At this month’s Living Upp Book Club meeting, we discussed Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual*. There’s no doubt about it, eating is personal. If you ask 100 people what their self-imposed food rules are, you’ll likely get 100 different answers. But that’s probably a good thing. How we choose to nourish our bodies depends on a number of factors, including our individual beliefs, health needs, and flavor preferences. During our group’s discussion we reviewed a number of topics related to the topic of healthy eating.
While it’s true that we know a lot more today about nutrition than we did 100 years ago, there’s still a lot we don’t understand. For example, phytochemicals, the plant chemicals that also provide human health benefits, are still a bit of a mysterious in terms of how they interact with one another. Likewise, the human gut microbiome, still in its infancy from a research standpoint, has only called up more questions about how the bacteria influence everything form gene expression to weight regulation.
But one thing we do know is that many different eating styles can provide adequate nutrition. There’s no such thing as a perfect diet. Consider this for a moment: if you look at different healthy cultures around the globe, you’ll notice that their eating styles are closely tied to the foods that are available within their geographic region.
Supplement use has grown substantially in the U.S. in recent years, but breaking foods down into their individual nutrients and then repackaging them into pills and powders is a slippery slope, especially if they are used as a replacement for nutrient-dense foods. Pollan’s observation that food is more than the sum of its parts is a concept that really resonated with me as a registered dietitian.
While supplement advocates often point to the decline in nutrients we’ve seen in recent years, it’s important to remember that we can’t manufacture what we don’t yet fully understand. When we rely on synthetic products rather than whole foods, we may be opening ourselves up for nutrient deficiencies we didn’t even know existed. Pollan’s rule to “be the kind of person who takes supplements – then skip the supplements” makes a lot of sense to me.
The general consensus of the group was that the book offers 64 concise and easy to remember food rules. There weren’t really any rules that members didn’t agree with, but we acknowledged that some rules may not be practical, or even necessary. For example, we agreed that buying snacks at a farmers’ market is a good idea, but not many cities have farmers’ markets that operate year-round.
We then turned our discussion to convenience foods and considered this question: Why does it seem like processed, convenience foods have replaced homemade meals?
The following were some possible factors we identified:
1. Not feeling appreciated. Preparing meals from scratch takes time and planning, but not everyone understands how laborious meal-prep can be. Kids like what they see their friends eat, and highly marketed convenience foods are hard to compete with. We talked about how role modeling is important and how taking time to prepare homemade meals sends a message to kids that our personal care is a priority too. Modeling healthy eating might even be considered an act of self-care, since it impacts the entire family unit. Despite those positive benefits that come with preparing homemade meals, it can still be difficult to invest the extra time and money when the effort isn’t appreciated.
2. Placing career demands ahead of health. Our 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 as they continued to plug away on their computers.
3. Being addicted to convenience. We like things that are quick and easy because we’ve grown so used to being in a state of overfunctioning. We’re busy. We’re over-scheduled. And we’re exhausted. By the time we arrive home after an intense day of work and/or long commute, preparing a meal is the last thing we want to do. Convenience foods become the default because they don’t require much thought.
Our final topic of discussion focused on the fact that, as a culture, we’ve become more and more disconnected from our food sources. Very few Americans grow their own food, and instead rely on local supermarkets and restaurants. We wondered what it would take to empower more people to shift away from packaged, convenience foods and move back to preparing meals using real food. Some in the group believed it would take a dramatic decline in health to move people away from convenience foods, and some thought it would take major political reform.
One of the things I liked most about Pollan’s book is that he was able to sift through the marketing noise and bring 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 foods.
As a group, we agreed this was one of the best food rules: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
As you consider your own food rules, keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a perfect diet, and focus on creating a personal eating style that reflects your unique needs, beliefs and preferences.
If you’re looking for additional support and accountability to reach your health goals, join us in the Lifestyle Design Studio.
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