Michael Pollan is the “barefoot running” of diet advice.
Barefooters argue that running shoes don’t prevent injuries, they cause them. Armed with a growing mound of scientific evidence, barefooting and near-barefooting advocates claim that modern attempts to improve on the design of the human foot—one that natural selection has been working on for millions of years—are effective at precisely one thing: selling shoes.
To understand what Michael Pollan is doing, simply replace “running shoes” with “the fortified, processed foods that line grocery store shelves,” and “barefoot running” with “eating real food.” Real food, as in “food your great-grandmother would recognize as such,” one of Pollan’s acid-tests for authenticity.
The book that introduced me to Michael Pollan’s approach to eating was In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In it, Pollan presents his arguments for eating whole foods and avoiding foods that have been fortified or otherwise altered (think added omega-3’s and the low-fat craze). He first strengthens his case by citing lots of science, which makes for mostly interesting, but sometimes dull reading. The most memorable part of the book is the last section, in which Pollan lists a few ridiculously simple, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that rules for eating well.
I suspect others felt the same way I did regarding which part of In Defense of Food was the most compelling, as Pollan’s next book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Penguin), contains nothing but the good stuff. 64 rules, each followed by about a half a page of explanation, and nothing more (except for a tiny introductory section).
Whether the 64 simple rules are enough to replace every diet book on the shelves, I don’t know. But it’s possible. These rules make a lot of sense, and they make eating well really simple.
I’d recommend the book to anyone unfamiliar with Pollan’s work, as an introduction to this style of eating that really ought not to need an introduction, if only we hadn’t f-ed it up with with all the Go-gurt and Hot Pockets. But since there’s not much science in the book, if that part interests you I’d recommend In Defense of Food instead.
My three favorite rules from Food Rules:
#13: Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
Makes sense, right? Foods that rot do so because bacteria eat what nutrition they have in them. If your food won’t rot, it probably doesn’t have anything worth eating in it. I’ve heard this one stated slightly differently as “Eat what will rot before it does.”
#39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
This is the rule a friend told me about that made me buy the book. I’m hoping it might do the same for a few of you.
If you had to actually take the time to prepare all the junk that’s so readily available in convenience stores and fast-food joints, you might do it a couple times a year, but that’s it. Pollan uses french fries as an example. (Though I wish he’d have said “Eat all the meat you want, as long as you slaughter it yourself.” Pollan is not a vegetarian, but it sounds like he’s pretty close, eating meat mainly as a side dish.)
#41: Eat More Like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.
This is perhaps my favorite rule in the entire book, and it strengthens further the comparison of Michael Pollan’s ideas to the barefoot running movement, in that it’s based on evolution.
The point here is that these cultures survived and thrived, each on their own, very distinctive diets. And the diets themselves survived precisely because the people eating them survived to reproduce. Since different cultures thrive on different diets, it’s clear that we aren’t meant to eat any one way. But there is certainly a wrong way to eat, and that’s what most of us in the United States now do.
You can read Michael Pollan’s article in the Huffington Post to see more of his rules, including the actual discussions following them instead of my stupid ones.