Michael Pollan may not be a nutrition expert, but as a journalist, he does have ways to get straightforward answers to an ever-increasingly popular, and utterly confusing question- What should I eat?
I get it. Nutrition and diets are confusing. One expert will tell you to count calories, another will tell you calories don’t matter, but macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) do. One will say increase lean protein, another tells us to increase “good” fats, and decrease “bad” carbs. “Eat this, not that” and another says “that’s fine, but this is horrible.”
Food Rules is different from other nutrition or diet books out there. It’s not scientific, but there is still a lot of wisdom packed into the 64 rules laid out. And it can help all of us not just eat better for ourselves, but eat well for the planet, too.
Eating well for ourselves and the planet is not a new idea, per se. However, in my journey creating and developing ZooFit, I found most cookbooks and those on nutrition or eating habits usually focused on one or the other- healthy lifestyle, or sustainable practices for the environment. I have discovered that they aren’t mutually exclusive. They wind within each other, creating a perfect harmony of taking care of ourselves, and taking care of the planet.
Michael Pollan did not write Food Rules as a conservation eating guide, a concept I refer as Eating Green. But while reading this “Eater’s Manual” I discovered the policies Pollan describes (what he calls algorithms designed to simplify your life) are directly correlated to policies I created with ZooFit.
The book is super short, and pack full of great ideas and methods for practicing better eating habits. Many of the rules work well together, such as Rule #7 (avoid foods with ingredients a 3rd grader can’t pronounce), #11 (avoid foods advertised on TV), #8 (avoid foods with health claims on their package), and #14 (eat foods with ingredients you can picture in their raw state and in nature) are all designed to keep processed foods out of your cart. But I take it a step further and show how avoiding processed foods isn’t just a smarter choice for us, but also a more conscientious decision for the environment.
Big Idea #1- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.
“I realized that the answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we should eat wasn’t so complicated after all, and in fact, could be boiled down to just seven words:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Michael Pollan– Food Rules
The “rules” Pollan sets down for us in this book fall into one of those three sentences- Part one is what to eat (eat food). Part two is what kind of food (mostly plants), and part three is how to eat our food (not too much).
Seeing it written out, it really doesn’t get much simpler than this. If you want to eat better for your health, and have a positive impact on the planet- follow these seven simple words- Eat food (real, whole foods from sustainably sourced farms). Not too much (avoid food waste and overindulging). Mostly plants (“Mostly” meaning while meat is still an option, eating a plant-based diet is healthier overall for us AND the planet).
Michael refers to the new foods we eat on the Western diet Food-like Substances. We want to eat real food, not food-like substances, and he gives a few clever methods for differentiating between the two.
- Rule #14- Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature.
If you want a general idea of the difference between “real food” and “food-like substances”, try this rule out. Try to picture a Twinkie, or a Sour Patch Kid, or an Oreo in their natural state. You can’t, because these foods don’t have a natural state. They are “food-like substances”. Now picture the salmon on a bed of wilted green and a wild rice pilaf. Is that easier to imagine? That’s real food.
- Rule #30: Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.
I like the way Michael purposefully doesn’t use the term “organic”, because it excludes too many really exceptional products we can eat, and gives food-like substances a loophole to weasel their way into our shopping cart. I’ll never forget one time I totally bought into the idea of “Organic” “Natural” GUMMY BEARS. I mean, sure, the SUGAR was organic and natural, but there is absolutely nothing natural about a Gummy Bear…
“There are exceptional farmers and ranchers in America who for one reason or another are not certified organic, and the excellent food they grow should not be overlooked. (And just because a food is labeled organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Organic soda is still soda—a large quantity of utterly empty calories.)”
Michael Pollan- Food Rules
One thing Michael Pollan doesn’t mention in his book is how these rules support each other and cycle around in a positive feedback loop. If you eat real food, your best option (with the most plentiful choices) is going to be plants. Yes, you can get meat and dairy, but the majority of “real food” are our fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. And real food typically costs more than “food-like substances”. So, we are more apt to not eat too much. Eat real food, eat mostly plants, and don’t eat too much. The rules for eating well, for ourselves and the planet.
I could end this note here and I’d be satisfied that I’ve imparted wisdom for all of us to eat better for ourselves and for the planet. But there’s a whole bunch of other rules that are too good to pass up.
