Book Club Discussion: Food Rules by Michael Pollan

Eating is personal.

If you ask 100 people what their healthy eating philosophy is, you’ll likely get 100 different answers. I happen to think that’s a good thing. We know a lot more today about nutrition than we did 100 years ago, but we still don’t know everything. One thing we do know is that many different eating styles can provide adequate nutrition. There is no such thing as the perfect diet. Consider this for a moment. If you look at cultures across the globe, you’ll notice that each has vastly different foods available within their geographic regions. They eat what grows there. Then consider our industrialized culture where we can have any food we want shipped to our doorstep within 24 hours. Now enter complexity. Eating is a basic human need that should be simple, but over time it has become quite complicated.

What I liked most about Pollan’s Food Rules is that he eliminated the marketing noise and brought eating back to the basics. Instead of making lists of good and bad foods like many popular diet books on the market, he created simple, memorable principles for choosing healthy food.

One book club member adopted a single rule and implemented it for a week. By using meat as a side dish rather than a main, she reported that she felt more energetic. It’s small successes like this that often lead to other experiments. It’s what gives us momentum for real change.

The idea that food is more than the sum of its parts is a concept that really resonated with me. As we begin to understand the science of how food actually nourishes us, we have adopted a somewhat reductive stance on nutrition. And that’s not a good thing. I particularly liked Pollan’s rule to be the kind of person who takes supplements – then skip the supplements. We may know a little more today than we did yesterday, but still not enough, in my opinion, to be replacing food with synthetic look-a-likes.

The general consensus of the book was that it was nice to have something concise, simple and easy to remember in many settings. Most of the rules are catchy, almost like little jingles, that can be used like a checklist. Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself saying, “Would my grandmother recognize this as food?” while shopping at the grocery store next time.

But were there any rules that members did NOT agree with? Surprisingly, not really. While we didn’t feel any were wrong per se, there was a shared sentiment that some rules may not be practical or even necessary. For example, we agreed that buying snacks at the farmers’ market was a good thing, but decided that you can also find healthy snacks at the grocery store. And after all, how many cities have farmers’ markets that are open year-round?

Next, we reflected on our society’s reliance on convenience foods. How have we come to a place where convenience foods are more common than homemade meals? Some answers included the following:

1. Not feeling appreciated. Preparing meals from scratch takes time and planning. But not everyone understands how laborious it can be. Kids tend to like what they see their friends eat – and those foods are often highly marketed conveneince foods that are hard to compete with. We talked about how role modeling is so important and how taking time to prepare homemade meals sends a message to kids that our personal care is a priority too. It models healthy eating as a self-care practice. Despite those positive benefits, it can still be hard to spend the extra time and money when the effort isn’t appreciated.

2. Placing career demands ahead of health. Success is often defined by career advancement – working long hours, working through lunch, working while on vacation, etc. Over the years, I’ve heard several people admit they do this because they worry about job security. “If everyone else puts in long hours and I don’t, what will my boss think?” They worry that setting boundaries will affect their bonus or chances for a promotion. One member recalled working in the tech industry, where most people ate lunch at their desks while still plugging away on their computers. She noticed that a few people left their desks at lunch and when asked why, they said that it wasn’t healthy. She always remembered that.

3. Being entrenched in convenience. We like things that are quick and easy because we have become busy people. (Why are we so busy anyway?) While many cultures value the experience of sharing a meal beyond its ability to nourish, industrialized cultures often view food as fuel and as a means of accomplishing other things in life. We talked about how as we climb Maslow’s hierarchy, the more basic needs often fall to the wayside as we pursue the higher needs. We fail to realize that foundations eventually crumble when they aren’t well cared for.

Our final topic of discussion was that we have progressively become more disconnected from our food sources. Most of us no longer grow our own food. In fact, most of us aren’t even getting our hands dirty at all. We buy most of our food at local grocery stores or restaurants without even knowing its source. We wondered what it would take to empower more people to grow at least some of their own food. At what point will we say, “I’m worth it!” and value food they way our grandparents did? Some believe that it will take negative consequence related to our convenient lifestyles, like deteriorating health, to promote change. Others believe it will require a large-scale cultural shift. Changing social norms absolutely takes time, but I will remain the optimist.

What would it take for you to re-connect with real food?