In the scramble to make more dollars and benefit their bottom lines, food companies thrive on the reductionist values we have come to embrace as a nation, taking advantage of America’s grasps at “the next best thing” or “cure-all” that hops up to greet us with our morning advertisements. I think somewhere deep down, we mostly know it’s not true, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. It’s so easy to get swept up in the promise of enriched kids cereals or gummy vitamins. Here are some rules to live by that will help you avoid being a reductionist and generally better your health.
1. Don’t fall for quick-fix, infomercial diets
I’m not saying that diets don’t work for people. But… diets really don’t work for people. They don’t address the issue that caused the weight gain in the first place – they are a temporary solution. The recidivism rates make numbers out of our desires to eat just one more Ho-Ho, and they are showing us that we just don’t have great willpower. While the argument is there for biochemistry and our pleasure centers reacting to sugars and other substances in an addictive and (sometimes) primal way, you can go a long way by getting rid of the idea that quick-fixes are actually going to work in the long-term.
Americans tend to have big dreams with happy endings that come quickly and yield high results. And although that happens in certain senses (heh), it rarely happens in terms of diet, especially if you want to be healthy your whole life. We all need to work on how to break down those big goals into little stepping stones that lead to those big pie-in-the-sky goals (non-fat pie-in-the-sky?). If the goal is “I want to be able to run a 5K without stopping,” and you’ve never run 5K (3 miles), would you start by running a 5K? Any personal trainer will tell you no. Unless they’re terrible.
Same thing with our diets – you have to work up to the big goal. And allow yourself to feel good about the little things you see along the way. No pill will do that for you. (Unless you have some crazy hormonal imbalance, but we can talk about that later.)
2. Reduce sugar intake
Sugar is crazy. It’s crazy bad for us. And the biological response to it is also crazy. It’s addictive at a biochemical level and sometimes is as hard of an addiction to kick as other crazy addictions!
Long story short, sugar can: aggravate incontinence, jack up your leptin resistance, create/sustain addiction, relate to hormonal influxes and mess with your brain’s ability to think. It’s also associated with hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
And it’s in EVERYTHING.
One extremely simple way to cut out sugar is to give up sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, sweet tea, energy drinks, vanilla lattes, juices). Another is to read labels. Read and read labels.
That may sound daunting, but if you pay attention, you’ll see that so much food with long shelf-lives have sugar in it in some form or another (aspartame, HFCS, cane sugar) – that’s because it minimizes microbial spoilage, which allows the food to keep longer. Which brings me to the next piece: if you avoid foods with long shelf-lives, you’ll be further avoiding excess intake of sugar.
3. Ignore “enriched” or “supplemented” foods (a.k.a. designer foods).
Once, enriched foods had a place in foods in America – from the cure to Rickets in the 1930s to curbing the rates of spina bifida in the late 1990s. As a result of widespread approval and marketability of these particular “designer” foods, companies are now adding more than the daily recommended amounts of specific nutrients into foods that are terrible for you and selling them as health foods.
With some exceptions, if you are eating your minimum daily amount of vegetables and getting out in the sun enough (Vitamin D – added into milk), you shouldn’t need fortified foods. Which brings us to the next point:
4. “Supplement” with nutrients from vegetables
Eat your veggies! I know the 5 year-old in you is stamping its feet unless you love your veggies. But there is just no way around it if you don’t want to be a reductionist. Eat them. Within living foods, there are so many micronutrients and chemical interactions happening, that they can’t possibly be perfectly recreated in a multi-vitamin. A multi-vitamin can help people in certain ways, but they can’t make up for a poor diet.
5. Don’t try to “make up” for a poor diet with exercise
I won’t spend a lot of time on this – I think it’s simple. A calorie is not just another calorie when you’re eating (meaning a calorie from a burger is not the same as a calorie from a piece of broccoli), and a calorie burned is not a calorie earned.
Even if you’re slim, you can be fat in other ways (I’m talking about visceral fat). And if you’re “overweight”, you can potentially be healthier than a slim person who doesn’t exercise.
I’m talking about nutrition, here, and overall health. If you don’t eat well, the concept of exercising away a poor diet is the same as a poor diet with a multi-vitamin: it’s just not going to cut it, and you won’t see or feel the results you want.
6. Eat less meat
I know. I know. Meat is delicious. Bacon! Beef! Turkey! Yep. I hear ya. But the truth is….
It’s not just less red meat… it’s less meat overall. Yes, there are better meats than others, and if you do decide (or have already decided) that animal protein is the way you wanna go, it’s easier to say: just eat less. You don’t need it for every meal, and you certainly don’t need as much as the national average (195 pounds of meat per year per capita), which is 3 times more than the global average and contributes to more than 15% of our daily caloric intake.
