Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ditch the diet gurus, just read "Food Rules"

The 64 healthy eating tips that will change your diet forever
By Suzanne Campbell, The Irish Independent, Thursday Jun 17, 2010
Summer time spells anxiety for many of us, and the prospect of stripping off by the pool can push us towards a quick weight-loss plan. In Hollywood, a new diet trend is to eat only raw food or even baby food -- yet another weight-loss plan supposedly practised by celebs such as Jennifer Aniston. But as these trends come and go, how many of us ask: "South Beach", "Atkins", "The Zone", did any of them work in the long term?
With a diet industry that's worth over €200bn worldwide, it's not hard to see how peddling the latest solution for weight loss is a financial winner. New diet products and "experts" exist to sell us new ways to do the same old thing: lose weight and become healthier.
American author Michael Pollan has an alternative approach. In his new book Food Rules: An Eater's manual, he offers 64 simple tips on how to eat healthily. They read like advice your granny would have given you, and provide a refreshing antidote to the constant stream of nutritional "trends".
Ditching diet gurus and getting real about food is the only approach that works, according to Pollan. Writing about diets is a new departure for Pollan, whose laser-beam attention is normally focused on supermarkets and food manufacturing. His landmark book In Defense of Food made him one of the world's most trusted writers on the subject.
A professor of science journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Pollan turns the focus on to us in Food Rules, advising us to ignore "The Nutritional Industrial Complex".
He uses old-fashioned sense to simplify what we put into our mouths and see how it's affecting our weight and health.
Pollan was nudged towards writing about weight loss by doctors who approached him looking for a pamphlet with some simple rules for eating. One physician told him about the insides of patients which were wrecked by eating "food products" rather than food. In the past, Pollan has detailed the huge health cost of processed foods and points out that the way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.

"The modern supermarket has on average 47,000 products. The industry does not want you to know the truth about what you're eating because if you knew, you might not want to eat it."
Obesity costs Ireland €4bn a year. And as we eat more of the so-called Western diet -- processed foods, meat, added sugar, fats and refined grains -- we're also experiencing more of the diseases associated with this diet: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Yet people who consume more traditional foods experience these diseases at a much lower rate.
After years analysing the problem, Pollan's answer is shockingly simple: "Eat real food, not too much of it, and eat more plants than meat." Expanding on this central theme, Pollan took the doctors up on their challenge: collecting and formulating straightforward, everyday rules for eating for a book that could be understood by everyone. For advice he turned to chefs, scientists, doctors and the readers of his books. Then he boiled down the knowledge into 64 essential rules about eating with a paragraph explaining each.

For such a heavy hitter such as Pollan, it's refreshing to read a collection of positive tips on eating that is as relevant at the holiday buffet counter as in the aisle of the supermarket. Here's a selection of his food rules:
- Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself
Pollan suggests there's nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried food or pastries now and then. The problem is that food manufacturers have made eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and easy that we're eating them every day. Once the food industry took over the task of washing, peeling, cutting, frying potatoes and cleaning up the mess, it makes things like French fries much more attractive.
"If you made all the French fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they're so much work. The same holds true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice-cream. Enjoy these treats as often as you're willing to prepare them -- chances are good it won't be every day."
- Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored
Pollan says that many of us eat when we are not hungry.
"We eat out of boredom, for entertainment, to comfort or reward ourselves. Try to be aware of why you're eating, and ask yourself if you're really hungry -- before you eat and then again along the way. (If you're not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you're not hungry.) Food is a costly antidepressant."
- Avoid foods you see advertised on television
Food marketers are ingenious at turning criticisms of their products into newer, reformulated versions of the same foods. They re-advertise the product as being low in fat or low in salt and then boast about their implied health properties.
Pollan's tip: "The best way to escape these marketing ploys is to tune out the marketing itself, by refusing to buy heavily promoted foods. More than two-thirds of food advertising is spent promoting processed foods (and alcohol), so if you avoid products with big ad budgets, you'll automatically be avoiding edible food-like substances."
- Do all your eating at a table
And no folks, "a desk is not a table". Pollan points out that if we eat while we work, watch TV or drive, "we eat mindlessly -- and as a result eat a lot more than we would if we were eating at a table, paying attention to what we're doing".
Testing this, he offers an interesting solution to the problem of fussy children. "Place a child in front of a television set and place a bowl of vegetables in front of him or her. They will eat everything in the bowl, often even vegetables that he or she doesn't ordinarily touch, without noticing what's going on. Which suggests an exception to the rule: When eating somewhere other than at a table, stick to fruits and vegetables."
- Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of the milk
"This should go without saying. Such cereals are highly processed and full of refined carbohydrates as well as chemical additives."
- Cook
"Cooking for yourself," he writes, "is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and food processors." And by cooking at home he doesn't mean something complicated or arduous. It's throwing leftovers from the fridge together for an omelette, opening a tin of tuna with some salad, or even beans on toast.
Pollan's rules distil much of what we know about food into easy, memorable nuggets of information. The book's strength lies in that it's uncomplicated, jargon-free and points out with a large dollop of humour the madness of some of our eating habits. After all, "it's not food if it arrives in the window of your car" isn't that hard to argue with. Food Rules set out to be the antidote to diet books, but it could just change the way you eat for a very long time.
Suzanne Campbell
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