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Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

Food Rules

Are you one of the 45 million Americans on a diet this year? Are you (like me) trying to eat better to live a longer and healthier life?

Which food rules did you choose? Low fat? Low carb? South Beach? Atkins? Zone? Volumetrics? Weight Watchers? Jenny Craig? Slim Fast? Paleo? How did you decide?

And what do you actually eat? Kale is sooo 2015, so how about jackfruit?

Much of our nutritional research and guidelines are tainted by pseudoscience, subsidies, and lobbyists, so how are we to make informed and intelligent decisions about how to nourish our bodies?

I don’t have all the answers, but Michael Pollan’s Food Rules seems like a decent place to start.

Food Rules In Seven Words

This pocket-sized, 140-page book is even shorter than it seems since many pages are either blank or filled with illustrations, and its essence consists of only seven carefully chosen words.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The rest of the book teaches us how to accomplish this in simple, pain-free ways.

Eat Food

The first rule is to eat food. Everyone knows Most of us know not to eat rocks and sticks, but defining food can be difficult. Is a Twinkie food? Or is it a processed (albeit delicious) nightmare of chemicals?

Pollan encourages us to eat only foods made from ingredients our grandmothers would have recognized, and the simpler, the better. Processed foods also contain added salt, sugar, and oil to entice us to eat more and continue eating long after we’re actually full.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid processed foods that have more than five ingredients, are advertised on television, and list sugar as one of the first three ingredients (this includes high fructose corn syrup, other forms of sugar, and artificial sweeteners) .

He instead recommends choosing foods that will eventually rot.

“Real food is alive–and therefore it should eventually die.”

Real food hasn’t been processed to death. It still contains nutrients that nourish living organisms–including bacteria and fungi… and us! If bacteria aren’t interested in the foodlike substances we see on TV, maybe we should follow their lead.

Mostly Plants

We experimented with a Month Without Meat and were very pleasantly surprised. While I don’t expect or even recommend that everyone become vegetarian or vegan, by eating fewer animal products most of us can decrease our risk of developing cancer.

“Eat your colors.”

Eating plants doesn’t have to be boring. A colorful plate of fruits and veggies will introduce more flavors and more nutrients as well as be more visually appealing. If your favorite produce isn’t in season year-round, pick it at its freshest then freeze or dehydrate it for later.

What if you’re craving brownies or fried chicken? No problem! As long as you make your treats yourself, Pollan advocates enjoying them whenever you want. The innate hassles of preparation, cooking, and cleanup will keep you from indulging too often.

Not Too Much

Here’s where I usually fall apart. Maybe it’s because I often work long shifts without knowing if I’ll have a chance to eat at all, but even when I’m not at work I sometimes eat like a bear in the fall, just in case I never get to eat again.

The problem comes when the next meal is readily available, and I eat extra at that one too, then indulge in a snack to top off my stomach just in case… And the cycle continues. We’re very lucky to have access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food, and I need to trust that abundance.

People in many cultures stop eating when they are 65-80%–rather than 100%–full. In other words, instead of being stuffed, they stop when they are no longer hungry. This might take some getting used to, but it’s my new goal.

“Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.”

Mindless eating also seems to be one of the developed world’s favorite pastimes. Instead of eating slowly and savoring every bite, we unconsciously and endlessly binge while our attention is monopolized by our electronics. (Hey, it’s multitasking, right?)

Instead, we should stop our other tasks, sit at a table, and focus on our food. We’ll soon realize that the first few bites taste the best and we might not want to eat as much. When we eat from smaller plates and drink from smaller glasses, we’ll also eat less without feeling like we’re depriving ourselves.

Once we master that, we can up the ante and grow some of our own food, learn to cook it ourselves, and enjoy it with others.

We don’t need to aim for perfection, but no matter where we’re starting, we can all choose a few steps to become healthier.

What and how are you eating? Do you have your own food rules? Let me know in the comments below. 

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Comments 17

  1. The older I get, the more I discover my rules of adulthood (see: Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project). The first is “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” but the second is “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.” Eat when you’re hungry – not thirsty, bored, sad, frustrated, etc. Stop when you’re full – not stuffed, nauseous, broke, the waiter is kicking you out of the restaurant…While I may not reach it 100% of the time, it’s still a pretty good goal. 🙂

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  2. I am currently doing Whole30 for the first time because my eating habits had degenerated horribly beginning with the holidays and continuing into the new year, and I felt that I needed something strict to get me back on track. I also was waking with aches and pains, having daily heartburn and irregularity, and had little energy. I decided that 45 was too young to feel this way and something drastic needed to happen.

