Sometimes trying to eat healthily can seem like a science. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, it is actually really very simple. This is one of the main reasons I love Michael Pollan. Not only has he helped open the eyes of millions of Americans to the mess that is our nation’s food system, but he manages to do so in a pretty straight-forward manner. And let’s face it, that’s what we need when there is just SO. MUCH. to consider – GMOs, pesticides, additives that have been banned in other countries, certified organic ingredients that are actually detrimental to our health – oy oy oy!
So let’s let The Man break things down for us so we can get a grip on the fundamentals:
- “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Eat real food, that is. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. It is in processed foods that you are going to find artificial ingredients, some of which have been banned in other countries. Additionally, some processed “organic” foods contain additives that are detrimental to our health.
- “You are what what you eat eats.” When it comes to meats and dairy products, you must consider how the animals were raised and fed. Many factory-farm or CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) animals are raised in confined spaces and consume a corn-based feed, most if not all of which is GMO. These animals are not naturally equipped to digest corn, which wreaks havoc on their digestive systems and overall health. Additionally, antibiotics (to help ward off disease and illness as the animals live in their own squalor) and hormones (to help them grow bigger faster) are administered to these animals. These make their way into the final product – those cuts of meat that are so conveniently wrapped in plastic and placed in the freezer section at a grocery store near you – and also make their way into consumers, i.e. you and I (yummy!). When possible, choose meat and dairy products from grass-fed, free-range animals.
- “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” If a product has more than five ingredients, it is likely highly processed (see tip #1).
- “Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature.” See an ingredient you can’t pronounce and think was made in a lab? Put that baby back on the shelf.
- “It is more important that you eat vegetables, even if they are conventional – and I’m talking about for your health – than it is that you wait until you can afford organic or you can find organic.” This is extremely important to remember. Some of us cannot afford or do not have access to organic produce. It is more important to eat whole foods such as vegetables than it is to eat organic. Whole foods provide us with the necessary nutrients in their natural state (rather than pill-form, that is). The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides is a great resource if you are trying to go organic on a budget, as it tells you which fruits and veggies are highest in trace pesticides and are therefore most important to buy organically-grown. In essence it helps you prioritize your organic shopping list. It is also recommended to wash your produce (try this DIY produce wash) to help minimize trace pesticides and residues such as dirt and wax.
- “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. ” See tip #4.
- “Avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.” Food is the best source of vitamins and minerals. Many fortified foods contain artificially-derived vitamins and minerals, which are not as readily absorbed by the body. Furthermore, these foods are typically highly processed, and the nutrients are just another chemical name in the mile-long list of ingredients.
- “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.” 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. Processed foods with longer shelf-lives tend to be in the middle of the store.
- “Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.” Think about it. Your fruits and veggies get green and fuzzy if you don’t eat them. This is natural. If food doesn’t rot, it is unnatural. The one exception? Honey (score!). Real honey, of course (see #1), and if you were to ask me, preferably raw at it is packed-full of the enzymes and nutrients that are partially destroyed when heated (sorry, just had to take the opportunity to plug my favorite food).
- “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” See tip #6.
- “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” And no, buying a boxed cake mix doesn’t count. Home cooked meals, including junk foods, have far fewer if any artificial ingredients (it is up to you to choose pure vanilla extract, for example, rather then artificial vanilla flavoring), and do not require preservatives.
- “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” Last but not least! When faced with the option, select whole grains over white flour products.
To learn more, be sure to pick up one of Mr. Pollan’s books: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of The World, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.