4 Food Rules You Won’t Find in Michael Pollan’s ‘In Defense of Food’ (and 2 That You Will)

Fellow food nerds will already know how I spent the eve before New Year’s Eve. I was cuddled on the couch (snacks in hand) watching the new PBS documentary In Defense of Food. Some of my favorite food principles were prominent in the movie, like behavioral strategies for portion control. But I also found it was missing some important real-world food perspectives.

For those of you who aren’t already familiar with FoodInsight and FACTSFollowers, we focus on the science behind nutrition, food safety, and food production, so we’ll focus here on the guidance Pollan gives in his new documentary about how to eat a healthy diet. Here are the 4 Food Rules we think it’s missing and 2 that are right on the money:


Rule 1: You don’t have to cook everything from scratch to eat healthy.

cereal-healthyFrom tuna to yogurt to trail mix to turkey jerky to fruit cups (yes, we could go on), there are so many packaged options that can boost your nutrition on-the-go. Why take these valuable options off the table for people? Why be so shame-loaded that even for nutritious options we can’t “dignify [them] with the word ‘food’?”

Aside from the fact that some forms of packaging and processing actually INCREASE nutritional value, packaged food plays a positive role in reducing food waste, saving time, and reducing expense. In fact, Americans get 64% of their iron, 55% of their fiber, and 48% of their calcium from processed and packaged foods.

“No one is saying that all packaged foods contain nutritional value, and not all packaged foods are created equal,” Sarah Romotsky, RD, highlighted, “But folks who make food decisions based on a one-line slogan could be seriously missing out on critical nutrients.”

It’s more important to make nutritious eating accessible and available than to try to rewrite your life to revolve around the kitchen. The ‘choice’ between convenience and healthfulness that Pollan presents is a false dichotomy- you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.


organs-nutrients-healthRule 2: Yes, nutrients DO matter.

Pollan believes that ‘nutritionism,’ what he says is the belief that food is the sum of its parts, is an ideology. This perspective is apparently bad because then we have to rely on experts to help us understand nutrition. The wealth of information on fats, carbohydrates, and protein (not to mention vitamins and micronutrients) can feel overwhelming. We sympathize. But deciding that nutrients somehow don’t matter or shouldn't be considered when choosing food undermines important information that we can all use to strengthen our health.

Protein is critical for muscle development, weight management, and bone strength. Carbohydrates give us energy, as well as the fiber and whole grains that contribute to our digestive and heart health. Fat is a critical component of brain and nervous tissue, and certain types aid in cardiovascular and cognitive health. In fact, the documentary even highlights that omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are “essential for optimal brain growth, heart health, and immune function.”

Sure, it’s helpful to have general principles (balance, variety, and moderation!) in regards to eating. But that doesn’t make nutrients irrelevant, and seeking out healthful nutrients is beneficial.


Rule 3: Don’t eat ‘all the junk food you want.’ Yes, even if you cook it yourself.

This one is actually pretty simple. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re cooking your treats yourself- your oven doesn’t have a magic setting to add nutrients or subtract calories. Keeping food ‘splurges’ sensible and balancing those calories with activity is critical, no matter where those splurge foods came from.


Rule 4: Embrace the improvements we’ve made since your great-grandmother was cooking.

milk-1900s-pasteurizeA principle that has been popular with Pollan over the years reemerges in this movie- not eating things your great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized. This perspective comes into play with any level of food processing (including fortification) and with Pollan’s time with a Hadza community in Tanzania.

Processing in Our Great-Grandmothers' Lifetimes

Depending on your generation, your great-grandmother may be pretty happy to forget a time when typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria were regularly transmitted through milk (before pasteurization became widespread in the 1950s).

Your great-grandmother may also remember when goiter, an enlarged thyroid gland that was in serious cases accompanied by mental disability, was common due to iodine deficiency (before fortification of salt was commonplace in the 1920s).

