Dan Murphy: Rules to Eat By

A 10-year-old tome with (literally) a hundred maxims on food and diets still gets traction. ( FJ )

As if there aren’t enough books telling us how to live, where to work and what to eat, a 10-year-old tome with (literally) a hundred maxims on food and diets still gets traction. Why? Beats me.

It’s been 10 years now, but columnist and author Michael Pollan is still garnering attention (and likely raking in royalties) from his “Food Rules” book.

The book consists of 100 rules (count ’em) that are supposed to provide the ultimate blueprint for healthy eating, and thus optimal wellness and longevity, simply by adhering to Pollan’s perspective on all things dietary and nutritional.

Granted, some of his rules make sense — like the blind squirrel locating some nuts, you’d have to hit the bullseye, if just by chance, if you were to compile a set of rules running into three figures.

For example: #11: “Avoid foods you see advertised on television.”

No question, virtually every branded item on which food marketers lavish ad spending is a processed, packaged product guaranteed to be high-calorie, high-margin “food” that’s positioned as healthy but is generally not.

Or how about Rule #36: “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.”

Ya think? Does that really need to be a rule for anyone over the age of five?

A shorter, better list

There’s lot more where those rules came from, including such obvious ones as “Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored;” “Do all your eating at a table, not a desk (or a couch);” or “Eat all the junk food you want — as long as you cook it yourself,” which pretty much assures that it’s no longer junk.

But there is one rule Pollan loves to promote that reveals his fundamental hostility toward the consumption of animal foods, and that’s Rule #19: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

Obviously, this is thinly veiled endorsement of vegetarianism, and I can confirm that for all his supposed openness and practicality, Pollan is anti-meat production and meat-eating. I’ve conducted interviews, both formal and informal, with him in years past (operative summary: “I’m Michael Pollan … and you’re not.”), and his antipathy toward the “conventional” American diet that includes meat, dairy and eggs, is palpable.

Now, I’m not a big believer in following a bunch of rules, no matter who the source might be. I prefer to sample recommended foods for myself, to evaluate nutritional guidelines personally and to find out for myself if the latest “miracle” diet offers anywhere near the purported benefits some self-styled guru is claiming.

That said, I do have a few rules regarding diet and nutrition — only my list is a lot shorter than Pollan’s. Here it is:

  1. Choose natural foods. By that I mean meat, dairy, eggs, grains and produce, the foods that human physiology is best adapted to consume. The idea that formulated veggie products containing processed ingredients and additives represent that “natural” way of eating is ludicrous. Not to say that such foods are bad; they’re just not superior to what humanity has subsisted on for millennia.
  2. Eat traditional foods. This follows on the first rule. Take any indigenous society in any era of history on any continent and mimic the diet those people ate — and somehow managed to stay healthy without suffering any of modern society’s plethora of chronic diseases.
  3. Choose local sources. This applies not just to trendy foodies patronizing local farmer’s markets or local restaurants sourcing ingredients from said farmers — although both positive moves to make — but to the more challenging task of selecting foods grown and produced where one was born and currently resides. That means “local” climate, geography and agricultural production need to be the primary determinants of what we eat, and what we don’t.

That’s it. With all due respect to the great and powerful Pollan, my rules are easier to follow and, I would modestly suggest, make at least as much sense.

The only downside is that I can’t puff up my list into book-length form.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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