Archive for October, 2009

Exploring the “Eater’s Manifesto”

October 8, 2009

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

These hardly sound like words to spark a social revolution. Yet when I went to hear food author Michael Pollan speak in Baltimore earlier this year, I was amazed to find the hall crammed with over 1,000 people (and a pretty damned healthy-looking thousand people at that). Apparently he’s been drawing even larger crowds all over the country.

Mr. Pollan laughed about his “rock star” status that night, and modestly redirected attention away from himself. There is no question he is a brilliant thinker and writer, and has done much to provoke and guide the current food revolution, but as he noted it’s really not about him, but rather about the millions of Americans who are taking matters into their own hands: growing their own food, seeking organic, sustainable and local food, and just generally refusing to eat what the corporate food system tries to shove down our throat every day.

There is no shortage of reasons for this new behavior, from regular and increasing incidents of salmonella and e-coli in our national food system, to concerns about organic and sustainable agriculture, a wish to support local farmers, or to confront the crisis of climate change (in which modern industrial agriculture plays a major role).

Perhaps the most intriguing reason Mr. Pollan presented that night is the idea that eating is “the proto-political act.” Noting that the universally understood signal for “no”  – shaking one’s head from side to side – starts when as toddlers we try to avoid having food we don’t want put in our mouth, Pollan theorized that choosing what we eat constitutes our earliest attempts to exert influence over the world around us. And hence, the method we return to most easily and naturally.

Whether you agree with that or not, there is no question that Americans are involved in a food revolution right now, increasingly growing their own food or seeking it from local, non-industry sources. And the “Eater’s Manifesto” outlined in his current book, In Defense of Food,  is Pollan’s answer to the questions he posed in his previous bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Millions of Americans, including this author, are taking his advice to heart.

Of course there is a lot of explanation behind this simple phrase, an entire book’s worth, in fact, so below please find the ultra-condensed, Cliff Notes explanation of the manifesto. (Bold headings are Pollan’s as are the direct quotes; the rest is closely paraphrased summation.)  Use it in good health! (And do, by all means, follow this up by reading Pollan’s most recent books, if you haven’t already. They are fantastic.)

The Eater’s Manifesto: Eat Food, Not too much, Mostly Plants


  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. – Your great grandmother would not eat yogurt in a tube, for instance.  But since the food industry is actively trying to fool your senses, and could sometimes even fool your great grandmother, a slightly more detailed policy to capture imitation food is required – see below.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting. – You can bet it’s not good for you.
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable,  c) more than five in number, or that include  d) high fructose corn syrup. – Such items are not real food, but manufactured products of an industry that has goals other than providing you the healthiest possible food.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims. – “For a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food….. Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about health.”  Remember that until very recently food science considered trans-fat-rich margarine to be healthier than butter, but it turns out that it gives people heart attacks. Health claims have become so hopelessly corrupt that you will now find them on bags of chips, boxes of sugary breakfast cereal, and even ice cream.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. – Most supermarkets are laid out the same way, with processed foods dominating the center aisles and the fresh food – dairy, produce, meat and fish – lining the walls.  Sometimes these items are still only ostensibly fresh, however, so consider a more radical strategy…
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. – Go to farmers’ markets, do a CSA, visit the farm yourself.  The best food system is the one that puts you closest to the food production and producer.  Whenever possible, shake the hand that feeds you.  Wendell Berry famously wrote that “eating is an agricultural act,” which means that we are not simply consumers but co-creators of the system that feeds us.  Shopping this way may take more money and effort, but it’s ultimately the strongest action you can take to create a much healthier and more sustainable food system – as well as to provide you and your family the healthiest possible food.


  • Pay more, eat less. – Even without the current American crisis of obesity, there is ample scientific evidence that eating less is healthier. Unfortunately, the cheaper foods in America tend to be the more processed, less nutritious and more fattening foods.  And because they are cheaper, we tend to eat more of them.  They are also more likely to be “convenience” or quickly prepared foods, which also causes us to eat more of them.  Better and healthier food tends to be more expensive because they are grown with more care, less intensively, and less commercially.  And they usually take longer to prepare, the “time cost” of food.  But as the French and other traditional food cultures have shown, you can have much greater “food experience” and pleasure with less food if you take longer to enjoy it, both preparing and eating it.
  • Eat meals. – There was a time not long ago when there was a mild social taboo against snacking between meals, but most Americans today mark time each day with snacks.  One recent study also found that roughly a fifth of all American eating now takes place in cars, and the food industry talks about “eating occasions.”  Meals, conversely, are social occasions and a major way to avoid bad eating. At meals we socialize and civilize our children, teach manners, enjoy the art of conversation, determine portion size, model eating and drinking behavior, and enforce social norms about greed, gluttony and waste.
  • Do all your eating at a table. – See above – and no, a desk is not a table.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does. ‘Nuf said.
  • Try not to eat alone. – When we eat alone we often eat mindlessly, and eat more.  And once again, eating with others becomes a ritual of family, community and/or culture, and not simply an act of animal biology.
  • Consult your gut. – Most of us use external visual cues, such as the size of a portion or the proximity of food, to tell us when to stop eating.  Alter the external cues by doing such things as serving smaller portions on smaller plates, but also cultivate your other senses and look for internal cues.  Does the third bite of this dessert taste nearly as good as the first? I could eat more but am I still hungry? It takes 20 minutes for the brain to get the message that the stomach is full, but many of us eat our food in less time than that – another advantage of an actual meal over an “eating occasion.”
  • Eat slowly. – Slow in the sense of deliberate and knowledgeable eating as promoted by Slow Food, the Italian-born movement dedicated to the principle that “a firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life” – “a coherent protest against, and alternative to, not only the Western diet and way of eating, but also the whole ever-more-desperate Western way of life.”
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden. – “To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our own sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap and easy, that food is a product of industry, not nature, that food is fuel, not a form of communion, with other people as well as other species – with nature.”


