Michael Pollan: Some Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Food RulesDo I dare disagree with Michael Pollan?

There’s probably no one bigger today in the food world.  Michael Pollan has become the prominent voice in defining what we should eat.  And I like him.  He’s a terrific writer, charismatic speaker and a tremendous thought provoker.  Pollan is currently on a publicity tour promoting his latest book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.

Primarily, he’s preaching the importance of real food.  It’s about simplicity, back to basics.  I embrace that philosophy too. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t think people need to search for the next big thing and spend their hard-earned money on superjuices like Monavie or Vemma, buy an array of customized supplements sold by the Trump Network or put their faith in cookie diets and diet pills peddled by Jillian Michaels.

I agree that eating shouldn’t be complicated.  And yes, we are all bombarded with complicated and conflicting nutrition information.  Indeed, we need clarity!  That’s what I like about his book….

Eating doesn’t have to be so complicated.  In this age of ever-more elaborate diets and conflicting health advice, Food Rules brings a welcome simplicity to our daily decisions about food.  Written with the clarity, concision and wit that has become bestselling author Michael Pollan’s trademark, this indispensible handbook lays out a set of straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely, one per page, accompanied by a concise explanation.

Perhaps you caught one of Pollan’s recent interviews, including his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or read his comments in this New York Times interview.  The new book features 64 food rules, including some advice that Pollan received from readers that he solicited in the New York Times Well blog. Some rules are folkloric, others are what your grandmother might say. I like a lot of the rules, they’re concepts that are good to reinforce:

Eat your colors.
Stop eating before you’re full.
Eat when you are hungry, not when  you are bored.
Eat slowly.
Buy smaller plates and glasses.

But I have a harder time with some of the other rules.  Are these truly realistic, attainable, instructive?  I’m just not sure pithy soundbites are what we need right now to help people eat better and enhance their health.

If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.
Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.
Avoid food products that make health claims.
Avoid products with the words “lite,” “low-fat” or “nonfat in their names.
Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not.
Avoid foods you see advertised on television.

The rules also tend to be negative, and as dietitian Susan Moores points out, they’re missing the joy of eating good food.

Though he never professes to be an “expert,” many people see him as one.  His voice has impact.  His advice is bouncing around in our heads as we order from a menu or swing through a grocery store.  If much of his advice or “rules” are to:

  • Avoid
  • Limit
  • Stay away from
  • Eat only…

where is the joy — the joy of eating good food?  Mr. Pollan boiled down his “eating well” message into seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. I sure wish he would have added two more.  Have fun.  It makes a world of difference if we hope to eat well and truly be well.

Yes, he’s missing the enjoyment factor and I don’t think he’s really providing actionable advice. How are these catchy mandates truly providing guidance to families who are desperately trying to get dinner on the table every night with limited time, limited budgets and a limited comfort level in the kitchen.  An “avoidance” approach doesn’t provide the specific guidance that families need.  So what can I eat?  What should I buy?

One Pollan rule is:   Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

Really?  I think there are plenty of cart-worthy options up and down the middle of the grocery store.  What about packages of whole grain pastas, boxes of brown rice, bags of nuts, canned beans, soup, frozen vegetables and dried fruit.  These were all made in a plant and you’ll probably see ads for them on TV. So?

Let’s give families reasonable options, make it simple but doable.  If we make the ideal so lofty, it doesn’t seem attainable.  It seems theoretical, not practical.  I think it would be much more valuable to provide ideas on how to evaluate choices in those middle aisles instead of telling people to avoid them entirely (plus, a lot of supermarkets are not even organized the way Pollan describes, so the rule doesn’t hold true).

Are these memorable rules?  You bet.  Will they make a difference in how people eat?  Not so sure.

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  • Great post as always, Janet. I do think that like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, having in place ideals for a healthy, balanced diet is a good idea in theory..but we all need to reassure clients and consumers that because we live in the real world, with plenty of delicious (but oftentimes unhealthy) food tempting and sabotaging us at every corner, they can have and should have some wiggle room in their daily life when it comes to food and dietary habits overall. And if we are too serious about always making healthful choices, eating will be a chore and something we won’t enjoy….a pleasure I would never want to take away from myself, my children and family, and consumers. Food nourishes, yes, but it also brings enjoyment and is part of the social fabric of our lives too!
    Thanks again for your thoughtful, well written post.

