Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1848
Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is a collection of principles and guidelines on which consumers can rely to buy healthful food. In his earlier books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food , Pollan describes how the American diet and its industrial structure of producing food is...
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Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is a collection of principles and guidelines on which consumers can rely to buy healthful food. In his earlier books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan describes how the American diet and its industrial structure of producing food is actually making Americans unhealthy. America is home to extremely high levels of obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease. For readers left wondering what is “safe” to feed their families, Pollan offers this set of Food Rules.
In his introduction, Pollan explains how confusing the American supermarket can be. He suggests that food corporations have begun to process foods in ways designed to catch the eyes and dollars of consumers. For example, Pollan points out that there are cereals that claim to help children focus in school. Meanwhile, other cereals have so much food coloring that they change the color of the milk. Unfortunately, Pollan argues, these food innovations have largely distracted people from how to eat healthfully.
Pollan admits that he is not a nutritionist or a scientist, but in his search for answers as a journalist, he has found two agreed-upon facts. First, Americans suffer far higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer as a result of their diet. Pollan calls these “Western diseases.” The second fact Pollan discovers is that cultures that rely on traditional diets, ranging from the high-fat diet of the Inuit to the seemingly unhealthy diet of the French, do not suffer from these Western diseases either. (Pollan anticipates that many people will object and argue that people in the West tend to live longer now than ever before, to which Pollan responds that this average has been extended thanks to a lower child-mortality rate.) It may seem rather daunting that the Western diet should be so unhealthy, but Pollan assures his audience that “getting off” the Western diet can lead to very immediate health gains.
From these studies, Pollan draws the conclusion that the American public discussion over health is entirely misguided. Most studies and campaigns seek out a single nutrient that is the magic bullet of a healthy diet rather than focusing on these three nutritional facts. Pollan explains that this is because there is a great deal of money tied up in highly processed foods. There is also a great deal of money to be made in treating the Western diseases. Because nutritional science is relatively new, there is a great deal of uncertainty in its findings. Pollan explains that this uncertainty has become a marketing ploy that allows food corporations to market their food as healthy according to the results of the latest study of a nutritional scientist.
In the midst of all this confusion, Pollan feels that his Food Rules: An Eater’s Guide provides “hard ground” on which to stand in the midst of the “swamp” of nutritional science. He argues that the key is to “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” These words are the primary advice that Pollan offers in Food Rules and form the organizational structure of this Eater’s Manual. However, Food Rules will not to detail the science behind Pollan’s general insights into eating, which Pollan claims is better covered in his book In Defense of Food.
Pollan cautions that Food Rules is not “antiscience,” and that he has looked for science to support many of his book’s claims. However, he has given primacy to the people on whom Americans relied before they started to look to nutritional experts: mothers and grandmothers. For Pollan, these people passed on the accumulated wisdom of tradition and culture. There is a logic behind this faith in tradition and culture, which is that traditional diets have been tested by evolutionary processes rather than scientific ones. Although some of the advice passed down may be old wives’ tales, Pollan maintains that there is a great deal of wisdom stored in adages—enough to warrant being preserved and revived.
Pollan cautions his readers against expecting to see a great deal of discussion of nutrition. Although he admits that there are nutrients that people need to eat, he maintains that “foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts.” At times, separating the food parts from the traditional way of preparing them makes the food less nutritious. At other times, highly processed foods make sugars much too easily digested, which is a drain on the body’s insulin system. Ultimately, Pollan encourages people to look into traditional foods and warns people against highly processed foods or, as Pollan calls them, “edible foodlike substances.”
Pollan’s process in choosing his rules was eclectic. He explains that he solicited advice from a variety of sources, ranging from grandmothers to nutritionists to anthropologists. Then he provides a short, general discussion of why these rules make sense. Pollan finally advises his audience to avoid thinking of his Food Rules as hard-and-fast rules, but he does suggest that they make good policies to guide his audience’s diet.
