Food Rules: An Eater's Manual
by Michael Pollen
Penguin Press, November 2011
Paperback, 240 pages
Review by Kate Padilla
I love Michael Pollan. I’ve loved him since reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma --which, admittedly, wasn’t that long ago--and I find myself actively searching the bookstore shelves for more. I love that he writes food science, still a new field, and I love that he writes in this field not from the perspective of a scientist, but rather from one of a journalist.
Pollan’s latest, Food Rules, isn’t a book about food science, the way that The Omnivore’s Dilemma is. This is not a book to keep in the study. This is a book to keep in the kitchen, next to the Betty Crocker cookbook and the increasing pile of Real Simpleand Taste of Home magazines. This is a book to shuffle through from time to time, perhaps in moments of doubt over New Year’s resolutions. This, unlike most scientific reading, is simple and easy to digest.
The concept for Food Rules came from writing his previous book, In Defense of Food. When Pollan set out to find an answer to the “supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we should eat,” he came to the annoying realization that his answer would not fill the hundreds of pages he had planned. In fact, his conclusion came down to seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
I find myself reciting these words as I peruse the grocery store on an average Sunday evening. They come to mind as I sit in my office chair thinking about the impending dinner meal. Such a simple mantra has transformed the way my husband and I view food: in the past three months I’ve lost almost 15 pounds; he’s lost 25. And we still eat bread.
Pollan fleshes these seven words into 64 paragraph-length rules, categorizing each rule. They’re each told with an element of wit that lightens the usually academic tone of a handbook. Rule #2 reflects back to Eat food, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” So much of our culture stresses about what to eat and when. Self-help and diet books fly off of the shelves come January and beach-season. Pollan reminds us here that the true benefit of food comes when the stress is removed. There is no formula. It’s being aware of what goes in our bodies.
Many of the rules sound more ridiculous than they are. For example, Rule #55: “Eat Meals.” Our first response is “duh,” but Pollan continues:
Sociologists and market researchers who study American eating habits no longer organize their results around the increasingly quaint concept of the meal: They now measure “eating occasions” and report that we have added to the traditional Big Three--breakfast, lunch, and dinner--an as yet untitled fourth daily eating occasion that lasts all day long: the constant sipping and snacking we do while watching TV, driving, working, and so on.
When I’m at the grocery store, I unconsciously turn to Rule #12, “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.”
This book is pocket- and purse-sized, and it’s meant to be a guide. It would be very difficult to follow each of these rules exactly every day, but that was never Pollan’s intention:
Be sure to adopt at least one from each of the three sections, because each section deals with a different dimension of your eating life. … These rules offer screens or filters to help you tell the real food from the edible foodlike substances you want to avoid.
What Pollan emphasizes most in this book is the awareness of food. This book, more than any other diet book out there, will transform a food culture (just look at my husband and me). Of course, it is important to remember Rule #64: “Break the rules once in a while.”