She may even remember when ‘the four Ds’ (diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death) came from niacin deficiency pellagra (before bread yeast was fortified with thiamin, niacin, iron, and riboflavin).

And for the youngest among us, our great-grandmothers were certainly around before folic acid fortification of grain products reduced the incidence of neural tube defects by one-third between 1995 and 2002.

‘Why do you need all these special vitamins in bread?’ Pollan asks, attributing it to a manufactured problem. Yes, we can make fun of old school commercials all we want. But these ‘special vitamins’ have been game-changing for public health and continue to be a positive contributor to our micronutrient intake.

The Other Side of Hunter-Gatherers

Michael Pollan visits a Hadza community in Tanzania, for whom the hunter-gatherer lifestyle includes hours of firewood gathering and 2-3 hours of vigorous digging for tubers by women and children. We don’t know how or whether the Hadza's dietary differences impact gut bacteria or how that will impact long-term health- it may provide insight in the long-term. But by selectively romanticizing  drudgery and time poverty shows that we really have taken for granted the immense benefits we get from technology, including in getting our food, particularly in a community where 1 in 5 children dies before the age of one. Around the world, many people don’t get to choose how or whether they want technology in their life, because they don’t have access to it at all. That’s not something to celebrate.


Rule 5 (A Food Rule We Agree On): It’s not about ‘low fat’ or cutting one ‘evil nutrient.’

yogurt-nutritionPart of Pollan’s concern about ‘nutritionism’ is that “there is always a group of blessed nutrients and evil nutrients.” He uses the low-fat fad of the 1990s as an example, whereas it’s now better understood that fats are like fonts- it’s the type that matters most. More than half of us know that omega (3, 6 and 9) fatty acids are healthful. Making smart swaps, like switching out saturated fats for unsaturated fats like those in avocado, nuts, vegetable oils, and fish, can go a long way.

In the same sense, obsessing with a single nutrient instead of looking at the whole food in the context of your diet is counterproductive. The digs at yogurt and sugar content, for instance. Besides the fact that there are many low-sugar yogurt options at the grocery store, overemphasizing this one line of the nutrition fact panel distracts from the valuable protein, calcium, vitamin D, probiotics, and riboflavin that little cup of yogurt delivers. Understanding your own diet and looking for opportunities to add nutrient-packed foods like this one is a win. Watch your calorie budget, including calories from sugar, but don’t let it turn you away from nutrient-dense foods like yogurt, in favor of less healthful ones.

Also, we’re totally with you, Michael Pollan, on the weird and illogical demonization of gluten for those without an allergy.


Rule 6 (A Food Rule We Agree On): There is no single food whose consumption or avoidance will answer our dietary prayers.  

“A single nutrient or food is not the magic bullet. It is the combination of foods that’s the most important determinant of health,” Dr. Joan Sabaté highlights in In Defense of Food.

In a word- yes. Getting a variety of foods (from lean proteins to veggies to fruits, dairy, and whole grains) and eating in moderation is exactly how you build a healthful diet. In fact, Pollan makes some excellent points on portion sizes, including highlighting little steps we can take directly like using smaller plates (highlighted by Brian Wansink at Cornell University) or serving ourselves more nutrient-dense foods first (highlighted by school cafeteria lines). And mindful eating is indeed valuable for portion control. All of these steps can make a big difference.


Final Thoughts

We don’t have to be afraid of science. What’s more, nutrition science doesn’t have to compete with a passionate and joyful food culture. By embracing what science tells us about nutrition (and, yes, nutrients!), we can all be empowered to choose options that meet our needs for health and convenience, not to mention enjoyment. Don’t have a PhD in nutrition? Everybody can use easy tools like MyPlate to plan a healthy diet. Yes, a diet that doesn’t mandate consuming or avoiding a single food. Yes, a diet that delivers nutrient-packed foods for a healthy body. And yes, a diet that doesn’t rely on cooking everything from scratch.

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