books food

Book review: Food Rules, by Michael Pollan

Last week I was in Scotland for a series of work meetings. I popped into Blackwells bookshop in Edinburgh to do some location scouting – we’re having a book launch event there on January 30th and if you’re in the area, consider yourself invited.

While I was there I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules to read on the train. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. I’m also trying to encourage good eating habits in my children without burdening them with a puritanical approach to manners and nutrition. Despite the name of the book, I thought this might help.

Pollan’s rules are more like ‘personal policies’ for eating well, presented in accessible language. Many of them aren’t his, but are ‘curated’ from folk wisdom, traditional diets and grandmotherly advice. “I’m not a nutrition expert or a scientist” he writes, “just a curious journalist hoping to answer a straightforward question for myself and my family” – what to eat?

Unlike most journalistic enquiries, “the picture got simpler the deeper I went”, leading Pollan to a seven word summary: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

The book’s three chapters elaborate on this maxim. By eating food, we’re talking about eating real identifiable food, rather than the ‘food-like substances’ of modern convenience. If you can’t imagine it growing, is it really food? Rather than attempting to understand all those unpronounceable additives and what their purpose and health effects are, how about making a simple general rule: if you wouldn’t stock it and use it as a cupboard ingredient, why eat food that includes it?

Much of the advice here is stuff we already know but fail to observe, such as keeping treats as treats or avoiding snacking between meals. “Eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored.” Pollan puts a practical spin on things by suggesting we snack on natural foods such as fruit or nuts. Or if we prepare treats ourselves, such as making our own ice cream or fried chicken, the amount of work involved will guarantee that we only have them occasionally.

Some of the wisdom is more counter-intuitive, such as “avoid food products that make health claims”. The reason is that it’s usually going to be bigger food corporations that have invested in research, which may or may not be valid. It has to have elaborate packaging to even tell you it’s healthy, and that suggests unnecessary processing. In the meantime, the healthiest things in the supermarket – the fresh fruits and vegetables – have no packaging on which to trumpet their value. “Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about your health.”

In giving rules of thumb, Pollan avoids the hard and fast rules that dominate so much of the food debate. Instead of being a vegetarian, eat ‘mostly plants’. If you are going to eat meat, “eat animals that have themselves eaten well.” Instead of the black and white standards of organic production, try to “eat well-grown food from healthy soil.”

There’s something liberating in this approach, and it’s honest to the full spectrum of human experience. People eat all sorts of things, all over the world. Traditional diets work despite sharing few common rules. It’s the modern, highly processed and commercialised food culture that’s driving obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The healthy response doesn’t have to involve fad diets, obsession over additives or nutrients, but a simpler, more grounded approach to food – especially since the last rule in the book is ‘break the rules once in a while’.

It works for me anyway, and I liked Food Rules very much. I won’t take all its advice, but if the world followed that seven word summary universally, we’d be much closer to a sustainable diet as well as a healthier one.

There’s just one problem. Because most of the 64 rules are a couple of paragraphs at most, I’d finished the book by the time I got to Newcastle. I’ve written the review and I’m not yet at York. What am I going to do now? Must be time for a snack.

  • Food Rules is available from Hive, and buying from them will support your local bookshop. Or there’s always Amazon UK or Amazon US.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Eat is another little book of shortform wisdom, in this case on mindful eating. I’ve been reading it to the children at breakfast to encourage us as a family to take time, be aware of what goes into our food, and appreciate what we eat.


    1. I think Pollan would suggest you can have chips if you make them yourself. After all the faffing about with hot oil, chances are you won’t have them very often!

      I suspect this rule for moderation would fall down if I applied it to beer and brewed my own.

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