by on 2016-06-22

Food Rules - An Eater's Manual

Most books go on far too long for the information they contain. Some have useful information, so it’s worth the time to wade through the muck to pick out the gold nuggets of wisdom.

“Food Rules” has useful information, and comes predigested.

It’s also, uncoincidentally, my favorite format of book: much like 37 Signals books or “The Personal MBA”, chapters are super short (usually less than a page long), with the chapter title summarizing exactly what the chapter is about. The chapter has a nice sticky story to give you some justification and a hook to remember it, then you’re off to the next page.

Authors take note: this style of book is much easier to write and much easier to digest. If you care about your readers actually implementing the stuff you’re writing about (and aren’t just trying to write a 300 page CV), write more like this.

The book won’t take you much longer to read than this outline.

Summary

Introduction

  • “For all the scientific and pseudoscientific food baggage we’ve taken on in recent years, we still don’t know what we should be eating.”
  • usually digging to the bottom of an issue like “what should I be eating” it becomes clear that the root issues are complicated, but Pollan’s research on food landed on simple conclusions
  • “science knows a lot less about nutrition than you’d expect…[it’s] a very young science”

Two simple facts no one disputes:

  1. Western diets make you sick (obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and 1/3 of cancer are strongly linked to processed diets with added sugar and fat and low fruits/vegetables). “People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health” (like 70-90% reduced risk improvements; see Pollen’s other book, “In Defense of Food”, for science of why)
  2. There’s not a single ideal human diet (Inuit in Greenland eat mostly seal fat; Central American Indians eat mostly carbs from maize and beans; Masai African tribesmen eat mostly protein from blood, meat, and milk)
  • people want to keep eating Western diets, and food manufacturers want to keep selling them, so they try to figure out the single thing causing the most evil and just make food without that (ex: “fat free”, “sugar free”, dairy, whatever the latest finding says is the real killer)
  • “In Defense of Food” had a really simple conclusion: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
  • this book relies as much on science as on “other sources of wisdom”, like readers, conference audiences, folklorists, anthropologists, doctors, nurses, nutritionists, dietitians, mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers
  • where this advice intersects is probably what you should do (ex: tomatoes with olive oil dissolves the lycopene in the tomatoes so you can digest it better)
  • most of the rules are heuristics to avoid heavily processed foods (“edible foodlike substances”)
  • “taken together, these rules comprise a kind of choral voice of popular food wisdom” (see “The Wisdom of Crowds”)
  • these rules are redundant to maximize stickiness
  • they’re more guidelines than rules
  • “think of these food policies as little algorithms designed to simplify your eating life. Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you”

Part 1: What should I eat? (eat food)

filters to tell real food from edible foodlike substances

tl;dr: don’t eat food made in a factory because it kills you faster than eating whole foods your grandmother and animals eat

  1. Eat food: don’t eat corn/soy based “highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists”
  2. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food: (ex: not gogurt)
  3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry: if you wouldn’t cook with them yourself, why let others do it for you? (ex: ethoxylated diglycerides, cellulose, xanthan gum, calcium propionate, ammonium sulfate):
  4. Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup: “a reliable marker for food that has been highly processed”, but “sugar is sugar” so you gain no information from a label of “no HFCS”
  5. Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients: types include barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, dextrin, dextrose, fructo-oligosaccharides, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, invert sugar, polydextrose, sucrose, turbinado sugar, organic sugar, etc.
  6. Avoid foods products that contain more than five ingredients: though short ingredients isn’t necessarily good (ex: icecream); doesn’t apply to recipies
  7. Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce
  8. Avoid food products that make health claims: ex: margarine turned out to have transfats that induced heart attacks; actual good food doesn’t need to make claims
  9. Avoid food products with the wordoid “lite” or the terms “low-fat” or “nonfat” in their names: removing fat doesn’t make food nonfattening; low fat often means high sugar and carbohydrate, which is more fattening
  10. Avoid foods pretending to be something they aren’t: (ex: margarine, soy-based mock meats, artificial sweeteners, fake fats and starches)
  11. Avoid foods you see advertised on television: you’ll automatically be avoiding edible food-like substances; sometimes whole foods advertise too, but that’s an exception
  12. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle: processed food products dominate the center aisles of the store, while fresh foods (produce, meat, fish, dairy) line the walls
  13. Eat only foods that will eventually rot: the more processed a food is, the longer the shelf life, and the less nutritious it typically is (ex: omega-3 fatty acids go rancid quickly, so are removed, but they’re super good for you)
  14. Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature
  15. Get out of the supermarket whenever you can: shop at farmers’ markets
  16. Buy your snacks at the farmers’ market: eat fresh/dried fruits and nuts instead of chips and sweets
  17. Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans: corporations cook with too much salt, fat, sugar, preservatives, colorings, and other biological novelties; restaurants probably do too
  18. Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap
  19. If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t
  20. It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car
  21. It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language: (ex: Big Mac, Cheetos, Pringles)

