Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan. Penguin, 2009
In his introduction, Michael Pollan observes that eating has become complicated. What with talk about antioxidants and saturated fat, gluten and probiotics, you need to be a scientist to figure it all out. No one talks about food. While completing research for his previous books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan came to a shocking conclusion. All you need to know about what to eat can be expressed in seven simple words: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Food Rules is a distillation of what Pollan has learned, expressed in a slim paperback that can be easily read in one sitting. He sets out 64 easy guidelines for selecting the food you eat, divided into three sections that answer the questions “What should I eat?” “What kind of food should I eat?” and How should I eat?”
Under “What should I eat?”, Pollan includes advice such as: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food (eg. Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt Tubes and thousands of other foodish products that never existed a few decades ago); Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry; Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup; Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce; Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients; Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.
I put these rules to the test when sampling a snack bar offered to me the other day. I suppose these Special K bars are meant to be the answer to Rice Crispy Squares, only better, right? Everyone knows Special K is better for you than, say Cap’n Crunch.
Here’s the list of ingredients from the wrapper: Cereal (rice, sugar, whole wheat, wheat gluten, wheat germ salt, wheat flour, malt (corn flour, malted barley) maltoextrin, thamin hydrochloride, colour) sugar/glucose-fructose, fructose, dextrose, vegetable oil, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, rolled oats, wheat flour, sorbitol, milk ingredients, glycerin, applesauce, brown sugar, natural and artificial flavours, soy lecithin, calcium carbonate, salt, sodium proprionate, tocopherols, BHT.
Wow, these bars fail on pretty much every one of Pollan’s rules. They sure don’t seem like food when you look at the ingredient list. Each bar contains 100 mg of salt and 90 calories. Seven of the bar’s 22 grams are sugar. Jeez, I could have one of those mini 100 calorie chocolate bars and be better off, and have chocolate to boot! Or, for under 100 calories you can eat an apple and take in some vitamins as well.
Under “What kind of food should I eat?”, a sampling of rules are: Eat mostly plants, especially leaves; Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food; Eat your colors (the bright colours of many vegetables reflect the antioxidant phytochemicals they contain); Sweeten and salt your food yourself; Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature.
Under “How should I eat?”, some rules are: Pay more, eat less; Stop eating before you are full; Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored; Limit you snacks to unprocessed plant foods.
It’s all very sensible advice and I couldn’t argue with any of it. The book is laid out in a fun, imaginative way. I liked the term “flexitarian” – people who eat meat a couple of times a week, which is where I would class myself.
The problem is, it takes time and planning to eat this way. When you are hurrying home from work at 5 o’clock, knowing that a mate and offspring will be expecting a meal on the table in an hour, it is tempting to throw some pre-prepared frozen meal in the oven and go off to start the laundry. And while it is easy to plan, shop for and prepare a nutritious meal for tonight, the problem is there is still tomorrow night and the night after that and the night after that, etc. When women returned to the workforce in large numbers, when stay-at-home moms became the exception rather than the rule, one of the things that went by the boards for many was the time and energy and planning it takes to make a meal from scratch every night of the week. At the same time, the additional family income has allowed for the purchase of highly-processed foods and expensive meats. It takes a lot of effort to break these habits. But one thing is easy to do: Lose the Special K bars!