Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan: Summary & Notes

Rating: 9/10

Available at: Amazon

Related: In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma


Michael Pollan (one of my favourite authors) distills food advice down to seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Most of the rest of this (short) book rephrases or clarifies this short points, giving brief, direct instructions for eating well.

Everyone should eat this way.

Key Points

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That's really all there is to it.

Eat local, healthy food that your great-grandmother would have recognized.

Avoid anything processed.

Buy from your local farmer's market.



  • There are basically two important things you need to know about the links between diet and health, two facts that are not in dispute. All the contending parties in the nutrition wars agree on them. And, even more important for our purposes, these facts are sturdy enough that we can build a sensible diet upon them. Here they are:
  • Fact 1: Populations that eat a so-called Western diet—generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
  • Fact 2: Populations eating a remarkably wide range of traditional diets generally don’t suffer from these chronic diseases. These diets run the gamut from ones very high in fat (the Inuit in Greenland subsist largely on seal blubber) to ones high in carbohydrate (Central American Indians subsist largely on maize and beans) to ones very high in protein (Masai tribesmen in Africa subsist chiefly on cattle blood, meat, and milk), to cite three rather extreme examples. But much the same holds true for more mixed traditional diets. What this suggests is that there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets. Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us now are eating.
  • There is actually a third, very hopeful fact that flows from these two: People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health. We have good research to suggest that the effects of the Western diet can be rolled back, and relatively quickly. In one analysis, a typical American population that departed even modestly from the Western diet (and lifestyle) could reduce its chances of getting coronary heart disease by 80 percent, its chances of type 2 diabetes by 90 percent, and its chances of colon cancer by 70 percent.
  • Yet, oddly enough, these two (or three) sturdy facts are not the center of our nutritional research or, for that matter, our public health campaigns around diet. Instead, the focus is on identifying the evil nutrient in the Western diet so that food manufacturers might tweak their products, thereby leaving the diet undisturbed, or so that pharmaceutical makers might develop and sell us an antidote for it. Why? Well, there’s a lot of money in the Western diet. The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes. The healthcare industry makes more money treating chronic diseases (which account for three quarters of the $2 trillion plus we spend each year on health care in this country) than preventing them.
  • Indeed, I had a deeply unsettling moment when, after spending a couple of years researching nutrition for my last book, In Defense of Food, I realized that the answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we should eat wasn’t so complicated after all, and in fact could be boiled down to just seven words:
  • Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

PART I: What should I eat?

1: Eat food.

2: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

3: Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.

4: Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup.

5: Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.

  • As for noncaloric sweeteners such as aspartame or Splenda, research (in both humans and animals) suggests that switching to artificial sweeteners does not lead to weight loss, for reasons not yet well understood. But it may be that deceiving the brain with the reward of sweetness stimulates a craving for even more sweetness.

6: Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.

7: Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.

8: Avoid food products that make health claims.

9: Avoid food products with the wordoid “lite" or the terms "low-fat" or “nonfat" in their names.

10: Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not.

  • Imitation butter—aka margarine—is the classic example.

11: Avoid foods you see advertised on television.

12: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

13: Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

14: Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature.

15: Get out of the supermarket whenever you can.

16: Buy your snacks at the farmers’ market.

17: Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans.

18: Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap.

19: If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.

20: It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.

21: It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)

PART II: What kind of food should I eat?

22: Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

  • Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants—the antioxidants? the fiber? the omega-3 fatty acids?—but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. There are scores of studies demonstrating that a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of dying from all the Western diseases; in countries where people eat a pound or more of vegetables and fruits a day, the rate of cancer is half what it is in the United States.
  • Also, by eating a diet that is primarily plant based, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods—with the exception of seeds, including grains and nuts—are typically less "energy dense" than the other things you eat. (And consuming fewer calories protects against many chronic diseases.) Vegetarians are notably healthier than carnivores, and they live longer.

23: Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.

  • It turns out that near vegetarians, or "flexitarians"—people who eat meat a couple of times a week—are just as healthy as vegetarians.

24: "Eating what stands on one leg [mushrooms and plant foods] is better than eating what stands on two legs [fowl], which is better than eating what stands on four legs [cows, pigs, and other mammals]."

  • This Chinese proverb offers a good summary of traditional wisdom regarding the relative healthfulness of different kinds of food, though it inexplicably leaves out the very healthful and entirely legless fish.

25: Eat your colors.

26: Drink the spinach water.

