I was reading a post by Mr. Money Mustache a few weeks back, and he mentioned a book by Michael Pollan “Food Rules”. I have read a few of Pollan’s NYTimes columns and one of his books, so I figured why not check this one out? So that Saturday after I had finished my study in the library, I started casting about in my mind for what I should check out. I have the horrible habit of never being able to leave a library empty handed. I found the book after overlooking it twice as its small size was overshadowed by neighboring food books.

I read the whole book later that day and started talking about it with my girlfriend Larissa. We live together and like to cook together, so any changes to my diet will naturally affect hers. Luckily, she was on board with many of the ideas and agreed that “Food Rules” was a push in the right direction. Well, Larissa started talking about this with her mother, who gave her an other diet book, “Eat This Not That” by David Zinczenko.

These two books can both be rightly called diet books, contrary to the “Eat This Not That” cover, but their scopes are drastically different. “Food Rules” posits a way of eating unlike the traditional American way, whereas “Eat This Not That” merely proffers paltry changes in your diet. While Pollan wants you to reduce your meat eating, avoid fast food, eat greens, Zinczenko tells you that your diet is fine, you just need to swap out this healthier burger for that one and avoid Grandma’s gravy at Thanksgiving. Which of these two approaches are people more likely to adopt? Which of these two approaches is more likely to give you greater health?

If there is one action you can count on people taking, it is inaction. People don’t like change, and they dislike changing themselves even more. Clearly, people will be more likely to simply make the incremental changes given by Zinczenko. I could see this book being placed in the checkout aisle of grocery stores, rubbing elbows with the celebrity gossip magazines, Women’s Health, and all the cooking glossies too. Just looking at the cover, you can see it is designed to stand out in this situation.

The garish colors, the text-burst proclaiming its features, the eye-grabbing text at the very top of the cover so that it won’t be covered up by the stand all clamor for your attention. As you can see above, “Food Rules” has a much gentler cover that isn’t trying to sell itself so desperately.

You can definitely judge these books by their covers. Pollan’s whole book is very simply laid out with minimal text, no color, simple sketches, and simple paper. This understated style contrasts with the sweeping lifestyle change proposed by the book, whose motto is: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” The book is broken into three sections with a short intro explaining the science behind the idea and then spreads of a sketch of food and a large-type memorable rule to help you practice the idea. Zinczenko’s book also is ordered by spreads with each spread being a fast-food restaurant or holiday meal. Every spread is jammed full of factoids, bright colors, photos, and it is all on glossy paper. Pollan’s book asks you to internalize and remember the rules, while Zinczenko has color-coded the pages as you have no hope of memorizing all the dangers of restaurant menus. While Pollan’s book is broken into bite-sized increments, Zinczenko’s book is further subdivided on each page by boxes, circles, burst-text, and arrows.

Since when is Black Friday a holiday?!

A neat observation that was new to me.

Clearly, the baby-steps given in “Eat This Not That” are more likely to be accepted as no major changes are required. Switching from loaded french-fries to plain fries is not a decision that requires debate. In contrast, Larissa and I discussed the rules in “Food Rules” before deciding to reduce our meat consumption and to eat more veggies.

Which brings us to the next question, “Which leads to a healthier life?” The short answer is that they both do. However, just like most things in life, you get out what you put in. If you settle for Zinczenko’s easy way of changing your restaurant orders, you will improve but not nearly as much as if you follow Pollan’s three suggestions of eating minimally-processed food, greens, and less of both. As “Food Rules” pushes for a lifestyle change, while “Eat This Not That” only pushes for ordering a different dish. However, only a lifestyle change can give you a healthy life. “Eat This Not That” is a step in the right direction, but I worry that it may actually do more harm than good because it gives you the impression that you can make a healthy diet of nothing but pre-cooked meals and fast foods.

While there is a place for both books, clearly I am to taking Pollan’s advice.  To me, his book was mostly common sense. There was nothing revelatory, yet it was enough to push me over the edge and actually start cooking and eating like I should. I had been skimping on veggies. I had been eating a fairly meat-heavy diet. I had been eating a bit too much. Thanks to the redundancy of many of the rules in the book, enough of them of stuck in my head to get me to refocus my diet. It’s been a gradual shift, and it has been difficult at times (cooking tofu flavorfully is a challenge), but it has been rewarding to feel better. I’ll post a couple of cooking adventures in the next few weeks as I continue talking about health.

