Michael Pollan’s nine key points

Unhappy Meals illustration by Leo JungFrom last weekend's The New York Times Magazine comes Michael Pollan's latest article about The Age of Nutritionism. I would've written about it sooner but it took me until last night to finish reading it. It's 12 pages long. While the entire thing is absolutely worth reading, he ends with a "few (flagrantly unscientific) rules of thumb collected in the course of [his] nutritional odyssey" that bear repeating here, with my notes:

1. Eat food. Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
Non-dairy creamer? You're out. You too, breakfast-cereal bars.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims.
Science keeps changing, so trying to follow fads won't guarantee health. You have a better chance at health by just eating a well-balanced diet.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
All those signs point to food that's been processed. More process = less nutrients and vitamins, never mind the environmental costs of producing the food.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
Buy food at farmer's markets and you can avoid the foods listed in #3 very easily.

5. Pay more, eat less.
Pay for that grass-fed beef, but reduce your over-all beef consumption and it's not an exorbitant expense. Interesting figure from the article: "Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation."

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
You don't have to turn into a bunny, but make sure you're getting greens. They pack a nutritional wallop, but science still can't tell you exactly what inside is so good.

7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are.
You know, that whole Mediterranean diet, "French Women Don't Get Fat" thing.

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden.
Duh. If you cook from scratch, it's unlikely you'll add ferrous sulfate or sodium tripoly-phosphate to your dinner. See #3 above.

9. Eat like an omnivore.
Variety is important, and we've been reducing the diversity in our diets over the years. Plus "biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields."

Those tips should be given to every single citizen of the United States, as far as I'm concerned. It's hard to believe we've gotten to the point that we don't know how to eat anymore.

Also: The Kitchen has a summary of the article as well, highlighting some other facets of Pollan's argument.

25 thoughts on “Michael Pollan’s nine key points

  1. Great summary – thanks. Between that article, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (and Marion Nestle’s What to Eat), I’m a convert. Though I did have a coke with my lunch of leftover risotto today. I’m going straight to hell.

  2. Yes, great summary.
    He also – pretty boldly – holds the modern food era (and the companies involved) directly responsible for our current healthcare crisis. It’s not such a big stretch to dot the line from one to the other.
    Can’t say I disagree.

  3. Nice summary. I read the article yesterday. It’s quite long-winded…certainly could’ve been about 1/3 the length and still said the same thing. I’ve been a proponent of “eat food, not food products” for quite some time now. It goes along with the mantra I heard (can’t recall where, but I won’t attribute it to myself): “There is no such thing as junk food. There is junk and there is food.” I’m not sure he’s on target with his assessment of meat, because I’ve yet to see a good study pairing vegetarians against a group eating a healthful omnivorous diet. The studies usually just compare vegetarians to those eating the SAD (Standard American Diet)….topping that isn’t much of an accomplishment.

  4. I’d like to hear more about this:
    “Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation.”
    Was food more expensive relative to wages in 1947? Is the price of food in America less than in other countries? What, exactly, does that have to do with our health and eating habits?

  5. Amanda, I agree. I’d love to know more about that stat. Here’s what I guess about it, based on everything I’ve read all over the place, including other things by Pollan.
    I am pretty sure food prices in America are artificially low (in that they don’t reflect the true costs of production, like the damage to environment, or even our pursuit of oil around the globe, which helps produce fertilizers that grow our corn that we feed to beef cattle, etc.) And food did used to be more expensive compared to wages, that’s why people didn’t eat meat as regularly. It was a special treat, not a twice or three times a day occurrence.
    The cheap meat leads to people eating a lot more meat. The cheap processed food leads people to eat more junk. And the expense of fresh fruit and vegetables leads people to eat less of the whole foods that are much better for us. Cheap food is not necessarily a good thing. And again, it’s not really that cheap, we’re paying for it with rising health care costs and other expenses.
    Scott, I agree with you. I don’t like Pollan’s blanket statement that vegetarians are automatically healthier. I think a well-balanced omnivorous diet should be compared for sure.

  6. and while the article is vintage pollan, a couple people have noted how little blogging attention it’s gotten–i think the reason may be that the people who blog on this subject already knew all this intuitively. pollan gives excellent support material and his customary easy style and pithy, common sensical observations, but it’s not news to people thinking and writing about food.
    but his “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” is beautiful.

  7. Mathew, he says “food products”, not dishes or meals! Homemade soup is obviously ok, as are homemade chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate chip cookies from a package and filled with additives and preservatives on the other hand are probably not.