  • Great review Janet!
    Thank goodness Pollan added Rule #64 – Break the rules once in a while.
    Each family can define what “once in a while” means to them.

  • I love this post Janet!! Great review! Enjoyment is my favorite part of eating 🙂

  • Another great article, Janet! I, like you, enjoy the writings of Michael Pollan but parrot many of the same concerns you and Elisa expressed.

    It all sounds so logical – eat plants, not too much, do this, don’t do that. Except the problem is this – the act of “eating” for most humans isn’t just about logic, it’s about enjoyment.

    What separates us from other animals on this earth is that we sometimes eat for just the pure fun and enjoyment of it all. And certainly that can get us into trouble if not done within reason. But the fundamental flaw in the thinking of idealistic food writers is they forget to factor in the critical element of taste and enjoyment into their equations. For some, polishing off a pint of premium ice cream when you aren’t hungry isn’t logical, it’s therapeutic. Food can make us happy and we always strive to be happy. Maybe the revised equation should be “Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not to much, But Eat Only What You Enjoy”.Yes, we all agree we should eat more “real” food but what you enjoy may also come in a package, have more than 5 ingredients, contain HFCS, artificial flavors, colors, etc. But if done the right, science tells us that those choices can still be part of a healthy diet.

    And since we are throwing around equations, I’ll toss one in of my own that I’ve developed as a registered dietitian in practice for over two decades.

    “Taste+Do-ability+Cost = Sustainability” (notice that taste comes first?)
    1. Don’t like the taste? You’re not going to sustain your efforts.
    Simply tossing in some vegetables into the diet when you’ve never eaten them before won’t make you like them.
    2. Can’t easily fit it into your lifestyle? You’re not going to sustain your efforts.
    What if you don’t have time to make a meal from scratch or don’t like cooking?
    3. Costs too much? You’re not going to sustain your efforts.
    Those bottles of “super juices” you mentioned are very costly and regardless of the motivation, if it doesn’t fit in the budget, it won’t happen beyond the first bottle.

    At first glance, It sounds like the solution to all of our food-related health woes can be solved with simple equations, rules, and “dos and don’ts”, For those of us who are in the trenches and actually see patients, delicious food (for them) is much easier to swallow…

  • Enjoyed reading a blog where someone challenges Michael. For starters, I personally think he would be a boring person to eat with. Not what he likes to eat, but it appears after following him for years, he is not listening to anyone but himself. Michael also needs to know that plants have feelings too. Here is an interesting article re: Brussel Sprouts

  • Thanks, Janet, for the practical, realistic perspective on shopping the inner aisles at the supermarket. Always appreciate your candidness.

  • I agree Janet. My motto: Eat well, be well,enjoy.
    While I support Pollan’s effort to get through to people- and he has made many reflect upon their choices – I just don’t like to whittle eating down to “rules”.
    Eat more plants, yes. But I don’t want folks to feel guilty about using a bagged, canned or boxed food once in a while.

  • Joanne Murray, RD

    Thanks, Janet. I always enjoy your postings and practical approach to food. Nutritional scoring systems, like NuVal ,attempt to provide guidance in those middle aisles ,as well as the fresh and refrigerated aisles,to help consumers make the best choices in each food category.

  • Great review Janet.
    Michael Pollan is definitely a charismatic speaker, I saw him on the Today show. On the show, his rule of, you can eat French fries if you make them was intriguing. I hope people are actually motivated to cook after they read his books, but I doubt it. I have to agree that he’s thought provoking at best. Thanks again for a thorough review.

  • In working with children, teens, and their families every day–I see how difficult it is to intrepret guidelines, implement them, and stay true to what they enjoy eating. It is really difficult! Add the concept of “food rules”–which i personally avoid– and people, particularly children and teens–get very uncomfortable. It feels controlling–and when kids feel over-controlled or “ruled” in the area of food and eating, they tend to behave oppositionally. Rules also promote guilt and failure, particularly in parents, some of which already have a difficult time feeling confident at parenting. I like the simple stuff…that resonates with people of all ages, and enhances confidence.

  • Tara

    Good point! I really like Michael Pollan too but I think instead of simplifying things he might be making it more confusing for people. Really it should be about 10 rules rather than 60+…

  • Excellent post. I think you touched on something that I noticed reading Michael Pollan’s NY Diet piece in NY magazine. Michael Pollan may not be focused on, as you said, those with “limited budgets.” Michael Pollan ate at top, pricey restaurants for almost every meal in a piece that would show others what to eat (and what he ate). How can you give advice to the regular joe when you aren’t?And I just don’t think anyone, even the brillant Michael Pollan, can give us a pamphlet on what to eat. I posted on the book too (and also on his jabs at nutritions).

