Them (food eatin') rules
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Nutrition is my schtick. I have so much to say. I’ll try not to get on any soapboxes, though, as that is not an especially effective way to get people to listen.
Some people do really well with rules. They like to know their boundaries, what they can and cannot do; they like to know their norms and have find established boundaries to be soothing and less stressful. There are less ‘what if’ situations and unknowns, right? This is much like those bumpers they can give you at the bowling alley: no matter what, if you push the ball hard enough, it will get to the end of the lane and most likely you will succeed in knocking down at least one or two pins. Yay! On the other hand, some might find rules stifling. They don’t like being told what to do, when to do it, and how long they can do it for. They want to be agents of change for their own behavior. They want to do what they want when they want, and you can’t tell them what to do, thankyouverymuch.
Here’s the thing, too: food rules aren’t really rules. They are more like suggestions that work best when followed regularly. The science of nutrition is new; what we know about how to feed ourselves well throughout each life stage can fit on the head of a needle, really. And, the more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t actually know that much, and what we do know is not set in stone. What works well for one person, does not necessarily work well for another, and, more importantly, these suggestions go hand-in-hand with your genetic make-up and predisposition and your state of physical fitness. It’s probably easiest to say that it is complicated and leave it at that. I don’t want to leave it at that, though, because ‘it’s complicated’ isn’t really all that helpful.
So. Let me tell you some of the things I know, some of the concepts I embrace. Let’s go from there.
Let’s start with this: Some of the best words to follow are the most simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. “ Michael Pollan. To break that down: processing foods generally is not a good thing. In general, the more processed a food is, the less it resembles what it started out like when Ma Nature created it. The most humans futz with it, the more chemicals we add to it, the lower the nutritional value. We add colors, spray on chemicals, we flip-flop fatty acids, creating monster molecules, we manipulate the foods to the point that they lose their nutritional value. This is not a good thing. Instead, may I suggest this: it’s best to try to consume foods in the state that most closely resembles what it looked like while it was growing. How can one even tell if a food is processed? Hint: the shorter the ingredient list, the better. If it sounds like a chemical, then it probably is. And if you can pronounce it, it is likely not a man-made insertion. In short, Ma Nature knows best.
The second part of that quote is ‘not too much’ referring to our propensity to over-indulge in all foods, but especially those that are the sweetest and most fatty. I know, they are tasty, aren't they? I'll talk about sugar in a bit, but know that sweets and fats are not necessarily bad foods, but when eaten in amounts that exceed our caloric need, they become the greatest source of our stored calories (read: our fat). How do we eat ‘not too much’? By eating slower, by tuning in to what our bodies are saying, listening to when we have reach satiety (which is not always when the plate is clean). When we tune in to our hunger signals, when we focus on foods that taste good, and be mindful about our eating, we can ‘hear’ when we are finished. Your body knows how much food it needs; you need to know how to hear the signals it gives you to let you know when it’s reached that point. Oftentimes, we eat in a rush, at our desks or straight from the fridge, gobbling something down quickly between this task and the other. We allow our levels of hydration to get mixed, and then the hunger signals and thirst signals get confused in our heads. We eat when the clock dictates rather than when our bodies tell us it’s time for food. And we snack, especially when we are in a social situation or in a state of stress. All of this contributes to no longer ‘hearing’ our hunger and satiety cues.
The third part, ‘Mostly plants’ is simple: though humans are naturally omnivores, and we have both ripping and cutting teeth as well as grinding teeth (so we can eat both food we have to ‘rip’ like meat and foods we have to grind like grains), we do best when we eat less meat. When one consumes a diet of mostly plants – to include grains, legumes, fruits, veggies, etc – our bodies are happiest and function well. These are the foods that provide your digestive system with the fibers that make it function best (more about that here), and are the most nutrient-dense (much bigger bang for your caloric buck in terms of vitamins and minerals; read this article for about those powerhouse phytonutrients). Too much meat – especially processed meats like ham, bacon and lunch meats – are harder on our bodies to process and utilize. That’s not to say you must be vegetarian to be healthy; on the contrary. In fact, quality meats are definitely good for you; more on eating meats here. Note: I did say quality meats, as it is much better to consume a small portion of high quality meat than it is to consume anything processed.
