Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Food Rules: Repairing the Relationship Between People and Food

Michael Pollan's latest book is out and as a first time reader of his work, I must say, I am pretty impressed by what he had to say. For those of you unfamiliar with Michael Pollan, he is a journalist (currently associated with New York Times Magazine) and best selling author of several books (the most popular are The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food).

Food Rules is the title of his latest book. It's a quick read (less than 150 pages, and most of those have pictures), is presented in plain English (what a nice change for an informative book!) and is broken into three sections that help organize all 64 of his tips. In the forward of the book, he explains that the purpose of these tips is to repair the relationship that has greatly deteriorated-- particularly in Western cultures-- between people and the food they eat. So, below I have listed a few of my favorite tips from each section (the explanation is my understanding of what Pollan wrote, not his commentary). I wish I could say that I have enough will power to adhere to all of his recommendations, but hey, little steps, right?

What Should I Eat? (Eat Food.)
- Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
This means none of those new "foods" that most likely have had to be chemically altered in some way in order for them to be packaged (Pollan's example of Go-Gurt is the best that I can think of right now). However, I believe there are exceptions to this rule. I agree that yogurt in a tube is probably not the cleanest food to put in your body, but fruit snacks are something that would not be recognized by a great-grandparent either. And while most of the brands you buy at main stream grocery stores are going to be loaded with sugar, HFCS, chemical preservatives, et cetera, Annie's brand is clean and delicious!

- Avoid products containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
I won't even address whether HFCS is good for you or not, Pollan's point is that it is still sugar and, unlike sugar, it is added to everything these days. Bread, "healthy" snack foods, a brand of milk I saw (!!!!), and things that shouldn't be sweetened have been loaded with HFCS. Regardless on which side of the HFCS debate you stand on, you have to agree that it is still a sugar and the less of it you have, the better.

- Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
This means eat lots of fruits and veggies and foods that aren't processed and don't contain preservatives! Another point Pollan brought up is that some things that are necessary in our diet, such as Omega 3 fatty acids, go rancid at some point and are typically removed in the processing of foods.

- It's not food if it's called the same name in every language.
Pollan: Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.

What kind of food should I eat? (Mostly plants.)
-"What stands on one leg [mushrooms and plant foods] is better that what stands on two legs [fowl], which is better that what stands on four legs [cows, pics, and other mammals]."
This is a Chinese proverb and it does, unfortunately, forget fish, which likely wiggle in with the one-leggers.

- Drink the spinach water.
And not only the spinach water! Any water that vegetables have been cooked in are going to be loaded with all of their health benefits. If you can't stomach to drink it by itself, save it and add it to soups or sauces.

- Have a glass of wine with dinner.
Hallelujah! Finally someone states it very bluntly- it's fine to drink wine (or any alcohol) IN MODERATION (one glass daily for women, two for men). Red wine has been shown to be the most healthful, but alcohol in any form seems to reduce the risk of heart disease and increase life span. Pollan also points out that it is better to drink a little each day that a lot on the weekends... So don't feel guilty enjoying that glass of wine with dinner on a Tuesday night!

How should I eat? (Not too much.)
- Pay more. Eat less.
Americans as a whole spend less of their income on food than any other country in the world. Part of this is because of our Western diet (lots of processed, high fat, high sugar foods), but a significant contributor is that the notion of "organic is expensive" has been drilled in our heads for decades. And, while organic may or may not be more expensive, the fact of the matter is that organic foods have more nutrients than processed foods and the more nutrients there are, the more full you will feel on less food (and it tastes better!). Want to try an experiment at home? Buy an organic apple or banana and a regular apple or banana. Have some of each and trust me, you'll notice the difference in both taste and your satiation.

- Stop eating before you're full.
Simple advice to follow, right? Except most of us scarf our food down so quickly (I'm guilty of this too), that our brains can't register that we're full until after we've eaten too much. On average, it takes 10 to 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain you're full. So try to eat a little slower and you'll be more able to gage when you're full. Pollan also included a wise piece of French advice: don't stop eating when you're full, stop eating when you don't feel hungry.

-The banquet is in the first bite.
I love this tip if for no other reason than the reference to the economic law of diminishing marginal utility. The first bite is going to be the best bite of whatever you're eating. And each bite after that isn't going to be nearly as satisfying, in exponential amounts. Hopefully, if you're keeping this in mind while eating, you won't eat as much and you'll eat slower.

And, best of all....

- Break the rules once in a while!!!!
Everyone needs a break from the highly regimented rules, restrictions, and diets we place on ourselves. So it's okay to eat junk food once (or twice) a week, run through that drive thru when you wake up 20 minutes late, and give yourself a break from all that work you're putting in to making yourself a better, healthier you... Just remember the overlying key component to all of these tips: moderation!

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