9 Eating Rules I Learned From a Book (In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan)

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

A summary of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.

As a child I ate dirt and crayons.  As an adult I eat Sodiium Stearoyl Lactylate (a suspending agent used in certain foods) and P-Methoxybenzaldehyde (a flavoring agent found in some foods). I’m not sure which is better because I don’t even know what the latter does to you as you digest it. Refining our eating habits is a life long process. From the person who refuses to eat lettuce (because it smells like lettuce) to the person that refuses to eat deer meat (because it reminds them of Bambi), we all have our idiosyncrasies. Deciding what to eat today is incredibly complex and becomes more complex right in sync with the other areas of our society.  As technology changes, we change, and so does what we eat, for better or worse.

In a recent e-mail exchange with my brother I fell into a discussion about the chicken “hormone” issue.  If you did not already know, the “hormone” issue is associated with chickens raised in the United States on commercial farms. There is support in the scientific community that too many hormones can increase the risk of getting cancer. There is also evidence to suggest that the increasingly early onset of puberty in humans is a result of the use of these hormones. This has caused the United States government to ban their use in poultry production. It was once thought the additional hormones would encourage faster growth rates, particularly in the breast of the chicken, which would in turn lead to greater profit for the commercial farms. The assumption that would seem fair from this ban is that the chicken “hormone” issue has been solved.  That, as it turns out, is not as black and white as the chicken eating public would like.

My thesis in our discussion was that there would be some benefit to the purchase of free-range chickens.  At the very least, I argued, we can be more selective and do more research before deciding what chicken to buy. Being the good “googler” that I am, I headed to the search bar to find some support for the thesis I had blurted out without support.  It turns out there is information and misinformation all over the Internet. For example, Plamandon’s Poultry Pages makes the argument that there is no issue with hormones in chicken because the hormones have been banned since 1948. Other sites, like foodforbreastcancer.com, provide access to studies that indicate there may be an issue with chickens raised in the United States and that there is a potential association with cancer.  More study is needed.

In a June 2010 Conference for the American Society of Clinical Oncology there was discussion of this exact issue.  What do we think we know? We think we know that oral contraceptive pills contribute to the incidence of hormone-dependent cancers in women. We also think we know that the chickens raised in the United States end up having a higher estrogen (a hormone) content than chickens raised in Brazil. The study does not answer the question of why our chickens have more estrogen in their meat. I don’t know the answer to that question, but what I did learn from Pollan’s book is that our food stream is in a state of flux. The foods we once assumed were safe may not be.

I took away nine good rules from In Defense of Food that can serve as your “baseline” when making decisions about what to put in your mouth. What do I mean by “baseline?” Everyone needs a set of rules they can rely on to simplify the decision-making process. Voters use the political party system to simplify the process they go through when deciding who to vote for. Similarly, you can use these rules to decide what to eat for dinner.  Here they are:

1. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Wait a minute, you may be saying, this doesn’t make any sense. Not to mention the fact that this isn’t one tip but three!  If that is what you are thinking, you’re right, but it is the very thesis (verbatim) that Pollan puts forward in his book. This unorthodox sentence deserves to be looked at step by step.

Eat food: After having read the book, I now know that “food” is not necessarily defined as everything you can find in the grocery store.  “Food,” as Pollan defines it, is what you find on the peripheries of the grocery store.  The middle aisles tend to contain highly processed items which are better classified as “food-like” than “food.”

Not too much: Diets are hard to follow, if they are too rigid you can’t follow them. To combat this you can simplify things by just taking in fewer calories than you burn on a daily basis.  More on this concept in tip #7.

Mostly Plants: Vegetables should be the staple and not the side dish. If your plate has more things grown in the ground than things that walk on the ground then you are following this suggestion.

2. Throughout history humans have kept healthy eating a diverse variety of diets.

Variety is okay, we can handle it. In fact, you have probably seen this idea work. A vegan can be as healthy as a meat eater. My favorite example is Scott Jurek. He runs ultramarathons on a vegan diet.  If he can do that then the same diet can get you through a ten-hour work day with fuel left in the tank. Contrast that with Dean Karnazes who orders pizza from a cell phone on his road runs and you have an example of the rule in overdrive.

3.  “Nutritionism” is a widely accepted but unexamined concept.

Pollan has popularized the term in his description of our modern dietary theory, “nutritionism.”  To Pollan “nutritionism” is the idea that we may be over valuing the individual nutrient components of food and in turn undervaluing the synergistic effect of the components of real food. Pollan argues the focus on how much of a nutrient is in food is completely untested. Looking on a jug of juice for the vitamin C does not do much to answer whether you will actually get the benefits of the vitamin through this mode of delivery.

4.  Don’t eat anything that your neolithic ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food!

Processing has made things into food-like items and stripped away much of what makes food good at the same time. Highly processed foods tend to be highly marketed and brightly packaged.  This fancy outer shell is intended to disguise the fact that you are just dealing with a corn derivative.

5.  Shop the outer edges of the grocery store and avoid highly processed foods with more than five ingredients or with any ingredient you can’t pronounce.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid the processed aisles all together and  just surf around the edges picking up fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs.  Use these ingredients along with a variety of herbs and spices to make your meals.

6.  Eat wild foods when you can.

Information Americangrassfedbeef.com shows the difference in fat content between grass-fed beef and grain fed beef.  If you want good food then get back to basics and eat a diet that eats a good diet! What does wild game eat? They eat a variety of plants and roots naturally occurring in the environment. Necessity makes their diet diverse.  Contrast that with stock fed foods that eat corn or some corn derivative.

One way to define “wild foods” is as those that have had to naturally fight to survive without the help of modern agriculture. Wild foods have a greater amounts of phytochemicals, are more chock full of omega-3s, and contain less fat per calorie than products brought up in the luxury of modern agriculture.

7.  Hara hachi bu (Japanese for:  eat until 80% full).

The Okinawa diet has popularized this concept. Stuffing yourself is not only bad for your health, but it saps your energy and productivity.  Save large meals for very special occasions.

8.  Involve yourself in food production – plant a garden in your backyard.

There is something about growing your own food that makes you want to eat it. For that reason, I suggest growing your own vegetables. It actually is not that hard to do even in small spaces. Research “square foot gardening” for more information or visit squarefootgardening.com.

9.  Cook  at home rather than eating at a restaurant.

At a restaurant you can’t see what ingredients are being used to prepare your meal. The only way to guarantee what goes in your mouth is to prepare it yourself. These days many restaurants use oils and butters that you may not approve of. Restaurants may use processed substitutes to save time and money. Avoid the issue all together by cooking your own meals.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Tracy Hunter


  1. Dorothy W.

    Those are wonderful guidelines. Thanks for summarizing them here. I don’t always follow them, but they are good to keep in mind in order to try.

    1. readlearnwrite

      No doubt that this one is easier said than done, but it is worth a shot.

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