Big Idea #2- Lies Our Supermarkets Sell Us
The Western diet has a couple pretty appropriate nicknames- the Modern American Diet (MAD), or the Standard American Diet (SAD). And it’s true. The Western diet makes us MAD and SAD. Rule #1 is Eat Food. And we expect to get a majority of our FOOD from grocery stores, right? Well, unfortunately, today’s modern supermarket makes the whole idea of getting real food a lot more difficult and complicated than it should be. Why is that?
That’s because big corporations run the Western diet, and they make a lot of money processing our food. Supermarkets around the globe introduce 17,000 new products each year. None of these items are real food, all are food-like substances, but they are marketed and promoted to get your attention and earn your food dollars.
The healthcare industry seems to profit as well because they make more money treating chronic diseases than they do preventing them. So, instead of helping us PREVENT illnesses, cancer, or obesity, they focus on ways to TREAT them.
All the while, we are picking the next “best” diet trend, and not recognizing the truly great foods that have ALWAYS been good for you. As Pollan puts it: “The healthiest foods in the supermarket–fresh produce—doesn’t boast about its healthfulness, because the growers don’t have the budget or the packaging. Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about your health.”
So how do we maneuver the supermarket which does not have our health, or the health of the planet in their best interest? Pollan shares a few rules for that-
- Rule #8- Avoid food products that make health claims
I avoid packaged foods for one main reason- to avoid single use plastics. It has very little to do with my personal health and well-being, but my health and well-being greatly benefits from this decision. And while you can certainly get healthy foods wrapped in plastic, nearly all the unhealthy foods are not unpackaged. Cakes and pastries from the bakery often come in plastic containers. Candy is wrapped in plastic. Processed foods like hotdogs, snack bars (don’t kid yourself, even protein bars are LOADED with sugar and processed ingredients), frozen meals- all come wrapped in plastic. Eliminating plastic from my diet has been instrumental in quitting junk foods, impulse buys, and it allows me to buy my willpower at the grocery store. If I don’t BUY the food at the supermarket, I won’t have to resist eating them at home.
“For a product to carry a health claim on its package, it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be processed rather than a whole food.”
Michael Pollan- Food Rules
- Rule #12- Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle aisles.
If you keep to the edges of the store you’ll be much more likely to wind up with real food in your shopping cart. I have to laugh because I’ve been saying the same thing, but now I realize I’ve been telling people to shop the OUTSIDE of the store (I used to say perimeter, not peripheries). The outer edge (periphery) holds most of the whole food, and the least amount of processed foods. Sure, there are breads, and nowadays flavored yogurts, but all your produce– fresh fruits and veggies- all your dairy, and your meats live solely in the periphery of the store.
- Rule #15- Get out of the supermarket whenever you can.
There’s something else to be said by getting out of the supermarket and into a farmers’ market/Community Supported Agriculture program. On top of better QUALITY food, and supporting local, ORGANIC (even if they are not certified) farmers, eating local cuts our carbon footprint significantly. Eating from local farmers means food is fresh, in season, and doesn’t have to be packaged or processed to stay fresh on its way to your table.
“You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmers’ market. What you will find are fresh, whole foods harvested at the peak of their taste and nutritional quality.”
Michael Pollan- Food Rules
There are a lot of health issues stemming from our addiction to supermarket and convenience food products. These issues also affect the environment as well. Eating REAL food doesn’t just do our body good, it saves the planet, and probably your favorite animal.
Moving away from the center aisles removes us from processed foods. Processed foods often have palm oil in them, an ingredient which is the number one threat to orangutan populations, and has a negative impact on tiger, elephant, rhino, hornbill, well, just about every southeast Asian species’ population. By eliminating processed foods, we eat healthier, yes, but we also tell corporations we don’t want palm oil conflict foods. What you eat matters.
Supermarkets have become a necessary evil, but practicing these rules, ESPECIALLY shopping the peripheries and making pre-commitments like “I won’t buy food with palm oil in it” or “I won’t buy food wrapped in plastic” are helpful ways to eat healthier for you and better for the planet.
