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Keep It Simple: Michael Pollan Is On To Something

Keep It Simple: Michael Pollan Is On To Something

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity, so said, Henry David Thoreau. But how do we translate that into our own lives? April Reigart shares her insight. 

Another New Year, and people everywhere have compiled that list of good intentions again. I think it is wonderful to write down our intentions. Writing and speaking our goals gives them more power- increasing our chances that we will make them manifest. Except when we don’t. And then that list looks like a bitter reminder of our perceived failures.

Let’s not fret over auld lang syne. In a world governed by madness, it seems, perhaps we could go in to this new year with the intention of keeping it simple. Everything. Focus on what is most important for you, and shed the rest.

Most people are most worried about their health or their weight in the new year, and here we can really all stand for some simplification. There are 795 million people on this earth who do not have enough food to eat- who spend their days hungry. How crazy is that, when you consider that most of us (that is anyone reading this article) are faced with food abundance?

We don’t even need about 75% of the food in our grocery store! We don’t! You can get your nutritional needs met from the perimeter of the store, so everything on those shelves in the middle is mostly useless.   In fact, it is mostly filler, and often filled with subsidized corn and soy. Junk. Calories that offer malnutrition. We are overfed and undernourished.

Try this as an experiment: walk in to any aisle in a conventional grocery store and pick up any boxed food product. Read the ingredients, and chances are high that you will see corn or soy amongst the ingredients, and probably in the form of high fructose corn syrup or hydrolyzed soy protein, soy protein isolate, soy lecithin, or some such other.

You already know that there is an obesity epidemic. The reason is that we, Americans, eat a huge surplus of calories daily. If we all simplified our diets, we could simplify our lives…after all, we would feel better, spend less, be less likely to need medical attention and have a rosier outlook on life, since you feel better when you eat better. In his bestseller, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan delivers some of the best advice I’ve ever heard when he says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s simple advice for simple health!

Let’s dissect Pollan’s advice.

“Eat food.”
I know: you already eat food, and that’s half the problem. Bear with me. What Pollan means with this seemingly obvious prescription is that we should be eating actual food, and not food-like products. The devil is in the details, and while Americans like to dismiss the importance of this nuance…it makes all the difference. We should be eating food as close to its natural state as possible in order to gain the most health benefit. Processing, additives and filler in foods increase calories and undesired ingredients like salt and sugar, while lowering the nutritive value of the food.

Let’s look at two similar, but very different lunches. Person A has packed a sandwich made of natural turkey breast with no additives or nitrates, a slice of organic swiss cheese, a simple bread and some avocado and lettuce. They also have an apple, and a serving of potato chips made from only potatoes, sea salt and coconut oil (there is one brand that makes these, but I am not advertising). This is all very normal and simple. If one shops wisely for these ingredients and factors that it will make them 3-5 lunches for the week, the estimated cost for this lunch is around $5.

Person B purchases a meal at McDonald’s for $6, and it consists of a burger, fries and a soda.   It may seem like both people have had similar meals- poultry, potatoes, bread…but the results, when it comes to what the body does with these two meals, are vastly different. Person B’s meal has twice the calories, at about 1120 calories, as Person A’s. Not only that, but this one meal provides almost the entire necessary calories for the day, yet, chances are that this will not be the only meal Person B consumes.   Assuming that person B also ate breakfast, they are already at a calorie surplus for the day before dinnertime, while Person A has kept their lunch at around 650 calories.

This is saying nothing of the nutrient difference between these two lunch options. You can buy a sprouted spelt bread that contains sprouted spelt, yeast, sea salt and water. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. However, the bread alone on a Big Mac is a nutritional landmine, with ingredients like azodicarbonamide. Say that ten times fast. That’s the same ingredient used in foam insulation and yoga mats.

I don’t care at all when people argue that it’s used in such a small amount that it isn’t necessarily toxic. I suppose I could take a small bite of my yoga mat and live, but eventually- if I am eating little bites of my yoga mat everyday – I will have eaten an entire yoga mat, and that just can’t be good nourishment. I know it isn’t necessary, because IT’S NOT FOOD!

For the purpose of keeping this article simple, let’s just leave it at the malnutritive bread of the Big Mac, and you can look in to the fact that the French fries contain- not one ingredient, or even 2 or 3- but 19 (NINETEEN) ingredients. Or that the soda has more sugar than you should have all week. Or that the industrial salt is going to cause edema and demineralize your bones. Or what ingredients are in the burger, aside form meat. Or the issue of CAFOs. Let’s just move on.

“Not too much.”
Americans eat too much. On an intermittent fasting web-site, I found this quote from “The Hygienic System: Orthotrophy” by Dr Herbert M. Shelton:

during the zenith period of Grecian and Roman civilization[ …] a health-loving man should content himself with one meal a day, and never eat till he had leisure to digest, i.e., not till the day’s work was wholly done. For more than a thousand years the one meal plan was the established rule among the civilized nations. 