  • Donna Feldman

    Janet you’re spot on. Therapists who specialize in eating disorders would tag this mind set as belonging to a disordered eater. While his rules obviously aren’t as extreme as some, just having them implies that eating is a complicated and scary enterprise, and that we need to be constantly vigilant about food, constantly on guard. The result? Food becomes the enemy, something to be controlled and avoided.
    And there’s another interesting problem: why is it always MEN who are writing these books and making pronouncements about how we all should be stuck at home cooking our 3 little meals/day from scratch, so that he can eat according to his rules? Just wondering: doMichael Pollan or any of his ilk ever schlep groceries home, do all the messy, time-consuming cooking, wash all the dishes, pots and pans bowls, utensils, counter tops and cutting boards? And then do it all over again 3 hours later. And 3 hours later and on and on, day after day after day? Who exactly is supposed to take responsibility for all this cooking?

  • Great post, Janet! I totally disagree with the “shop only the peripheries” rule in the market. There are tons of great, whole foods in the middle aisles that Pollan dissuades consumers from venturing into – aren’t foods like nuts, whole grains, legumes, frozen veggies and fruits, all good for you too? I definitely think so.

  • Great post Janet! I agree with you and what many others are saying. Healthy food needs to be fun and easy to prepare. Taste is what matters. Sometimes health and nutrition enthusiasts forget that not all Americans think like them when making food choices. Many people simply don’t think of nutrition, and adding more rules to the plate wont help.

    I can’t imagine what it’s like if I had to make my own whole grain cereal, bread, or pasta!

  • Wonderful post! I’ve read Michael’s previous two books, and while I have not yet read this one, it sounds a lot like “In Defense of Food” only with more rules. While I have not been an RD for long, I would never give my patients and clients more than 3-5 ‘rules’ for improving their diet; and for each person those rules are different. I just finished reading Superfoods Rx, and really like how variety is encouraged and restrictions/avoidances are minimal.

    Lets remember that M.P. is not a food/nutrition expert, he is first and foremost a journalist and writer with a great and much appreciated interest in the food world.

  • Thank you for your wonderful post. Although I haven’t read Mr. Pollan’s latest book I don’t think the rules are meant to be rigidly adhered to. They should be used as a point of reference when making choices about the food we eat. Choose the rules, which fit your lifestyle and that you can work with and apply them when you can.
    I do feel that to truly enjoy eating good food we should spend more time with it. A great deal of pleasure can be had in the kitchen. Today, more than any other time in our history, there are so many fantastic resources for sourcing and preparing our own food, yet we continue to purchase manufactured convenience foods that do not involve us in the process of nourishing ourselves. We are more confident in our ability to drive a car or operate a smart phone than we are in baking a loaf of wholesome whole grain bread.

    I think we are all in a better place because of Mr. Pollan’s message and, because of posts like this we continue to engage his philosophy in meaningful discussions.

  • I like Pollan’s approach, but I’ve always found this so-called healthy eating “rule” maxim hard to swallow.

    Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

    Pollan is spot on in so many other ways, that I wonder why he doesn’t acknowledge the excellent choices that supermarkets offer in the aisles, including oatmeal, whole grain bread, and whole grain ready to eat cereals, and pasta; canned fruit in its own juice; reduced-sodium canned beans, which are so convenient, nutritious, and economical; popcorn, a delicious whole grain snack; and dried fruit.

    Nutrition is relative and concrete rules about food are often self-defeating.

  • What an interesting post! I love it. Yes, they have made eating healthy so complicated and I’m sure it’s why so many people just throw up their hands and say why try. This book sounds great. I am going to have to check it out. Thanks for the review

  • Freddie Wolner

    I disagree. His rules are not negative, they are common sense. They just seem that way because there are so many food products to avoid so it seems like food avoidance. The truth is there are lots of healthy choices and nobody needs to be restricting themselves from enjoying lots of goodies that are either real food themselves, or made from real food. I have two small boys and we never run out of options no matter where we eat or what I cook at home. It wouldn’t be negative at all but big business is marketing this stuff to us and its believable to the masses – especially kids. So we are back to avoidance. Easily summed up by one piece of advice – “don’t eat crap.”

