Everything you need to know about eating
Chow down like the Greeks, steer clear of the supermarket. A Coles Notes guide to Michael Pollan's latest book
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
May 1, 2008 at 9:31 AM EDT
'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
With those seven simple words, author Michael Pollan sums up pretty well everything you need to know about eating and good health.
In his recently published, brilliant book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, he argues convincingly for a return to simplicity.
Today, Mr. Pollan says, we are eating less and less food, and more and more "edible foodlike substances" - all manner of processed foods.
Americans - and, to almost the same extent, Canadians - are the most food-obsessed culture on Earth, fretting incessantly about the health consequences of food choices.
Mr. Pollan says this has created a nation (or two) of orthorexics - people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Just look at newspapers, magazines, books and Food TV. They are loaded with articles and shows about the benefits of food's various parts, or more specifically its components, like omega-3s to prevent Alzheimer's, lycopene as an antioxidant, and monounsaturated fat as a cholesterol buster.
In other words, we speak no more of foods, but of nutrients.
Mr. Pollan labels this reductionist view of what we put in our mouths (and stomachs) nutritionism. In the ideology of nutritionism, foods are the sum of their nutrient parts.
To which Mr. Pollan's reply is: Nonsense.
In Defense of Food says that, on the contrary, what matters is food in all its glory.
His earlier book The Omnivore's Dilemma was all about the ecological and ethical dilemmas of our eating choices. His thesis was that our personal health cannot be divorced from the health of the food chains of which we are part.
In Defense of Food, published in January, is the logical next step and answers the question: Okay, what should I eat?
Mr. Pollan's response, as stated above: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
But in a volume of 244 pages, he has room to elaborate.
The book is definitely worth reading and digesting in its entirety, but here is the Coles Notes version:
Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize. Dump the processed food and don't eat anything that's incapable of rotting.
Avoid products that contain ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable or more than five in number. These are all markers of highly processed foods.
Avoid products that make health claims. While this may seem paradoxical, to make a health claim a food product must have a package.
Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle aisles. Dairy, produce, meats and fish line the walls, while processed foods are in the middle.
Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Shop at a farmers' market.
Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists disagree on which nutrients in plants are best, but they all agree that plants are healthy eating.
You are what you eat eats, too. The diet of animals has a bearing on the quality of food they produce. It's worth looking for pastured animal foods.
If you have space, buy a freezer. Buy fresh foods in season and in quantity, and freeze them.
Eat like an omnivore. The greater the variety of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases.
Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. This is a more precise way of saying eat "organic," a term that has been perverted.
Eat wild foods when you can.
Be the kind of person who takes supplements. Popping vitamin pills doesn't appear to be very useful (with some notable exceptions like folic acid and perhaps vitamin D), but people who take them are more health-conscious, educated and affluent, and tend to eat better.
Eat more like the French, the Italians, the Japanese, the Indians, the Greeks. Those in traditional food cultures eat much better than those with a contemporary Western diet.
Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism.
Don't look for a magic bullet in a traditional diet.
Have a glass of wine with dinner.
Not too much
Pay more, eat less. Choose quality over quantity.
Eat meals. Don't graze.
Eat at a table. Not a desk. Not in a car. Not in front of the TV.
Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.
Try not to eat alone.
Consult your gut. Practise a principle that Okinawans call hara hachi bu - eat until you are 80-per-cent full.
Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.
There is nothing too difficult here. It's a lot of common sense.
As Mr. Pollan notes wryly, no animal other than humans needs professional help in deciding what to eat.
It is a sad symptom of our confusion about food that we need to consult a nutritionist, a physician, a government food pyramid or - horror of horrors - a journalist on such a basic question.