Monday, September 27, 2010

Food Rules

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual

(Could save your health, but destroy the "Nutritional Industrial Complex" - review)
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual

This is a (very) short, handy, easy read, full of common-sensical, practical advice on eating and food, neatly itemized into 64 rules, organized into three categories. The rules are meant for food eaters, for humans. These "rules" will however be anathema to corporations who sell "edible foodlike substances" (author's phrase). This would include corporations like Pepsico, Cola Cola, Dr Pepper, Kellog's, Burger King, Jack In The Box, Wendy's, McDonald's... the list is endless. Corporations who take food and other substances, natural and artificial, synthesized and chemical, mix the two to create something that while edible, is certainly not food as we humans have understood for centuries. Food, rather than being something found in nature that humans have used to feed themselves, has now become a substance that is manufactured by corporations, advertised to the gullible, and distributed to markets from where it is sold to people. A means to an end. The end being profits. Not health. Not well-being.

Though possibly a lot of the content is derived from his earlier book(s). The short (and long) of this book is that processed food is bad for you. No question. Processed food is manufactured to be advertised, to last long, be cheap to make, expensive to sell, to be profitable, and to benefit everyone except you. Reverting to a mostly plant-based diet is good for you. A little meat is not bad. Fishes the most, birds next, cows and other four-legged animals the least. Treats are ok as long as you treat them as treats. Snacking between meals is not good. Seconds are not good. And so on.

This book is a short compendium of 64 rules, broken out into three sections, "What Should I Eat" - with 21 rules, "What kind of food should I eat" - with 23 rules, and "How should I eat" - with the remainder of the remaining 22 rules.

"What this suggests is that there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets. Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us are now eating. What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!" [page 8]

The reason behind this new diet is not difficult to fathom:
"The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes. The healthcare industry makes more money treating chronic diseases (which account for three quarters of the $2 trillion plus we spend each year on health care in this country) than preventing them. ... But for the Nutritional Industrial Complex this uncertainty is not necessarily a problem, because confusion too is good business. The nutrition experts become indispensable; the food manufacturers can re-engineer their products (and health claims) to reflect the latest findings..." [page 8]

"Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed t get us to buy and eat more by pushing our evolutionary buttons - our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt. These tastes are difficult to find in nature and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that food processing induces us to consume much more of these rarities than is good for us." [page 13]

"The food scientists' chemistry set is designed to extend shelf life, make old food look fresher an more appetizing than it really is ,and get you to eat more." [page 14]
Some of the rules are:
Part 1 - What Should I Eat?
  • Avoid foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.
  • Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
  • Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
  • It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car (a not so subtle dig at drive-through fast-food outlets)
  • It's not food if it is called by the same name in every language (again, a dig at fast-food products like 'McBurger', 'Big Whopper' etc...)
Part II - What kind of food should I eat
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves ('chutney' for one :-)
  • Don't overlook oily little fishes
  • Eat your colors
  • Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk (none of the garbage that's advertised on television: like "chocos" for example)
  • Eat all the junk you want as long as you cook it yourself
Part III - What Should I Eat" - How should I eat
  • - ... Eat less
  • - Eat slowly
  • - Serve a proper portion and don't go back for seconds
  • - "Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper."
  • - Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.
  • - Cook
Now, the book is really short. 112 pages. Even less once you take out the index, cover pages, and so on. Possibly less than 80 pages. Much of it is supposedly available in the author's earlier works (In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals). It is priced at $11. And that is probably expensive, for the content and originality. You can buy it from for $4.49, or for $5.48 from Wal-Mart. These represent close to a 50% discount off the list price of the book. At $5 and change it's a bargain, I would submit, even accounting for the fact that much in it is supposedly derived. I say "supposedly" because I have not read any of Michael Pollan's earlier books, ,yet. The other thing going for the book, even despite its size and list price, is the fact that it is really very easy to refer to the book. All you do is flip to a page, any page, and there is advice, pithy and pointed. There is value in that. I would like to read the more detailed, more researched, more argued books like The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, or In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, or The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, but that is not to deny this book's place on your bookshelf.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.