Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.
These are the wise words of Michael Pollan. He’s got four books on food , and at least one Netflix documentary made from those books, Cooked. I’d like to use this article to summarize his message because I think it is a healthy way to approach food.
What’s great about his work is that the justification for this food philosophy is both plain common sense and science, depending on what floats your boat. It’s not about selling you something. It’s as simple and easy as you would expect a real food solution to be. After all, we’ve spent almost all of human history without lifestyle diseases caused by our diet and we only stumbled into these problems in the last half a century or so. These graphs here deal with obesity, but diabetes, heart disease, and huge numbers of chronic conditions track this directly.
Our Problem With Food
We solved the old problem with food in the developed world, the problem used to be, “Do we have any food?” But we now suffer from a new problem with food that would be absurd if it weren’t tragic. At some point in the last fifty years we realized that our modern diet is killing us and causing a lot of suffering.
But, instead of undoing the changes that led to the problem, we’ve developed a ‘health-conscious’ culture that puts enormous energy into understanding the proper diets, the proper type and amount of exercise, and so on. All of this seems to ignore a basic point – struggling to find enough food is natural, but getting sick from your food isn’t. So maybe the solution isn’t to find the ‘the secret’ to health. Instead, we should just stop doing the things that hurt us.
What are those things?
Let’s think about food in a new way, or rather, the old way. There is a lot of variation in historical diet composition, but all variations existed in healthy populations. When I say healthy populations, I mean that people weren’t suffering obesity, diabetes, or heart disease even if they lived into old age at anything like the rates we have now, even if they lived into old age. Diets rich in pasta, bread, wine and cheese have produced healthy populations. Diets that were almost completely vegetarian have produced healthy populations. Diets that were heavy in starch (corn, beans, and potatoes) have produced healthy populations. Diets of mostly fish and meat (Inuit or Norse Greenlander/Icelander) and or diets of mostly red meat and dairy (desert and steppe nomads like the Mongols) have produced healthy populations.
So is there any commonality between all of these successful diets? Basically two things: they ate real food and they didn’t eat too much of it.
The crux of Pollan’s insight
Pieces of plants, animals, and fungus are the basis of the human diet. Nearly everything we’ve done recently to change or enhance food hasn’t worked. Adding salt and preservatives, trying to eliminate saturated fat in favor of processed vegetable oils, adding sugar to everything, then replacing that with artificial sweeteners, using soy other than fermenting it to make tofu – all of this has only made us sicker, decade after decade. Everything we’ve done to try to compensate for this – guidelines about serving sizes, the correct number of servings of fruit and vegetables, exercise guidelines – has had no noticeable impact on slowing the collapse of our health.
How we think about food and dieting today
The only real thing that has changed in our society is that health-consciousness has become a social marker. There are people on every trendy diet from Atkins to vegetarianism as well as no-particular-diet-at-all that are healthy and in great shape. There are many religious followers of any given diet that are still unhealthy. But being aware of the latest diet techniques, fads, and research is always a reliable way to seem sophisticated and informed. Seeking out the latest trendy superfood and sharing pictures of your plate shows you are an educated upper-class consumer. It’s probably the status involved in these pursuits that have kept us on this track as much as the money sunk into the food industry itself.
So what does Pollan say about this? I’d encourage anyone interested to read his books or watch the Netflix show. But it boils down to giving up the obsession with having a healthy diet, and just eating within some basic guidelines. Fair warning, being healthy is going to require learning to cook, at least if you want to do it cheaply. See my version of the basic rules below.Following these can be a huge help to your health and well-being.
This means eating Real Food – food that is a whole (or part of a whole) plant, animal, or fungus. It is altered only by cooking or fermentation. It does not contain added anything and it does not come prepackaged. Here are some summarized guidelines to eating food. Within these, go nuts:
- Is an identifiable plant, animal, or fungus. An illiterate person in 1900 somewhere in the world would have recognized it as food, and known how to obtain and prepare it for eating.
- If not a single item, it contains only a few ingredients – usually 5 or so – that are themselves an identifiable plan, animal, or fungus. Some complex sauces will have more.
- Is cooked by individual human hands.
- Will rot if you don’t do something with it. The only known exception is honey.
- Does not have low-, lite-, or non- in the name and does not make health claims. Example, low-fat or non-fat yogurt or cheese.
- Contains ingredients that the illiterate person from 1900 wouldn’t recognize, and/or that a 3rd grader can’t pronounce
- Contains added sugar
- Comes from a factory or is delivered to you through a window
Chicken and steamed vegetables are food because you can identify all the pieces as natural foods Pre-packaged chicken vegetable soup is not food if it includes chemical ingredients or added sugar, but is food if it contains only water, chicken stock, chicken, and vegetables.
Bread is food if it is made with flour, yeast, water, and salt by a person. Prepackaged bread containing other ingredients or white bread is not food. White bread can only be made in a factory and would have been impossible for an individual in 1900 to produce.
Olive oil is real food, while canola oilis not food and should not be eaten. Olive oil can be extracted with mechanical pressure, but most canola oil is processed with a hexane extraction solution that was developed in the 1970’s. Butter is food; margarine is not. And so on.
By itself this rule seems to contradict some of the historical evidence that populations with nearly all meat and dairy diets can be healthy. But this rule is important for modern times in which finding enough to eat is not a problem.
The biological reason that we love animal foods so much is that meat is much more nutritious and calorie dense than the equivalent amount of plant material. With our abundance of food today it’s easier to overeat if you focus on animal products. So, while red meat, fish, butter, yogurt, and so on are all perfectly healthy foods, you will do best if you make them only a small part of each meal and fill in the rest with lots of plants.
Not Too Much
This is self-explanatory. Most humans, depending on age, sex, and height, need between about 1,500-2,500 calories a day. But it’s easy to eat too much in our modern life and doing so makes people fat and sick. It’s also true that even people who are trying to be calorie conscious are very commonly underestimating their intake by a wide margin. Even professionals do it.
Instead of calorie counting, try following these guidelines:
- The other rules – Eat Food, Mostly Plants – will help a lot because Real Food is much less caloric than processed food. Even a serving of steak has many fewer calories than you would expect, and far less than a McDonald’s hamburger
- Cook it yourself
- Eat only at mealtimes
- If you must snack, eat a plant – carrots, celery, an apple
- At meals eat until you are mostly full but still a little hungry. This will easier if you eat slowly