  8. This article and others I’ve read lately brought something to my mind: expensive food seems to be healthier than cheap food. Why is that? Why is it that the (presumably) healthier calories I purchase at Whole Foods (aka “Whole Paycheck”) are so much more expensive than the processed, hormone-enhanced, fatty, sugary stuff I can buy elsewhere? I would think that the more a food is processed, the more expensive it is. But apparently not.
    Perhaps this point has been discussed elsewhere. Forgive me if I’m late to the party on this idea.

  9. and my point is everything you buy at a store is a “food product” – hell, even milk has 3 or more “ingredients”
    even homemade chocolate chip cookies have more than five ingredients:
    – flour
    – baking soda
    – sugar
    – salt
    – butter
    – eggs
    – vanilla
    – chocolate chips
    need i go on? i think that counting the amount of ingredients in a product is just silly. i do agree on the philosphy of “if you don’t know what ______ is, don’t buy it” though.

  10. It’s just a rule of thumb, not a law to be followed to the letter. I think what he’s saying is if you’re trying to decide between the cheese that has one ingredient (cheese) and the cheese product that has 10 ingredients with chemical names, stick with the cheese cheese.
    And Michael, Slate bugs me sometimes for writing things that are completely contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. I too was wondering about the nutritional Darwinism stuff, but Pollan actually doesn’t spend that much time arguing that we’re not dead yet so our ancestors food must be good for us. (Although, if Engber wants to stick with the science, he’s ignoring Darwin in the process, no? Why go with chemistry and not listen to the biologists?) What is fairly clear from Pollan’s piece is that science currently isn’t working when it comes to studying food because of a whole host of different factors, not the least of which is the role of large companies driving how food is made and studied.
    Which happens all the time in scientific studies. Did we understand the brain 20 years ago? No. Do we today? We think we do, but we thought we did 20 years ago as well. Economists and psychologists are wrong all the time, ascribing people’s motivations to theories that seem right but end up being wrong. Newton was wrong, Einstein is wrong, Feynmann is wrong, and the string theorists are probably wrong. Science is full of dark alleys and wrong turns…that’s how it works. What Pollan is arguing, I think, is that right now science can’t tell us what to eat or not eat with any certainty and not that the nutritionism approach is invalid forever and ever.

  11. Re: Healthy omnivore vs vegetarian, he actually does touch on this very briefly by talking about the concept of the “flexitarian” – one who eats something approaching a vegetarian diet but also eats meat in small portions. “Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are as healthy as vegetarians.”

  12. I don’t think #4 is entirely correct. In the supermarket, I can get vegetables that were cleaned, cut to size and deep frozen on the day of the harvest. When I put them from the freezer into the pot, they’re fresher than the ‘fresh’ vegetables from the farmer’s market, and they contain more nutrients and vitamins. I guess that’s an exception, but worth bearing in mind.

  13. Graham, he does say that, but I think he muddles his point a bit by using two terms for perhaps the same thing: omnivore and flexitarian. Personally I prefer omnivore, flexitarian is just a made up, silly word.
    Nex, valid point, and one to bear in mind you don’t live in Berkeley, CA (as Pollan does) with its year-round access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Those of us that endure winter might need supermarkets to maintain a balanced diet — unless we’ve got a root cellar like our great-great-grandmother!

  14. A question on maintaining a balanced diet though…does a balanced diet mean we be eating the same things year-round? Doesn’t following a seasonal eating pattern (i.e. lots of fruit in late summer and fall, roots in winter, fresh greens and other vegetables in spring and summer) give the body a break from always digesting the same compounds? I find that seasonal eating is more flavorful (berries in winter are just yuck), cheaper (when your food isn’t flown in from California and you can get it at the farmer’s market…), and more healthful. That means that a winter diet is going to be higher fat, higher protein, lower carb, while a summer diet is going to be higher in carbs than a winter diet.
    I agree with not getting too dogmatic about the hunter-gatherer diet to the exclusion of all else, but it certainly does provide an excellent starting point. And one important thing about a hunter-gatherer diet is the lack of a global distribution network and therefore, the lack of year-round produce.

  15. A question on maintaining a balanced diet though…does a balanced diet mean we be eating the same things year-round?
    I don’t think so, but I do get some stuff from California in the winter (like lettuce) because I live in New York. I try to eat seasonally but I’m not willing to limit myself to roots and dried meat during the winter. But I also don’t buy strawberries from CA in January.
    In my mind “balanced” is about the nutrients you’re getting, not specifically about the ingredients. So maybe it’s iron from spinach when you have access to it, iron from liver when you don’t, etc.

