Michael Pollan Offers 64 Ways to Eat Food

How did your great grandparents ever figure out what to eat? Long before nutrition scientists began studying food, long before marketers began advertising food and long before the author Michael Pollan started writing about food, people, somehow, managed to eat more healthfully than they do now.

“We know there is a deep reservoir of food wisdom out there, or else humans would not have survived to the extent we have,” Mr. Pollan writes in his new book “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (Penguin). “Much of this food wisdom is worth preserving and reviving and heeding.”

To compile the rules for his book, which total 64, Mr. Pollan says he consulted folklorists, anthropologists, doctors, nurses, nutritionists and dietitians “as well as a large number of mothers and grandmothers.” He solicited rules from his own readers and audiences at conferences and speeches. He also posted a request to readers of the Well blog, who delivered more than 2,500 suggestions.

The result is a useful and funny purse-sized manual that could easily replace all the diet books on your bookshelf.

I love this book not only for its simplicity and practical advice, but because the rules themselves are memorable and will ring in your head long after you read it. Choosing just one rule that is new to you from each of the book’s three sections would certainly lead to meaningful changes in your eating habits.

This week, I spoke with Mr. Pollan about how he compiled “Food Rules,” his favorite submissions and those that made him laugh but didn’t make the cut. Read our conversation below and then please join the discussion.

Q.

What was the impetus for this book?

A.

I’ve spent 10 years looking at agriculture, food and health. I’ve done it mostly as a reporter with a lot of research and adventures and explorations. At the end of the day people want to know what to do with this information. What’s the practical import of what you’ve learned? It’s the question I always get when I’m speaking to readers.

After I published “In Defense of Food,” a polemic about nutrition science and the food industry and how little we know about nutritional science, I heard from doctors who said, “I would love to have a pamphlet I could give to patients.” They didn’t have time to give them a big nutrition lecture. They liked the simple rule concept. They understood you don’t need to know all the science to make smart decisions. I kept hearing the word pamphlet, and I wanted to write a book that would reach as many people as possible. It’s a real radical distillation of everything I’ve been working on. It’s really just to help people to act. It’s about daily practice more than theory.

Q.

On the cover of “In Defense of Food,” you gave us the rule “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Isn’t that one rule enough?

A.

You’ll see it still organizes the book. Those are the three big categories. “Eat food” is devoted to rules that help you distinguish real food from edible food-like substances. There is a section on “Mostly plants,” about making distinctions between foods, meat eating and the kinds of foods to eat. The third section, “Not too much,” is about the manners of eating, the cultural rules that help keep us from overeating, things like “Stop before you’re full,” and “Buy smaller plates and glasses.” It’s the umbrella under which all the other rules fit.

Q.

When you wrote “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” did you know it would become such a popular, oft-repeated rule?

A.

I came up with that when I was writing a piece for The New York Times Magazine called “Unhappy Meals,” which became my book. I was trying to simplify everything I learned as radically as possible. I thought that was a compromise. I really wanted to say just “Eat food,” but I realized that wasn’t enough. You had to sort of take a position on meat and vegetables, and you had to address the whole issue of quantity. I’ve learned that from Marion Nestle (the New York University nutrition professor and author), that in the end, so much of the discussion about nutrition is a way to avoid talking about how much people are eating. People would rather talk about anything else than quantity. Eat food was the main message, but I realized I needed to qualify it. I was hoping for two words. I compromised at seven.

The adverb “mostly” has been the most controversial. It makes everybody unhappy. The meat people are really upset I’m taking a swipe at meat eating, and the vegetarians are saying, “What’s with the ‘mostly?’ Why not go all the way?” You can’t please everyone. In a way that little word is the most important. It’s not all or nothing. Mostly. It’s about degree. But in the whole food discussion, I’ve learned the most from that, that little “ly” and people’s reaction to it.

Q.

In compiling the new food rules, was brevity important to you?

A.

Brevity is important, and humor is important. This isn’t a somber book at all. One that came through the Well blog, “Don’t buy cereals that change the color of the milk,” that’s a nice way to get at don’t buy things with strange ingredients, colors and additives. I want rules to be vivid and sticky, easy to remember. I don’t want people to have to carry the book around with them. I was looking for cultural blips that will stick in your head.

Q.

Do we need to embrace all 64 rules? Can we pick and choose?

A.

The reason there are 64, for some people one rule will work better than the other. I think it’s important to take at least one from each category. If you only take from “Eat food” or “Mostly plants,” you’ll get highly processed edible food-like substances out of your cart, but it might not help you deal with the problem of overeating. You need something about eating at tables, eating with other people, all the kind of getting back in touch with your body so you don’t eat in a lot of the ways that are going to make you fat.

Q.

I remember reading in “In Defense of Food” about the role of tradition and culture in healthful eating. Can you tell me more about that?

A.

One of the things I’m trying to do in both projects is question the premise that science is the only source of authority we have on matters having to do with food in our bodies. Long before nutrition science, we had something called culture that guided us on the same questions. People have been dealing with health long before there was science, certainly before nutrition science. We’re constantly reading about scientific studies that support old wives’ tales.

There is a line I got from grandmothers, both Jewish and Italian, it might be my favorite rule: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” There was an understanding that white flour may not be good for you, and whole grain might be better long before the current research on whole grains. I’m trying to resurrect that cultural wisdom. This book is full of the wisdom of the grandmothers. But it takes some work. There is also some nonsense. There are old wives’ tales that are nothing but old wives’ tales.

Q.

What were some of the rejects?

A.

“Don’t eat anything bigger than your head” is a funny line. But is that really true? You could eat a melon and you’d be fine. My favorite one that we got was, “Only one meat per pizza.” I thought that was wonderful. Talk about someone deciding to curb their excess at the last possible second. We got a ton that were funny and playful and not necessarily good health advice.

Q.

Do you have any favorite rules besides the grandmother rule you mentioned earlier?

A.

“Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” That gets at a lot of our issues. I love French fries, and I also know if I ate French fries every day it would not be a good thing. One of our problems is that foods that are labor or money intensive have gotten very cheap and easy to procure. French fries are a great example. They are a tremendous pain to make. Wash the potatoes, fry potatoes, get rid of the oil, clean up the mess. If you made them yourself you’d have them about once a month, and that’s probably about right. The fact that labor has been removed from special occasion food has made us treat it as everyday food. One way to curb that and still enjoy those foods is to make them. Try to make your own Twinkie. I don’t even know if you can. I imagine it would be pretty difficult. How do you get the cream in there?

Q.

Tell me about some of the other rules.

A.

Some of these rules require absolutely no explanation. “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” “It’s not food if it’s served through the window of your car.” “It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language.” Think Big Mac, Cheetos or Pringles. Another one I like, “The banquet is in the first bite.” Economists call this the law of diminishing marginal utility. When you realize the real pleasure in food comes in the first couple bites, and it diminishes thereafter, that’s a kind of reminder to focus on the experience, enjoy those first bites, and as you get into the 20th bite, you’re talking calories and not pleasure. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.

Q.

Did you learn anything new yourself from the rules?

A.

What I learned the most about wasn’t so much about nutrition. I learned a lot from hearing from readers and other people who sent things in about the psychology of food. The games we play with ourselves about food, about how we confuse lots of food with lots of food experience. They’re not the same thing. You can have intense food experience with less food. Europeans have intense food experiences but eat less food. The biggest lesson I got from this is from people sharing their tricks, their psychological games and deepest feelings about food. The psychology of food is fascinating and barely understood.