A typical meal sophomore and junior year. (From Slashfood.com)

I would have a Subway sandwich everyday sophomore and junior year. I thought I was doing pretty good by getting it on wheat too!

I used to be really out of shape. Throughout elementary school, I dreaded those Presidential Fitness tests. The most embarrassing part for me was the pull ups. All we boys in class would stand in line for the pull up bar. When my turn came, I would tell the teacher that I couldn’t do a pull up. The teacher always made me try. I would pitifully cling to the bar and will myself to pull up. When I didn’t budge, the teacher had me try a bent-arm hang. When that failed too, I would do a straight arm hang for ten-ish seconds before my arms gave out. The whole time I could feel the other boys’ judging me. Every year, I’d repeat this pathetic ritual.

In high school, I was a bit more healthy through no fault of my own. My school required sports. I ran cross country in the fall and did track in the spring. I would grouse about the mandatory sports requirement all the time though. When the chance came to manage cross country my junior year, I jumped on it. Now I didn’t have to do sports in the fall trimester. In the winter trimester, I ran lights for the school play. So for my junior and senior years, the only sport I did was track for one trimester. Even then, I did X Squad, where we just messed around. So for much of my life, I scoffed at exercise as a waste of time.

Then, I started to rock climb in college. I love climbing. My favorite aspect is figuring out the puzzle and using technique. How to position your feet, your hands, your body to go up just a few more feet. I very quickly realized that my technique was being held back by my body. I still could not do a pull up. I had no stamina. This really limited what I could do and frustrated me. I came to view every pound of fat as a pound more that I had to haul up the wall. So I decided to get rid of the fat.

Getting back in shape is a long, arduous process. Any book, program, or person who tells you otherwise is lying. Most diet books are like so: “I thought getting in shape was really hard. I tried all these other things, but none of them worked. Now I have discovered the secret that makes dieting easy and unlike those programs, this one works!” Yeah, I totally believe you and not all those other guys!

As a chemical engineer, I break everything into mass and energy balances. Losing fat to me is simply an energy balance of the form: energy accumulation = energy input − energy output. Energy accumulation is the stored fat in your body. Energy input is the caloric content of the food you eat. Energy output is all the energy you use, comprised of your resting (basal) metabolism and your active energy use. So, if I want to turn energy accumulation into energy depletion, I simply have to use more energy than I take in. However, I knew that your body would decrease its metabolism in response to decreased caloric intake, and I knew that both fat and muscle can be used for energy. I did not know enough details to lose fat and keep muscle. I knew I needed help.

So I read “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle”.  It opened my eyes to how the body uses food. It told me that I shouldn’t be concerned with how much I weigh, but rather what my body fat percentage is. I adopted its up-down-down cycle of dieting. On down days I would  fall 10% short of my daily caloric need, and on up days I would meet or slightly exceed that need. By following this cycle, I prevented my body from dropping my metabolism.

Either eating less or exercising more can create the caloric shortfall. I decided to do more, which again helps prevent the body from dropping its metabolism. By using strength training, I was telling my body, “I really need my muscles, so please use up those fat reserves instead thank you.” After awhile, my metabolism was super high. I started to think of food as junk (à la William S. Burroughs) and if I missed a meal, I would become ravenous. I had never experience hunger so acute before in my life.

I was your average American throughout life until my summer prior to senior year of college. I was overweight, did not get daily exercise, ate your usual Western diet of fried foods, and never thought about my weight or health beyond the occasional, “I should get back into shape” thoughts that never translated into action. It wasn’t until I realized the limitations of my body that I committed to a lifestyle change of regularly exercising, dieting, and eating more nutritious foods. This change successfully dropped my percentage of body fat and led to much more fun on the climbing wall.

This post is the first in a series on healthy living and culture. I figured I would tell my personal story before I start delving into the writings of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and David Zinczenko.