Eating couldn’t be simpler

Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.

Deciding what to eat for dinner can – should – be as simple as those three rules. Unfortunately, as American journalist and best-selling author Michael Pollan has been pointing out in nearly two decades of food writing, the modern world has made deciding what to eat much, much more complicated.

As Pollan describes in his book In Defense of Food, the 19th century served up a revolutionary new way of looking at food. For the first time in history, we started seeing, understanding, comparing and evaluating food in terms of nutrients. First, macronutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Then, in the following century, micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and more.

While this paradigm of “food as the sum of its nutrients” seems totally obvious now, it’s a break with millennia of tradition. It amounts to a new ideology – nutritionism, as Pollan calls it – that understands foods solely as vehicles for conveying nutrients, and eating solely in terms of a narrow concept of physical health. And unfortunately, it has made us blind to the other aspects of food that are perhaps even more essential: how we make and eat our food, the time we take to prepare and eat it, and who we eat it with.

In other words, food culture. Or cultures, plural. The unique and different food cultures passed on from mothers to children, generation after generation, in every community around the pre-modern world. The food cultures that reveal wildly varied yet sustainable diets, some of mostly fish, some of mostly vegetables, some of mostly meat, and everything in between.

But whereas once we had our mothers and families to guide us in the ways of food culture, the second half of the twentieth century saw them pushed aside to be replaced by an army of specialist food scientists, government regulators, and corporate marketing teams.

This led to an explosion in applied nutritionism, laboratory-engineered foods that make screaming health claims every time we walk down the supermarket aisles. Low fat! Low cholesterol! Vitamin-enriched! Sugar free! High in fibre! Lite! It’s a wonder we ever knew what food to eat before food packaging started telling us.

The problem is, the value of many of those claims turn out to be wrong. Yesterday’s industrial wonder foods are today’s suspect cancer-causers. Stuffing ourselves on engineered super-nutrients may open the door to a host of unexpected side effects. Despite all our modern food-science miracles, heart disease and diabetes continue to rise. As Pollan makes clear, the one sure thing we can say about the last century or so of nutritionism is that it hasn’t made the least bit healthier.

There is a simpler way. As Pollan writes, it starts with eating food. Real food, the kind your great grandmother would have recognized as food. The kind you can even still find hanging around quietly in the periphery aisles of the supermarket: the fruit and veg aisle, the bakery section, the dairy case and the deli counter.

What’s wonderful about Pollan’s three food rules is there are no absolutes (no “only X”, no “no Y”). Unlike most dieting advice, these rules are incredibly easy to remember and apply. And also unlike most dieting advice, they will probably never, ever, be upended by the “latest scientific study”. Distilled from a study of the world’s traditional food cultures, these simple food rules are rules to live by.

Answering the question What shall we have for dinner? has never been more complicated. But with the right rules to guide us, it couldn’t be simpler.