  • Another bit of traditional wisdom with good science behind it: The water in which vegetables are cooked is rich in vitamins and other healthful plant chemicals. Save it for soup or add it to sauces.

27: Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.

  • The diet of the animals we eat strongly influences the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food we get from them, whether it is meat or milk or eggs.

28: If you have the space, buy a freezer.

  • When you find a good source of pastured meat, you’ll want to buy it in quantity. Buying meat in bulk—a quarter of a steer, say, or a whole hog—is one way to eat well on a budget. Dedicated freezers are surprisingly inexpensive to buy and to operate, because they aren’t opened nearly as often as the one in your refrigerator. A freezer will also enable you to put up food from the farmers’ market, and encourage you to buy produce in bulk at the height of its season, when it will be most abundant—and therefore cheapest. And freezing does not significantly diminish the nutritional value of produce.

29: Eat like an omnivore.

  • Whether or not you eat any animal foods, it’s a good idea to try to add some new species, and not just new foods, to your diet—that is, new kinds of plants, animals, and fungi.

30: Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.

  • It would have been easier to say "eat organic," and it is true that food certified organic is usually well grown in relatively healthy soil—soil nourished by organic matter rather than chemical fertilizers.
  • Yet there are exceptional farmers and ranchers in America who for one reason or another are not certified organic, and the excellent food they grow should not be overlooked.
  • course, after a few days riding cross-country in a truck, the nutritional quality of any kind of produce will deteriorate, so ideally you want to eat food that is both organic and local.

31: Eat wild foods when you can.

  • Two of the most nutritious plants in the world —lamb’s quarters and purslane—are weeds, and some of the healthiest traditional diets, like the Mediterranean, make frequent use of wild greens.
  • The fields and forests are crowded with plants containing higher levels of various phytochemicals than their domesticated cousins. Why? Because these plants have to defend themselves against pests and diseases without any help from us, and because historically we’ve tended to select and breed crop plants for sweetness; many of the defensive compounds plants produce are bitter. We also breed for shelf life, and so have unwittingly selected for plants with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids, since these fats quickly oxidize—turn rancid. Wild animals and fish too are worth adding to your diet when you have the opportunity. Wild game generally has less saturated and more healthy fats than domesticated animals, because most of these wild animals themselves eat a diverse diet of plants rather than grain (see rule 27).

32: Don’t overlook the oily little fishes.

  • Wild fish are among the healthiest things you can eat, yet many wild fish stocks are on the verge of collapse because of overfishing. Avoid big fish at the top of the marine food chain—tuna, sword-fish, shark—because they’re endangered, and because they often contain high levels of mercury. Fortunately, a few of the most nutritious wild fish species, including mackerel, sardines, and anchovies, are well managed, and in some cases are even abundant. Those oily little fish are particularly good choices. According to a Dutch proverb, "A land with lots of herring can get along with few doctors."

33: Eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi.

  • Many traditional cultures swear by the health benefits of fermented foods—foods that have been transformed by live microorganisms, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, and sourdough bread. These foods can be a good source of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient you can’t get from plants. (B12 is produced by animals and bacteria.) Many fermented foods also contain probiotics—beneficial bacteria that research suggests improve the function of the digestive and immune systems and, according to some studies, help reduce allergic reactions and inflammation.

34: Sweeten and salt your food yourself.

35: Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature.

36: Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.

37: "The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead."

38: Favor the kinds of oils and grains that have traditionally been stone-ground.

  • And the newer oils that are extracted by modern chemical means tend to have less favorable fatty acid profiles and more additives than olive, sesame, palm fruit, and peanut oils that have been obtained the old-fashioned way.

39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.

40: Be the kind of person who takes supplements—then skip the supplements.

  • We know that people who take supplements are generally healthier than the rest of us, and we also know that in controlled studies most of the supplements they take don’t appear to be effective. How can this be? Supplement takers are healthy for reasons that have nothing to do with the pills. They’re typically more health conscious, better educated, and more affluent. They’re also more likely to exercise and eat whole grains.
  • There are exceptions to this rule, for people who have a specific nutrient deficiency or are older than fifty. As we age, our need for antioxidants increases while our body’s ability to absorb them from the diet declines. And if you don’t eat much fish, it couldn’t hurt to take a fish oil supplement too.

41: Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.