  • Thank you Janet for this post! I am reading the book right now, and my first instinct was to turn and see what other dietetics professionals were saying in response. I agree that some of the rules are unrealistic for behavior changes, though memorable and catchy.

  • Thank you Janet for this well written blog post. I really respect Michael Pollan and enjoy reading his books but I agree giving information does not lead to behavior change. As an instructor of cultural foods, I regularly stress the social, cultural and enjoyable part of eating. Educating the public on eating for health and long term success is dependent on more than just eating to survive- after all, we are humans!

  • Great post. I haven’t bought the book yet and am not sure I will, much as I respect Michael Pollan’s viewpoints and enjoy his writing. I think he manages to make big nutrition concepts very approachable to people outside the field, which is really important. However, I feel, as you do, that the words and phrases like “avoid,” “stay away from,” “eat only,” and “limit” are sending too many negative messages. I think that can create even more stress around food, which is probably the last thing we need!

    I just stumbled across your blog today and really enjoyed it, so much that I added it to a list of other blogs on my own site, http://jess-keepingitrealfood.blogspot.com/

  • Lisa Raum

    As several others said, I don’t think his comments are meant to be taken so literally and in such a terribly narrow context, as some people are interpreting them. If easy for us that already KNOW and understand all that he is trying to convey to analyze the finer nuances of his message, but we really need to look at it form the perspective of the “ignorant massess.” – those everyday people that “don’t have a clue” about where food comes form, what is in it, the evils of processing, caloric density, etc.
    I think he is simply trying to open the door to thought processes that might not otherwise occur. He is getting people to question things they never questioned, and in turn people are learning things. That’s ALL good.
    Those of us in the field of nutrition tend to be very Type A personalities, so perhaps we tend to over-analyze things a bit. We need not scrutinize every detail of how his messages differ from reality, so much as embrace the value of the general message and then EXPLAIN to people the what and why behind his words. He is giving us apltform upon which to expand.

    As for cooking comments…of course we can all cook/prepare all of our meals at home. the only people who find that challenging are those without kitchen skills; what they then need are schooling in kitchen skills. You don’t have to mill your grain to be eating nutritious foods at home. You can bake your own bread though…try it – it’s INCREDIBLY easy. The time YOU actually invest is minimal ; the bread does its rising and such all on its own. It takes about 10 mnutes of your actual hands on time to make a few loaves of bread.

  • kylieonwheels

    I read through this post, and other blogs about this post, and the comments on this post, and the comments on the blogs about the post, and something has dawned on me.

    The thing is, the content or validity of Michael’s rules aren’t the key factor here. The fact that we are all here, discussing the rules, talking about how we would apply the rules, agreeing and disagreeing with various rules, this is what makes it work. If people follow his rules, they can eat well. If people discuss them like we are now, they can also eat well. Having not even read the book, I still think it seems to be doing a good thing!

  • Jay Seiff-Haron

    Janet, I agree with most of what you say but think you may have missed Pollan’s point a bit. He did not say that everything in the center of a supermarket is bad for you, nor was he proposing that these rules were definitive. He was offering, as he says in the intro, quick & dirty “algorithms” for eating healthy, overall, without having to stand in the aisle trying to decipher the nutritional information and ingredient lists on the back of a product. And, actually, a lot of the examples you give are actually not so great for us: the average American eats astonishingly larger quantities of carbs (“whole grain pastas, boxes of brown rice, bags of nuts, canned beans, soup, frozen vegetables and dried fruit”) than is healthy, and the more popular items are even less healthy: for example, peanuts as compared to other nuts, or dried fruit as compared to fresh… or pasta as compared to fresh vegetables. He also says, quite clearly, that an occasional treat is different from your weekly trip to the supermarket in general. I think he would agree with much of what you have written, but is recommending a global make-over of our diet that, of course, would be a big change at first.

  • Jake

    “What separates us from other animals on this earth is that we sometimes eat for just the pure fun and enjoyment of it all.” — David Grotto, RD

    Um, have you ever met a dog? A huge number of non-human animals do this. There are creatures who eat rotten fruit to get drunk, too. And countless other examples of consumption for fun.

    Our reasons for eating are not unique or complicated in the animal kingdom. We just have far better access to and control of food, so we can enjoy the stuff way beyond basic survival.

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