A recent study has shown a correlation of a diet high in animal protein to higher rates of cancer and deaths from Diabetes. It suggest that most people would do well to reduce their animal protein by half (or less than 10% of their daily caloric intake).
7. Feel it out.
Have you ever stopped to feel how your body feels after eating something? Been aware of a sugar rush? Had the caffeine sweats?
Do yourself a favor and experiment a little with things we should know are good for us. Drink a little more water today and see if you need that 4PM coffee. Eat a little less dairy and see if you feel less sluggish. Eat an extra serving of vegetables and see if going to the bathroom later takes a little less time.
The bottom line: Which things make you feel good and which things leave you with a crash at the end of their journey through your body?
8. Eat more fiber – in the form of veggies and fruits
Fiber is key. Did you know that the average American is only getting ~50% of their daily recommended intake?
More than anything, do you know what fiber does for us? From slowing the uptake of sugars in the bloodstream (preventing diabetes!) to easing our bowels, fiber does a lot for us. And supplements don’t cut it.
The best fiber to eat is found in all kinds of veggies – not only because it contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, but because of the nutrients hiding inside each tasty bite. Hidden in those delicious minimal calories, sugars that are in the veggies are blocked by the fibers also contained inside – and your mouth gets a front row seat.
If you’re a little finicky with veggies, just experiment/try new things. You’re not going to like everything. But you can at least find some standbys that will do you until you find another thing you can add in. Just don’t eat too much of any one thing. Try to diversify as much as possible.
9. Ask yourself: Do I really need all that dairy?
Yes, cheese is delicious and cream cuts the bitterness of coffee, but how can we make things delicious without adding all this extra stuff into our foods? In addition to making it difficult to truly keep track of our calories (especially if you’re on a restricted diet of any kind), constantly adding dairy (and more specifically, cheese) onto everything racks up our totals of saturated fat, protein and carbohydrates. And you remember from before that we should be at a 10% or lower daily intake of animal proteins.
And, in the end, you’re really just adding sugars into your diets, because lactose (found in all dairy) is just another carbohydrate.
10. Re-define what “every-once-in-a-while” is
How often do you eat fast food? Drink sugar-sweetened beverages? “Every-once-in-a-while?” Take a second to be really honest with yourself and answer how often you really eat/drink those two things. Every day? Every other day? Once per week?
It’s not like dietitians and nutritionists don’t talk about what that phrase means, but I’d simplify it to this: don’t do it. Soda? Worthless. Fast food? Worthless. Unless you want to get all your sodium, saturated fat, trans fat (see #11) and sugar daily upper limits in in one sitting, you should be heartily trying to avoid those beautifully glistening french fries.
In the end, once per year might truly be “every once in a while.” Anything more is “regularly.”
11. Reduce certain fats and eliminate trans fats, but be aware that we NEED dietary fats
Dietary fat does so much for us. It lends flavor to food, helps intestinal absorption of lipid-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), is a building block of all cells in the body, regulates cell function and provides metabolic energy. We need fat… just not as much as you might think.
There are 4 types of fats: saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Three of these are the good ones… one is the bad one.
I’m sure, if you are at all aware of the news that you know I’m talking about trans fats – found in fried foods and foods with long self-lives (including in the frozen section). These should be eliminated completely. Easy, unless you love french fries… but don’t worry – you can make those at home without it!
The other ones are a little trickier to understand, but basically remember that you can eat ALL of these to include fats in your diet (as long as it makes up 20-35% of total calories):
|Monounsaturated Fat Sources
||Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources
||Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources
High oleic safflower oil
Fish: trout, herring, and salmon
Yum! (This is where I found this handy chart!)
12. Carbs are good for you – just not the white ones
I cannot stress this enough: fiber. Eating vegetables (carbs) is good for you. Unless you are on a medication that causes a reaction when you eat greens (some do, and you should check with your doctor), you should be eating vegetables (and fruits!).
Your brain needs 120 grams of glucose (carbs) per day just to function. And that’s just a portion of your total energy requirements to keep you going. The key is to eat the RIGHT KIND of carbohydrates: all the colored veggies your heart could desire and a little less, but still plenty of fruits. The key is to pay attention to starchy/refined carbs. Like: refined sugars, white rice and pastas.
The scrumptious delivery system that is these “white” carbs don’t offer any nutritional benefits except for filler (read: empty calories). Again, carbohydrates are sugars in your diet. The key is to eat those carbohydrates with included fiber. Things like: salad greens, bitter greens, tomatoes… etc. You see what I’m getting at.
Last but not least: DRINK WATER. C’mon. You can do it. And your body will thank you for all of this.