How Michael Pollan is Like Barefoot Running

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.



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  1. A lot of people disagree with the “Eat all the junk food you want” rule but I stand by it. I churn my own ice cream for the most part. It’s definitely fattier than the frozen yogurt options at the grocery store. It’s probably a good thing it doesn’t come with a nutrition panel. But because I made it, and I know what an absolute mess it is to create, I don’t barrel through it like I might if I didn’t create it myself.

    I have to confess I’ve never actually bought his most recent book. I’ve looked through it at Target, and realized it’s just a condesnsed version of In Defense of Food, which I prefer a lot more in its entirety.

  2. Interesting post! I am definitely a Pollan fan but I don’t know much about the barefoot running thing other than I know it’s happening. I will have to look in to more.

  3. I bought my mom this book for Mother’s Day. If I remember correctly, the last rule (or one of them) is to break the rules sometimes. In the book, above that rule, I taped a picture of the homemade hemp-ice cream sandwiches I made that were waiting in the freezer!

  4. Junk food at home is all good!

  5. I love all of Michael Pollan’s books, and Food Rules is packed with great little nuggets of condensed wisdom. Definitely a common-sense-slap in the face!

  6. Thanks for the book suggestions! I am going on vacation next week and already bought Born to Run, and will now be buying Food Rules.

  7. haha perfect comparison. Love Michael Pollan’s common sense and I love barefoot running.

  8. Love Michael Pollen. And love his rules 🙂 especially #13!

  9. I’ve read In Defense of Food. It’s as good of an explanation of what has happened to our country as there is going, I think.

    Do you run barefoot? 😉

    • Alan, no I don’t run fully barefoot. I’ve tried and it hurts too much! But I do run in Vibram FiveFingers once or twice a week, which is similar, or so people say. It’s a really fun form of running; I’d recommend it to anyone.

  10. This is a book that I would like to read in the near future. I love the “food rules” that you posted above and would like to read them in their entirety. Real food is important to me and I do my best to raise and grow as much of my own food as I reasonably can at this time. I was brought up in a household where we raised much of the meat and produce that we ate. This is a fact of life that I embrace and appreciate.

  11. Indeed, Matt, running the marathon of life requires proper fuel. I’m grateful that you’ve introduced Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. As one who grew up in Japan, I can attest to the respect and honor given to fresh vegetables and fruits pre-onslaught of Godiva and Krispy Kreme stores in Tokyo. The good news, however, is that a portion of the running population today are resuming their love affair with the basics such as zakoku – assorted grains and millets of ancient Japan.

    Thanks again for sharing the Food Rules. Very much appreciate too your including your favorite about homemade junk food =)

  12. If you thought “In Defense of Food was full of science, pick up “The Omnivore’s Dilemma!” I really believe that is the book that reveals the “man behind the curtain” so to speak. While it’s not big on outright solutions (you have to infer them yourself), it’s chock-full of scientific evidence that the processed way we’ve been eating is killing us.

  13. Does this diet work for people that are sedentary and hope to work in light walking soon? Also, if you’re not into working out…are the protein smoothies still good for you? Do they make you gain weight?

  14. Lev Gordon says:

    French, Japanese, Italians…all ate meat.
    Meat is highly digestible. It does not “rot” in the gut, as many non-scientists claim. And it’s healthy, in modest portions.

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