The key to health: ‘EAT FOOD’

February 4, 2007

At a time when people are more confused than ever about what to eat or not to eat in order to stay healthy, the answer could well be embodied in this exceedingly simple, two-word advice: EAT FOOD.

If this is too brief for you to find helpful, then it might be expanded to: EAT FOOD. NOT TOO MUCH. MOSTLY PLANTS.

If even that is too brief, then go read the entire 24-page essay that comes after this opening line: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

The essay, Unhappy Meals, is by Michael Pollan and is in the January 28 edition of The New York Times Magazine. A friend emailed me a PDF of the essay recently and I found it a fantastic read. If you like copy, email me and I will be happy to forward it to you.

Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemna, which was chosen by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2006. An excellent writer.

His essay traces the events that led to our present state of confusion about what’s good or bad for health, and he ends of with a set of guidelines or “Rules of thumb” for staying healthy, the first of which is: Eat food.

I, too, had been thinking about drawing up a list of principles for healthy eating, and the first item on my list is: Eat natural food. But Michael Pollan has rightly omitted the word natural. Because if it is not natural, it is not food.

Pollan writes:

Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great- great- grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

To the few examples cited by Pollan, one must add, of course, Margarine – and everything else made with hydrogenated fats. Anything containing MSG, aspartame and other food chemicals would have to be excluded as well. These are all not food.So now you see where we are getting at.

And how profound this two-word advice is: Eat food.

The main body of Pollan’s essay discusses how Americans (and the rest of us) have shifted our focus from food to nutrients.

It began in 1977 when US Senator George McGovern and his committee drew up a list of Dietary Goals for the United States. The original document advised consumers to “reduce consumption of red meat and dairy products.”

The red-meat and dairy industries strongly protested, and the committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

It was a subtle change in wording. But it had profound implications. It shifted the focus from food to nutrients. Instead of talking about meat, milk, grains, vegetables, fruits, etc, people started talking about protein, carbohydrates and fats, vitamins and minerals. omega 3 and antioxidants…

This blurred the distinction between different types of food. Notice how the McGovern committee had lumped together “meat, poultry and fish”, which are three very different types of foods?

It also blurred the distinction between natural and processed foods. As long as they contained similar amounts of (known) nutrients – regardless of whether the nutrients were originally present or added later, natural or synthetic – they were all treated as equal.

And so we landed up in a state of utter confusion. To navigate our way out, Pollan offers eight other rules of thumb that provide much food for thought:

  1. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims.
  2. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a)
    unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or
    that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
  3. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
  4. Pay more, eat less.
  5. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  6. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the
  7. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden.
  8. Eat like an omnivore.

There’s lot of sensible advice here. All stemming from the simple advice to EAT FOOD!


  1. Hi Richard,

    Could you send me a copy of the PDF?

    Btw, its not a good idea to link your email directly in the article (in “email me”….)… spambots will very easily grab that address off your webpage and spam you.

  2. OK PDF on the way… and thanks for the advice about emails. I have changed the link to a form on my website.

  3. Nice summary. I found Pollan’s article through Digg last week. It was an excellent read and right on the money. I wrote a bit about my reaction to the piece in my first blog post.

  4. […] no longer great The Mouth Revolution February 12th, 2007 An earlier post about Michael Pollan’s article, Unhappy Meals, got me thinking about this whole idea of REAL […]

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