Monday, February 08, 2010

Michael Pollan and The Veggie Queen Agree on Vegtables and Cooking

The other day I went to see my former schoolmate, Michael Pollan, speak about his new book Food Rules. I find this ironic because in junior high and high school, I was the one who cared about healthy food, eschewing the garbage served in the cafeteria and bringing my own food to eat. I went on to get a graduate degree in nutrition and I think that Michael got a degree in English, communication or journalism. Michael Pollan became a famous writer. I became a writer with much less status but still with something to say.

Michael (also referred to as Pollan) will tell you that he’s not an authority on food. And this is the part that bothers me just a bit. For more than twenty years, I have been teaching people about eating healthier by eating “real” foods. I’d also tell them that they didn’t need a Registered Dietitian to tell them that the foods at the top of the Food Pyramid – cake, cookies, soda, ice cream, salad dressing and the like- weren’t good for them. Obviously, I was correct – they needed a journalist/writer to do that.

Michael’s new book Food Rules follows the format of his previous book In Defense of Food, going with his haiku, “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” This is where we come into agreement. In fact, one of the first statements I heard at the talk (I took 9 pages of notes in just over 30 minutes) was, “The healthiest food is in the produce department.” We agree that eating vegetables is an essential part of eating well.

I will now briefly run through some of the rest of my notes that might be of interest to you. My post title may be misleading because Michael and I agree on much more than just vegetables and cooking. In fact, we encourage people to follow many of the same food rules.

For a little background, Pollan shared that his interest in food grew out of his garden trials and tribulations. He was pleased to be at The Seed Bank and noted that the "real economy" is in the seeds, and that you cannot bail out the "real economy". In fact, we need to grow it. I agree wholeheartedly.

Pollan wonders why Americans are so confused about feeding themselves. And then when he takes a trip to the supermarket, he understands. There are lots of "food like substances" and far less "real food".

He suggests avoiding food that has health claims. He says that the cereal boxes contain the most flagrant examples of misleading claims, such as cereal that improves your immunity, that will improve your child's focus, that will protect you from a heart attack, yet this cereal contains 43% sugar by weight, and so on. And did you know that Froot Loops are better for you than donuts (as if donuts were the gold standard)?

He says that the yogurt aisle isn't much better.

He reminded the audience that food is not biochemistry. You do not need to know what an antioxidant is to eat well. AMEN. I couldn't agree more. You do not need a dietitian to tell you that potato chips are not healthy food. But please, Michael, I beg you to accept the fact that some dietitians are into food and what it can do, and RDs are not the enemy.

Here are the myths that Pollan wants to rebuke:
  1. Foods are the sum of their nutrient parts. Nutrients matter.

  2. You need experts to tell you how to eat. He likens this process to religion - and discusses the relationship of food and health.

  3. Nutritionism divides foods into good and evil nutrients which has led us to where we are now in terms of the obesity epidemic.

  4. The whole point of eating is health. Food and eating are on the ruining your health or saving your life spectrum. But what about other perfectly legitimate reasons for eating such as pleasure, community, cultural identity?

Pollan said, "I don't think that science knows enough to tell us what to eat." Agreed -- nutrition science is young. That's why I prefer to follow Mother Nature's need. He likens where we are to surgery in the year 1650 -- "it's interesting to watch but you don't want them to work on you yet," he says.

He suggests that if we tune into nature more and look at our past, we can likely figure out a better way to eat.

People who eat an incredible range of traditional diets around the world do not suffer from the chronic modern diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, that are rampant in the US population who eat the SAD (Standard American Diet) of mostly processed food.

And we can roll back the effects of the SAD diet by changing how you eat.

Here are some of the 64 rules in Food Rules that Pollan shared. Remember:

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

Avoid foods that make health claims, need a package and a big marketing budget.

The healthiest food is in the produce section. AT this point in the talk, I am smiling wide and patting myself on the back (at least figuratively). He said, "Don't be fooled by the silence of the yams, that they won't contribute to your health."

Don't buy any foods that you see advertised on television. (Big marketing budget at work.)

If it came from a plant, eat it. Woo hoo. Now I am internally cheering.

If it grew in a plant or a laboratory, avoid it. (Please say no to Monsanto as they destroy our food system.)

Rule Number 63: Plant a garden. Make it a large vegetable garden if you have the space, or a window box garden if you don't have room. Get away from fast, cheap and easy food. You'll eat what your garden yields. And you'll save money.(Oh, yes.) A recent study showed that a $70 investment in a garden yields about $700 worth of food. And it will put you in touch with the earth.

Rule Number 64: COOK. It's the easiest way to take back control of your diet and to know where your food comes from. (At this point, I was floating, and thinking that this talk was too good to be true except it could have been me up there wowing the crowd.)

While I wish that it were me or some other Registered Dietitian, with the ability to see beyond nutrients and look at food for the goodness that it provides, doing the bidding and getting people interested in their food, I salute Michael Pollan for all that he’s done to help people wake people up to the state of our food and what we eat. I hope that all that he's doing will make a big difference. It already has for me.


The Veggie Queen said...

In my post I forgot to thank Anna Chan of who helped me get connected with The Seed Bank so that I could get my ticket in to Michael Pollan's event. I love when strangers come forth to help -- happens to me a lot. And as Anna said, "I figure that if I do that for someone, someone else will do it for me." Proven here.

Wei-Shin and Jason said...

Totally agree with the rules you point out. The "rules" have been known in nutrition circles for years now, but he's able to bring it to a mass audience in digestible form - short bursts of truths like the sugar highs of limited attention span.

I'd like to add that learning to cook foods from non-western cultures would likely be fun too.

Tracy Reifkind said...


I'll be sharing this post and directing my blog readers to this soon. Excellent, although I think rules 63 and 64 are backwards.

Learn to cook first, and the garden will follow. In the mean time support your local, hardworking growers via Farmers Markets if you can.

The Veggie Queen said...


Thanks for sharing this post and for your comments. I agree that the order of 63 and 64 ought to be reversed but it's such an easy read that people can get through all the rules.

You khow that my goal is to get people cooking -- and not just standard American fare. Often easier to cook healthier foods from other cultures.

Keep up the good work.

Wei-Shin and Jason -- thanks for your comment.

d said...

Pollan is wonderfull one of my heros..liked to have seen him..btw if you ever get a chance to go to the spring or fall festivals at BAKER it they are awsome..educational..and a lot of fun too