Big Idea #3- How to Treat Your Meat
The second part of the book focuses on what TYPE of foods to eat. Pollan suggests “mostly plants”. “Meat, which humans have been eating for a very long time, is a nourishing food, which is why (I) suggest “mostly” plants, not “only”.
Pollan goes on to add that vegetarians are arguably the healthiest of eaters. But there IS a way, if you cannot bear to give up meat forever, to have your meat, protect your health, and protect the planet. Studies show that Flexitarians—people who eat mostly plants, but not only plant-based foods– are just as healthy as vegetarians. The key is to use the rules as guidelines- not too much, mostly plants. Oh, and eat real meat…
Here are a couple more rules which can help you navigate eating meat while eating green:
- Rule #23: Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.
America has become a culture of meat-eating fiends. The average American eats more than half a pound of meat per person per day. The meat industry has been proven time and again to have a negative impact on the environment, contributing to carbon emissions, water usage, deforestation, and pollution The amount of meat we consume is not only unsustainable to the environment, it’s not the healthiest lifestyle for us. Especially red meat, which is linked to cardiovascular disease and cancers. But you don’t have to give it up completely, as there are many ranchers and farmers who are raising their animals ethically (they have only one bad day in their life). Just reduce your intake. Instead of an eight-ounce steak and a four-ounce portion of vegetables, serve four ounces of beef and eight ounces of veggies.
- Rule #27: (if you are going to eat animal meat), Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.
“The diet of the animals we eat strongly influences the nutritional quality, and the healthfulness, of food we get from them, whether it is meat or milk or eggs.
We feed animals a high energy diet of grain to make them grow quickly (even in the case of ruminants that have evolved to eat grass). But even food animals that can tolerate grain are much healthier when they have access to green plants—and so, it turns out, are their meat and eggs.”
Michael Pollan- Food Rules
And once again, this idea of what type of food to eat continuously supports the other two philosophies. When you get QUALITY meat (eat real food), it’s going to be more expensive than factory farmed meat (food-like substances). This supports the idea of “not too much”. Invest in healthier proteins, spend the extra money, but don’t buy it as often. If it’s super cheap, chances are it is not the best choice for your health, your family, or the environment.
Big Idea #4- Cook
Quote: “Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet…and to guarantee you’re eating real food and not food-like substances.”
That’s actually Rule #63. If you want to be healthier, cook the food yourself. If you cook the food yourself, you control what goes in it. You control the flavor, the nutrients, and the sustainability. Chances are, we don’t cook with palm oil. We don’t use high-fructose corn syrup. When we cook our own meals, we get to experiment. Don’t like tofu? Try the recipe with chickpeas instead. Want to reduce your refined grains? Bake a bread with almond flour, or make morning muffins with quinoa flour instead of refined bleached flour. Make your own hummus, your own barbeque sauce, your own Italian dressing. When we make our own foods, they are exponentially healthier, have less sodium, hardly any sugar (you’d be amazed how often sugar and other unwanted ingredients make it into our foods we buy rather than make), and be a lot more sustainable for the environment.
When we PICK our own ingredients and make our own food, we don’t just control what we eat, we control HOW we eat. We can choose the packaging, getting ingredients from the bulk bins, choosing the glass over single-use plastics. We choose which companies and vendors to support- local farmers who are working to support their family, rather than a nameless CEO who is working to buy his new beach home to match his mansion.
Michael even encourages us to have our favorite treats (in moderation) with one caveat- MAKE IT YOURSELF. That’s Rule #39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. And Rule #60- Treat treats as treats.
“There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion. Frying chicken is so much trouble that people didn’t use to make it unless guests were coming over and they had a lot of time to prepare. The amount of work involved kept the frequency of indulgence in check. These special occasion foods offer some great pleasures in life, so we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of them, but our sense of occasion needs to be restored.”
Michael Pollan- Food Rules
I have truly learned to love cooking. I love experimenting, trying new recipes, trying to improve recipes I already have (I keep one upping my own hummus), and playing with new flavors. And I still on rare occasions make a pie. I don’t use NEARLY as much sugar, as the fruits themselves keep the pie as sweet as I need it, and I don’t use palm oil or other questionable ingredients. My pies take a long time to cook, but they are something I savor, and thoroughly enjoy, knowing it’s going to be a while before we have it again.
