Americans, and most other Western nations suffer a national eating disorder: our unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. That's the verdict delivered by food author Michael Pollan in a lecture given last week to an overflow crowd of CDC scientists. As part of an effort to bring new ideas to the national debate on food issues, the CDC invited Pollan -- a harsh critic of U.S. food policies -- to address CDC researchers and to meet with leaders of the federal agency.
"The French paradox is that they have better heart health than we do despite being a cheese-eating, wine-swilling, fois-gras-gobbling people," Pollan said. "The American paradox is we are a people who worry unreasonably about dietary health yet have the worst diet in the world.”
In various parts of the world, Pollan noted, necessity has forced human beings to adapt to all kinds of diets. "The Masai subsist on cattle blood and meat and milk and little else. Native Americans subsist on beans and maize. And the Inuit in Greenland subsist on whale blubber and a little bit of lichen," he said. "The irony is, the one diet we have invented for ourselves -- the Western diet -- is the one that makes us sick."
Snowballing rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in the U.S. and other Western countries can be traced to our unhealthy diet. So how do we change?
7 Words & 7 Rules for Eating:
Pollan says everything he's learned about food and health can be summed up in seven words:
"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Probably the first two words are most important. "Eat food" means to eat real food -- vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and, yes, fish and meat -- and to avoid what Pollan calls "edible food-like substances.”
1 Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognise as food. "When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can't pronounce, ask yourself, "What are those things doing in my shopping trolley?" Pollan says.
2 Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
3 Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
4 Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot. "There are exceptions -- honey -- but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren't food," Pollan says.
5 It is not just what you eat but how you eat. "Always leave the table a little hungry," Pollan says. "Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, 'Tie off the sack before it's full.’"
6 Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It's a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. "Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?" Pollan asks.
7 Don't buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.
Michael Pollan is an American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.Pollan's book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, (2008), explores the relationship with what he terms nutritionism and the Western diet, with a focus on late 20th century food advice given by the science community. Pollan spends much of this book explicating his first three phrases: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."