A few other important points: It is potentially better for your state of mind (read: less guilt, confusion, stress, etc) if you can think of your diet as foods you eat, rather than ‘the D word’ and foods you are restricted to. Why? Because just as soon as you start thinking about your food intake as what you can and cannot (or should and should not) eat, it becomes a source of angst. Sure, there are foods that maybe you shouldn’t eat every single day, but that’s just it: your diet is the foods you eat in general on a regular basis. Some foods should play a greater role, and be a larger part of your diet; other foods should be less prominent, maybe once or twice a month. Nixing food categories, or entire food groups defeats the purpose of being an omnivore, and will most likely lead to strong cravings and/or nutrient deficiencies. Neither of those are good things. Carbs are not evil; neither are proteins. I repeat, humans were designed to eat a wide variety of foods.
Emotional connections to your food can evoke nice memories, sure, but oftentimes, the emotions are instead negative or create a burden. Instead, mindfully enjoying what you are cooking, taking the time to really enjoy the process, tuning in to what you are eating and savoring the time you invest in eating and enjoying your meals is part of having a relationship with your food intake. Again, there are no bad foods, or foods you should feel guilty about eating. Want a doughnut? Eat the darn doughnut, and enjoy every bite. Please don’t feel bad about it, or promise you’ll do 500 crunches in order to ‘make up for it’. A doughnut is a very special culinary creation, and you SHOULD enjoy it. Perhaps, though know not to eat that doughnut every day; remember, there are those foods that should play a smaller role in your intake.
If there are any foods that are nearing the label of ‘less-good-for-you foods’ that might be sugar. Contrary to popular belief, sugar does not cause hyperactivity. It does however cause dental caries (especially when we don’t brush after consuming it). More importantly, sugar is devoid of any nutrients, a source of concentrated calories, and is often seen in greater concentrations in foods that are highly processed. Does that mean you should avoid it at all costs? Well, maybe. Sugar is highly-addictive; humans like the taste, and will go to great lengths to seek it out. The greatest problem with sugar for a healthy population is that consuming a lot of it will fill you with foods that are not necessarily full of nutrients. People who eat a lot of sugar often have diets that include a lot of sodas, candy and sweets; we know those are not necessarily foods we should be consuming every day in large quantities. However, once these sweet foods have their hook in you, they will reel you in, and, like a siren, take the place of foods that should play a larger role in your diet. Of course, I just told you to eat more fruits, and everyone knows fruits are full of sugar, right? Well, yes, but fruits (especially whole fruits, not juices or ‘fruit products’) are also full of fiber and nutrients. So there’s that bigger bang for your buck, you see?
A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. However, some foods and macronutrients have a much greater calorie load in relation to their nutrient density (I’m looking at you, fat molecule). That doesn’t mean fat is bad; on the contrary, your body needs fat in your diet in order to function well. Paying attention to and incorporating foods that have the biggest nutritional bang for your buck (the aforementioned fruits, veg, whole grains and legumes as well as quality sources of protein like fish and lean meats) are wise investments, both money and calorie-wise. However. Even those good-for-you foods can lay on the extra weight if you eat more calories than you burn.
Know this: the diet that works for me, keeps me feeling full of energy, meets my daily needs for nutrients may not work for you. Nutrition is a very individual thing. What works well for me will almost certainly not work for my growing teenage boys, nor for my husband who has a different sort of health history than I do. It is very very important to pay attention to how you are feeling using the diet you are following, and make changes accordingly. Not changing things every day, mind you, but in general. Remember: it is what you eat in general that is important. There are no silver bullets or magic foods that will suddenly fix every health situation and ailment. Sorry.
Eating healthy, making dinner, having a meal should not/not be anxiety inducing. It can be very confusing, especially if you pay any attention to news and health updates which veer dramatically from one side to the next on what is and is not healthy. Foods can jump from one category to the next overnight. You will face choices for every single food you put in your (and your family’s) mouth. Every single one. Don’t get bogged down on the finer details. Know that if you chose less processed, higher quality foods, eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies and grains, enjoy all types of legumes, and stay well-hydrated, you will have a quality diet. Don’t let social media or the latest news highlight dictate what you eat. Make informed decisions based on science-backed facts. Nutrition is not as complicated as you might think.
For further reading (a few of these are linked above, too):