Big Idea #5- How you eat has as much bearing on your health as what you eat.
There’s one part to eating green that I really don’t spend much time considering because it isn’t so much a part of a conservation connection as it is changing our mindset about food. I’m guilty of eating more food than I need, and using food to eliminate feelings of boredom. I’ve certainly gotten better at eating to FUEL my day, and not just for something to do. And I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I’ve had enough to eat, not bursting at the seams, but it’s a process.
Developing a healthy relationship with food is vital for a healthy life, and a healthy planet. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be that strong of a connection to mindless eating and protecting the environment. But being mindful about how we eat brings us to the present on what we are eating. There are two rules Pollan shares with us to become more mindful eaters:
- Rule #46- Stop eating before you are full
“To say “I’m hungry” in French you say “J’ai faim”—“I have hunger”—and when you are finished, you don’t say that you are full, but “Je n’ai plus faim”—“I have no more hunger.” That is a completely different way of thinking about satiety. So: Ask yourself not, Am I full? but, Is my hunger gone?”
Michael Pollan- Food Rules
When we are mindful about our meals, savoring each bite, pausing to enjoy the meal, the company, and appreciate the preparation (buying, cooking, and serving) the meal, we don’t need to eat as much to feel fulfilled. Save some for leftovers tomorrow and enjoy the meal again, or don’t prepare as much and save on money and food waste.
There are many ways to become more mindful while we eat- putting the fork down between bites and chew your food thoroughly are two. If we gobble up our dinner, it takes our stomach just a few minutes longer to signal the brain that we are satiated, so we overeat before our stomach has a chance to tell our brain. If we slow down the eating, and stop eating before we feel full, then chances are we can let the stomach catch up and notice we are full anyways.
It helps to not put all the food in front of you during dinner, so you would have to get up for seconds, giving your mind plenty of time to step in between stimulus and response and either allow you to get seconds (I still have hunger), or to signal that maybe it’s not actually food you need right now (see next rule).
- Rule #47: Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.
“For many of us, eating has surprisingly little to do with hunger. We eat out of boredom, for entertainment, to comfort or reward ourselves. Try to be aware of why you are eating, and ask yourself if you are really hungry. (Old wives test: if you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, then you aren’t hungry (my add-on- I’d eat an apple out of boredom, make that “if you aren’t hungry enough to MAKE A SALAD, you aren’t hungry”)) Food is a costly anti-depressant.”
Michael Pollan- Food Rules
“We eat out of boredom, for entertainment, to comfort or reward ourselves” YIKES. This is something I strive to teach EVERYONE I coach- positive reinforcement is not a burger after the gym. This is also why I highly discourage using food as a reinforcement- it leads to mindless eating. Why am I having a donut? Because I did a workout? See, it doesn’t really work.
Mindful eating takes a bit of practice, and yes, willpower. But there are ways to improve our willpower and practice mindful eating.
#1- We buy our willpower at the supermarket. This means if we impulse buy something at the store then we are going to have a harder time resisting it when it’s in the pantry/refrigerator. But if we resist buying the foods we know we will have to “resist” later on, then we won’t have that problem when we get the late night munchies.
Again, making mindless eating difficult is our best bet. Best option is not bringing it into the home.
How does mindful eating relate to the environment and eating green? Well, taking time to appreciate our food, to really savor it, means we pick out our food as carefully as we eat it. We want the best ingredients- whole, clean foods, untouched by corporations- either in the fields with pesticides and chemicals, or in the production of the items through preserving foods, processing them, and packaging them. We care about where the food comes from, because it’s a total experience, not just to feed us, but thrive and appreciate food. When we are mindful eaters, we are also mindful conservationists. It comes together- eating real food rather than food-like substances-
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
There’s the not so quick version of Food Rules. If you liked the information from this book, you can check it out at your local bookstore or library (when they open). You may also find Michael Pollan’s other books just as eye-opening, including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Cooked.
Additional rules which are too good to pass up without mentioning:
- Rule #19- If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
- Rule #20: It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.
- Rule #57: Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
- Our overall rule- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Zoo-notable is a ZooFit program to gain knowledge and wisdom from the books in our lives to improve our life, our animals’ welfare, and the world around us. Connect with us online at zoofit.net and remember to eat clean, live green, train positive.