Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Food Rules by Michael Pollan

Hello dear readers, Tom is posting something today for a change. I will be back later this week with a few Thanksgiving recipes for you! -Ali :)

I was asked to do a book review of the new illustrated version of Food Rules by Michael Pollan. What an honor! I have truly appreciated all of the thought provoking pages of Botany of Desire, and my personal favorite for getting a nutrition debate rolling, In Defense of Food. Ah, how simple it was for us to leave In Defense of Food with just seven words to guide us. “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Food Rules is an extension to that message, or as Michael puts it “I unpack those seven words of advice into a comprehensive set of rules, or personal policies, designed to help you eat real food in moderation and, by doing so, substantially get off the Western diet.” Simple. Noble. Effective?

There are 83 different rules laid out amongst playful and colorful images from Maira Kalman. Some of these “policies” are timeless and eloquent like this one under Rule #8: Avoid food products that make health claims. "The healthiest food in the supermarket---the fresh produce---doesn’t boast about its healthfulness because the growers don’t have the budget or the packaging. Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about your health."

I love this one: Rule #12: Get out of the Supermarket Whenever You Can "You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer's market. What you will find are fresh, whole foods harvested at the peak of their taste and nutritional quality..."

A rule I found to be a little misleading if the goal is to “substantially get off the Western diet” is rule #45: Eat all the Junk Food You Want as Long as You Cook it Yourself. It is possible that someone could take this recommendation and run with it right back into poor health. 

While this light-hearted, at-a-glance rules book has some decent food for thought, I found some core principals of nutrition either completely missing, or entirely miss-represented.

1.     Food Sensitivities:
I have a few rules in my practice as well. The first is to do no harm. The second is to assist people in finding options that make them feel good and function better. As many of our clients and readers have testified to us over the years…the food for one can be a poison for another. Many people (at least 1/3 of our general client base) have a negative reaction to gluten, dairy, soy, or some other food component in their diet. Whether it is the gluten that is contributing to intestinal issues, chronic fatigue, ADD/ADHD and iron deficiency, or the dairy that is contributing to asthma, arthritis, or autism, many clients have not gotten better until these foods were removed from their diets. I would add Rule #84: Do an Elimination Diet, to determine what your individual body may be reacting negatively to.

2.     GMOs:
No one really knows the possible ramifications these engineered foods may have on our health, and our environment. There were no rules in this book that addressed this specifically. I would add Rule #85: Eat Foods Mother Nature Can Recognize.

3.     Environmental Pollutants/Organics:
As the onslaught of industrial chemicals continues to build on our planet, we are finding samples of environmental pollutants in wild animals across the globe. Some researchers are theorizing that our own bioaccumulation of these chemicals may be changing the behavior of our children, our immune system functions, and numerous other pathways in our bodies. I would add Rule #86: Don’t Panic, Eat Organic.

As a whole, I like the vibe that Michael sets up in the book. It is obvious in the introduction that Michael is fed up (pun intended) with the pseudoscience and misleading trends in the field of nutrition (aren’t we all), and would like people to get back to the basics of preparing, eating, and enjoying unadulterated wholesome foods in a form that nature had originally intended. Within the rules, there is an underlying pleading with the reader to stop thinking about the minutia of what biochemical properties foods may or may not have, and savor the essence, and the true genius of the whole food itself. 


  1. Thanks for this review! I always love a good Pollan read, but yes, sometimes I have my own rules to add to books about healthy eating. I like your additions!

  2. Awesome review, Tom! I'm a fan of Michael Pollan because he has gotten folks to look at food much differently and, as a result, eat much better. I loved In Defense of Food and recommend it to folks all the time. For many of us, it's baby steps when transitioning to a better diet.

    I haven't read this book, but have seen his food rules shared enough in reviews to know most of them. I remember reading the rule on junk food and thinking oh, I'd be in big, big trouble if I followed that one!

    Yours are great additions to the Food Rules. Yep, we can't forgot those food sensitivities. Many a gluten intolerant person has gone on to suffer greatly from the prevailing advice of "eat more whole grains." Often it's just not that simple. I love "Don't Panic, Eat Organic" ... that's one folks can easily remember. We don't have many certified organic offerings locally, but at our farmer's market, it's easy to talk to the farmers about what they do and don't use as practices. Many times, I do feel comfortable eating their products after chatting with them.

    Great review--thanks! Maybe you could give this book to friends/clients for Christmas with your inserted addendum. ;-)


  3. Great post, Tom! I have this book as well and also found rule #45 a bit misleading. "Cook it yourself" is a good rule, but not if your ingredients are refined white flour, refined white sugar, corn syrup and gummy bears. =) And like you and MP, I'm pretty "fed up" with all the hype, trendiness and pseudo-science of nutrition. It's not that hard to choose and eat healthy food. As I often say to my clients, "it's fairly simple, just not easy." Your comment about food sensitivities and an elimination diet are so important. You have to find out your individual needs and sensitivities.

    First do no harm, indeed! So important to start there. I was just looking at the ingredients in Centrum children's vitamins. OMG, horrible stuff. So sad that kids are taking those things, followed by eating sugar-laced, tie dyed cereals.

