Michael Pollan on why eating intentionally can help eliminate food guilt

Michael Pollan sees food as a source of power and choice rather than stress and guilt. The environmental journalist and New York Times bestselling author has extensively explored the relationship between food, agriculture, the mind, and the natural world for the last several decades. Among his works were the notable, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

In a new MasterClass debuting Tuesday on intentional eating, Pollan distills his years of research to 13 tangible lessons, including rethinking your relationship with food, confronting the barriers to intentional eating, how to stir a passion for cooking, and the power of the shared meal. 

Food matters. It’s a sentiment that Pollan begins his class with, where he outlines that not only is food integral to our health but also to belonging in a community, our ties to family, and our role in the environment. Therefore, it would be a shame to always eat mindlessly, on-the-go, or to pass the time. Eating with intention doesn’t come with a complex set of rules, contrary to popular belief, Pollan tells Fortune in an exclusive interview ahead of the release of his MasterClass. Nor does intentional eating detail what you should or shouldn’t eat. It’s actually very individualized. For many, it’s about going back to the basics and the lessons from ancestors.

“If anyone tells you there’s one proper way to eat for your health, that’s clearly not true,” he says in his class. “There is so much cultural wisdom encoded in traditional meals and food combinations. I’m always struck by the fact that we have the science of nutrition and very often they’re figuring out things that culture figured out a long time ago.”  

What is intentional eating?  

There is no gold standard for healthy eating. After all, most diets fail because they require wholly unrealistic sweeping changes to daily life. 

Intentional eating instead starts with outlining the values you hold around food: such as sustainability, ethics, pleasure, social justice, cost, health or community. With a value at the forefront, you can structure your supermarket runs differently. 

“[People] think they’ve got to revolutionize everything, and become a vegan or just take some sort of radical new approach,” Pollan tells Fortune. “I’m a great believer in incremental change. Habits aren’t changed overnight,” who starts his class eating a burger—on a whole grain bun (because one of his goals is to limit refined grains) with plant-based protein (another goal is to eat more sustainably). 

Overall, intentional eating starts with being mindful and aware of what you care about with food, when you’re hungry and when you’re not. While not the goal, intentional eating can lead people to eat more healthfully, and potentially, lose weight, Pollan says. But more importantly, it doesn’t limit the intake of certain foods and can lessen some of the stress that restriction inevitably brings. 

In his class, Pollan explains how he abides by certain personal food goals that align with his values. Some people have a vegan before 6 rule, where they limit meat intake to the pre-evening hours to be more sustainable while not making an abrupt change they might not be able to keep in the long run. Others prioritize quality over quantity in the food they eat. 

For someone focused on sustainability, they might eat less meat or buy produce locally. Or if someone yearns for community in their family, eating around a table helps instill crucial lessons from sharing to how to argue. For someone who wants to focus on health or cost, they may cook meals more frequently at home with whole ingredients. Many people have the misguided fear they aren’t good enough to cook at home, and Pollan hopes to empower people to put their chef hat on if they so desire—even if it’s just on Sundays to meal prep a chili or stew for the week. 

“We’ve been intimidated by food culture into thinking cooking is like rocket science, and that you have to be a professional, and the knives have to be flying, and there’s a time clock,” he says. “There’s no time clock.” 

We are being tricked into eating certain foods

It’s no shock that we have collectively succumbed to the food marketing industry. Highly processed foods entice us by sticking out in the middle aisles of supermarkets forcing us to glide past them on the way to the register. Understanding where food comes from can empower us to make food choices when we face abundance. Pollan coined the simple motto, eat food, not too much, mostly plants, and teaches how to abide by it in his class.

While Pollan has found that the level of processing a food goes through may matter more than the number of nutrients it contains, he doesn’t want people to stress about the food label. If we know that processed foods can lead to an increased risk of diabetes and other chronic health problems, we just have to limit our intake of those foods. A simple rule for spotting ultra processed food is looking at the label and seeing an ingredient you’ve never heard of, or would never find in your pantry. 

“Being more mindful is letting you and your body decide what you need rather than some corporation with its marketing messages,” he says. “It’s about taking control back from all these forces that are telling us how much to eat.”

A move beyond diet culture and a push toward pleasure 

As the holidays approach, food continues to be a core tenant bringing families together—which is inherently more intentional and instills the value of community as many enjoy dining traditions often passed down for generations. Shared meals can lower stress and allow for more meaning and comfort around food. 

But the holidays can also lead to guilt and stress over what and how much we eat. Every year, indulgence during the holidays can lead to remorse in the New Year, and a push to get healthier or fit. That’s when we see gym memberships rise like clockwork and books about health and nutrition get published—looking to attract the consumers who loathe the holidays’ festivities and feel like they must somehow change to feel better. But the pendulum doesn’t need to swing, Pollan says, who says that shame and guilt stand as the antithesis to intentional eating. 

“Food is one of the great pleasures, and we have this very censorious attitude about it. It’s indulgence followed by guilt. I think there’s a place for indulgence, and there’s no place for guilt,” he says, who adds he is a “great believer in special occasions.” 

While not overindulging in highly processed or sugary foods is important for our health, completely removing the pleasure or cultural connection with a holiday food, or food in the new year, can lead us to feel shame—especially when we label foods as good or bad. For Pollan, he plans to eat turkey on thanksgiving because it will fulfill his family and traditional food value despite it momentarily contradicting his sustainability food value. 

While our brains get oversaturated with content about food, bodies, and diets, Pollan hopes his class reminds people of the choices they have, and how they can fulfill themselves in a myriad of ways. 

“We have these three votes every day of what we’re going to eat, and these votes influence what happens to the animals, what happens to the environment, [and] what happens to our bodies,” he says. “It is a great thing. It’s a great power.” 

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