Food for thoughts

Back in January, the New York Times Magazine ran Unhappy Meals, an essay by Michael Pollan. (You’ll have to register at the NYT site to read the article.)

I’ve gone back to the article a couple of times for various reasons, including the delightfully straightforward opening:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That’s the first paragraph. All of it. Seven words, eight syllables. It certainly enticed me to keep reading:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.� Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

I found the article valuable on its own merits — Pollan’s discussion of what “food” means, the rise of what he calls nutritionism, and the contradiction of nutrition claims rising with the amount of processing.  Or, as Pollan puts it, “the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.”

The article does a great job of explaining (educating?) without polemicizing, and so struck me as a model for such explanation.  “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants” also illustrates several  ideas in Heath and Heath’s Made to Stick (noted on the whiteboard last March).