    Good job. Love having you guest post!

  4. Great review Tom! I've read and enjoyed In Defense of Food, but had no idea he had this book out now.

    I agree, I think food sensitivities are not getting the respect they deserve in food circles and was actually surprised to know that pollan didn't address GMO's and organics in this book?!

    However, that closing thought - to not focus on the little health benefits, is a biggy.

  5. I really like your review, Tom. I definitely agree about the junk food cooking yourself one. If I followed that one exactly, my house would be filled with cookies and cakes. They would be healthier, but I would be eating those instead of my fruits and veggies.

    I also liked the rules you added. Good ones. I also find it interesting how people focus on buying pomegranate seeds because of the health benefits, to go along with their 32 oz. soda. Seems a little counter intuitive to me.

  6. Fabulous!!! Thanks Ali and TOM :)

  7. Love this review! I'm a fan of Michael Pollan and enjoyed his In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma. I am with you on #45 though - I think he underestimates just how much "junk" food I could make from scratch! Even if I was to eat as much gluten/dairy/grain/soy/refined sugar-free desserts as I could make, it'd still be way too much for me. But then again, I suppose he's not talking to people who would bake compulsively, given the opportunity. :) I love your additions as well!

  8. Tom, I had to laugh because when I read this book, I actually was surprised by rule #45. I remember thinking that there is a lot of food that you could cook yourself that your body would react to in the same way as if you were eating packaged junk food. That was one that just surprised me.

    I love your own rules that you added. They all seem logical and quite surprising that they were not included in the list.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tom!!

  9. I love this. All his additions are awesome. And funny! "Don't panic, Eat Organic" totally made me chuckle. I can't agree more on how helpful the elimination diet was for me, and how important it has been for my health to eat organic. And if that means that I don't get to see a fresh strawberry for a few months, so be it.

    I agree with Shirley! You should totally give the book with your additions inserted as gifts to people!


  10. Thanks for sharing this review & adding a unique perspective that benefits the food allergic community!

  11. Chronic fatigue and iron deficiency linked to gluten? I've never hears that, and I am both. Or at least I think I am iron deficient. I was anemic while pregnant, but they never tested me after I gave birth. What is the best way to get tested? Man, testing seems waked than an elimination diet! I am just being honest!

  12. I've loved everything I've read by Pollan and I'm certain this little gem would be no exception!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  13. I've poured over this blog and the Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook, in addition to Mr. Pollans published works. My friends and family refer to me as an unofficial nutritionist, only shopping organic and spreading my ever evolving knowledge. Through somewhat of an obsession to fight for local farms, I have also learned not scowl at food served to me by a dear friend who doesn't share my beliefs about eating seasonally, locally and organically. I also don't choose my friends based on their eating habits and rituals. Many more than a few are not going to do the research to learn about organic and maybe never will. Perhaps there's a medium or a way to ease into this realm of organic and food sensitivity? With complete respect to Tom and Ali, I want to share another perspective in response to the controversy of rule #45.
    Living a life dedicated to nourishing the body with whole foods, and also being surrounded by others who practice the same food philosophy, might blind us to the existence of people who don't have the time, money, energy-- and most importantly, the desire to be as passionate as some of us "health nuts". To us, eating this way is obvious, especially when surrounded by the like-minded. To some, daily energy is distributed much differently and cutting corners to eat is a tremendous norm today.
    Point being, I believe the "Food Rules" manual was intended for this majority population that eager to transform their eating habits to a fanatical degree. I've learned the hard way that I can't push my food practices and beliefs on the people I love. Those trying to kick their fast-food habit or processed-food overdose, notice they need a lifestyle change, but look for a simple way to rearrange their habits. I see this manual as a first step for many-- not a reaffirmation to those who've already developed a set of rules.
    Pollan's reasoning for #45 is about people getting into the habit of cooking for themselves (which is a surprise to us people reading a nutritional cooking blog!) making it less appealing to pile a bunch of garbage into baked sweets. When we see what goes into our cooking, we think. The goal should be for people to start the thinking process of where our food comes from and "what's inside this store bought cookie?".
    Real cooking takes effort and is becoming endangered. Much of the population has placed the value of cooking low. Coming back to the act of cooking from scratch (what Jamie Oliver fights for) is sometimes just the first step for people who've lost it or never learned. Those of us who do cook-- who can easily concoct a food coma type bake-fest --would we actually do it? Just because Michael Pollan says that rule is ok?
    The truth is, when we live by rigid rules, we only think we are craving sweets everyday cause they seem forbidden. We need to eat what our body asks for- if we crave a sweet, then yes, make it ourselves, don't have a sweet baking marathon. Pollan emphasizes eating in moderation. If we are too strict, we rebel. And sometimes when we tell ourselves we can have whatever we want, and TRULY believe it, that craving for something unhealthy goes away completely.
    For this reason, I say cheers to Pollan for developing something that feels easily attainable to those who are grasping at straws on how to be more healthy.
    Finally, cheers to Ali and Tom for helping those with a passion for feeding families with the utmost care.


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