By now, we all know that we should eat healthy to improve our chances of living long and healthy lives. But what does it mean to “eat healthy?” Well, it depends on who you ask…
I have read a lot of books about nutrition—all with different takes on what it means to eat healthy. I even spent a year becoming a certified health coach, studying dozens of dietary theories from Atkins to macrobiotics to veganism and learning the pros and cons of each. Beyond reading, I’ve watched food/diet documentaries such as Forks over Knives, Food Inc, and Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead.
All these different theories and approaches can make your head spin! There are literally thousands of books about diet and nutrition (an Amazon search for “diet” yields 93,210 results). Jon Kabat-Zinn explains this food stress well in the book Full Catastrophe Living:
Our relationship to food has changed so much in the past few generations that the exercise of a new form of intelligence, still developing, may be necessary to sort out what is of value and nourishing from the incredible choices that are presented to us.
Our $61 billion diet and weight loss industry illuminates this confusion. We hire dietitians and health coaches to help us with this most basic human activity—eating. Many food companies contribute to the problem by enticing us with cheap, convenient, tasty food—at every turn. Food is everywhere, and most of it isn’t “healthy.”
But I’d like to argue that it doesn’t have to be complicated. We can throw away all the diet books and just focus on what they have in common (and listen to our bodies).
Michael Pollan Is Right
Based on all the research I’ve done on healthy eating, I have come to the realization that Michael Pollan’s famous saying is the best starting point:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Out of context, this statement is a bit vague, so let me break it down for you.
The natural way to eat is to eat real food. This means food that is as close to its original form as possible. Raw or gently cooked vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, milk, fish, meat.
Let’s start with the most uncontroversial food group: vegetables. I have not come across a mainstream diet that rejects vegetables. Of course, not all vegetables are created equal. Green leafy vegetables are awesome as are all of the vegetables that grow above ground. People who need to control insulin spikes should stay away from potatoes (including sweet potatoes).
Most diets also approve of fruits, except for low-carb diets who reject very sweet fruits such as bananas, grapes, and dried fruit. I try to stick with fruits that are available locally, because that seems most natural. However, I do enjoy oranges during winter. And I just bought my first container of berries for the year—came all the way from California. (I just couldn’t wait!)
Grains are obviously not a popular food group in the low-carb diet world. Certainly, processed grains (e.g. pasta) have high glycemic load, so that would be one reason to stay away from them. David Perlmutter, the author of Grain Brain provides plenty of evidence that eating grains (especially gluten grains) can have damaging effects on the brain. It sounds like it’s best to stay away from wheat and gluten grains and enjoy other grains such as wild rice and quinoa at most a few times a week.
Beans and legumes are an important part of Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid. He recommends 1-2 servings per day. However, the Paleo diet rejects legumes for a variety of reasons (learn more). Beans and legumes are important for vegetarians, but may not be as important for omnivores. What about soy? This excellent article indicates that it’s fine to eat whole, real soy, but that we should stay away from processed soy products. (Sound familiar?)
I eat at least one handful of nuts and seeds every day. Nuts are great for a quick snack and can help curb your appetite if you eat them 30-60 minutes before your meal. Some nuts have been elevated above others from a health perspective such as walnuts and almonds. However, as long as you don’t eat more than a handful at a time, all nuts are really fine. (Remember that the natural way to eat a nut is to crack it first, which takes time, so historically, we wouldn’t have been able to eat loads of nuts.)
Most mornings, I boil or fry an egg to get some additional protein. I never bought in to the “eggs are dangerous” campaign. (Probably because I like eggs too much!) Eggs are a super food and there is good evidence that dietary cholesterol has minimal effect on blood cholesterol.
The jury is still out on dairy. The China Study authors link the milk protein casein to chronic disease and a number of people are sensitive to casein. Others are lactose intolerant. If you want to drink milk, I would suggest looking into real milk (aka raw milk). Goat milk might be another good alternative. I like to enjoy full-fat plain yoghurt and cheese on occasion.
Fish is also generally raised up as a healthy food. It is a good source of Omega-3s and so tasty! However, for two reasons, we need to be careful about how much and which type of fish to consume. Some fish (especially those at the top of the food chain) contain high levels of mercury. Also, some fish are so popular that they have been overfished, causing concern about their survival. I have a great app from Seafood Watch that lets me know what’s safe and what’s not (both from a toxin and environmental standpoint).
