Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food has condensed the wisdom of his previous works into a new book of simple rules to help you more successfully navigate our social and cultural food biases.
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual is nothing short of a full frontal attack on the belief that the Western Diet is good for your health.
With wit and wisdom, he talks about what the simple food rules for healthy people and the planet should be, from packaging to labeling to contents, in this video.
So what does low-fat really mean when you're looking for a good yogurt to buy?
And how do you tell what's truly healthy and what isn't – and what is just advertising?
Frequent readers of my newsletter are no strangers to the notion that when a culture moves away from a traditional natural diet, diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer inevitably seem to follow.
For review, I will list some characteristics that I consider typical of the Western diet:
- unbalanced intake of omega 6 fats
- highly processed foods
- increased calorie intake
- grain fed meats instead of organic grass-fed meats
- junk foods
- increased sugar and salt consumption
- sedentary lifestyle
When reading over this list of traits, is it any wonder that 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese?
Who Benefits from the Western Diet?
It doesn't take much of a leap of the imagination to come to the conclusion that the typical Western diet really only benefits the large companies producing the cheap food.
This is not a new idea. But Michael Pollan raises several interesting points about why you are led to believe that the foods in their supermarkets are "healthy", when the outcome of eating these foods seems to indicate otherwise.
Pollan calls our Western food ideology "nutritionalism", which he defines as believing that nutrients are the most important component of foods, and since nutrients are invisible and not well understood, we need "experts" to tell us what foods are good.
Pollan argues that once we accept this ideology that "experts" need to tell us what is healthy, instead of eating whole, natural foods as they are found in nature, we are destined to believe everything the food manufactures tell us.
Why is this bad?
Because the largest employer of the "experts" is the food industry itself!
Today it seems like every product on your supermarket's shelf "promotes good health" -- you see the claims on the cereal boxes full of processed grains and sugar, on the low-fat desserts and snack foods filled with sugar, and on countless other products, all touting one so-called health benefit "discovered" by the "experts".
Why You Need to be Skeptical of Health Claims
The problem is, food manufacturers are only telling you one side of the story!
The food manufacturers will tell you one ingredient in the product is "healthy", while ignoring all the other ingredients that are not! For instance, according to Pollan, one yogurt that "experts" claim to be good for your digestive health has ounce for ounce more sugar than Coca-Cola!
Study after study links sugar to a host of negative health consequences, but you'll never find this information on the front of the yogurt packaging.
When weighing the benefits versus the drawbacks of any food, Michael Pollan has several suggestions to help you choose foods that are truly good for your health:
- don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food
- avoid foods that never rot
- eat foods as close to their natural state as possible
The Truth about Nutrition
What do scientists really know about nutrition and nutrients?
Not very much, it turns out.
According to Pollan, our current understanding of nutrients is about as advanced as the art of surgery was in the Middle Ages. He argues, and rightfully so in my opinion, that taking individual nutritional components out of foods and synthesizing them does not always lead to healthful results.
Rather than rely on the "experts", who in many cases are just paid shrills for the food industry, a much better alternative is to eat a balanced diet filled with whole, natural foods, and avoid whenever possible the pitfalls of the Western diet.
In other words, eat a carrot, not a beta carotene pill!
Your Best Defense for Good Health
Eating a balanced diet full of whole, natural foods is still the best way to promote good health. This is backed up by traditional societies across the world eating only food sources found close to nature, who show none of the characteristic diseases found in societies eating the Western diet.
By the way, it's a myth that eating healthy, natural foods is prohibitively expensive. In fact, eating a healthy, organic diet doesn't have to cost much more than a diet filled with processed foods and junk foods.
For tips on which foods you don't need to buy organic and which ones are worth the extra cost, please see this previous article.
It's true that shopping at trendy food stores can easily cost your whole paycheck, but taking advantage of sales on healthy items and clipping coupons, as well as looking for fresh, locally grown foods at a farmers' market or a CSA, can all add up to big savings on your food bill.
Prepared foods can cost up to double the unprepared versions, so looking buying whole foods that you can make into meals, rather than prepared foods in a box, can actually lead to great savings. And if you plan your meals ahead of time, you can get exactly what you need, when you need it, and prevent yourself from buying too much and wasting some of it when it goes bad.
If you still don't buy the notion that your family can afford to eat healthily, take a look at this breakdown of how your family can eat organic foods for the same price as processed ones.
And of course, there are even bigger, indirect savings that come with eating whole foods.
Consider, for example, the difference in medical care needs between those who eat whole foods, and those who eat processed and factory farmed foods containing MSG, carcinogens or nerve poisons such as pesticides, trans-fats, massive amounts of sugar, and artificial synthetic sweeteners.
What little you might save right now by buying processed food, you'll end up spending many times over when your health fails.