Just how realistic is this healthy eating mantra?
Last week I had the privilege of listening to best-selling author, Micheal Pollan, as he spoke at the Sydney Opera House. Pollan is a journalist who specialises in writing about the food industry, health, and environmental sustainability. Probably his most famous mantra is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But just how realistic is his approach for everyday people like you and me?
In his books, such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Pollan promotes other simple messages such as:
- “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
- “Cook. Cooking for yourself takes back control of your diet.”
- “No snacks, no seconds, no sweets – except on days that start with S.”
- “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does. Don’t shop for your food at a petrol station.”
- “Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognise as food.”
- “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.”
- "Always leave the table a little hungry."
I think these suggestions are great because they really boil things down to easy-to-remember mantras that stick in your mind. Dietitians, nutritionists and other health experts all need to simplify our messages, to make complex issues easier to understand and put into practice every day at home. It’s definitely what we always aim to do here at Healthy Food Guide.
Pollan also has a real knack of getting back to the basics of our food culture: things such as sitting around a table to share a meal, choosing whole foods and cooking them yourself at home. These are obviously great ideals to try to follow.
But back to his mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” These seven words sum up the way in which he believes we should be eating to keep both ourselves, and the planet, healthy. He describes it as the “short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy”.
However, while this may sound like a simple plan in theory, I think we need to think of this more as a sliding scale, with this mantra as the ‘gold standard’ or ideal that we should aim for. If we could all manage to live by Pollan’s philosophies, then that would be fabulous. But I don’t think it’s necessarily do-able, all the time, for everyone. If, for example, you are a busy mum who needs a quick lunch or dinner, or a snack to throw in the lunchbox, you’re likely to need a fast and convenient option – and that will sometimes mean packaged snacks, or other processed or pre-packaged foods. Plus, all of us have cravings, special occasions, or days (or weeks) when we just can’t seem to get it together when it comes to healthy eating. Which is completely okay! Pollan is right – supermarkets are confusing, food labels are confusing and most of us want to do the right thing. We just need help and clear advice on better products, better choices and better methods of cooking. We also need to know that mantras like this are guiding principles, rather than hard and fast ‘rules’ – and that you don’t have to be perfect 100% of the time.
Perhaps what we need to do is keep the “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” mantra in the back of our mind when we’re planning and choosing what we eat each day, but realise that it’s okay to slip a little sometimes. That sounds like a healthy approach to me.