What does the phrase “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” mean?

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Judy Caplan
Nutrition & Dietetics

I love and live this quote! I interpret this phrase to mean seek out whole foods that are not processed, the kinds that were around before the advent of Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, and Twinkies! Whole foods are not manufactured from ingredients out of a chemical jar. They come from real ingredients grown in the ground. The second half means eat more fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, and seeds and nuts and less animal products. A diet high in plant foods contains lots antioxidants which help keep the body healthy.

Dr. David L. Katz, MD, MPH
Preventive Medicine
Michael Pollan, a nutrition writer and activist for food-related policy change, has emerged as something of a modern messiah of clean eating. He has passed along to us all three now rather famous commandments (or maybe they are just recommendations): eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

The first is potentially open to interpretation and vulnerable to food industry mischief, but the intent is clear. We are advised to eat food, rather than food products. Food with ingredients we can pronounce. Food with ingredients we can identify. Food with ingredients we can situate somewhere in the kingdoms of the known universe: animal, vegetable, mineral.

The third also conveys a clear message. We should eat mostly plant foods because doing so would be good for us and good for the planet.

The intent of the first and third of Pollan’s commandments is quite clear. We get it. Of course, that doesn’t mean we are complying. What about that middle one: not too much? Here, I don’t think we have a clue. We know what it means, of course. It means portion control. It means calories count.

We know what “not too much” means, but by and large, we have no idea how to get there from here. The obvious approach -- just eat less -- is a nonstarter. Most of us eat to feel full and satisfied and stop when we get there. Eating less means eating less than we want -- and feeling hungry all the time. People can do that for a few weeks or even months, but hardly anyone manages it long term.

There is another way. The food industry has tipped their hand by taunting us with “betcha can’t eat just one!” They basically acknowledge that, given the chance, they design foods no normal human can stop eating.

This is a public health disaster -- and quite probably a disaster for your personal health as well. It is part of the reason we have epidemic obesity and diabetes. If you struggle with your own weight, it is almost certainly part of the explanation.

But now consider the last time you found yourself unable to stop eating apples or spinach or salmon or walnuts. Among the many virtues of real food is that, even if it’s delicious, generally, you CAN eat just one. Better food choices help us fill up on fewer calories.

Pollan’s counsel is good, but warrants an addendum. The way to eat less is not by eating less than you want, but by making better choices. The way to control quantity is by improving quality.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.