“Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” by Michael Pollan

To analyze this book, I am using a new, three part structure. You know, some things can be divided into “the good, the bad and the ugly”. I plan to use

  • the good,
  • the bad and
  • the just plain weird

with grateful acknowledgement to Paul Hansford, who chose that as the subtitle to his book on the Tour de France. (See my blog entry of August 1, 2013).

I’ve got the feeling lots of situations in my life can be parsed into the good, the bad and the just plain weird!

Food Rules consists of a ten-page introduction followed by 60 rules that aim to simplify the business of healthy eating.

I should begin by saying that I don’t have the food/health “thing” under control. According to the charts, I’m overweight but not obese. I’m in very good condition for my age (60 something) and am seldom sick. My cholesterol is slightly elevated. So I can use some good advice about food, but I’ve got 60+ years of habit in place and am ambivalent about change.

What are some of the “good” rules?

Rule #15. “Get out of the supermarket whenever you can.” I don’t even enter the supermarket if I can possibly convince someone else to shop. I’ve done all my family laundry for years, in return for spousal grocery shopping service. It’s the best advice I can give if you want a happy marriage. AND I live in an area blessed with farm stands. We have the luxury of arguing about who grows the best tomatoes, and sometimes we can get farm fresh eggs. That said, farm stands require a bit of caution. Sometimes they import food from out of state, or sell preserved foods that weren’t properly processed. If they sell pies, they are overpriced. I do wish the farm stand season lasted longer.

Rule #25. “Eat your colors”. I love purple cabbage, ripe red bell peppers, orange sweet potatoes. The brighter, the better!

Rule #29. “Eat like an omnivore.” OK, I think.

Rule #35. Paraphrased, eat the fruit, not the fruit juice. And there is no such thing as a healthy soda!

Rule #44. “Pay more, eat less.” Rationally, I know I could afford to eat really fine, healthy food every day. What stops me? Some kind of stinginess left over from my New England upbringing.

What about “bad” rules?

Rule #2 “Don’t eat anything your grandmother would not recognize as food.” I’ve no reason to think either of my grandmothers (one German, the other Irish) ever ate broccoli, Brussels sprouts or asparagus. Surely they never saw an avocado. My German grandmother never ate fish. My grandfather was a butcher and sausage maker – the fish seller was the competition. I’m not sure what was added to their diet of meat and potatoes. All vegetables prepared by my German grandmother were served with cream sauce. I have no idea what my Irish grandmother cooked, but I’m sure it included potatoes.

My memories of growing up in the fifties include canned vegetables only, and a very narrow selection (peas, corn, wax beans). Don’t talk to me about the good old days! I didn’t encounter pizza until I was 16. Or fresh spinach.

Consider Rule #10. “Avoid foods pretending to be something they are not.” Like margarine, which “pretends” to be butter. Why tell me to eat plants, then take away my vegetable based spread? I’ve spent my life eating margarine. When I first tasted butter (at age 7 or 8) I thought something was wrong with the margarine – spoiled, perhaps. Pollan also uses this principle to discourage soy based meat substitutes. I’m not giving up my Morningstar Farms fake sausage patties. Too good to miss! If I stuck to real sausage, I’m sure I would want to cut the quantity way down, because of the fat.

And what about the rules that are weird? Or very hard to implement?

Rule #6. “Avoid food products containing more than five ingredients.”

Rule #31. “Eat wild foods when you can.” Good luck, and be careful! I’d like to see an increase in venison consumption. Deer are so overpopulated around here that they are preventing the regeneration of oak forests. We need healthy forests as part of the fight on global warming.

Rule #55. “Eat meals.” I get it. Grazing and snacking are ways to get fat. BUT if you are going to “eat when you are hungry” (Rule #47) and “try not to eat alone” (Rule #59), this is going to get complicated. I suppose Pollan thinks you should cook and serve a meal but then not eat it if you aren’t hungry. Hmmm…

Pollan missed a rule I would suggest – check your compost bucket! (Or the stuff that would be in it if you were able to compost, which is hard if you live in an apartment.) The more parings, apple cores, orange rinds, etc., that you produce, the better! In summer, my compost bucket overflows and I empty it almost daily.

So what about this book? It you are looking for nutritional advice, it’s a break from some of the extreme approaches now going around, like the Neolithic diet. If you have a serious weight problem, better talk to your doctor and a professional nutritionist.

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