Eating healthier is usually at the top of everyone’s list of goals and resolutions for the new year. January 1st is the day for gym-joining and diet-starting, and by January 31st, most of us have justified away all of our good intentions.
The problem is two-fold: 1) “diets” are restrictive, time-bound, and require us to rely on herculean self-control, and 2) everyone is [rightfully] confused about what exactly is “healthy”.
To the first point–a diet assumes that you are taking a temporary break from eating in a certain manner by following rigid rules designed to achieve a quick result. The problem is that diets are nearly impossible to maintain long-term due to their inflexible rules and the sheer amount of discipline one has to maintain in order to follow these rules. A more attainable and sustainable approach is to consider a lifestyle change–a relatively permanent set of principles that guide your philosophy and your decision making.
Another roadblock in the way of healthy eating is the sheer quantity of conflicting information out there about which foods are healthy and which foods are not. Is meat a nutrient dense source of protein, or a toxin laden heart disease bomb? Are whole grains a satiating and nutritious diet staple, or a source of pro-inflammatory lectins and indigestible gluten proteins? There are so many different nutritional philosophies out there that it can be exhausting to determine what to serve for dinner.
By following a few simple guidelines, you can implement a relatively foolproof plan for eating healthfully. There is enough flexibility to customize your diet to your needs, and enough structure to avoid the foods that will cause the most harm. Most importantly, they’re simple and easy to stick with over the long-term.
Disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist or a health professional of any kind, nor do I claim to offer medical advice. This is simply what works for me and my body. Please consult your doctor before implementing any major nutritional change.
1. Eat real food
The simplest way to eat healthy is to start by eating whole, unprocessed foods. The easiest way to identify whether a food is processed is to ask yourself whether your great-grandmother would recognize it. An apple? Yep. A Twinkie? Nope.
You’ll find that by following this simple guideline, many of the packaged foods on the interior aisles of the grocery store are eliminated. This is one of notable food author Michael Pollan’s secrets for healthy eating—shop the perimeter of the grocery store. There you’ll come across fresh, mostly healthy foods [but watch out for the bakery].
From there, the debate rages as to what is considered “healthy” or “not healthy.” There are hundreds of ways of eating, and it seems that the surest way to find an argument in today’s society is to discuss religion, politics, or diet. There are a few universal maxims, however.
In general, refined foods like white sugar and processed sweeteners [this includes “brown” sugar, cane sugar, and agave] and white flour [all-purpose flour] are on the naughty list due to their high glycemic index. In addition, the closer you can get to the source, the better. This means eating local and organic wherever possible, and selecting animal products that were raised on pasture if you choose to eat them.
Without regard to a particular dietary ideology, the following are generally considered real food. There is debate among the paleo/primal/ancestral and vegetarian/vegan crowds about the health and ethical implications of some of the items on the “good choices” list, but in general, they are recognized as whole, unprocessed foods.
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Pastured eggs
- Pasture raised meats
- Full fat organic dairy
- Natural sweeteners [honey, maple syrup]
- Healthy fats [olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nut butters, etc[
- Beans, nuts and seeds
- Spices and homemade sauces/condiments
Not So Good Choices:
- Packaged food
- High fructose corn syrup
- Refined sugar [white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, sugar in the raw, agave]
- Refined flour
- Artificial sweeteners
- Artificial colors and flavors
- Processed oils [vegetable oil, shortening, canola oil, soybean oil, etc.]
2. Follow the 80/20 rule
Perfection isn’t practical. While it might be better to avoid certain foods entirely, sometimes you just want to have a cupcake.
I find that it’s much easier to maintain healthy eating if I allow myself to follow the 80/20 rule—80% of your diet is healthy, and the other 20% can be indulgent if you wish. This avoids a weekend junk food binge that will leave you feeling yucky and full of self-loathing.
At nine months pregnant, I can certainly identify with the power of a craving. A few weeks ago, I started feeling an insatiable desire for gummy bears. These contain almost everything on the “not so good” list, but I certainly didn’t intend to ignore the urge to eat an entire bag. I’ve been allowing myself to indulge in the craving once a week or so, and trying to eat healthy for the majority of my meals.
3. Keep junk food out of the house
This is the absolute secret for healthy eating. It’s the holy grail.
If you want to eat less junk food, don’t buy it. Period. Just keep it out of the house entirely. If you want to eat it, you have to leave the house, drive to a restaurant, and spend money on it. Or, you have to make it yourself using only the healthy ingredients that you have in your pantry. Chances are, the inconvenience and expense will prevent you from indulging all that often.
Growing up, we ate relatively healthy family meals prepared by my mom. However, we had an entire pantry full of chips, snacks, cookies, and soda. Coming from a sweet-toothed breadaholic, there is no such thing as willpower in that situation. When you’re confronted with a difficult choice continually, willpower breaks down and you find yourself at the bottom of a bag of Doritos wondering what happened.
Do yourself a favor and keep the junk food out of the house, and then enjoy it guilt free when you choose to.
4. Use meat as a condiment more often than a main dish.
Meat—whether you choose to eat it or not, most of us can agree that it is expensive to purchase, environmentally taxing to raise, and arguably unhealthy when eaten in giant quantities.
I’ve had several relationships with meat-eating—I’ve eaten a meat-starch-vegetable Standard American Diet [the SAD diet], I was a vegetarian for several years, and now, I eat high-quality meat in smaller quantities while focusing mainly on the veggies.
This doesn’t have to be your approach, but if you do choose to eat meat, try to use it mainly as a condiment rather than a main dish. This can mean adding some beef to a stir fry, using up some shredded chicken in a soup, or crumbling up some bacon on your salad. It’s much more economical than eating a steak every night, and you can still enjoy the meat while leaving room for the vegetables to be the main focus of your meal.
5. Fill half your plate with vegetables.
Gone is the belief that we should follow the food pyramid’s guidelines to build our meals around grain products. We now know that we should be filling half our plate with fruits and vegetables. They’re nutrient-dense, filling, and prevent us from eating too much of the protein and carbohydrates that can cause us to gain unnecessary weight when eaten in excess.
If you’re having trouble eating a half a plate of green beans, try adding a side salad, or substituting pasta or rice for spaghetti squash or cauliflower rice. Adding a delicious homemade sauce makes the veggies palatable for kids and adults alike—you wont even miss the grains.
Choosing to eat healthfully according to simple guidelines is preferable to yo-yo dieting and the binge cycle. Focusing on what we can control within our diets–eating a variety of real, nutrient-dense foods–leaves room for the occasional indulgence that makes life enjoyable.
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