Eat food. That's it. Just eat food.
I’ve decided to edit Michael Pollan, the great food writer, who said, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” down to just “eat food.”
It’s not that Michael Pollan was wrong. It’s that the rest is too emotionally fraught, too complicated, perhaps even too potentially culturally insensitive. And also, maybe not entirely necessary to mention to fix our current health woes.
Let’s break it down.
Eat food. This means eating substances our grandparents or perhaps now, our great-grandparents, since this entails going back to pre-Jello mold times, would have recognized as food. It recalls an era where you could read an ingredient list and picture what those things looked like in your mind’s eye. So, no carrageenan or maltodextrin. No modified food starches or polysorbate. These substances have now been linked to myriad health problems from bowel disease to diabetes. You don't need them for anything. Get rid of them.
What about “not too much?” Seems like good advice. It’s advice I’ve given to patients over the years. But it’s not actually necessary if you are following the first admonishment to “eat food” and it’s potentially shaming for people who suffer from eating disorders such as binge eating or night eating. Telling people suffering from conditions that render them unable to control their eating that they are eating too much, isn’t helpful. But some people may not know that they are eating too much. What about them? Well, people eating whole foods tend to do just fine in terms of regulating their food intake. Our bodies have complex mechanisms for letting us know when we have eaten enough. Those mechanisms work pretty well when we are eating real food and get thrown out of whack when we are eating what has become a typical American (and many other countries’) ultra-processed, additive-laden diet. Is it the sugar, salt, emulsifiers, or something else in the overall hyper-palatability of the ultra-processed stuff? Yes. It could be any or all of the above. Until we know more, it’s best to just eat (real) food if we want to avoid eating too much.
Now onto “mostly plants.” Also completely reasonable advice. In the so-called Blue Zones where people have been shown to live the longest, they eat mostly, although not exclusively, plants. The Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to have good effects on weight control, heart disease, and other diseases, is based on the mostly plants principle. Besides, it’s much better for the environment and animal welfare. So, why not tell people to eat mostly plants? Well, many people who want to, already do. Eating a vegetarian diet is part of several cultural traditions, religions, and philosophies. But having a celebratory pig roast or a barbeque is also part of people’s cultural traditions. If we say, “eat food” and that includes meat, there will be those who object, but we aren’t going to turn non-vegetarians into vegetarians or vice-versa by lecturing at them. And unless people are following a ketogenic diet, those who are eating real food, are likely to increase fruit and vegetable intake and decrease fast food and meat intake since a lot of those things tend to come from ultra-processed sources (see: chicken nuggets and most sandwich places).
Over the last several decades, diet and nutrition advice have gotten more and more complicated and difficult to follow. As a result, people don’t know what to eat anymore and the ultra-processed food marketers with labels touting “organic” and “vitamin-enriched” and “natural” and any other number of things, are fooling us into thinking we are doing right by our bodies when we are doing quite the opposite.
So, let’s pare it down for now. Nothing is wrong with Michael Pollan’s advice. But we can make it simpler.
Eat food. That’s it. Just eat food.