|Gillian Goodfriend, NCHPAD Registered Dietician|
Despite our attempts to eat healthier, the American diet is one of the unhealthiest diets in the world - and our rates of diabetes and heart disease are astronomical. Many experts agree that a large part of the American health care crisis is due to the American diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that chronic diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis) are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems in the U.S. Many chronic conditions have a direct link to diet.
American author, journalist, activist, and professor Michael Pollan has become well-known for his books informing people about the foods they eat and what they mean for their health. His recent book, Food Rules, is a short, condensed version of his previous efforts, intended to provide a simple, straightforward, practical approach to healthy eating. While most of the rules are backed by science, they are not framed in the vocabulary of science, but rather in easy-to-understand language. The book includes 64 tips, seven of which are summarized below.
1. Eat food.
Many of the foods on the grocery store shelves contain what Pollan refers to as 'foodlike substances.' Stores are filled with highly processed foods, containing many chemical additives. Pollan recommends shopping the perimeter of the store and buying foods in their natural state (i.e., fresh produce, fresh meats).
2. Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
What would she say if she saw multi-colored cereal or blue soda pop? Many of the highly processed foods that don't necessarily look like food were not available 50 years ago. Following this rule will help you to avoid the most processed foods.
3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.
Read the following lists of ingredients and decide which cereal sounds healthier to you:
- Cereal 1: Rice, Sugar, Polydextrose (Source of Fiber), Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Coconut and Palm Kernel Oils), Salt, contains less than .5% of Natural and Artificial Flavor, Red 40, Yellow 6, Turmeric, Oleoresin (Color), Yellow 5, Blue 1, Blue 2, BHA.
- Cereal 2: organic whole-grain wheat, natural Vitamin E (to preserve freshness).
Many of the preservatives added to food to keep it more shelf-stable are long words that are difficult to pronounce. The more simple the ingredients, the more wholesome the food typically is.
4. Treat meat as a flavoring or special-occasion food.
The typical Western diet is high in red meat and processed foods and low in fruits and vegetables. In the U.S., meat has become the central focus of many meals. A high consumption of meat (in particular, red meat) has been shown to be associated with higher rates of heart disease and some cancers.
Pollan recommends eating mostly plants, but not only plants. Watch your portion sizes of meat and be sure to include more fresh produce to improve your health.
Some experts recommend trying to eat at least one meat-free meal per week. For example, prepare an entrée with legumes (such as black beans) as the central focus.
5. Get out of the supermarket whenever you can.
Farmer's markets are excellent places to shop. Not only do they support local farmers, but the foods tend to be unprocessed, in-season, and harvested at the peak of perfection for flavor.
6. Do all your eating at a table.
Americans are living busier, more hectic lives. Therefore, more and more meals are being eaten in the car and on the go, which leads to mindless eating. People also tend to eat faster and eat more when they are distracted. Furthermore, research shows that children who are involved in eating family meals tend to have lower rates of obesity.
Along with the busier lives comes more dining away from home. Cooking has become less and less common in many households. However, when food is cooked at home, we have more control over what goes into our mouths. We are able to control both the ingredients and the portions. Pollan notes that the decline in home cooking closely parallels the rise in obesity.
While Food Rules does not answer every question about what to eat and why, it certainly provides an easy-to-follow guide to improve your diet and your health. In summary, he offers the following advice: