Last week, when I wrote about commonsense detoxing, I linked to Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” as it’s a good guide to setting food goals. It’s a very quick read, with 64 simple, concise suggestions for anyone trying to set personal policies about food that might make the many eating decisions we face every day less complicated. For example, maybe it would be a lot easier to pass on a donut at work because of your policy against certain snacks if you know you’ll get to have a homemade brownie later (“39. Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.”).
Much of “Food Rules” is drawn from Pollan’s earlier book, “In Defense of Food,” which is a lengthier justification for making thoughtful choices about food, without getting too bogged down by details. In it, Pollan argues that food cannot be reduced to its nutritional components without losing something in the process—that even while we learn more about the qualities that make food healthy, there is still much that we have yet to discover. While research continues and we are faced with the battle for a place in our shopping carts between nature and processed food, he suggests that the safe course is to trust what has been serving humans for millennia: eating real food.
This message warrants frequent revisiting—especially during this season, when so many of us are focused on starting off the year by finding meaningful ways to make lasting changes for a healthier life. Happily, if you haven’t had a chance to read Pollan’s book, you now have a window of opportunity to watch a documentary that is based on the book, which recently aired on PBS and will be available for free streaming until the end of this month.
It’s a fascinating documentary and hits on a huge variety of topics, like how to get kids to like vegetables, ways steer middle schoolers to eating healthy food, the psychology of limiting portion sizes, and why the French can get away with consuming amounts of fatty foods and wine that would (and do) make Americans fat. Take it in small doses if you have to, but do watch the whole thing. It took me three days to get through the two hours, as there is a lot to take in (and I was pleased that Pollan included some discussion of topics he’s been covering more recently, like the emerging science of the microbiome).
Tucked near the beginning of the video (starting at 23:50) is one of the most compelling arguments I’ve found for eating simple food, prepared at home. The argument is that, at the moment, humans are unable to engineer food that is as good for us as what nature makes. To illustrate this fact, Pollan looks at the history of mother’s milk, which contains everything that an infant needs to stay alive. Our efforts at creating an infant formula that is as good as mother’s milk have been getting closer to the mark, but there’s no doubt that we continue to fall short in ways that we’re only just discovering.
Scientists are still unraveling a mystery over why mother’s milk contains material (oligosaccharides) that is indigestible by the baby who eats it. This food is being manufactured by a mother’s body specifically for feeding an infant, so why would the third most abundant component of that food be seemingly useless to the one who consumes it? Scientists have discovered that though oligosaccharides go right through the child’s system without being absorbed, they are, in fact, digested by the bacteria that live in the baby’s large intestine, which in turn protect the baby from disease. Without knowing about this process, there is no way we could know to make formula that can mimic it.
This is just one example that shows that we just aren’t as good as nature is at creating healthy food (how many other mysteries are at work in our food to which we continue to be oblivious?). Despite whatever claims you might find on a box of breakfast cereal, protein shake, or vitamin supplement juice, chances are the fruits, vegetables, and other offerings filling the baskets at the farmers market or grocery produce section are going to be better at feeding your body than any potions, powders, or processed provisions you might find in the inner aisles or freezer section of the supermarket—or at a chain restaurant, fast food joint, or gas station.
And if that doesn’t convince you, there are plenty of others out there sharing the same message. Marion Nestle, author of the book “What To Eat” (which was a crucial resource for me in my personal food journey), just co-wrote some dietary guidelines with six easy steps for eating more healthily. Columnist and cookbook author Jane Brody also weighed in recently with an article about cooking with children, and The Atlantic riffed off of both the Pollan documentary and the latest issue of Bon Appétit magazine to discuss “healthy-ish” eating and why abstinence is a poor strategy for getting healthy. One thing that all of these writers get at is implicitly stated in the latter article, which is that the key to a healthy lifestyle that won’t feel like a diet is to eat simply and well, which “starts at home with the simple act of cooking.” Physician John Schumann delivers a similar message in “Keep Things Simple For A Healthy, Long Life.”
Given the simplicity of the proposal, surely it’s worth a try.
Alice O'Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn't really learn to cook until midlife. When she's not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, notNooga.com or its employees.