In this era when nutritional science is still very young, and new (and often conflicting) information continuously floods the media channels, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when thinking about what and how to eat. In fact, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2012 Food & Health Survey, over half of all Americans believe that preparing income taxes is easier than figuring out what to eat for better health! Many westerners have given up on nutrition entirely and just eat situationally, letting things like habit, visual cues, imbalanced hormones and emotions make their food decisions for them. Others are still trying to make conscious, healthy decisions, but struggle to manage the challenge of “too much information”. We need to develop some simplified personal eating credos to help guide us through the tangle.
Michael Pollan’s now-famous ultra-simple rule is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” While that’s an excellent study in pithiness, most of us need more specific direction to keep from going off the rails. If I love sweets and this is my credo, I’d feel okay about having a small bowl of dates or tropical fruits for breakfast, for example. Then I’d most likely spend the rest of the day careening around on the blood sugar roller coaster –ugh.
We can also get too vague with our personal guidelines. Many of us carry around mantras like, “I need to eat more vegetables”, which, while probably true, is an open-ended statement that rarely leads to the kinds of behaviors we’re looking for. Eat more veggies than what? What we ate last year? Yesterday? At lunch? How many more? The decision-making channels in our brains get short-circuited by too many choices and again, we end up eating according to our default position, which in 2012, is pretty lousy for about two thirds of the population.
The answer lies somewhere in the middle: We need accurate information distilled into a few personalized, easy-to-remember guidelines with enough simplicity, direction and clarity that they can help us successfully navigate all kinds of eating situations. We also need to be more elastic than rigid with these rules. In nutritional science the one thing we’ve proven unequivocally is that our knowledge is limited: Today’s wisdom is likely to be tomorrow’s folly. Don’t fall so much in love with your rules that you can’t let go when, say, the truth comes out that fat is not really your enemy and in fact you probably need to eat it every day.
Here are a few ideas to get you started. Feel free to dismiss the ones that don’t fit, but use the concepts as a springboard to help you customize your own guidelines to your individual, evolving eating needs.
Choose quality over convenience. Recognizable whole foods take some time to prepare. I know you probably don’t have a big window for food prep, but if you want optimal health you must make the time to work with real food. We simply cannot create or sustain health on convenience foods (packaged, processed, chemical, artificial, hyper-sweet/salty-fatty, fast, etc.). In choosing the level of quality that is important to you, think freshness, seasonality, closeness to original state, local, organic, wild-caught, pastured, heirloom, etc.
Eat a diet rich in a variety of different foods. Eating the foods that grow seasonally in your region will automatically build some variety into most people’s diets. Create a mixture of colors, textures, raw and cooked, and flavors on your plate. Over time this one action will help increase your sense of satiety after eating, improve your micronutrient levels, and decrease your risk for food sensitivities and reactions.
Know your personal macronutrient needs and honor them. This is perhaps the most hotly debated issue in the nutritional arena. Part of the problem is that there is no single formula that fits everyone or even one person all the time. For great hormonal/metabolic balance, eat mostly whole foods rich in protein, fiber, micronutrients and water, with small amounts of foods rich in great fats.
You need to make sure you’re eating enough protein at every meal for your satiety, stamina, and personal fitness needs. If you’re carb sensitive, overweight, working with diabetes, metabolic syndrome or heart disease, or trying to get leaner for a fitness goal, you need to limit your overall carb intake. Everyone needs a good balance of healthy fats daily.
If you’re looking for a simple template to start experimenting with, try the hand guide. It’s a more accurate portion/proportion guide than using plate measurements because a petite woman might use giant Pier One platters, but she’s not likely to have ham-sized hands. For men and women at each meal: eat about a cupped-hands-sized serving of vegetables, and a thumb of fat. For women: eat about a palm-sized serving of protein; for men: eat about a fist-sized serving of protein. Carbs are individual, but generally not more than one fist for men or women, and ideally it should be a low-glycemic load choice, such as beans, sweet potato or berries.
Swap out most or all of your grain-foods/starches for vegetables. This one action will not only reduce the calories and negative metabolic effects of eating starchy carbs, but will also up your vegetable intake, thus automatically upping your nutrient, fiber and water intake. Use lettuce, endive leaves, stemmed collards or dinosaur kale as wraps in place of breads. Use summer squash “noodles” in place of pasta, and hollowed peppers, tomatoes or cucumbers in place of buns. Use cauliflower florets pulsed in the food processor in place of rice. Try to eat at least half your vegetables raw year-round, and up to one hundred percent raw in warmer weather.
Chew your food well. Beyond the myriad digestive and metabolic benefits, chewing each bite of food well will automatically slow down your eating, reduce your appetite and reduce the amount you consume. Thorough chewing is one of the simplest and best strategies for natural portion control.
Get adequate sleep and downtime every day. Most of us need 8 hours of sleep every night to help reset normal hormonal balance. Good hormonal balance is crucial to balanced eating, balanced weight and overall well-being. We also need to build some white space into our calendars on a regular basis to give our systems opportunities to dial down excess cortisol production and provide us with some “vitamin P” (pleasure) – key to helping reduce mindless, compulsive or excessive eating. If unscheduled time is stressful rather than relaxing for you, consider cultivating a meditation or meditative movement practice instead, such as hatha yoga or tai chi.
Listen for deeper messages in any out-of-balance cravings or appetite. Eating behaviors are about much more than just nutrition, digestion and elimination. Eating is only one element in the complex and fluid system of life and should always be treated as part of an integrated whole: body, mind, emotional heart and spirit.
What information are your strong cravings or appetites trying to deliver? Consider macronutrient balance in your diet and micronutrient levels in your body; consider the balance of control versus release in all areas of your life; consider whether or not you are living your life according to your personal values, etc.
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