A Review: Michael Pollan’s Food Rules

I think you’re going to agree with 90% of what he says.”  That was the guess offered by the charming and lovely Mrs. Ragazzo, who had kindly  procured a copy of Pollan’s nifty little book from the county’s bi-weekly bookmobile run to our little backwater. 

Based on our recent discussions on the subject of food and nutrition, she was making a fairly safe bet.  And, for any frequent visitor to this site, it should come as no surprise that my own quest for “a reasonable life” has, over the past year, placed more emphasis on the subject of food.  As it should, really.  And, perhaps, as it should have much, much sooner.

As it turns out, though, I had always been more-or-less on the right track, having long-ago rejected most processed foods, fast foods, junk foods, and the like.  In point of fact, I had followed a close approximation of Pollan’s most basic principles (Eat food, not too much, mostly plants) for many years….with a couple of critical – and nearly lethal – but still minor variations.  But, as they say, “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades“.

With food, the difference between “close” and “close enough” is, likely as not, going to depend on context:  your lifestyle (i.e. work, rest, and play) and the particular genetic hand you’ve been dealt.   Depending on these factors, you’ll either have the freedom or (more likely) the need to modify “the rules” you’ve been given to understand.  Pollan’s included.

But, let’s start with the FDA’s rules as classically symbolized by the “food pyramid” (which they’ve more recently modified to a plate motif).  And, here, it would seem, Pollan hasn’t really diverged from the so-called “conventional wisdom” all that much.  In fact, you could say that may be the one institutional paradigm he doesn’t reject out of hand. 

While justifiably castigating processed foods, he more-or-less tacitly endorses the FDA’s recommended macro-nutrient ratios, which are currently 45%-65% carbohydrates, 10%-35% protein, and 20%-35% fat, for adults.  (The World Health Organization’s recommendations increase the carb target to 55% to 75%.)  A quick perusal of data presented in this FDA publication (see page 5), as one example, would indicate that the average American is doing just that. 

So, how then are we (collectively) killing ourselves with our food?  Pollan’s answer – here clearly more strident than the FDA’s – is that the quality of our modern food is so generally poor, being so highly processed and refined, that it lacks essential nutrients.  Both Pollan and the FDA, of course, endorse whole grains and, just as sensibly, a more active lifestyle.  And, that’s all well and good, as far as it goes. 

But, while these recommendations are clearly sensible, both Pollan and FDA seem unwilling to admit or address other fundamental facts.  Notably:

To his credit, Pollan doesn’t take an overly hard-line stance against meat – excepting its industrial production, and appropriately notes the healthful benefits of eating more naturally produced (i.e. grass fed and wild) forms.  By all accounts, this consistent position is something that he took some flak for in his bestselling and noteworthy “Omnivores Dilemma“. 

Still, Pollan gives (in my opinion) undue credence to the vegetarian model that is, unarguably, as difficult to properly manage as his own characterization of the challenges of finding healthy food in the average supermarket.  The noted benefits of vegetarianism, then, may have more to do with other issues of context.   Such as: 

  • Are vegetarians (generally) more active? 
  • Do vegetarians  also tend to avoid the worst of industrially processed foods?  
  • Are traditional cultures that successfully rely on a carb-heavy and/or vegetarian diet similarly more active, less exposed to industrially processed foods, and/or have effective limits to their overall caloric intake? 

These, after all are pretty significant issues of context.  It seems likely that an affirmative answer to these questions might, in practice, outweight the clear disadvantages of a meatless diet.  Perhaps, this is a small criticism, but I won’t be the first to ponder (or be trapped by) the Catch-22 propositions of the typical low-fat, high-carb diet. 

Pollan pays passing lip-service, for instance, to the glycemic cycle, but merely suggests that the increased fiber and reduced glycemic load of a diet that is high in vegetables (as opposed to grains) should sufficiently reduce the risks posed by the body’s insulin responses to carbohydrates.  Still, in a book that purports to return to traditional wisdom, he ignores the long-understood (and now well studied) fact that it’s the bread (and not the butter) that:  a) makes you fat and b) more likely to overeat.   

And here, then, is the real problem.  As Pollan rightfully contends, we omnivores do have a dilemma.  But, it extends well beyond how our food is produced.  That is clearly important – more so than I ever realized – but it’s still only half of the problem. 

Pollan peels back the first layer of disinformation regarding our dietary habits – enough so that some of the most obvious culprits are exposed.  But, this apparent institutional and cultural phobia we’ve developed over the issue of eating meat (and fat) is just as dangerous as that of the nutrition-stripped, chemical-laden context in which these essential foods are typically eaten and, thus, studied.  And, need I repeat:  context is really important. 

Still, all-in-all, Pollan’s rules would clearly help most American’s who, as he rightly notes, have become utterly confused on the subject of what and how to eat.  Getting back to basics in matters of nutrition is simply a good idea.  Our know-it-all institutional minders, the food-vertizing industry, and pharmotopia are only making matters worse.   

So, I guess, Pollan’s take on the subject is pretty “close”, perhaps as close as 90%.  Just how much he’s cleared the air, though is still in question.  His advice is clearly better (though not substantially different) than that of the FDA, but is it close enough (for horseshoes or real life)?  Probably not for all of us.




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