  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. – The benefits of a plant-based diet provide the only point of universal consensus among nutrition experts.  Vegetarians and near-vegetarians, or “flexitarians,” are less suspectible to Western diseases including heart disease, obesity and diabetes, are generally healthier, and live longer.  By eating a plant based diet you also consume fewer calories, which is good.  Meat is not necessary, but is also not necessarily a bad thing, and can be very nutritious.  However, eating vast quantities of meat – the average American consumes 200 pounds a year – from a highly industrialized food chain is not good for you.  “Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he recommended using meat more as a flavor principle than as a main course, treating it as a ‘condiment for the vegetables.” Such vast quantities of meat are also not good for the planet: it has been determined that factory farm meat production is one of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide.  It is also notoriously brutal in its treatment of animals.
  • You are what what you eat eats too. – The industrial meat industry produces immense quantities of meat quickly by feeding animals energy-intensive grains such as corn, even though many of these animals, particularly cows, evolved to eat grass.  Large amounts of antibiotics are then used to treat the animals, which are perpetually sick as a result of the inappropriate diet. And beware marketing labels:  “free range” can mean only that there is a dirt lot that the chickens can roam in, and all cattle are “grass-fed” before they get to the feedlot. Look for terms such as “pastured,” and “grass-finished” or “100% grass fed.”
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer. – Freezing food is a good way to eat well on a budget, since you can buy in bulk, whether it’s meat from a local producer or  local produce at the height of its season. Freezing also preserves the nutritional value of produce much better than canning.
  • Eat like an omnivore. – “Biodiversity in the diet means more biodiversity in the fields;” the growth of monocultures and our dependence on a very limited number of plant and animal species – those most suitable for the industrial food system – is dangerously unstable. Plus the more species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. And don’t be fooled by the diversity of food products in a supermarket, since many of them are made from the same small handful of plants, principally corn and soy and wheat.
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils. – “Organic” is a good starting point, but there are plenty of exceptional farmers and ranchers who for one reason or another are not certified organic – don’t overlook them. And remember that Oreos and high-fructose corn syrup are not health food, even if the ingredients going into them are organically grown. Ideally you want to look for food that is both organic and local, since food shipped from the other side of the country, in addition to consuming huge amounts of fossil fuel, can lose much of its nutritional value in route.
  • Eat wild foods when you can. – Wild foods are usually much more nutritious than their cultivated brethren. However, there are simply not enough wild animals for us all to eating more of them, so keep this in mind and don’t overdo it.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements. – While it’s probably a good idea to take a multivitamin-and-mineral pill after age fifty, studies show they don’t do much good for those of us younger than that.  However, people who take supplements are typically more health conscious and better educated. “So, to the extent that you can, be the kind of person who would take supplements, and then save your money.”
  • Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese or the Indians or the Greeks. – People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet. Traditional diets developed over hundreds of years because they work, and keep the people who eat them healthy. This includes both the actual foods eaten and how they are eaten. For instance, the Asian practice of fermenting soybeans and eating soy in the form of curds, or tofu, makes a healthy diet from a plant that eaten almost any other way would make people ill.
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism. – Soy is again an interesting case in point.  While the food industry is eager to process and sell the vast amounts of subsidized soy coming of American farms, it is very unclear whether products such as “soy protein isolate” or “soy isoflavones” are good or bad for you.
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet. – Reductionist science loves to break everything down to its components, but in the same way that foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts, dietary patterns are more then the sum of the foods that comprise them. Complicated interactions among nutrients and non-nutrient substances in the traditional diet cannot be teased apart, as much as scientists and the food industry would like to do it.
  • Have a glass wine with dinner. [Editor’s note – my favorite advice at the very end!] – Traditional diets have understood the healthful benefits of alcohol for centuries, and there is now abundant scientific evidence demonstrating that those who drink moderately and regularly live longer and suffer considerably less heart disease than teetotalers.