We’ll conclude this section with the most controversial food of all: meat. Here I include poultry as well. According to the proponents of the Paleo diet, we should eat lots of meat, since this is what our ancestors did. However, there are some fundamental problems with this. Eating so much meat is expensive and not sustainable. Raising animals for food takes a much larger toll on the earth than growing plants for human consumption. Also, when you look at the cultures where people live the longest (aka Blue Zones), none of them have meat as a staple. At most, they might eat meat once a week—and the Seventh Day Adventists typically don’t eat meat at all. Enjoy meat a couple of times a week or not at all. You’ll be fine either way.
But what about sweets? Sugar is sugar—i.e. it should be eaten only as a special treat, but from a whole foods standpoint, it’s better to choose honey & maple syrup over processed cane sugar & high fructose corn syrup. Most diets approve of dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) and 1-2 glasses of red wine.
Not Too Much
There is solid evidence that people who restrict their calories live longer. This phenomenon was first discovered in rats in the 1930s. And it is evident when you again look at the Blue Zones, especially the Okinawans who have a saying “hara hatchi bu” to remind themselves to eat until they are 80% full. The USDA’s data indicates that between 1970 and 2000, the “average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories” in the U.S. So the point isn’t that we should restrict calories to a starvation level, but simply eat at the recommended level for our age, gender, metabolism, and activity level (yeah, have fun figuring that out).
The absolute best way to figure out the right amount of food to eat is to listen to your body. If you practice mindful eating (being present with your body when you eat), you can learn to recognize the body’s hunger and satiety cues. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t eat until your stomach was grumbling and you would stop eating when it stopped grumbling. Of course, this is a challenge in our very time-focused culture where lunch is at noon and dinner is at 6 p.m. It requires flexibility and an acceptance of bio individuality.
The last point in Pollan’s simple guidelines to eating says “mostly plants.” We kind of covered that in the meat section above, but I want to reiterate that most of the lifestyle diets that have proven long-term results reduce the intake of meat, especially processed, high-fat meats.
And regardless of your ethical view of killing animals for food, one thing is for sure, our planet cannot handle our current rate of animal consumption. Eating is more than just what we put in our bodies. It is also where the food came from and the natural resources used to produce the food. By limiting our consumption of meat, we vote for a sustainable future.
Some Final Healthy Eating Notes
While we can glean most of what we need about eating healthy from the above, there are a few other components to consider (some which I have already hinted at).
If we are to enjoy our food and eat the right amount, we must be mindful when we eat. This means not eating in front of the TV, snacking at our desks, and scarfing down food in our car.
Rather, set the table, light some candles, and eat on real plates with real silverware. Carve out time for eating. It’s the most important thing (along with sleeping and exercising) that you do every day.
It’s all the rage these days to eat local. That’s because it makes sense. It helps us determine the types of food that are appropriate to eat in a given season (e.g. asparagus in the spring and root vegetables in the winter). Also, eating local stimulates the local economy, reduces emissions caused by transportation, and provides fresher food.
Get inspired by reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Eating real food takes some planning. You’ll need to go to the grocery store more frequently than once a week and set aside time for food preparation. A few things that I find helpful to speed up the process:
- Keep a running grocery list so that it is ready when you leave for the store.
- Plan weekday dinners ahead of time.
- Sign up for a CSA (they often come with recipe suggestions).
- Cut up your produce when you get home so it’s ready to go (e.g. carrots, sweet peppers, etc).
- Cook more during the weekend and eat leftovers.
- Make twice what you need and freeze for later.
- Cook simple dishes (my current favorite is sautéing cut-up vegetables/mushrooms and adding chunks of smoked salmon, avocado, and seeds). Check out Stonesoup for ideas.
- Get really good at a dozen recipes that you can cook without stress.
Embrace the fact that most cultures spend way more time gathering and preparing their food, and that we should probably do the same. But also realize that you may not need a full-blown dinner ever night (or any night). Could you simply cut up some veggies, put out hummus and guacamole and go to town? Perhaps end with fruit and plain yoghurt. (I’ve had plenty of those dinners.)
Eat real food. Avoid processed junk. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re satisfied. Eat a variety of food from all food groups. Mostly plants. Enjoy dark chocolate and red wine (if you want). Focus on eating when you eat. Taste the food. Buy local. Embrace food preparation, but keep it simple.
See, not that complicated. :)