    I am on day 20 of the Whole30 and feel fantastic. Every issue I mentioned above has gone away.

    I can’t see myself eating this way for the rest of my life — too many food groups are forbidden, making it near impossible to eat anywhere but home — but I am glad I did this month. It has opened my eyes to new ways of cooking and to the effects that diet have my health and mood.

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      I’m so glad you’re feeling better! Whole30 is tough when eating out, so hopefully you’ll figure out the worst food culprits with respect to your health and only having a few to avoid will be easier to manage. I’ve never done it, but several friends benefit from a food journal. They write what they eat and how they feel, and many have discovered a previously unknown lactose intolerance.

  3. We are working hard at limiting carbs and eating “real” foods. It really helps that my kids are on board now too. We can’t do vegetarian, but we have really increased fruits and vegetables. We’ve also added more fish and things like small portions of nuts. One of the things we find we really hate about eating out is the salt levels in foods and the portion sizes. We don’t eat out much because we can make some awesome foods at home!

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      Home cooking really does (usually) taste better. It’s amazing how much salt can be added to fresh food and still not come anywhere close to the levels in processed foods. Good for you guys for making such healthy choices.
      On way that we handle portion control when eating out is to split an entree. If we’re still hungry, we can order dessert, and it’s still better for us than each ordering an entree AND dessert.

  4. Isn’t it funny that really, it’s so simple…yet just like I blog about personal finance, we are emotional and complicated human beings. We KNOW what to do most of the time, but we don’t do it anyway. I have the hardest time not eating work snacks. They are plentiful and right in my face. Seriously the good Trader Joe’s kind like peanut butter stuffed pretzels. ON top of that my job is stressful so I tend to have a hard time with self control when I’m stressed. But I’m trying. When I was a freelancer working from home it was so much easier because I never have that kind of stuff in my house.

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      Tonya, you hit on two major points- that stress makes the hard choices much harder, and that removing temptation is essential because it takes away those choices. If the only options are healthy ones, then it’s impossible to make a poor decision.

  5. I really like the simple advice of “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s simple and I get it. I heard another quote that I try to follow that says something about the battle with food is won at the grocery store, not in the kitchen. I do my best to keep the junk out of the house. If it’s not there, I can’t eat it.

    Now …. if I could just do something about my fast food habit! 😉

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  6. Hi — I just discovered your blog and wanted to say thank you for these posts. I need to go back and read through the archives. Also adding you ASAP to the blogroll on my site!

    I’m 41 and with 2 very active young kids I have less and less time (and energy) to exercise. Sometimes exercise means running alongside their bikes. But I think I’m staying healthy mostly because of what we’re eating. Having kids really made us think about what we put on the table (especially me — my wife had much better habits). Also, we currently live overseas and have adjusted to what’s available and easy to find — mostly fruits and vegetables.

    And by the way I relate to the impact of work. I did shift work for 5+ years and it was difficult to feel good about eat / sleep / etc. Probably my healthiest choice was take a different position in my company!

    Best –R

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      Rich, you mention a lot of important points, but having kids is a huge one. Ice cream and Diet Coke for dinner is hard to defend against a 3-year-old’s inquisition!
      We don’t have kids so we’re on the honor system 🙂

  7. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    One of the best food rules I ever heard.

    About two years ago, I cut back drastically on carbs and sugar. No sugary drinks and bread only on rare occasions. This year I`m foregoing all condiments (no added salt, ketchup, salad dressing, etc.). I`m also upping my game on vegetables and have begun a fast-food boycott.

    Since I`ve began this new regiment, I`ve dropped thirty pounds and have kept it off. And I feel great.

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Julie. Great reminder on what to eat. And a great motivator.

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      1. Thanks, Julie. I lost the 30 lbs over the course of a year (2015). I gained back 5 pounds in 2016. So I regressed a little. But keeping 25 lbs off for two years is pretty good. It was rough at first. I’m a recovering sugar-holic. The first month or so I was pining for sugar every day. Now I just give myself one sugar day a week–Saturday. And the body definitely adjusts. I don’t miss sugary drinks or bread. And I actually enjoy water with my meals.

  8. I went vegan over a year ago, so my diet consists of all plants. We’ve been able to slash our grocery bill as well since we buy a lot of whole food that is cheap, (beans, corn, grains, vegetables). We buy a lot of cheap produce like kale, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and a few other foods.

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