  16. My Japanese partner thinks that middle-class white Americans are too focused on guilt while eating — that making everything from scratch is somehow better, but we don’t have the time and so we eat out 3 nights a week and then make one super meal. Or that frozen or canned food is somehow worse (generally its not, but we are appearance eaters). Or not understanding how to combine what you have. Outside of California, all the produce is pretty second rate. A few Korean markets seem to get it, but even farmers markets tend to sell everything, and not select the best.
    As a midwesterner, I can say that we used to know how to do this. To take a few vegetables and add it to canned soup. Or use frozen vegetables in the winter. But somehow as life has sped up and appearance eating has become the norm (born from some sort of white guilt), our eating habits have gotten worse.
    On the other point, food is more expensive in other countries — but labor is much more expensive, and much of the food is imported from places (like the U.S.) where food produced cheaper. In fact everything is cheaper in the U.S. (a CD is $30 in Japan. You can buy an import CD from Japan in the U.S. cheaper than you can in Japan. A can of soda is $3.) That being said, we pay a lot more for healthcare and housing and cars and cleaning supplies and all the other intangibles that people in other countries do without.
    Perhaps this is some conspiracy to sell is process food and Swifters and Windex and Fords. (If food was more expensive, some other part of our budget would take a hit.) Or it could just be the way the market works out.

  17. It’s funny that the pursuit of eating healthy has turned into a science. I respect the research the food scientists out there are doing but at times I think they’ve done more harm than good.
    The nature of clinical research is to identify a single endpoint and control all other factors to confirm a hypothesis about that single endpoint. For practical reasons, researchers usually can’t measure actual rates of disease Y but rather use proxies, ie. a relative increase in intake of vitamin/mineral/food X causes a change in quantities of molecule Z in the body which is associated with disease Y. The problem is you end up with sound bites in the form of “vitamin/mineral/food X causes/prevents disease Y” that are easier to understand and eventually spark the next nutrient saturation fad.
    A good example is the link between vitamin C and citrus fruit. We’ve been conditioned to seek out citrus fruit for vitamin C. Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C but that’s relative to the other nutrients and relative to other fruits. A serving of broccoli has twice the vitamin C of an orange and parsley has four times the amount of vitamin C. And unlike an orange, broccoli and parsley have large amounts of other vitamins and minerals and lower in sugar and carbohydrates. Nutrition research has inadvertently turned our diets upside down. Rather than encouraging us to become healthier through nutritional efficiency by identifying nutrients found in various foods, we’ve become more inefficient by focusing on a few foods that meet certain nutrient requirements.
    The reality is our bodies are complex systems that’s constantly self-regulating in response to what we put in our mouth. Focusing on any one or even multiple nutrient is the wrong approach – we need everything in moderation. We need a wide variety of nutrients but only small amounts of each. Our digestive system takes a tiny sample of many nutrients from a meal and discards the rest. This biological paradigm is at odds with the Western diet which focuses on depth in a few nutrients rather than breadth across a swath of foods.
    I agree with christopher. It’s not necessary to have everything fresh all the time. Frozen and traditionally-preserved foods are perfectly acceptable. Anyone telling you not to use peas in your vegetable soup simply because they’re not in season is way too full of themselves. Just don’t forget to toss in some parsley 🙂

  18. nex–A reason to buy from the farmer’s market rather than frozen from the store is that at the farmer’s market you are *probably * more likely to get vegetables grown on healthy, nutrient-rich soil, rather than vegetables grown only to the letter of organic regulations on what *not* to add to the soil. Commodity vegetables are grown large-scale and are therefore more susceptible to pests and diseases needing chemical remedy. A small farmer with a diversity of crops does not encounter this problem and is more likely to pay attention to building healthy soil, thus providing you withproduce that is more nutrient dense.

