Food Rules An Eaters Manual Book Summary

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Book Review: Food Rules—An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan © 2009. 

Review/Summary by Dr. Denice Moffat

Food Rules book summary

Food Rules Book Cover

I liked this book. It’s short, easy and fast to read and packed with great advice from many people’s mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, other cultures, nutritionists, doctors, folklorists, anthropologists and nurses (plus about 2500 responses when a request was put out through an article in the New York Times blog).

Here are some proven facts and statistics presented in the book:

  • Virtually all of the Type II diabetics, 80% of all cardiovascular disease and 33% of all cancers are linked to the western diet.
  • Populations who eat a wide range of foods (unrefined) do not suffer from these diseases.
  • If you get off the western diet, your health can improve.
  • Processing food removes nutrients, adds toxins and makes it more absorbable (causing insulin challenges).
  • We spend 2 Trillion dollars on health care each year in the United States.

I often have clients who are concerned about their weight. Advising about diet is a difficult task because most of these clients are unconscious eaters. I remember one gal who came in when I had a physical office who was concerned about weight even though “she hardly ate anything all day long”. We discussed being aware of what and when she ate. I asked her if she ever counted calories. “No, that’s too much work and besides, I hardly eat anything all day. Just little bits here and there, I skip breakfast usually and sometimes I only eat one meal per day.” We discussed hormones and I asked her if she liked raw, hulled pumpkin seeds which are great for balancing out reproductive hormones in both women and men. “Never tried them before” she said.  I had some, so put about two cups into a little bowl in front of her so that she could try a few. Now, that’s about 2592 calories/cup! I had previously discussed the amounts of calories in nuts and certain condensed foods so I didn’t expect her to eat the entire bowl while we were talking, but every few minutes she’d reach down and grab another handful.

It takes ingesting an extra 3500 calories to add on a pound of body weight. Gee, I wonder where that extra weight is coming from? She also loved tortilla chips (those are 13 calories per chip by the way.) See the book for Food Rule #25—Eat less (Michael Pollan’s most unwelcome advice in the book.)

Most people don’t eat enough raw fruits and vegetables. They eat ‘grab and go’ stuff that’s less messy but more high-calorie dense and they eat as they multi-task. This is not good. Did you know that if you crave foods to crunch on when you’re driving this is a sign you may have petrochemical allergies?

Just keeping a food diary for two weeks a year may be enough to see where you’re ingesting too many calories. Do it for yourself. Ahh, getting back to the book. . .

Michael Pollan (author of other books including The Omnivores Dilemma, In Defense of Food and the Botany of Desire) calls himself a curious journalist. In writing Food Rules—An Eater’s Manual, he was hoping to answer the question ‘What should we eat” for both himself and his family. Of course other questions came up during his research like, “Why do we have so many brain cells in our stomachs?” (We don’t know the answer to that).

Michael says, “The more I read and researched, the simpler the answers became.” His research came down ultimately to just seven simple words:


He’s distilled his research into 64 rules and divided the book up into three sections:

1) Part I: What should I eat? (Eat Food)

2) Part II: What kind of food should I eat? (Mostly plants)

3) Part III: How should I eat? (Not too much)

Some of the rules I was happy to see—paraphrased with my own wording—were ones I had learned growing up:

  • Eat real food. The less processing the better. Cooking from scratch is better for you, often easy to do, takes less time and is way cheaper than eating out—in both funds and calories. (Food Rule #1.)
  • Only shop on the outside isles of the store. That’s where all the healthy stuff is. (Food Rule # 12.)
  • It’s better to pay the grocer than it is the doctor. Prevention of disease is way cheaper.
  • Drink the vegetable water or incorporate it into soups (we incorporate it into our chicken’s mash). (Food Rule #26.)
  • Never go back for seconds (Food Rule #53.)
  • Eat slowly, using a smaller plate and set your fork down between bites. (Food Rule #52.)
  • Taste your food before salting (or putting extra sugar) on it. (Food Rule #34.)
  • Treat treats as treats (Food Rule #60.) Baked goods and sodas are reserved only for special occasions (no, there isn’t a special occasion more than once a month or so.)
  • All things in moderation.
  • Eat at the table. (Michael Pollan shares that if a child is watching TV and you put a bowl of vegetables or fruit in front of them, chances are they will eat it without noticing. Studies show people eat much more in front of the TV than they would at the dinner table.) (Food Rule #58.)
  • Leave the table a little bit hungry (in other cultures they say, “Eat until your hunger is gone and no more.” (Food Rule #46.)
  • If you’re not hungry enough to eat a piece of fruit, then you’re really not that hungry.
  • Eat your colors—Food Rule #25.  Make sure the salad (fruit or vegetable salads) have all the colors you can put in it.
  • The faster you eat, the more you’ll eat. It takes 20 minutes for satiety to kick in. (Food Rule #49.)
  • Talk and eat. It helps the digestion.

I remember seeing my grandmother read Prevention magazine decades ago. She taught me the basics of food combining when I was about ten years old. For the food combining technique, I often refer to the book Fit for Life by the Diamonds—especially for blood type A people who have digestive disorders or for people who pass undigested foods in their stools.

Michael Pollan doesn’t address the blood types, zone diet or really any other diets specifically. He sticks to the tried and true food rules passed down from generation to generation. Here are some other rules that I find helpful:

  • If you wouldn’t cook with the ingredients on the label, why are you eating it and feeding it to your loved ones? (Food Rules #2 and 3.)
  • Eat only foods that will eventually rot. (Food Rule #14) I loved this rule and it really hit home because when I was in graduate school we discovered a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken that had been left in a boat house for over a year that the rats wouldn’t even eat. It looked perfectly intact! I was floored.
  • Vote with your dollars. Support your local farmers and Farmers markets.
  • If a third grader can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t eat it. (Food Rule #7.)
  • Avoid Lite, Low-Fat or Non-fat foods. (Food Rule #9)
  • Avoid foods that pretend to be something they are not. (Food Rule #3.) Stay away from artificial sweeteners, fat-free cream cheese, margarine, McRibs. . .well you get the picture.
  • Avoid foods that list sugar in the top three ingredients. (Food Rule #5.)
  • Avoid high fructose corn syrup. (Food Rule #9.)
  • Buy local. (Food Rule # 16.) If you don’t support local farmers, products and businesses they won’t be there long. Buying local infuses local economy so that everybody there flourishes.
  • Grow a garden (in soil or in pots) Michael says in his book that a $70 investment in seeds yields about $600 worth of food.
  • And I especially liked Food Rule # 20:  It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.

Two food rules I didn’t see in the book were:

  • Don’t eat when you’re upset.
  • Don’t eat dinner after a certain time. (The time varies from person to person I’ve noticed over the years.)

There are a bunch of rules I didn’t touch on, most of which have to do with Localvore eating and the purity of how things are raised and processed, but you’ll have to get a copy of the book for yourself to read those. It’s definitely worth a read.

Buy the book:

Food Rules–An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan