Food Rules

I somehow managed to forget one of the most memorable books I’ve read so far over break: the newest edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. It’s a tiny little manual designed to help us navigate the new world of -ides and acids and good/bad cholesterol, good/bad carbs, artificial foods and what he calls “edible foodlike substances” – the hyper-processed “food” we eat today.

the 2011 version is illustrated by Maria Kalman.

In this world that Pollan assumes is fueled by said “edible foodlike substances,” Pollan believes we need to return to the eating habits of earlier times [In fact, one rule is “Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food,” and he cites Go-Gurt as an example*]. He begins with two premises and three over-arching rules, and dives into nuance from there.

Premise One: People that eat a “Western Diet” [ours] – processed foods, too much meat, fat and sugar, carbs, carbs, carbs, and everything in excess except the good stuff [veggies and fruits and whole grains] – have the highest rates of “Western Diseases” – diabetes, heart diseases, cancers. He finds a direct link between these diseases and this diet.

Premise Two: People that don’t eat the “edible foodlike substances in excess” diet – don’t have these diseases – even though some populations eat a diet high in carbs, or fats, or protein – they are remarkably disease-free. Thus, humans can adapt to different diets high in fat, or carbs, or protein – the problem is “the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us are now eating. What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!”** In fact, people who move away from the “Western diet” find their health improves rapidly.***

So, what’s the alternative? (1) Eat food; (2) mostly plants; and (3) not too much. Eat “food” means non-processed plants, animals and fungi. The rules under (1) help you to determine whether you’re eating “food” or “edible foodlike substances.” “Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That No Ordinary Human Would Keep in the Pantry,” is one. Avoid HFCS, don’t buy things you can’t pronounce, if it has sugar in the top three ingredients, don’t buy it, etc. They all seem so simple, but it’s things we lose sight of in our over-processed grocery stores. One of my favorites is “It’s Not Food if it Arrived Through The Window of Your Car.” He doesn’t even provide an explanation. I don’t think one is needed.

The rules under (2) and (3) remind us that plant-based diets in moderation are the healthiest way to eat. Pollan claims that whether your diet is high-fat or low-fat, as long as its made with whole foods, it’s appropriate. These rules tell us to eat meat only on special occasions, eat wild foods, and avoid foods that aren’t sweetened by nature [think: soda]. As far as how to eat these foods [not too much], Pollan urges us to pay more and eat less [you really do get what you pay for], stop eating before we’re full, and leave food on our plates – to practice eating less and learn self-control. I did my best to adhere to this rule while on vacation.

Food Rules is a great little book to keep around the kitchen, something you can use to refresh yourself before a shopping trip or use to check yourself or your eating habits. It’s light, funny, beautifully illustrated, and informative, and reminds us of some of the food missteps we all take without even realizing it. It’s the perfect book for anyone looking for a new food mantra to live by, and it’s small enough to take anywhere. I’m sure I break a lot of these rules a lot of the time, but having the book reminds me of what I should aspire to.

* “Is it food or is it toothpaste?” [p.46]

** [p.9]

*** “In one analysis, a typical American population that departed even modestly from the Western diet (and lifestyle) could reduce its chances of getting coronary heart disease by 80 percent, its chances of type 2 diabetes by 90 percent, and its chances of colon cancer by 70 percent.” [p.12]


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Categories: Food


Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: Tumblr:


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