After his extended introduction, the first part of Food Rules focuses on the first of Pollan’s three general rules: eat food. He explains that many of the things that make their way to the supermarket today are highly processed and advertised to sell something that is unnecessary in order to create a new market. Many of the rules in the first part of the book, such as “avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce” and “avoid foods pretending to be something they are not,” are designed to caution the audience from eating processed foods. For example, many foods that are advertised with “wordisms” like “lite” or “nonfat” are often less nutritious than the food upon which they are supposedly improving. Pollan explains that many people will tend to eat more nonfat food because they think it is healthier. However, companies usually remove the fat from food only after they have replaced it with sugar. Consequently, people tend to get fat on low-fat diets. Pollan notes that much of the advice he has given in his career has been twisted into marketing campaigns. Although Pollan has argued against eating high-fructose corn syrup because it is heavily processed, the food industry might respond by creating food without high-fructose corn syrup but with cane sugar instead. Pollan resorts to advising “avoid foods you see advertised on television” in the hope that this maxim will not be twisted by marketers.
Not all of Pollan’s rules are about avoiding harmful products. In general, he calls for his audience to eat foods that will rot because those foods contain nutrients that bacteria and fungus are competing to eat. He calls for people to eat snacks they have bought from the farmer’s market—such as nuts or dried fruits—because the farmer’s market sells foods that can be pictured in their “raw state of growing in nature.” Pollan concludes, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” This counter-corporate message concludes the first rule and sets up the next: eat mostly plants.
Pollan points out that humans are capable a wide range of food, which is reflected by the variety in world cuisine. So Pollan calls on people to eat a variety of food, particularly plants. He admits that scientists are still debating why plants are so nutritious, but there is evidence that vegetarians and those who eat meat sparingly outlive those who eat a great deal of meat. Although vegetables are generally healthy, Pollan recommends eating ones that are grown locally from rich soil as much as possible because they tend to be the most nutritious.
Ironically, many of the rules from “eat mostly plants” concern when it is okay to eat meats and snacks. Pollan argues that people should “treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food” and advises people to “eat wild foods when you can” because deer and fish are more likely to be nutrient rich when they grow up in the wild. As for snacks, Pollan recommends that people should eat as many snacks as they like—so long as “you cook it yourself.” French fries are fun to eat, but they are not very easy to cook from scratch. So people can eat as many fries as they like, so long as they are willing to make them from scratch, which will probably lead to an occasional snack but not a regular one.
Pollan suggests that traditional diets are worth following, particularly if the eater is capable of following the culture of the diet rather than focusing on the nutrients. For example, the French tend to drink wine with their supper. Pollan notes that drinking alcohol with supper tends to be beneficial in comparison to binge drinking and even in comparison to abstaining. He points out that part of the reason why this is successful is that the French cultural traditions depict not only what to eat but also how to prepare it and how much to ingest. Ultimately, Pollan argues, if a diet has an extensive tradition, then the culture evolved to ensure that it would be nutritious. In contrast, people should avoid “new foods” that do not have a tradition.
Pollan’s third general rule, “eat not too much,” follows the French tradition. In general, Pollan suggests that it is better to “pay more, eat less.” Many people note that it is expensive to eat well, but Pollan counters that Americans spend comparatively less of their income on food than do other cultures that are statistically much healthier. Pollan notes that the amount of time people invest in their food has also declined, so he advises that people begin to cook again, which is the penultimate rule in the book.
On the whole, Pollan suggests that Americans must learn to eat less. To this end, he suggests that people learn to “leave something on your plate” or, failing that, “buy smaller plates and glasses.” Americans tend to eat one serving of a meal, but they consume more calories when they buy “supersized” portions. People also tend to eat more when they eat in front of a television or while driving. Consequently, Pollan suggests that people dine at tables and that they “treat snacks as snacks.” Although Pollan’s rules may sound mundane, he suggests that America needs to reinvest their attention in the culture of eating and dining so they can regain control over their health.
Gathered into three general categories, Pollan’s sixty-four rules are all designed to get people to eat more healthfully. Generally, he calls on his audience to “eat food, not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan’s gambit is that if people begin following these rules and begin to pay more attention to their food rather than specific-nutrient crazes, they will eat more healthfully and live better lives. Pollan resists urging people to live by these rules absolutely, and the final maxim from Food Rules is “break the rules once in a while.”