Sticking Points: Food Rules

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

by Michael Pollan

New York, London: Penguin Group, 2009.

“Populations that eat a so-called Western diet—generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer… The arguments in nutritional science are not about this well-established link; rather, they are all about identifying the culprit nutrient in the western diet that might be responsible for chronic diseases… The point is that, as eaters (if not as scientists), we know all we need to know to act: This diet, for whatever reason, is the problem,” (xii).

“…there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets.  Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us now are eating.  What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!” (xiii)

“So we ignore the elephant in the room and focus instead of good and evil nutrients, the identities of which seem to change with every new study.  But for the Nutritional Industrial Complex this uncertainty is not necessarily a problem, because confusion too is good business…” (xv)

Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650—very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you? I think I’ll wait awhile.” (xi)

“… there are other sources of wisdom in the world and other vocabularies in which to talk intelligently about food.  Human beings ate well and kept themselves healthy for millennia before nutritional science cam along to tell us how to do it; it is entirely possible to eat healthily without knowing what an antioxidant is… not surprisingly, these two different vocabularies, or ways of knowing, often come to the same conclusion (as when scientists recently confirmed that the traditional practice of eating tomatoes with olive oil is good for you, because the lycopene in the tomatoes is soluble in oil, making it easier for your body to absorb),” (xvi-xvii).

“Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to get us to buy and eat  more by pushing our evolutionary buttons—our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt.  These tastes are difficult to find in nature but cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that food processing induces us to consume much more of these rarities than is good for us,” (8).

“# 10: Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not,” (23).  Uh-oh, this doesn’t bode well for my idealized ice cream substitutes.

“Vegetarians are notably healthier than carnivores, and they live longer,” (51).  Hmm… the new omnivore’s dilemma.

“Freezing does not significantly diminish the nutritional value of produce,” (63).  Never knew this.

“#33: Eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi.  Many traditional cultures swear by the health benefits of fermented foods—foods that have been transformed by live microorganisms, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, and sourdough bread.  These foods can be a good source of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient you can’t get from plants.  (B12 is produced by animals and bacteria).  Many fermented foods also contain probiotics—beneficial bacteria that research suggests improve the function of the digestive and immune systems and, according to some studies, help reduce allergic reactions and inflammation,” (73).  I’ve taken a B12 supplement for years, works wonders with PMS for one thing; never knew it didn’t come from any plants.

“#39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself… —chances are good it won’t be every day,” (85).  And eh-hem, note to self: stop relying on Body Café to provide you with easy sugar-free sweets.

“Cultures that took corn from Latin America without the beans or the lime wound up with serious nutritional deficiencies…” (90) Prelude to the next book I’m reading, a colonial history of sugar.

“The prophet Muhammad described, a full belly as one that contained 1/3 food and 1/3 liquid—and 1/3 air, i.e. nothing,” (103).  I think Pollan misses the point on this one.  Air is not nothing: we don’t get enough oxygen.  I like thinking about this balance between breathing, drinking water, and eating.

“…Again the French may have something to teach us.  To say ‘I’m hungry ‘ in French you say ‘J’ai faim’—’I have hunger’—and when you are finished, you do not say that you are full, but ‘Je n’ai plus faim’—’I have no more hunger.’  That’s a completely different way of thinking about satiety.  So: Ask yourself not, Am I full, but Is my hunger gone?  That moment will arrive several bites sooner,” (104).  It occurs to me that the construction is similar in Spanish, although you would say I’m full, you say I have hunger or thirst, Tengo hambre/sed.  Also, surprise, surprise, Italian is no help.  The question is always, do you want to eat something, whether you’re hungry or not.  Le vorrebbe mangiare qualcosa?

“We eat out of boredom, for entertainment, to comfort or reward ourselves… If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry.  Food is a costly antidepressant,” (105).

“Most of us allow external, and usually visual cues to determine how much we eat.  The larger the portion, for example, the more we eat: the bigger the container, the more we pour,” (107).  Listening to those gut feelings.

‘After lunch, sleep awhile; after dinner, walk a mile.’ (119)

“When eating somewhere other than at a table, stick to fruits and vegetables,” (127).  Or nuts, he adds, on another page.  A good rule to follow.


“an Indian proverb…’Drink your food, chew your drink.’

Another strategy, encoded in a table manner that’s been all but forgotten: ‘Put down your fork between bites.”  (109)

The banquet is in the first bite.’ (111)


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