Food Rules

by Michael Pollan

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
Food Rules
Food Rules

What are the big ideas? 1. Eat real and whole foods: The book emphasizes the importance of eating whole, real foods that are as close to their natural state as poss

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Eat real and whole foods: The book emphasizes the importance of eating whole, real foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. It encourages avoiding processed foods with multiple ingredients or unpronounceable names. This approach is distinct from many other nutrition books that focus on specific diets or macronutrient ratios.
  2. Food wisdom from tradition and culture: The book emphasizes the value of food wisdom from traditional cultures and distills practical rules for healthy eating based on this knowledge. For instance, it suggests eating a variety of colorful foods, fermented foods, and foods grown on healthy soil. This is different from other nutrition literature that may focus on scientific studies or individual nutrients.
  3. Pay attention to the source and quality of food: The book encourages eating animals that have themselves eaten well and buying locally grown and raised meat, poultry, and fish. It also advises against consuming foods made in factories or with added sugars. This focus on the origin and quality of food is unique compared to many other nutrition books that may solely focus on macronutrient ratios or specific diets.
  4. Eating for pleasure: The book emphasizes the importance of enjoying meals and eating slowly, savoring each bite and the experience as a whole. It encourages eating less and stopping before being full, but not feeling deprived or unsatisfied. This approach to eating for pleasure is distinct from many other nutrition books that may focus on restriction or calorie counting.
  5. Foods as medicine: The book suggests that foods can be used as medicine, such as eating fermented foods for gut health or eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables for overall wellness. This perspective on food as medicine is different from many other nutrition books that may solely focus on individual nutrients or macronutrient ratios.




  • The Western diet, consisting of processed foods, meat, added fat and sugar, refined grains, and few vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, is linked to chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
  • People who consume traditional diets, which can vary greatly in composition, generally do not suffer from chronic diseases.
  • Those who abandon the Western diet see significant improvements in their health.
  • The Nutritional Industrial Complex focuses on identifying "evil" nutrients in the Western diet for profit instead of addressing the overall diet.
  • A simple, healthy diet can be summed up as "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
  • This book focuses on practical rules for daily life to help you eat real food in moderation and move away from the Western diet.
  • Food wisdom is found in tradition and culture, distilled through generations of figuring out what keeps people healthy.
  • The book curates popular food wisdom and vets it for relevance and usefulness.
  • There is no need to learn or memorize all rules; adopt those that stick and work best for you.
  • Divide the rules into three sections: "eat food", "mostly plants", and "not too much" to address different dimensions of your eating life.


“Eating in our time has gotten complicated — needlessly so, in my opinion. I will get to the “needlessly” part in a moment, but consider first the complexity that now attends this most basic of creaturely activities. Most of us have come to rely on experts of one kind or another to tell us how to eat — doctors and diet books, media accounts of the latest findings in nutritional science, government advisories and food pyramids, the proliferating health claims on food packages. We may not always heed these experts’ advice, but their voices are in our heads every time we order from a menu or wheel down the aisle in the supermarket. Also in our heads today resides an astonishing amount of biochemistry. How odd is it that everybody now has at least a passing acquaintance with words like “antioxidant,” “saturated fat,” “omega-3 fatty acids,” “carbohydrates,” “polyphenols,” “folic acid,” “gluten,” and “probiotics”? It’s gotten to the point where we don’t see foods anymore but instead look right through them to the nutrients (good and bad) they contain, and of course to the calories — all these invisible qualities in our food that, properly understood, supposedly hold the secret to eating well.”

“Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650—very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you? I think I’ll wait awhile.”

“And, even more important for our purposes, these facts are sturdy enough that we can build a sensible diet upon them. Here they are: FACT 1. Populations that eat a so-called Western diet—generally defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet. Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases linked to this diet. The arguments in nutritional science are not about this well-established link; rather, they are all about identifying the culprit nutrient in the Western diet that might be responsible for chronic diseases. Is it the saturated fat or the refined carbohydrates or the lack of fiber or the transfats or omega-6 fatty acids—or what? The point is that, as eaters (if not as scientists), we know all we need to know to act: This diet, for whatever reason, is the problem. FACT 2. Populations eating a remarkably wide range of traditional diets generally don’t suffer from these chronic diseases. These diets run the gamut from ones very high in fat (the Inuit in Greenland subsist largely on seal blubber) to ones high in carbohydrate (Central American Indians subsist largely on maize and beans) to ones very high in protein (Masai tribesmen in Africa subsist chiefly on cattle blood, meat, and milk), to cite three rather extreme examples. But much the same holds true for more mixed traditional diets. What this suggests is that there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diets. Except, that is, for one: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us now are eating. What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick! (While it is true that we generally live longer than people used to, or than people in some traditional cultures do, most of our added years owe to gains in infant mortality and child health, not diet.) There is actually a third, very hopeful fact that flows from these two: People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health. We have good research to suggest that the effects of the Western diet can be rolled back, and relatively quickly.”

