Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Food Rules

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual
Many of us in the US are eating large quantities of food which has traveled many miles to get to our tables, most of it highly processed and overly-packaged. There is little dispute that how we eat in in this country is making us unhealthy. And it’s also not very Green.

Several years ago, Michael Pollan set out to discover exactly what we should eat to be healthy. He came up with a succinct seven word formula: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

He elaborated on this answer in the best-selling In Defense of Food, in which he contends that “most of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half century…has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.” In this book Pollan also delved into the history of the Western diet and the diseases of civilization, and concluded with a guide to healthier and happier eating.  

For those of you short on time but still wanting to eat well, let me recommend Pollan’s newest offering, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a handy pocket guide for which no knowledge of science is required, a perfect companion to In Defense of Food.  In this slim volume, he presents 64 simple rules on how to eat well (more than seven words, but still easy to manage.)

Some of my favorite rules include: Rule 13: “Eat only foods that will eventually rot;” Rule 20: “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of you car;”  and Rule 64: “Break the rules once in a while.”

To find material for this guide Pollan solicited help from a number of sources, including the readers of Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times online blog Well. In response to the words: “I’d like your help gathering some rules for eating well.” (posted on Well on March 9, 2009), he received 2,791 comments. (I am comment No. 2201 on page 89 of the blog.)  He acknowledges that this “overwhelming response enriched the project immeasurably” and thanks us all (as a group) in both the introduction and the credits.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so I will just mention one more rule — 52: “Buy smaller plates and glasses. The bigger the portion, the more we will eat —upward of 30% more.”

Coincidentally, portion size was much in the news last week. In a paper published in the Obesity Journal on March 23, Brian Wansink, a food behavior scientist at Cornell University, and his brother, Craig Wansink, professor of religious studies at the Virginia Wesleyan College and an ordained Presbyterian minister, announced the results of their study of 52 Last Supper paintings made between the years 1000 and 1800. The results are summarized by Dave Itzkoff in his Arts Beat blog (New York Times online March 23). “After the sizes of the food in the art works were indexed against the average size of the disciples’ heads (which can vary from painting to painting), the study found that the main courses grew by 69 percent, the plates grew by 66 percent and the size of the bread grew by 23 percent.” If art mirrors life, then this study confirms that we have indeed been upping our serving sizes for far more years than we had realized (and if Michael Pollan is correct, the amount of food we consume).

Also in the news is Britain’s Jamie Oliver, aka The Naked Chef, who has been taking on the lunch ladies of Huntington, West Virginia (dubbed the unhealthiest metropolitan area in America) on primetime TV in the hopes of reforming their school lunch program. I am pretty sure Huntington hasn’t heard about Meatless Monday or Food Rules. If you watch the show, you will learn that some of the school children can’t recognize a potato, let alone a beet or a tomato. Jamie is doing his best to get the children to eat more plants, but he has a difficult road ahead. You can follow the saga on Friday nights on ABC for the next few weeks.

Let me urge you once again to check out Food Rules and to share its wisdom with those you love. It is a quick and entertaining read. The rules are simple and painless, and by following them you will be making yourself, those you feed, and the planet healthier.


  1. One other thing to keep in mind about the Last Supper is that it was a Seder. So it's not supposed to be a sumptuous feast to begin with. Leonardo at least alludes to the this with the line of eggs along the front of the table. However, like everyone else, his bread is leavened although more like a large roll than the unmistakeable loaves of later painters.

  2. That is a good point about the Last Supper being a Seder, and not a feast. Do you think there is any validity to this study and its findings? Or do you think the later paintings were made by artists who were depicting a more usual meal and not a Seder, thus with more food and bigger plates? Perhaps I should have mentioned that Brian Wansink was influential in developing the Small Plate Movement. I realize this is not a scientific study, but I found it a topical addition to my main story.

  3. I think the study & its findings is thought-provoking. I would have to have the opportunity to look more closely at the paintings to be able to see clearly precisely what food is on the table, though. Based on what little I can make out from the online versions, the meals gradually become more anachronistic in that they are more like Easter feasts than Seders. Of course, the almost total ignorance of Jewish practices amongst most Christians would partially account for that too. Seder or not, it is true that the earlier paintings have fewer plates & the portions on them are smaller. And, from what I can tell, what's on the plates changes as well. Now I'm hungry--- ;-)