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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