“In one analysis, a typical American population that departed even modestly from the Western diet (and lifestyle) could reduce its chances of getting coronary heart disease by 80 percent, its chances of type 2 diabetes by 90 percent, and its chances of colon cancer by 70 percent.”

“Instead, the focus is on identifying the evil nutrient in the Western diet so that food manufacturers might tweak their products, thereby leaving the diet undisturbed, or so that pharmaceutical makers might develop and sell us an antidote for it. Why? Well, there’s a lot of money in the Western diet. The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes.”

“there’s a lot of money in the Western diet. The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes. The healthcare industry makes more money treating chronic diseases (which account for three quarters of the $2 trillion”

“The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes. The healthcare industry makes more money treating chronic diseases (which account for three quarters of the $2 trillion plus we spend each year on health care in this country) than preventing them. So we ignore the elephant in the room and focus instead on good and evil nutrients, the identities of which seem to change with every new study.”

“I realized that the answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we should eat wasn’t so complicated after all, and in fact could be boiled down to just seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

“Human beings ate well and kept themselves healthy for millennia before nutritional science came along to tell us how to do it; it is entirely possible to eat healthily without knowing what an anti-oxidant is.”

“So whom did we rely on before the scientists (and, in turn, governments, public health organizations, and food marketers) began telling us how to eat? We relied of course on our mothers and grandmothers and more distant ancestors, which is another way of saying, on tradition and culture”

“In many cases science has confirmed what culture has long known”

“Foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts, and those nutrients work together in ways that are still only dimly understood. It may be that the degree to which a food is processed gives us a more important key to its healthfulness: Not only can processing remove nutrients and add toxic chemicals, but it makes food more readily absorbable, which can be a problem for our insulin and fat metabolism.”

“It may be that the degree to which a food is processed gives us a more important key to its healthfulness: Not only can processing remove nutrients and add toxic chemicals, but it makes food more readily absorbable, which can be a problem for our insulin and fat metabolism. Also, the plastics in which processed foods are typically packaged can present a further risk to our health.”

“heavily processed foods—which I prefer to call “edible foodlike substances.”

“Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.”

PART I - What should I eat?


  • Eat real food that resembles plants, animals, or fungi in its natural state.
  • Avoid foods with ingredients you wouldn't use in your own cooking or recognize.
  • Limit processed foods with more than five ingredients or ingredients you can't pronounce.
  • Steer clear of foods making health claims, low-fat/nonfat products, and imitation foods.
  • Shop the supermarket peripheries for fresh food and avoid the middle aisles.
  • Choose foods that can rot, signifying their natural origins.
  • Buy whole, fresh food at farmers' markets when possible.
  • Snack on fruits, nuts, and other unprocessed items.
  • Cook your meals at home or opt for human-cooked restaurant food.
  • Avoid foods from places requiring surgical caps and those available through drive-thru windows.
  • Be wary of foods with the same name in every language or produced in factories.


“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

“There are now thousands of foodish products in the supermarket that our ancestors simply wouldn’t recognize as food.”

“Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to get us to buy and eat more by pushing our evolutionary buttons—our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt. These tastes are difficult to find in nature but cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that food processing induces us to consume much more of these rarities than is good for us.”

“Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry. Ethoxylated diglycerides? Cellulose? Xanthan gum? Calcium propionate? Ammonium sulfate? If you wouldn’t cook with them yourself, why let others use these ingredients to cook for you?”

“Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients. Labels list ingredients by weight, and any product that has more sugar than other ingredients has too much sugar.”

“Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.”

“For a product to carry a health claim on its package, it must first have a package, so right off the bat it's more likely to be processed rather than a whole food.”

“...Only the big food manufacturers have the wherewithal to secure FDA-approved health claims for their products and then trumpet them to the world. Generally, it is the products of modern food science that make the boldest health claims, and these are often founded on incomplete and often bad science. ”

“The healthiest food in the supermarket - the fresh produce- doesn't boast about its healthfulness, because the growers don't have budget or packaging. Don't take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about your health.”

“Avoid food products with the wordoid “lite” or the terms “low-fat” or “nonfat” in their names.”

