best way to escape these marketing ploys is to tune out the marketing itself, by refusing to buy heavily promoted foods. Only the biggest food manufacturers can afford to advertise their products on television: More than two thirds of food advertising is spent promoting processed foods (and alcohol), so if you avoid products with big ad budgets, you’ll automatically be avoiding edible foodlike substances. As for the 5 percent of food ads that promote whole foods (the prune or walnut growers or the beef ranchers), common sense will, one hopes, keep you from tarring them with the same brush — these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
#19 If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
#36 Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.
This should go without saying. Such cereals are highly processed and full of refined carbohydrates as well as chemical additives.
#39 Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
There is nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried foods, pastries, even drinking soda every now and then, but food manufacturers have made eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and easy that we’re eating them every day. The french fry did not become America’s most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes — and cleaning up the mess. If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they’re so much work. The same holds true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice cream. Enjoy these treats as often as you’re willing to prepare them — chances are good it won’t be every day.
#47 Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.
For many of us, eating has surprisingly little to do with hunger. We eat out of boredom, for entertainment, to comfort or reward ourselves. Try to be aware of why you’re eating, and ask yourself if you’re really hungry — before you eat and then again along the way. (One old wive’s test: If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry.) Food is a costly antidepressant.
#58 Do all your eating at a table.
No, a desk is not a table. If we eat while we’re working, or while watching TV or driving, we eat mindlessly — and as a result eat a lot more than we would if we were eating at a table, paying attention to what we’re doing. This phenomenon can be tested (and put to good use): Place a child in front of a television set and place a bowl of fresh vegetables in front of him or her. The child will eat everything in the bowl, often even vegetables that he or she doesn’t ordinarily touch, without noticing what’s going on. Which suggests an exception to the rule: When eating somewhere other than at a table, stick to fruits and vegetables.
Michael Pollan is the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, winner of the James Beard Award, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Pollan’s new book, Food Rules, was published in January 2010. This excerpt appears with the permission of Penguin Group USA.