 He [Dr. Oswald] also says, ‘The Romans of the Republican age broke their fast with a biscuit and a fig or two, and took their principle meal in the cool of the evening.’ Among the many things that have been offered as an explanation for their physical, mental and moral decline has been their sensuous indulgence in food which came with power and riches.”

I went to college with a man who ate only one meal a day, and I remember perceiving this as unfathomable, at the time. His meal generally consisted of rice and vegetables. I understand this as a common global practice now, also especially grounded in Ayurvedic belief. Dr. John Douillard explains on his website, Lifespa, “If you have a healthy snack, like a carrot, in between breakfast and lunch you will burn the carrot but you will not burn any stored fat between those two meals.” According to Douillard, we are best advised to allow our bodies to cycle through the process of digestion and calorie usage, instead of constantly stoking the fire, so to speak, with frequent eating.

It also bears noting that part of the push toward frequent eating these days comes from the commercial food industry. Beverage companies produce the equivalent of eight 12-ounce cans of soda per person every week [from a report written by Jessica Almy, J.D., M.S., and Margo G. Wootan, D.Sc.; Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)]. No one needs to drink eight sodas in one week; it is completely devoid of any health benefit whatsoever.

Further, food companies have become completely sneaky with their marketing. They place junk food items in supermarket checkout lines, they advertise to children (which is illegal in some countries) using bright colors and cartoon characters and add large amounts of toxic ingredients, like MSG, because of its addictive nature. You cannot buy gasoline today without facing the prospect of chips, soda and candy. There is no definitive study that can tell you whether you should consume more or less meals, but there is plenty of definitive evidence that junk foods are not good for you, no matter how often you eat.

Stop the madness! If you’ve had breakfast, and four hours later you’ve had lunch, do you really need to add a bunch of junk calories in to your day when you’ve already had two meals and you are about to have a third in just a couple more hours? Really think about it, and think about how that calorie count can rise so easily in a day.

If you eat a piece of banana bread and an iced vanilla latte from Starbucks in the afternoon, then you’ve just consumed 600 calories. If you add that to three other meals in the day, you are well set up to be dealing in calorie surplus. Also remember that all calories are not created equal. A large banana and a can of cola may contain roughly the same amount of calories, but I believe the nutritional difference is evident- one provides nutrients, like potassium for heart health and muscle function, while the other creates a toxic burden on the body.

I am not a promoter of mad calorie counting, but I am advising that we would all do well to be more aware of how many calories are lurking in the foods we eat, and realize how many calories we habitually consume. We need to understand the very direct relationship between overconsumption and obesity. It is very simple- for most people (excluding athletes and those with medical conditions), if you are consuming more than 2,000 calories a day (and for some the threshold is less than that), you will continually gain weight. Weight management is not always as simple as calories in- calories out, but a calorie surplus will put you at risk for both weight problems and disease.

“Mostly plants.”
Perhaps you wouldn’t think that plants are a controversial topic when it comes to dietary preferences, but they are. People can be quite defensive about their right to eat meat. However, vegans and paleos aside, you cannot deny the power of the plant. And everyone should eat them. This piece of dietary advice is difficult to dispute, and much scientific research supports the evidence for eating plants, whether you follow a plant based diet or supplement your meat preferences with them.

Plants are high nutrient foods. That is to say- you get a lot of bang for your buck when you consume any whole plant food. Plants provide important minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, fiber and are typically low in calories per volume. For instance, a 4 ounce portion of steak is roughly equivalent, calorically, to 9-1/2 cups of broccoli. If you do eat meat, you would do well to eat both, nutritionally speaking, but you can gorge yourself on vegetables and not put yourself in to a calorie surplus.

Another important benefit to eating plants- not to be overlooked- is enzymes. Proteins, carbs, healthy fats and fiber are the building blocks for our bodies, but we need enzymes in order to digest and utilize these forms of energy. Eating raw plant foods assist our bodies in producing enzymes and with digestion of nutrients.

I am no advocate for the Raw Food Diet, but we would all be well advised to eat some raw plant matter every day, and especially with every meal (cooking temperatures destroy the enzymes). This can come in the form of some fresh fruit with breakfast, a raw salad at lunch, and a side of raw fermented vegetables with dinner.

Easy, peas-y! (See what I did right there?)

So, keep it simple. Go forth and cook yourself a meal, using whole food ingredients – mostly plants, and stop before you’re stuffed! May you live long and prosper!


April_bio pic
April Reigart is an Institute for Integrative Nutrition Certified Holistic Health Coach, and also certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. She holds a Master’s Degree from Tyler School of Art, and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and young son. She is available for one-on-one coaching and health strategizing, and offers free initial health consultations. Find her through her website,, on Facebook or follow her on Instagram.