  • People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than those of us eating a modern Western diet of processed foods. Any traditional diet will do: If it were not a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around.
  • In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to howa culture eats as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, for example, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and white flour?!) as much as their food habits: small portions eaten at leisurely communal meals; no second helpings or snacking.
  • Pay attention, too, to the combinations of foods in traditional cultures: In Latin America, corn is traditionally cooked with lime and eaten with beans; what would otherwise be a nutritionally deficient staple becomes the basis of a healthy, balanced diet. (The beans supply amino acids lacking in corn, and the lime makes niacin available.

42: Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.

  • Soy products offer a good case in point. People have been eating soy in the form of tofu, soy sauce, and tempeh for many generations, but today we’re eating novelties like soy protein isolate, soy isoflavones, and textured vegetable protein from soy and partially hydrogenated soy oils, and there are questions about the healthfulness of these new food products. As a senior FDA scientist has written, Confidence that soy products are safe is clearly based more on belief than hard data.

43: Have a glass of wine with dinner.

  • Wine may not be the magic bullet in the French or Mediterranean diet, but it does seem to be an integral part of these dietary patterns. There is now considerable scientific evidence for the health benefits of alcohol to go with a few centuries of traditional belief and anecdotal evidence. Mindful of the social and health effects of alcoholism, public health authorities are loath to recommend drinking, but the fact is that people who drink moderately and regularly live longer and suffer considerably less heart disease than teetotalers.
  • Drinking a little every day is better than drinking a lot on the weekends, and drinking with food is better than drinking without it.

PART III: How should I eat?

  • How you eat may have as much bearing on your health (and your weight) as what you eat.

44: Pay more, eat less.

  • Or as grandmothers used to say, "Better to pay the grocer than the doctor."

45: ...Eat less.

46: Stop eating before you’re full.

  • Ask yourself not, Am I full? but, Is my hunger gone? That moment will arrive several bites sooner.

47: Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.

  • One old wives’ test: If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not hungry.

48: Consult your gut.

  • Most of us allow external, and usually visual, cues to determine how much we eat. The larger the portion, for example, the more we eat; the bigger the container, the more we pour.
  • So slow down and pay attention to what your body—and not just your sense of sight—is telling you.

49: Eat slowly.

  • Another strategy, encoded in a table manner that’s been all but forgotten: "Put down your fork between bites."

50: The banquet is in the first bite.

  • Taking this adage to heart will help you enjoy your food and eat more slowly.

51: Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.

52: Buy smaller plates and glasses.

53: Serve a proper portion and don’t go back for seconds.

54: Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.

  • A related adage: "After lunch, sleep awhile; after dinner, walk a mile."

55: Eat meals.

56: Limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods.

57: Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.

58: Do all your eating at a table.

59: Try not to eat alone.

  • Although there is some research to suggest that light eaters will eat more when they dine with others (perhaps because they spend more time at the table), for people prone to overeating, communal meals tend to limit consumption, if only because we’re less likely to stuff ourselves when others are watching. We also tend to eat more slowly, since there’s usually more going on at the table than ingestion.

60: Treat treats as treats.

  • There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion.
  • Some people follow a so-called S policy: "no snacks, no seconds, no sweets—except on days that begin with the letter S."

61: Leave something on your plate.

  • Practice not cleaning your plate; it will help you eat less in the short term and develop self-control in the long.

62: Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don’t.

  • What does growing some of your own food have to do with repairing your relationship to food and eating? Everything. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for your sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that food is a product of industry, not nature; that food is fuel rather than a form of communion with other people, and also with other species—with nature. On a more practical level, you will eat what your garden yields, which will be the freshest, most nutritious produce obtainable; you will get exercise growing it (and get outdoors and away from screens); you will save money (according to the N ational Gardening Association, a seventy-dollar investment in a vegetable garden will yield six hundred dollars’ worth of food); and you will be that much more likely to follow the next, all-important rule.

63: Cook.

  • In theory, it should make little difference to your health whether you cook for yourself or let someone else do the work. But unless you can afford to hire a private chef to prepare meals exactly to your specifications, letting other people cook for you means losing control over your eating life, the portions as much as the ingredients. Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and food processors, and to guarantee you’re eating real food and not edible foodlike substances, with their unhealthy oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and surfeit of salt. Not surprisingly, the decline in home cooking closely parallels the rise in obesity, and research suggests that people who cook are more likely to eat a more healthful diet.

64: Break the rules once in a while.

  • Obsessing over food rules is bad for your happiness, and probably for your health too. Our experience over the past few decades suggests that dieting and worrying too much about nutrition has made us no healthier or slimmer; cultivating a relaxed attitude toward food is important.
  • "All things in moderation," it is often said, but we should never forget the wise addendum, sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde: "Including moderation."

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