  19. I’ve been thinking about Pollan’s rules of thumb since I read that fantastic piece, not least because of the years I’ve spent studying 18th century culture and literature. Johnson and Boswell (and before that, Pepys) did plenty of eating out, but in a different manner to the bargain bucket currently being advertised as a family meal on my TV screen.
    Anyway, I should dig out the George Cheyne books in my collection and see if I could cope with his 1720s diet plan — he was complaining back then about rich sauces and spicy food ruining the English constitution.
    But I laugh to myself when I read articles from home about the tyranny of Tesco: what I would give for a produce section here to match it, even in the local farmers’ market. (I get the feeling that most NC apples end up in mass-produced applesauce, such is the bulk-buying power of big food corporations.) But Europeans live closer to agriculture, albeit in the age of asparagus from Peru, just by dint of living in smaller countries: even monoculture is small scale when you’re comparing Norfolk to Nebraska. While the British aren’t that great, I still dream about my weekend forays in the south of France, with stands devoted to olives, vegetables, cheese… oh, heaven.
    [For comparison’s sake, I’d say that the Standard Grocery Basket is much cheaper in the US than in western Europe, perhaps half the price. But it’s so unevenly distributed: it’s much more expensive to buy good produce in the US, so shoppers on limited budgets are inevitably drawn towards processed food product. Herbs and spices are expensive, as are many pantry basics for those who want to cook from scratch. You can offset that if you know where to look — ethnic groceries, or supermarkets that cater to ethnic customers — but then you’re driving for five miles to get basics.]
    In short, having spent a few years living in the US, I can appreciate the problems: it’s really bloody hard to shop well in order to eat well, especially outside of the big cities. Not when the fast food outlets keep lots of people in work and cheap food: that dollar menu looks pretty tempting when broccoli is $3 a bunch.
    You can sum up Pollan in three words: ‘Eat food, damnit’. Teaching Americans what food is may take a few more.

  20. Kat– Regarding the food prices of “healthy” food vs “normal” food… Healthier food tends to be more expensive for several reasons. If you’re talking about packaged health foods (the sort that Pollan advises against), these are mostly more expensive because people are willing to pay more for them. In lots of cases, they’re not nutritionally very different from other foods out on the market but simply have a different marketing campaign that allows them to appeal to more affluent consumers.
    If you’re speaking about organic produce, however, the price has to do with the way the government subsidizes agriculture in the United States. As mentioned elsewhere in the comments, food prices are artificially low. What we pay for some items, like corn, is less than it actually costs to physically produce it. In order to make it more affordable, the government subsidizes certain farms. Organic produce is not subsidized, however, and organic farmers have additional costs related to certifying their crops.
    In addition to Pollan’s book, I recommend the documentary The Future of Food to everyone interested in these issues.

  21. nex and meg, he says avoid supermarkets “whenever possible”. We will always go to supermarkets, but whenever we can we should buy from farmer’s markets and CSA’s. The farmer’s markets here in the summer usually have produce picked that day – you can’t get fresher than that. Buying from them also supports the local farmer’s, too – which may be just as important as the freshness and nutrition.
    amanda and meg, what he is saying that we COULD spend more than we do now, if we wanted to. The point I think he was trying to make is one he made in his book, we buy food, in large part, not based on quality but price. It’s shocking we buy food, the single most important thing we do that affect our health, based costs the least.

  22. Thank you so much for this list. I’m forwarding it all over the place. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in Pollan’s view.
    But I wonder if my great-great grandmother ate much differently than my great aunts. Probably not. And judging from her children and their food preferences, I am willing to bet their meat consumption was beyond what I could stomach or imagine.
    They had these huge, enormous meals. Eggs AND pancakes AND toast AND rolls. Ham for breakfast! The dinners were mind-boggling. Little dishes with tiny pickles. Three entrees, five side dishes. Perhaps they did not eat like that every night but one thing they always loved was their butter and white bread. And always, always desert.
    They grew up on and near farms, in rural America.
    Except for the sister who died young (in her eighties) they all lived past 95. They were all svelte to stick thin. I think one of them and I hope my grandfather will live past 100. My grandfather relishes good vegetables. He is thrilled by fresh green beans or delicious peaches or cantaloupe. He also enjoys Spam and Oscar Mayer hot dogs along with those freshly cooked greens. I think his ancestors, those hardy farmers, really loved their ham.
    Sorry to go on so long but this has made me wonder if there is something more to the story than just what you eat. Maybe how you eat matters as much? Could enjoying food or sitting down to meals matter a lot? It seems like it shouldn’t but I have to wonder.

  23. Ozma, I think perhaps the reason they ate so much is because they did a lot of work! If you grow up on a farm, you do a lot more manual labor (esp. back in the day) than the average desk-dwelling city slicker. Pollan’s article talks a lot about food and food quality, but doesn’t really address exercise, which is a huge part of the obesity equation in my opinion.

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