From JOANNE CAMAS; photo by Alia Malley
It can be complicated to simplify things, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the essentials. Michael Pollan’s done just that with his new book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual”. After researching “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” (2006) and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (2008), Pollan came to an important realization: “The deeper I delved into the confused and confusing thicket of nutritional science, sorting through long-running fats versus carb wars, the fiber skirmishes and the raging dietary supplement debates, the simpler the picture gradually became,” he writes in “Food Rules.”
The simple picture, he says, can be distilled into two facts that will lead to a sensible diet: First, the Western diet leads to Western diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. “Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases that can be linked to this diet,” Pollan claims. Second, people throughout the world who eat a range of traditional diets, even those heavy in fats, carbohydrates, or protein, don’t suffer from these diseases. Thankfully, Pollan offers a third fact derived from these two: If we get away from the Western diet, we can see dramatic improvements in our health and reduce the risk of chronic diet-related diseases.
Epicurious spoke with Pollan about “Food Rules” and how its prescription for eating “real food” in moderation and sidestepping the Western diet developed naturally from the author’s mantra in his “In Defense of Food”: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Epicurious: If “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is an eater’s manifesto, did you write “Food Rules” as a guide to putting the manifesto into practice?
Michael Pollan: That’s the basic idea. After reading “In Defense of Food,” several doctors told me, “I’ve got patients I’d like to give the background to, just a list of rules.” People were sending me their own rules, and I set up a Web site where they could post them … There was that repository of wisdom about food out there that we didn’t have. I’ve compiled information from doctors, anthropologists, folklorists, and more.
Epi: Do you have a favorite Food Rule?
MP: It changes, but probably, “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” And this one’s weird because it’s so blunt: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.”
Epi: The Food Rules are very simple though not always easy to act on. Which rule is most difficult for you to follow?
MP: I don’t have much trouble with them, but if I had to name one, probably Number 46, “Stop eating before you’re full.” That’s a challenge for Americans, who’ve been trained to eat till they’re full and finish what’s on their plate.
Epi: A related rule, “Leave something on your plate,” surprised me. Isn’t waste against the principles of ethical eating? Wouldn’t it be better to simply shrink portions to eat less?
MP: It’s a form of self-discipline, instead of your plate dictating when you’re full. I’m talking about a bite or two, not leaving a big pile of food.
Epi: Do you think there’s hope for improving the Western diet, or are we too far gone?
MP: I think there’s hope as we’re starting to recognize the toll this diet takes: One third of the population is now obese; there are soaring rates of Type 2 diabetes. Eating this way is going to bankrupt the country. The same kind of feedback on smoking changed our habits, and the smoking rate has gone down significantly; we’re on course for that kind of change in food.
Epi: Do you worry about the government getting too involved in policy about our food?
MP: There’s always the potential for the government to do it badly, but they are already involved in agricultural policies, school nutrition, and other areas. In fact, a lot of what we’re dealing with are the unintended consequences of government policies such as subsidies that can be changed.
Epi: Are you seeing any changes as a result of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Robert Kenner’s documentary “Food, Inc.”? Are consumers demanding that corn and its by-products not be added to every food, that chicken factories be shut down, for example?
MP: Lots has changed since 2006: Hundreds of products are being reformulated without high-fructose corn syrup, for one thing. Local food is taking off, and the market for pastured meat and milk has grown enormously.
Epi: What would be your last meal?
MP: Hmmm. Roast chicken, preferably pastured, with roasted vegetables, eaten very slowly. That’s probably my favorite dinner. And if there’s ever a time for slow food…
Epi: Who are your food heroes?
MP: Alice Waters, Dan Barber, Joel Salatin, Eliot Coleman, Fred Kirschenmann, Joan Gussow, and Marion Nestle. I’ve learned immense amounts from these people.
Epi: If you could choose four dining companions (besides your family), who would they be?
MP: Barack and Michelle, and we’d talk about some of the issues surrounding food and farming in America. We’d eat salad from the White House garden. I need four people? Well, let’s include Sasha and Malia. Kids have to be in on this conversation, too.
Epi: Do you have another food topic you’re itching to write about?
MP: Yes, I want to write about cooking. My research has convinced me cooking is an important part of the solution. It’s the only way to take back our diet from the big companies.