RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
If your New Year's resolutions include eating better, you might want to consider the following advice. It comes from Michael Pollan, author of a book called "In Defense of Food." When he spoke with Steve Inskeep, he was able to summarize his advice in seven words.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author, "In Defense of Food"): Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Mr. POLLAN: That's it. That is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.
INSKEEP: Now, wait a minute. If your advice is eat food, the implication of that is that whatever we're eating now is not food.
Mr. POLLAN: Very often it isn't. We are eating a lot of edible food-like substances, which is to say highly processed things that might be called yogurt, might be called cereals, whatever, but in fact are very intricate products of food science that are really imitations of food.
INSKEEP: How can I tell the difference between food and fake food?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, that's where it gets challenging. That's why I needed a whole book and not that one sense. Distinguishing between food and food products takes a little bit of work. So I came up with a couple rules of thumb. They're kind of like algorithms to help you sort it out. One, and the simplest, is don't eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. So if you're wheeling down the aisles of your grocery store and you pick up a box of, let's say, Go-Gurt, portable yogurt tubes...
INSKEEP: Would you explain that for people who maybe haven't had Go-Gurt lately?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, Go-Gurt is a form in which yogurt is sweetened, enhanced in various ways that you're supposed to squirt into your mouth, or children are supposed to squirt into their mouth on the school bus or whenever they, you know, but somewhere other than a table. It's a convenience food, and it's a fun food.
But is it food? And that's the question. And the way you answer that question is do that mental test. You know, imagine your grandmother, your great-grandmother picking up this tube, holding it up to the light, trying to figure out how to administer it to her body, if indeed it is something that goes in your body. And then imagine her reading the ingredients, which, you know, yogurt is a very simple food. It's milk inoculated with a bacterial culture. But Go-Gurt has dozens of ingredients.
INSKEEP: So eat food. You go onto say not too much, which is easy to say and hard to do.
Mr. POLLAN: It is. And it's important. And it wouldn't have been easy to leave that out because a big part of our whole conversation about food - should we eat low fat, should we eat low carb - is all the way of avoiding maybe we're just eating too much. And that is a huge part of the problem.
So what I try to do, though, in this book is give people advice that's based not so much on science, which I think has failed us when it comes to food, by and large. I think nutritional science is sort of where surgery was in 1650. You know, it's something you're better off observing curiously rather than participating in. But we have a better source of wisdom about food and that is to say culture. And cultures have various devices to help people moderate their appetite.
Once upon a time, there was scarcity. We don't have that anymore. We have abundance. But if you go around the world, you find very interesting tricks and devices. For example, small portion size. You know, the French manage to eat extravagantly rich food but they don't get fat. And the reason is that they eat it on small plates. They don't have seconds. They don't snack.
Or you go to Japan, you go to Okinawa, and they have a very interesting rule, which is called Hara Hachi Bu. And basically they tell themselves eat only until you're 80 percent full.
Now, that sounds like a kind of bizarre idea. How would you know when you're 80 percent full? Well, you might not know exactly, but you do know when you are full and the idea of stopping eating before you reach that moment is, you know, if you do that you will actually reduce your caloric intake quite a bit.
INSKEEP: So eat food. Not too much. And then you say mostly plants. I want to ask about mostly. You don't say only plants. You don't say try to include a few plants. Mostly plants.
Mr. POLLAN: That's right. Yeah. Plants are really important. You know, from all the nutritional science I've read there is incontrovertible but boring evidence that eating your fruits and vegetables is probably the best thing you can do for preventing cancer, for weight control, for diabetes, for all the different - all the Western diseases that now afflict us.
But must you not eat meat? No. I think meat is very nutritious food. I think the problem with meat is we eat way too much of it. If you look at studies of people who are vegetarians, they're healthier than the rest of us and they live longer. But if you look at studies of flexitarians - people who are nearly vegetarians - eat a little bit of meat, use meat as a flavoring, have a meat, you know, dish a couple of times a week, they're just as healthy as the vegetarians. So there's nothing magic about ruling meat out of your diet. But I would argue, though, if you are going to eat meat, eat animals that have eaten mostly plants.
INSKEEP: You want a grass-fed cow, not, well...
Mr. POLLAN: Corn and - I mean, corn is a plant, obviously, but when I say eat mostly plants, I'm saying we're better off with leaves than seeds. One of the big problems in our diet - one of the big changes over the last couple of hundred years is we have a heavy-seed diet. We're eating refined grain. Everything from, you know, high-fructose corn syrup to white flour. And among the plants, it's the leaves that really have the interesting and most valuable nutrients.
INSKEEP: You know, I want to ask you a question before we go any further here. You've given us advice, it's seems very simple. I'm sure that you can avoid processed foods if you take the time and you have the resources, but can you do that affordably without spending tons and tons of time?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you're going to have to spend either more time or more money, and perhaps a little bit of both. And I think that's just the reality. It's really a question of priorities. And we have in effect devalued food. And what I'm arguing is to move it a little closer to the center of our lives, and that we are going to have to put more into it, but then it will be very rewarding if we do.
And if we don't, by the way, we're going to suffer from this - you know, we hear this phrase so many times, this epidemic of chronic disease. But the fact is we are at a fork in a road. We're either going to get used to chronic disease and be, you know, in an age of Lipitor and dialysis centers on every corner in the city, or we're going to change the way we eat. I mean, it's really that simple. Most of the things that are killing us these days, whether it's heart disease, diabetes, obesity, many, many cancers are directly attributed to the way we're eating.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much. Good talking with you.
Mr. POLLAN: Thanks, Steve. It's a pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Speaking with Steve is Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food." You can hear more from Michael Pollan and read an excerpt from "In Defense of Food" at npr.org.