Good Reads, Testimonials

Ten Commandments for Eating Well

If you are interested in a healthy diet, but have grown wary of the ever-changing advice of diet fads, and you appreciate an understanding of the food offered by the contemporary American industrial food system, then I heartily recommend a serving of Michael Pollan.

If you can afford a half hour for a healthy intellectual treat, then check out his article, “Unhappy Meals”, in the New York Times Magazine. If you prefer to indulge his prose for a longer, fuller understanding of the special challenges of America’s food culture, then you should definitely check out his novel, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

For the less patient, or for those like me who like a handy reference, I’ll share a stripped-down version of his advice on eating well, adapted from the “Unhappy Meals” article, which I shall call:

Michael Pollan’s Ten Commandments of Eating Well

1. Eat food. Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. there are many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid food products bearing health claims. Margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was healthier than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellog’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.)

3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful, but all are reliable markers of foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. You will find fresh whole foods picked at the peak of their nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more. Americans spend, on average, less than 10% of their income on food, down from 24% in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. Better food often costs more, because it has been raised with more care, without government subsidy and with less environmental impact. Those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils will contribute not only to your health but also to the health of those people who grow it and live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

6. “Eat less” is the most unwelcome advice of all. But the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. “Calorie restriction” has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers believe it offers the strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Once one of the longest-lived people, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called “Hara Hachi Bu”: eat until you are 80% full. Quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied.

7. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. They’re really good for you. By eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less “energy dense” than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians and near vegetarians (“flexitarians”) are healthier than carnivores. Thomas Jefferson advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

8. Let culture be your guide; Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. Pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as what it eats. It may not be the nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals–and the serious pleasure taken in eating.

9. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the values and culture of fast food: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than any nutrition journal.

10. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals, and healthier people. Your health isn’t bordered by your body and what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.

Anyway, remember that this is a heavily-edited adaptation from the magazine article. If not everything really makes sense, you may want to read his work for yourself, or engage someone who has.

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