Part 2: What kind of food should I eat? (mostly plants)

how to choose among real foods

  1. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves: there’s a lot of benefits to eating leaves we don’t understand yet, but people live longer when they do
  2. Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food: eating too much (~half a pound/day) meat (especially red meat) kills you faster (we’re not sure why)
  3. Eating what stands on one leg [mushrooms and plant foods] is better than eating what stands on two legs [fowl], which is better than eating what stands on four legs [cows, pigs, and other mammals]: Chinese proverb; also fish (probably equal to fowl?)
  4. Eat your colors: “the colors of many vegetables reflect the different antioxidant phytochemicals they contain - anthocycanins, polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids”
  5. Drink the spinach water: it’s rich in vitamins and other plant chemicals (cg: except Kale has a toxin that can be steamed out so maybe not for kale?); make soup with it
  6. Eat animals that have themselves eaten well: the industrial food chain feeds corn to ruminants that evolved to eat grass, which makes less healthy animal products; pay more for wild game
  7. If you have the space, buy a freezer: you can buy a quarter of a steer or a whole hog if you know they’ve been healthily pastured; you can also buy fruits and vegetables at the height of season and store them for later; freezing does not significantly diminish the nutritional value of produce
  8. Eat like an omnivore: most things at the supermarket are the same handful of species; branch out whenever you can to cover your nutritional bases (cg: wild chimps eat like 100 different fruit species; the typical store has <20)
  9. Eat well-grown food from healthy soil: soils rich in organic matter make better food; local is better because nutritional quality deteriorates with time
  10. Eat wild foods when you can: two of the most nutritious plants in the world - lamb’s quarters and purslane - are weeds; wild greens have higher phytochemicals than domesticated cousins because they have to be their own pesticides; we breed crops for sweetness, but defensive compounds (cg: and antioxidants!) are bitter; we breed for shelf life, but omega-3 has short shelf life
  11. Don’t overlook the oily little fishes: “wild wfish are among the healthiest things you can eat”; fish on the top of the marine food chain (tuna, swordfish, shark) are endangered and concentrate toxins (like mercury), so eat mackerel, sardines, and anchovies
  12. Eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi: (ex: yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, sourdough bread); bacteria produce B12 - which isn’t made by plants - and the bacteria can live in your gut which helps with digestion and immune response (allergies and inflammation)
  13. Sweeten and salt your food yourself: food prepared by corporations has too much
  14. Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature: eating the fruit rather than just the juice doesn’t fill you as fast, so you eat too much; never drink soda
  15. Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk: they’re highly processed
  16. The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead: popular phrase among Jewish and Italian grandmothers; whole grains have fiber, b vitamins, healthy fats; white bread is “a shot of glucose”, which are inflammatory and wreak havoc on our insulin metabolism
  17. Favor the kinds of oils and grains that have gtraditionally been stone-ground: modern oil extraction is chemical and has too many additives; traditional doesn’t? (ex: whole grains, olive oil, sesame oil, palm fruit oil, peanut oil)
  18. Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself: eating treats infrequently isn’t terrible, so moderate your intake by making them yourself because it’s harder and you won’t do it as often (ex: fried chicken, french fries, chips, cakes, pies, ice cream)
  19. Be the kind of person who takes supplements - then skip the supplements: people who take them are more health conscious (which is good), but most supplements don’t appear effective (exceptions: specific nutrient deficiency, if you’re older than 50, fish oil if you don’t eat fish)
  20. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks: any traditional diet is healthy, because if it wasn’t those cultures would be dead; look at how they eat (ex: French paradox of eating saturated fat and white flour, but they eat small portions eaten at leisurely communal meals with no second helpings or snacking); look at combinations (ex: Latin America always has corn with lime and beans; lime makes niacin available and corn with beans is a complete amino acid profile; else you’ll get pellagra)
  21. Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism: diets are the products of evolution, so new creations should be thought of as mutations - some of them are good, but it’s random so most will be bad (ex: soy protein isolate, soy isoflavones, textured vegetable protein, hydrogenated soy oils)
  22. Have a glass of wine with dinner: people who drink any alcohol moderately live longer; polyphenols (mostly resveratrol) in red wine might be especially good; backed by science and culture if you drink a little every day (<2 glasses for men, <1 for women)

