Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Food Rules: A Completely Different Way To Fix The Health Care Crisis

Michael Pollan

The idea for this book came from a doctor--a couple of them, as a
matter of fact. They had read my last book, "In Defense of Food", which
ended with a handful of tips for eating well: simple ways to navigate
the treacherous landscape of modern food and the often-confusing
science of nutrition. "What I would love is a pamphlet I could hand to
my patients with some rules for eating wisely," they would say. "I
don't have time for the big nutrition lecture and, anyway, they really
don't need to know what an antioxidant is in order to eat wisely."
Another doctor, a transplant cardiologist, wrote to say "you can't
imagine what I see on the insides of people these days wrecked by
eating food products instead of food." So rather than leaving his heart
patients with yet another prescription or lecture on cholesterol, he
gives them a simple recipe for roasting a chicken, and getting three
wholesome meals out of it -- a very different way of thinking about
health.

Make no mistake: our health care crisis is in large part a crisis of
the American diet -- roughly three quarters of the two-trillion plus we
spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases,
most of which can be prevented by a change in lifestyle, especially
diet. And a healthy diet is a whole lot simpler than the food industry
and many nutritional scientists -- what I call the Nutritional
Industrial Complex -- would have us believe. After spending several
years trying to answer the supposedly incredibly complicated question
of how we should eat in order to be maximally healthy, I discovered the
answer was shockingly simple: eat real food, not too much of it, and
more plants than meat. Or, put another way, get off the modern western
diet, with its abundance of processed food, refined grains and sugars,
and its sore lack of vegetables, whole grains and fruit.

So I decided to take the doctors up on the challenge. I set out to
collect and formulate some straightforward, memorable, everyday rules
for eating, a set of personal policies that would, taken together or
even separately, nudge people onto a healthier and happier path. I
solicited rules from doctors, scientist, chefs, and readers, and then
wrote a bunch myself, trying to boil down into everyday language what
we really know about healthy eating. And while most of the rules are
backed by science, they are not framed in the vocabulary of science but
rather culture -- a source of wisdom about eating that turns out to
have as much, if not more, to teach us than nutritional science does.

What follows is a small sample of "Food Rules", a half dozen
policies that will give you a taste of what you'll find in the book:
sixty-four food rules, each with a paragraph of explanation. I think
you'll see from this little appetizer that "Food Rules" is a most
unconventional diet book. You can read it in an hour and it just might
change your eating life. I hope you'll take away something you can put
to good use, and maybe get a chuckle or two along the way. And do let
me know if have any food rules I should know about. I'm still
collecting them, at pollanfoodrules@gmail.com.

#11 Avoid foods you see advertised on television.



Food marketers are ingenious at turning criticisms of their products --
and rules like these -- into new ways to sell slightly different
versions of the same processed foods: They simply reformulate (to be
low-fat, have no HFCS or transfats, or to contain fewer ingredients)
and then boast about their implied healthfulness, whether the boast is
meaningful or not. The best way to escape these marketing ploys is to
tune out the marketing itself, by refusing to buy heavily promoted
foods. Only the biggest food manufacturers can afford to advertise
their products on television: More than two thirds of food advertising
is spent promoting processed foods (and alcohol), so if you avoid
products with big ad budgets, you'll automatically be avoiding edible
foodlike substances. As for the 5 percent of food ads that promote
whole foods (the prune or walnut growers or the beef ranchers), common
sense will, one hopes, keep you from tarring them with the same brush
-- these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

From "Food Rules":

#19 If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.

#36 Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.

This should go without saying. Such cereals are highly processed and
full of refined carbohydrates as well as chemical additives.



#39 Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.

There is nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried foods, pastries,
even drinking soda every now and then, but food manufacturers have made
eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and
easy that we're eating them every day. The french fry did not become
America's most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of
washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes -- and cleaning up
the mess. If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them
much less often, if only because they're so much work. The same holds
true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice cream. Enjoy these
treats as often as you're willing to prepare them -- chances are good
it won't be every day.



#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're eating, and ask yourself if you're really
hungry -- before you eat and then again along the way. (One old wive's
test: If you're not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you're not
hungry.) Food is a costly antidepressant.

#58 Do all your eating at a table.

No, a desk is not a table. If we eat while we're working, or while
watching TV or driving, we eat mindlessly -- and as a result eat a lot
more than we would if we were eating at a table, paying attention to
what we're doing. This phenomenon can be tested (and put to good use):
Place a child in front of a television set and place a bowl of fresh
vegetables in front of him or her. The child will eat everything in the
bowl, often even vegetables that he or she doesn't ordinarily touch,
without noticing what's going on. Which suggests an exception to the
rule: When eating somewhere other than at a table, stick to fruits and
vegetables. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author of  "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence" (2019). His other books include: "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" (2011), "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" (2009), "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" (2006),  "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World" (2001); "A Place of My Own" (1997); and "Second Nature" (2003). A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, Pollan is the recipient of numerous journalistic awards, including the James Beard Award for best magazine series in 2003 and the Reuters-I.U.C.N. 2000 Global Award for Environmental Journalism. Pollan served for many years as executive editor of Harper's Magazine and is now the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Advocates Cheer DOJ Reversal of Trump Policy Denying Asylum to Victims of Violence

"Now it's time to build on this progress," said one migrant rights campaigner. "We're ready to work with the administration to create an asylum system that provides every person a fair opportunity to apply for protection."

Brett Wilkins, staff writer ·


Activists Frustrated That Biden, Putin Won't Reduce Nuclear Arsenals

"Concerned citizens around the globe expect more than a general commitment to lay a foundation for status quo arms control," said the head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Jessica Corbett, staff writer ·


'Huge Day for Trans Youth' as Biden Administration Reverses Trump-Era Title IX GuidancebrettJun 16, 2021
LGBTQ
"All students—including LGBTQ+ students—deserve the opportunity to learn and thrive in schools that are free from discrimination," said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Biden Urged to Embrace Top Democrat's Call to End Deadly US Sanctions Against Venezuela

"The terrible suffering and death that Venezuela has experienced in recent years is overwhelmingly a result of economic collapse and deprivation caused by U.S. sanctions."

Kenny Stancil, staff writer ·


Record Heat and Flimsy Power Grid Across US Illustrates Urgent Need for Green Infrastructure

"Texas' grid shutting down in both cold and heat," said one Democratic lawmaker, "underscores the facts we need to invest in clean and renewable energy infrastructure. Immediately."

Julia Conley, staff writer ·