How Pollan’s famous first line creates tension within the most earnest (and health informed) individuals trying to lose weight (and those trying to support them).
Still Quoted, Still an Influence
This post is not to critic or review the 2008 best-selling book “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. I respect the awareness this book brought to food quality and eating patterns. I first read this while finishing my graduate work in nutrition. I heard it quoted again just yesterday. It is still quoted because it is still an influence on how we want to feel about eating. I’m writing this to continue the conversations I had with CARE members this week. Members that had a disappointing week because “it should be as easy as Pollan says… Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. I’m trying but I’m not losing weight (or not as fast as I want).” Each of them is nailing “Eat Food, Mostly Plants”. They are grateful and understand the importance quality of food has to their goals. But their desire for weight loss is real, too. It is the three little words, “Not Too Much”, that has them stuck in the middle. I want to continue this conversation here because I think there is a simple bridge that is missing from Pollan’s original work. One that doesn’t need to derail from the simplicity of Pollan’s original message. But it is a needed bridge to cross a void in understanding that this book doesn’t draw attention to (and maybe it wasn’t this book’s role to address but the void is there).
Stuck in the Middle
Pollan uses seven simple words to create three universally cited guidelines for how to eat: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Volumes of research, histories of anecdotes, generations of industry maleficence… all boiled down to this. Oh, how we have been starved of such simplicity. Without even reading the second paragraph we can feel the lightness of this directive.
Pollan affirms that feeding ourselves should feel intuitive; however, as soon as our brains are given this permission, it has the automatic response to turn his original words into the stricter mandate: Do this. Shouldn’t need help. Mostly easy. And it’s here, right during the split second that optimism tried to extend its hand to us, our brains created tension.
Those of us that have been down this road before of hearing how simple it should feel, are absolutely brilliant of at least one thing: creating “should” statements. Dominating self-talk that preoccupies and distorts what’s really in front of us:
- “It should be this easy”
- “Feeding myself shouldn’t take this much effort”
- “I shouldn’t have to spend so much time on this”
- “I should be able to do this”
- “I should be losing weight, I’m eating healthy”
The culprit causing this conflict from this famous first line? The three simple words in the middle: “Not too much.” “Not too much” means understanding what is “enough”. It is this small ambiguous word, “enough”, that has built the entire health and wellness industry and the food industry. Contradicting research results, “expert opinions”, the focus on profit versus public health, and good old individual bad habits intentionally manipulate the definition of “enough”. A lone individual with a history of weight loss defeat or a sole family member earnestly trying to make changes while no one else is, when standing in their kitchen, with escalating “should” statements running through their heads, doesn’t stand a chance armed only with the directive “not too much”. They are on one side, success is on the other. A bridge is needed to cross this void.
Pollan dedicates the final chapter to his solutions for defining “enough”. His bullets are accepted compliments to healthy eating:
- Pay more, eat less
- Eat meals
- Do all your eating at a table
- Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
- Try not to eat alone
- Consult your gut
- Eat slowly
- Cook and, if you can, plant a garden
But not one of these suggestions defines “enough”. And, more importantly, they are actually quite advanced techniques for someone just getting started making changes. The physiological static caused by a Western diet- unbalanced blood sugar, dysregulated appetite hormones, inflammation, just to name a few- makes inserting one’s self into the mindful decision to, say, “consult your gut” feel impossible. This list is actually fodder for more “should” statements for those just getting started (or starting again). See for yourself how easy it is to add “I should…” right before each of these bullets. (I “should” eat slowly, I “should” eat at the table…..you get it.) Not one of these statements helps our lone individual, with a history of weight loss defeat, standing in their kitchen, better understand exactly what “enough” means.
Enough can be Measured
When understood, “enough” becomes a “container” for what is sufficient and appropriate nutrition. This understanding empowers you to know “yes, I’ve now eaten enough”. It empowers you to wait for your body’s satiety hormones to catch up with your appetite. It empowers you to go deeper into what you really need when you still feel like eating: “Now that I’ve eaten enough, what do I still need from my day? Connecting socially? Balancing my day full of meetings with quiet? Balancing my day of precision and analytical work with art or nature?” This knowledge allows you to quiet the static so that you can reinsert yourself into your choices. This knowledge, back-to-the-basics nutrition knowledge, is the bridge. At least the first one. Admittedly once you cross this one, you’ll discover others you need (like addressing that ability to turn new ideas into instant “should” statements)… but I’m convinced that reducing that internal physiological static is the first step to tackling the next ones, too.
Warmly, Teri Rose, CARE Nutritionist
Thank you for this article. This topic reminds me of the colloquial guidance to “listen to your body” or “listen to your instincts.” Guidance that can work well, say when we are sick or burnt out. But it’s also guidance that gives too much deference to our instincts. As it relates to food, listening to my body isn’t in my best interests–my instinct for what’s “enough” isn’t calibrated to the right level of consumption for me. As I reflect back, I probably felt like the premise of “not too much” was simple and instinctive. Also, I really love the concept of “what do I still need from my day.” What a great way to start the evening.