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Michael Pollan Shares His Food Rules

Simple rules for eating right.


There’s nothing like the New Year to make many of us vow to eat better and eat less.

How to get back on track on the food front? We turned to Michael Pollan, (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire), who shares his simple food rules to live by with readers in his recently re-released Food Rules, an illustrated, hardcover edition of the author’s bestselling eater’s manual.

Originally released in 2009, the new Food Rules sports the whimsical and witty illustrations of acclaimed artist Maira Kalman (And The Pursuit of Happiness) and includes 19 new rules–many gleaned from eaters around the country that Pollan wished he had thought of for the first edition. So why the second edition?

"I wanted to work on a more visual version of Food Rules to reach more people and continue the conversation that the first edition started," Pollan explains. "My wife and I saw an exhibit of Maira Kalman’s work at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and Judith suggested we collaborate. When you look at Maira’s work—like a painting of a Snickers bar on a pink ground or a framed collection of onion rings—it often manages to be poignant, funny, and sad, all at the same time," he says. "Eating is important to her but she doesn’t take food too seriously and is not politically correct about it in the least. We’re already neurotic enough about our eating; I wanted this book to be fun while it covered some serious ground."

Despite the new additions, the take-home message is still the same: Eating well need not be complicated, and the act of eating is as much about pleasure and communion as it is about nutrition and health. In other words: lighten up a little and enjoy your dinner. As a nation, Americans seem incredibly anxious about healthy eating and dietary habits and yet, paradoxically, as Pollan points out, as a people we have one of the worst diets in the world.

Food Rules redux is again full of commonsense kitchen wisdom (83 rules in all) such as If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not hungry (#57). Here is Pollan’s perspective on this little thought experiment. “It’s a good way to assess whether your desire to eat is really based on hunger or something else,” he writes. “If the idea of eating an apple doesn’t appeal to you, then chances are you’re reaching for food out of habit, boredom, or sadness. The urge will pass. But if you find the idea does appeal, then go ahead: have an apple.” 

This next one is a personal favorite, as it reminds me of my own father’s mantra: “No labels on the table” (#75). Pollan maintains (as did my dad) that you’ll eat more slowly and enjoy the food more without being bombarded with commercial messages or takeout trash containers. In the same vein: Place a bouquet of flowers on the table and everything will taste twice as good (#76). Try it.

And here’s one that parents of choosy chowhounds will appreciate (Pollan had a picky eater son, so he knows of what he speaks from first-hand experience): Don’t become a short-order cook (#66). “When kids learn to think of the dinner table as a restaurant, they’ll eat the way most people do in restaurants: too much,” he notes. “For adults as well as kids, eating whatever is being served is generally a good policy, unless religion or allergy prohibits doing so. When we eat what is served, rather than what we might order or crave, we tend to eat more moderately.” Make sense?

A foe of what he calls edible foodlike substances, Pollan’s food philosophy is famously simple: “Eat food (#1). Not too much. (#54) Mostly plants. (#25)” But what does that catchphrase actually mean? “Eat food” and “mostly plants” means consume real food—think whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean protein (like beans or fish)—and avoid highly-processed foods with ingredients you wouldn’t keep in your pantry (#3), a third-grader can’t pronounce (#7), or your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food (#2).

“Not too much” refers to portion control; plates are bigger now than in previous generations, as are serving sizes in restaurants, which have ballooned. One solution for in-home dining: Buy smaller plates and glasses (#67). In many cultures, such as Japanese, Islam, and German, there are sayings that essentially translate as stop eating before you’re full (#55). A wise practice worth imitating.

When eating out, Pollan advises ordering off the children’s menu, sharing an entrée, or bringing half home for a future meal. And Order the small (#69) because, he says, in this era of supersized portions, small is the new large—and it's plenty.

Most of the rules in this recipe for eating success are the kind of ideas most folks can’t argue with: When you eat real food, you don’t need rules (#25), Treat treats as treats (#79), and Cook (#82), which Pollan maintains might be the single most important thing you can do for your dietary health. Food for thought for a new year.


Sarah Henry is a Berkeley based freelance writer and the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


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