“We’ve gotten fat on low-fat products. Why? Because removing the fat from foods doesn’t necessarily make them nonfattening. Carbohydrates can also make you fat, and many low- and nonfat foods boost the sugars to make up for the loss of flavor.”

“Also, by demonizing one nutrient -fat- we inevitably give a free pass to anther , supposedly "good", nutrient -carbohydrates in this case - and then proceed to eat much of that instead.”

“You’re better off eating the real thing in moderation than bingeing on “lite” food products packed with sugars and salt.”

“Eat only foods that will eventually rot.”

“Real food is alive and there for it should eventually die.”

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. .”

“It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car.”

“It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.) .”

PART II - What kind of food should I eat?


  • Eat foods that are grown on healthy soil and are as minimally processed as possible.
  • Eat a variety of foods that come in many different colors.
  • Eat foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi, such as fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and sourdough bread.
  • Eat animals that have themselves eaten well, such as grass-fed or pasture-raised meat and eggs from free-range chickens.
  • If you can, buy a freezer and fill it with locally grown and raised meat, poultry, and fish; also freeze seasonal fruits and vegetables to enjoy year-round.
  • Eat more like an omnivore, incorporating a wide variety of plants, animals, and fungi into your diet.
  • Drink the spinach water: Save the water in which vegetables have been cooked to use in soups or sauces for added nutrition.
  • Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature: If you want something sweet, eat a piece of fruit rather than drinking its juice or consuming a food with added sugars.
  • Don’t eat foods made in factories: If it comes in a box or bag, don’t eat it.
  • Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk: These highly processed cereals often contain high levels of added sugars and unhealthy fats.
  • Eat animals that have themselves eaten well: The diet of the animals we eat strongly influences the nutritional quality and healthfulness of the food we get from them, whether it is meat or milk or eggs.
  • Eat like an Italian: Eat small portions of many different foods and savor them at leisurely communal meals; avoid second helpings or snacking between meals.
  • Pay attention to how traditional cultures combine foods: Corn is traditionally cooked with lime and eaten with beans; what would otherwise be a nutritionally deficient staple becomes the basis of a healthy, balanced diet (see rule 2).
  • Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism: If you don’t know what it is or how it is prepared, don’t eat it!


“Eating what stands on one leg [mushrooms and plant foods] is better than eating what stands on two legs [fowl], which is better than eating what stands on four legs [cows, pigs, and other mammals].”

“Two of the most nutritious plants in the world —lamb’s quarters and purslane—are weeds, and some of the healthiest traditional diets, like the Mediterranean, make frequent use of wild greens.”

“So don't drink your sweets, and remember : There is no such thing as a healthy soda.”

“Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. There”

“Be the kind of person who takes supplements -- then skip the supplements.”

“In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats as well as to what it eats.”

“Traditional diets are more than the sum of their food parts.”

PART III - How should I eat?


  • Eat real food. Avoid processed and packaged foods as much as possible.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
  • Don't eat too much sugar or refined carbohydrates.
  • Don't drink sugary beverages.
  • Eat when you are hungry and stop eating when you are full.
  • Serve proper portions and avoid second helpings.
  • Follow the ancient adage: "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper."
  • Eat meals instead of constant snacking.
  • Limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods.
  • Avoid eating at gas stations and convenience stores.
  • Do all your eating at a table.
  • Try not to eat alone.
  • Treat treats as treats.
  • Leave something on your plate.
  • Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don't.
  • Cook for yourself as much as possible.
  • Break the rules once in a while.


“Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is a literal shame, but most of us can: Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food, less than the citizens of any other nation. ”

“As grandmothers used to say, 'Better to pay the grocer than the doctor”

“Use the apple test

"If you're not hungry enough to eat an apple, you're not hungry.”

“The banquet is in the first bite.”

“S policy: “no snacks, no seconds, no sweets—except on days that begin with the letter S.”

“Leave something on your plate... 'Better to go to waste than to waist”

“Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don’t. What does growing some of your own food have to do with repairing your relationship to food and eating? Everything. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for your sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that food is a product of industry, not nature; that food is fuel rather than a form of communion with other people, and also with other species—with nature. On a more practical level, you will eat what your garden yields, which will be the freshest, most nutritious produce obtainable; you will get exercise growing it (and get outdoors and away from screens); you will save money (according to the National Gardening Association, a seventy-dollar investment in a vegetable garden will yield six hundred dollars’ worth of food); and you will be that much more likely to follow the next, all-important rule.”


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