Part 3: How should I eat? (not too much)

how to moderate what you’re eating and enjoy it more

  1. Pay more, eat less: Americans optimize food for price (we only spend 10% of income on food, less than anyone else), but better food costs more; if you spend more for better food you’ll probably eat less too; “Better to pay the grocer than the doctor”
  2. …Eat less: caloric restriction slows aging
  3. Stop eating before you’re full: lots of cultures say to stop between 67-80% of full (Japan: “hara hachi bu” at 80%; Ayurvedic tradition in India: 75%; Chinese: 70%; Muhammad: 1/3 food 1/3 liquid 1/3 air; German: “tie off the sack before it’s completely full”; US: “leave the table a little hungry”; French: instead of “I’m full” they say “Je n’ai plus faim”, or “I have no more hunger”)
  4. Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored: food is a costly antidepressant
  5. Consult your gut: it takes twenty minutes for your gut to tell your brain it’s full, so take at least that long to eat
  6. Eat slowly: the slower you eat, the more of an experience you’ll have, the less food you’ll need to feel satisfied (cg: mindful eating!); Indian proverb: “Drink your food, chew your drink”; put down your fork between bites
  7. The banquet is in the first bite: law of diminishing marginal utility
  8. Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it
  9. Buy smaller plates and glasses: a ten-inch plate causes people to eat 22% less than a 12-inch plate
  10. Serve a proper portion and don’t go back for seconds: don’t eat more food than you could hold in your hands
  11. Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper: eating close to bedtime might be bad (elevated triglycerides); front-loading calories might cause you to eat less because you won’t be as hungry
  12. Eat meals: mindless snacking makes you eat more (~500 calories/day more than in 1980s)
  13. Limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods: if you’re going to snack, eat food
  14. **Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does: gas stations usually don’t sell food
  15. Do all your eating at a table: multitasking makes it harder to eat mindfully
  16. Try not to eat alone: you’ll take longer to eat and likely won’t over stuff yourself when others are watching (cg: I feel like I eat more around other people)
  17. Treat treats as treats: treats are life’s great pleasures as long as you don’t have it every day (ex: fried chicken, french fries, pastries, ice cream); S-policy: no snacks, seconds, or sweets except on days that start with S
  18. Leave something on your plate: older than healthier tradition than “clean your plate!”; “better to go to waste than to waist”
  19. Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don’t: will help develop a better relationship with food to see how it’s grown, it’s a good hobby to spend time outside, it’s the best local/organic source of food you can get, and it saves money ($70 vegetable garden investment yields $600 of food)
  20. Cook: letting other people make your food means losing control of your eating life
  21. Break the rules once in a while: don’t beat yourself up over breaking a rule every now and then - remember nobody knows anyway; “All things in moderation, including moderation”