It’s a simple manifesto for eating healthily and in moderation. Don’t lift a fork until you’ve read Michael Pollan’s new book

Source: Times Online

Human beings ate well and kept themselves healthy for millenniums before nutritional science came along to tell us how to do it. Eating in our time has become complicated — and needlessly so. Experts of one kind or another tell us how to eat, from doctors and diet books, to the latest findings in nutritional science, to government advisories and food pyramids. But for all the scientific baggage we have taken on in recent years, we still don’t know what we should be eating. Sorting through the long-running fat versus carb wars, the fibre skirmishes and the raging dietary-supplement debates, the picture is actually very simple. There are, basically, two important things you need to know about diet and health:

Fact one: Populations that eat a so-called western diet, consisting of lots of processed food and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, invariably suffer most from western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Fact two: Populations eating a remarkably wide range of traditional diets, from diets high in fat, to those high in carbohydrate or protein, generally don’t suffer from these chronic diseases. What this suggests is that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of food and diets. Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) western diet that most of us are now following.

To get off the western diet and learn to eat real food in moderation again. These are the rules you need to follow:

DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNISE AS FOOD

Imagine your great-grandmother (or grandmother, depending on your age) at your side as you roll down the aisles of the supermarket. She picks up a packet of Dairylea Dunkers Jumbo Tubes — and hasn’t a clue what this plastic and foil box could possibly be. Is it a food or is it toothpaste? There are now thousands of products in the supermarket that our ancestors simply wouldn’t recognise as food. Today, foods are processed in ways specifically designed to get us to buy and eat more by pushing our evolutionary buttons — our inborn preference for sweetness, fat and salt. Food processing induces us to consume much more of these rarities than is good for us.

AVOID PRODUCTS CONTAINING INGREDIENTS THAT NO ORDINARY HUMAN WOULD KEEP IN THE PANTRY

Xanthan gum? Calcium propionate? Ammonium sulphate? If you wouldn’t cook with them yourself, why let others use these ingredients to cook for you?

AVOID FOOD THAT HAS SOME FORM OF SUGAR (OR SWEETENER) LISTED AMONG THE TOP THREE INGREDIENTS

Labels list ingredients by weight, and any product that has more sugar than other ingredients has too much sugar. (Special-occasion foods are an exception to this rule.) Complicating matters is the fact that, thanks to food science, there are now about 40 types of sugar used in processed food, including barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, dextrin, dextrose and so on. To repeat: sugar is sugar. And organic sugar is also sugar.

AVOID FOOD PRODUCTS THAT MAKE HEALTH CLAIMS

This sounds counterintuitive, but think about it: for a product to carry a health claim on its packaging, it must first have a package, so, right off the bat, it’s more likely to be a processed food rather than a wholefood. The boldest health claims are often founded on incomplete and bad science. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim it was healthier than the traditional product it replaced, turned out to contain trans fats that give people heart attacks. The healthiest food — the fresh produce — doesn’t boast about its healthfulness, because the growers don’t have the budget and it doesn’t have a packet. Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about your health.

BUY YOUR SNACKS AT THE FARMERS’ MARKET

You’ll find yourself snacking on fresh or dried fruit and nuts — real food — not crisps and sweets.

TREAT MEAT AS A FLAVOURING OR SPECIAL-OCCASION FOOD

While it’s true that vegetarians are generally healthier than carnivores, that doesn’t mean you need to eliminate meat from your diet if you like it. It turns out that near-vegetarians or “flexitarians”— people who eat meat a couple of times a week — are just as healthy as vegetarians. But the average westerner eats meat as part of two or even three meals a day, and there is evidence that the more meat there is in your diet — red meat in particular — the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.

‘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.

DON’T EAT BREAKFAST CEREALS THAT CHANGE THE COLOUR OF THE MILK

This should go without saying. Such cereals are highly processed and full of refined carbohydrates as well as chemical additives.

EAT ALL THE JUNK FOOD YOU WANT AS LONG AS YOU COOK IT YOURSELF

There is nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried food, pastries, even having a soft drink every now and then, but food manufacturers have made eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and easy that we’re having them every day. The chip did not become so popular until industry took over the jobs of washing, peeling, cutting and frying the potatoes. If you made all the chips you ate, you would eat them less often, if only because they’re so much work. The same holds true for fried chicken, crisps, cakes, pies and ice cream.

HAVE A GLASS OF WINE WITH DINNER

There is considerable scientific evidence for the health benefits of alcohol to go with a few centuries of traditional belief. Mindful of the social and health effects of alcoholism, public health authorities are loath to recommend drinking, but people who drink moderately and regularly live longer and suffer less heart disease than teetotallers. Most experts recommend no more than two drinks a day for men, one for women. Also, a little every day is better than a lot at the weekend, and drinking with food is better than drinking without it.

PAY MORE, EAT LESS

With food, as with so many things, you get what you pay for. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality — costs more because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. If you spend more on better food, you’ll probably eat less of it, and treat it with more care. And if that higher-quality food tastes better, you will need less of it to feel satisfied.

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. But when it comes to food, it pays to cultivate the other senses. It can take 20 minutes before your brain gets the word that your belly is full: that means that if you take less than 20 minutes to finish a meal, the sensation of satiety will arrive too late to be of any use.

Extracted and adapted from Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan (Penguin £4.99). © Michael Pollan 2010. Find more from Food Rules by registering for a preview of the new Sunday Times website at thesundaytimes.co.uk. To order a copy at the discounted price of £4.74 (inc p&p), call the Sunday Times Bookshop on 0845 271 2135, or visit timesonline.co.uk/bookshop

Advertisements