How to Eat

Diet secrets from Michael Pollan (and your great-grandma)

The most sensible diet plan ever? We think it’s the one that Michael Pollan outlined a few years ago: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” So we’re happy that in his little new book, Food Rules, Pollan offers more common-sense rules for eating: 64 of them, in fact, all thought-provoking and some laugh-out-loud funny.

By “food” Pollan means real food, not creations of the food-industrial complex. Real food doesn’t have a long ingredient list, isn’t advertised on TV, and it doesn’t contain stuff like maltodextrin or sodium tripolyphosphate. Real food is things that your great-grandmother (or someone’s great-grandmother) would recognize.

Pollan points out that populations that eat like modern-day Americans — lots of highly processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains — suffer high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. But populations that eat more traditional diets don’t. Our great-grandmas knew what they were doing.

But in the last few decades, we seem to have lost that old cultural know-how — or maybe it’s just hard to remember it in our drive-thru world. We need rules.

Like Rule No. 19: “If it’s a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” Or Rule 36: “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of your milk.” Or Rule No. 20: “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.”

For most of us, “not too much” is especially hard. But if you follow Rule 52 — “Buy smaller glasses and plates” — your portions will seem larger. And Rules 58 (“Do all your eating at a table”) and 59 (“Try not to eat alone”) will help you slow down and enjoy your meals more.

Hard-core vegetarians complain about the “-ly” in the rule “mostly plants.” So be it: Pollan isn’t dogmatic. He urges us to eat less meat, and better-raised meat. But he doesn’t insist that we give it up entirely.

He ends his book with Rule 64: “Break the rules once in a while.” Decades of obsessing about nutrition — eating low-fat this and low-carb that, drinking sugar-free sodas and vitamin-enhanced water — haven’t made us thinner or healthier.

It’s time we ate like our great-grandmas.