10 Food Rules You Should Follow

What should you eat?

With so many food choices available to us—from wholesome organic foods to supersized processed offerings—answering this question can be confusing. Add “expert" advice and grocery stores teeming with products plastered with health claims, and you may feel you need a guide just to choose breakfast cereal. Bestselling author Michael Pollan (pictured) cuts through this overload in his book "Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual" (Penguin). He distills 64 food rules to guide Americans away from the Western diet of processed “edible food-like substances” and toward diets that originated in traditional food cultures. Here we’ve highlighted 10 of our favorite Pollan food rules, selected because of the science that backs them as a guide for healthy eating.

Watch: See 6 foods to cut for a clean diet.

Rule 1:

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

If you ask yourself, ‘What kind of food should I eat?’ Start with this as your answer. Numerous studies point to the benefits of a plant-based diet: improved blood pressure, decreased risk of heart disease, lowered cholesterol and better weight control.

Related Links:
Fresh Dinner Salads »
Slimming Vegetarian Dinners »
Meatless Monday: Vegetarian Recipes You Must Try »

Rule 2:

Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.

At EatingWell we encourage sustainably raised choices when it comes to meat, poultry and seafood, both for our health and the health of the environment. The buyer’s guides and articles below will help guide you to the best choices.

Related Links:
Green Choices: Meat & Poultry Buyer’s Guide »
When it Comes to Beef, Is Grass-Fed Better? »
What Makes a Better Chicken? »
Fish and Shellfish: 5 to eat, 5 to avoid »
Green Choices: Seafood Buyer's Guide »
The Wild Salmon Debate »
Delicious Canned Wild Salmon Recipes »

Rule 3:

Eat your colors.

Pollan’s advice: "The colors of many vegetables reflect the different antioxidant phytochemicals they contain...Many of these chemicals help protect against chronic diseases, but each in a slightly different way, so the best protection comes from a diet containing as many different phytochemicals as possible.”

Related Links:
Eating Well By Color »
Healthy Antioxidant-Rich Recipes »

Pictured Recipe: Oven Sweet Potato Fries »

Rule 4:

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

Pollan’s advice: “Enjoy these treats as often as you’re willing to prepare them—chances are good it won’t be every day.”

Related Links:
Healthy Recipes to Satisfy Junk Food Cravings »
Healthy Chips and Dips Recipes »
Irresistible Cookies—for 100 Calories or Less »
Instant Chocolate Desserts »

Pictured Recipe: Honey Oat Quick Bread »

Rule 5:

The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.

Pollan’s advice: “Eat whole grains and minimize your consumption of white flour.”

Related Links:
Healthy Homemade Bread Recipes »
3 ways to find the healthiest supermarket breads »
Grab-and-Go Whole Grain Breakfasts »
High Fiber Whole Grain Recipes »

Rule 6:

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

Pollan says: “Processed food products dominate the center aisles of the store, while the cases of mostly fresh food—produce, meat and fish, dairy—line the walls. If you keep to the edges of the store you’ll be much more likely to wind up with real food in your shopping cart.”

Related Links:
12 Secrets to Spending Less at the Grocery Store »
15 Tricks to Save Money on Food But Still Eat Well »
5 Food Myths Busted: Grocery shopping mistakes that are costing you money and quality »
6 Superfoods for $1 or Less »

Pictured Recipe: Greek Salad with Sardines »

Rule 7:

Don’t overlook the oily little fishes.

If there’s one food you should be eating (and probably are not) it is the humble sardine. Sardines (Pacific, wild-caught) are one of the healthiest foods we can consume, according to health and environmental experts. These nutritional powerhouses are one of the best sources of omega-3 fats, with a whopping 1,950 mg/per 3 oz. (that’s more per serving than salmon, tuna or just about any other food) and they’re packed with vitamin D. If you’re trying sardines for the first time, or you just really want to learn to like them, here are a few recipes to stoke your sardine love.

Related Links:
Healthy Sardine Recipes »
How to Make Sustainable Seafood Choices at the Fish Market »

Rule 8: Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks

Pollan says: “People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than those of us eating a modern Western diet of processed foods.”

Related Links:
Recipes from the Mediterranean Diet »
Quick Mediterranean Recipes »
Tantalizing Thai Recipes »
9 Staples of the Mediterranean Diet »
Better Than Chinese Takeout Recipes »
Easy Indian Food Recipes »
Healthy Hispanic Recipes »
Healthy Italian Recipes and Menus »

Pictured Recipe: Sesame Carrots »

Rule 9: Limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods

Pollan says: “The bulk of the 500 calories Americans have added to their daily diet since 1980 (the start of the obesity epidemic) have come in the form of snack foods laden with salt, fat and sugar. If you are going to snack, try to limit yourself to fruits, vegetables and nuts.”

Related Links:
Snack-Attack Rescue: 13 Healthy Snacks to Stash in Your Desk Drawer »
Healthy Kids Snacks Recipes »
100-Calorie Snacks »
3 Reasons You Should Snack on Popcorn »
10 Ways to Snack Smarter »
Snacks for 250 Calories or Less »

Rule 10: Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients

Pollan says: “Labels list ingredients by weight and any product that has more sugar than other ingredients has too much sugar.” (For an exception to this rule, follow Pollan’s “treat treats as treats” philosophy.)

Related Links:
Deceptive Food Labels: How to Know What's Really Healthy »
3 Ways to Break Your Sugar Habit »
7 Delicious Desserts, No Sugar Added »
Low Added Sugars Dessert Recipes »
A Healthful Sugar: Is Agave Nectar Healthier Than Sugar or Other Sweeteners? »
Is Sugar Bad for Your Heart? »
Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Really Worse Than Sugar? »
Do Artificial Sweeteners Make You Hungrier? »
A Buyer's Guide to Sugar Substitutes »