If you are reading this, you likely have some interest in health and wellness. You poor, poor soul.
You are unwittingly taking on the challenge of becoming scientist, detective, and lie-detector – working to discern what is actually helpful amongst the rubbish healthy eating facts hurled at you from the internet, chiropractors, health food stores, personal trainers, doctors, late night radio, and your next door neighbor. One says paleo, another says low fat. One says count calories, another says count carbs. One says eat every two hours, another says fast every two days. Each opinion just as dogmatic as the next contradictory one. If you are driven to stress eat a bag of Percy Pigs, I don’t blame you.
Good news, though – after studying nutrition up to the post-graduate level, I have come to this conclusion: eating well isn’t nearly as complicated as people make it out to be, and it certainly isn’t as restrictive. So, put down your Sherlock hat and allow me to boil down all my hoity-toity education and years of work experience into five sweeping principles of eating well.
1- Enjoy your food.
When I was in Los Angeles, about 85% of my work was with compulsive overeating and binge eating and their resulting diseases. Many people think my job was in convincing people to put down the cupcakes and mix in a salad. There was an extent to which this was true, but the reality was that I spent most of my time teaching people how to enjoy food. Enjoying food- truly enjoying food- can do a world of good as it will naturally lead you to these two healthy habits:
- Slow down.
When you enjoy something (music, reading, sport, getting a massage…) – when you really take pleasure in it – you notice it and allow yourself to be absorbed in that moment of enjoyment. Engage with your meals in the same way. When you relish your food, you will naturally slow down eating as you savor each bite. Take note- is it crunchy? Creamy? Salty? Is that nutmeg or clove? Aside from the simple pleasure of eating alone, noticing and savoring your food will force you to slow down, which results in a huge advantage: you will be less likely to overeat.
It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to communicate to your brain how much you’ve eaten. If you clean your plate in seven minutes flat, it will be another 13 before your brain will have realized that you’ve not only eaten, but that you’ve blown way past having a satisfying portion to having had an oversized portion. You know what I’m talking about- those Boojum burritos that seem to grow in your belly as you walk back to your car? We’ve all done it. But, if you take the full 20 minutes to eat your meal, you allow your brain to keep pace with your fullness and signal when you’ve eaten enough. When you recognize (and respond!) to that signal of fullness, you are able to steer clear from overeating and it’s accompanying trifecta of misery- discomfort, bloating, and lethargy. The meal that tasted so great now seems like a huge mistake. Enjoying your food and eating less are not mutually exclusive, but actually dependent on each other. So, slow down. Pay attention. Are you are genuinely hungry, or if you are just eating because the food is there in front of you? Do you even like food you are eating? (Hello, my name is Sarah, and I have eaten an entire bag of stale microwave popcorn just because it was there. Eep!)
The great part of taking the time to savor your food and listen to your body is that by doing this, you circumvent the need to count your calories- a practice only appropriate in a very limited number of extreme situations (think burn healing, tube feedings, certain stages of eating disorder recovery, etc). Though, with how people push counting every calorie, you’d wonder- how did the human race did survive to see the invention of the calorimeter and calculator?! I promise, you will be fine if you are thoughtful about your actual hunger and what you are eating. Which brings me to the next principle…
Eat higher quality food.
Eat food. I totally borrowed (stole, whatever) this from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, but I do believe Joan Cusack was the originator of this idea. Remember in Say Anything when she yells at her teenage brother “There’s no FOOD in your food!” Wait- you haven’t seen it?? Go. Now. Bookmark this page, watch the movie and fall in love with Lloyd Dobler. ANYWAYS, skip the foods with the chemicals and crazy dyes and preservatives (once you eat real food regularly, you’ll find they don’t taste all that great anyways) and go for food that has ingredients you can picture what look like as you read the label. If it looks like you’d need a chemistry textbook to decipher the ingredients, run, RUN the other way (unless it’s an Oreo. What?). The ingredients label test even applies to “health” foods. Let me give you an example- tofurky. How much processing do you have to go through to go from a soybean to something that looks and tastes like turkey? You get my drift?
It’s not that I think the government or food companies are out to slowly poison us with their chemical concoctions so that the pharmaceutical companies can swoop in to save the day (I actually know people who think this). The principle of eating food is that it will keep you close to the nutrients. The more processing a food goes through, the more likely the loss of nutritional advantages.
2- Eat yer greens!
So many of my clients have been frustrated that research seems to support something one year and the next year refute it. You will never, however, find sound research that is anything but glowing towards fruits & vegetables. Half your plate should be made up of these delicious nutrients bearers with a bit more emphasis on veg than fruit.
Now. From the top of my soapbox, let me declare – EAT your fruits and vegetables!! Don’t JUICE them. All that fiber going to waste! This is one of those health trends that does my head in! Juice is not completely devoid of nutrients, but you will lose out on the fiber. That very fiber you are throwing in the bin is what keeps your blood sugars steady, lowers your cholesterol, and keeps your gut nice and healthy. If eating your fruit and veg seems daunting and you must drink them, then at least opt for a smoothie. By just blending the fiber is left available. Without the fiber you are left defenseless against the concentrated sugar overload you are left with in juice.
3- Choose water.
Stay away from juice (see #2), fizzy drinks, and sports drinks (unless you are an athlete- and even then only at certain times). If you are bored, jazz up the water by infusing it with mint and cucumber or lemon and orange slices. Make it into a tea. But do get in that water. It’s amazing how draining dehydration can be. How many times could the weight of our afternoon slumps be eased by a simple glass of water?
4- Don’t get crazy.
People who get obsessed with their strict diets are annoying and condescending. Don’t turn into that person who gets socially awkward when the traybakes come out- batting them out of hands while preaching the woes of refined sugars and gluten. There will be times when HobNobs and Tayto crisps are not only ok, but wildly appropriate for the situation. If you are eating well 90% of the time, then your body can handle the 10% of the time you eat junk. In fact, I say this as I sit here with a Percy Pig poised for consumption…but knowing what I’ve eaten this last week, I am not worried a bit about it.
5- Use food for what it is designed for.
This principle is more about relationship than practice. Food is meant to fuel our bodies and be a pleasurable way to do so. Before that snack, ask yourself- “Am I actually hungry?” You may find you aren’t. You are simply bored. Or maybe sad. Or maybe lonely. Food is not meant to be a therapist. The occasional ice cream and cookie dough binge in reaction to a break-up or job redundancy is understandable, but I have worked with hundreds of people who use food as an everyday band-aid to numb anxiety, depression, and fear. Cake is just cake. It cannot heal. It cannot console. It cannot fill a void.
So, eat up, friends. Loving food is not the enemy of health, but key to it. Yet, even in this, there is balance. Dishin’ It Out will pursue both that love of food, and the balance it takes for a healthy life.