“We need to take responsibility for our own health, the health of our families, our society, and the world at large. The small choices we make on a daily basis affect our resilience, our health, and our quality of life.” – Dr. Frank Lipman, Integrative Physician
“Don’t eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” – Michael Pollan, Author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Eating is a basic necessity. It’s right up there with air and water; if you don’t eat, you’ll die.
It can also be one of the most enjoyable parts of life. It helps people start a relationship or experience other cultures. Family gatherings are often centered around meals, and it can be fun to explore different flavors, textures, and styles of cooking. Our biology even gets in on the action: the brain and body know how important food is for survival, so they reward us with pleasureful feelings when eat what we need.
The “Best” Diet
What exactly does the body need? It’s a debated question and one without a perfectly defined answer. No diet is 100% right, and no diet is 100% wrong. Different diets also affect different people in different ways, so you might respond poorly to a diet that worked well for someone else, and vice versa. “Every individual is distinct in how we digest food, which particular foods nourish us, which ones we are sensitive to, and how our bodies break down drugs or detoxtify pollutants,” explains Dr. Frank Lipman. “Our systems are as unique to each person as our fingerprints.”
Too many people eat without thinking, and that can lead to trouble. Most food companies have put far more thought into it their product than the average consumer. They know what ingredients make your brain say “More! More! More!” – and those things aren’t typically the same ingredients that give your body the nutrients it needs to thrive. It’s an industry driven more by money and politics than it is by health.
That’s why it’s so important to be your own nutrition scientist. Take the time to explore eating different types of foods or diets. Food is fuel, and just as different cars perform optimally on different types of fuel, our bodies react differently with each calorie we consume. If you are going to fill up, it’s worth figuring out what types of fuel help your body run the best.
Just because your body is capable of eating something doesn’t mean that it should. Some foods are harder to break down and process than others. Others have a higher likelihood of causing an allergic reaction. If you can minimize the amount of energy needed to consume something, and eat foods which cause less inflammation, ultimately you will feel better and have more energy to spend elsewhere.
A few years ago I was a card carrying meat-itarian who routinely ate entire jars of salsa-con-queso in one sitting and washed it all down with a case of beer. My stomach was so consistently irritated that I didn’t know it could be any other way, and I would get into arguments with people about why my diet was perfectly fine. (“Look how good of shape I’m in!”). Since then I’ve been through a series of food experiments and “elimination challenges” where I’ll try not to consume something for a month (sugar, alcohol, meat). Along with the help of an amazing chef at home (Thanks Kristen!), I’ve changed my diet to one that is mostly plant-based.
I’m not suggesting that my diet will work for everyone, or that people who eat in other ways are wrong. All I’m asking is that we bring a little mindfulness to what we eat. If you listen closely to your body, it will tell you what it needs.
How to Listen to What Your Body is Saying
One of the reasons that diets like Weight Watchers work is because you are consistently tracking what you eat. When you track what you eat and are aware of how it makes you feel, you can make better food choices.
Even if you don’t want to keep a food journal, try paying attention to how you feel after eating different types of food. What is your body telling you? What happens? What is your energy level like after eating something? What about a few hours later? How does your gut feel when it is breaking it down?
Another way food can speak to you is through your body composition and shape. Switch up your diet and really see how your body reacts – either good or bad.
Once you have a better idea of how foods affect you, it doesn’t mean that you can never eat “bad” foods. If you know certain foods make you feel sluggish, or give you a stomach-ache, etc, you don’t have to give them up forever. Just be aware that when you do eat them you are making a trade-off, and be in a position where you can make the trade-off at that particular time.
“If you are craving something “bad,” try making it yourself. It’s amazing how much time is required to create an at-home version of your favorite fast food or convenience snack. This also gives you control of the ingredients you are consuming.” – Kristen Balchan, RD
Tips for Becoming Your Own Nutrition Scientist
Most people already know what they should or shouldn’t eat, but the difficulty comes in actually following through and making choices in the moment. It doesn’t have to be so hard; there are ways to trick your mind and reduce the amount of willpower required to eat a certain way.
Focus on what you CAN eat rather than what you CAN’T. Find fun alternatives to foods that you know aren’t bad for you, so it’s not a question of not being able to enjoy something but rather getting the opportunity to enjoy something different. If a food that is worse for you brings a level nine enjoyment, and you know you can get a level eight with something healthier, it’s easy to give up a little short term satisfaction for a bigger long term gain.
Your taste buds will also change over time, and much faster than you might think (it can happen in less than 2 weeks!). I found that as my body became more aware of the types of food that made it feel the best, my taste buds gradually shifted to crave more of those types of food. It can even enhance your eating experience; try not eating butter or sugar for a month and then see how rich both of those things taste when you go back to them.
Being careful with money is important, but food isn’t a good place to skimp. You get a high return on investment when you pay for higher quality foods, and the long term health costs are far greater than the marginal up front increase. Spend a little extra on fuel that is good for you and pat yourself on the back for a smart decision.
Suggested Guidelines to Start Experimenting
While I have no hard and fast rules, I try to follow the general guidelines below. They are mostly influenced by the Slow Carb Diet, the Bulletproof Diet, the Thrive Diet, and my wife’s educational background as a Registered Dietitian. Use them as a great place to start on your own nutrition adventure.
- Eat REAL food. Stay clear of the processed stuff. If the ingredient list has something you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce – try to avoid it. Any food that has just one ingredient (“apple,” “yam,” “avocado”) is probably good.
- Eat LOTS of veggies. It’s the best way to get your macronutrients and vitamins.
- Load up on fats: the plant based, unsaturated kind. Avocado, almonds, chia seeds, healthy oils. It’s like high octane fuel for your brain and the easiest energy for your body to use.
- Don’t eat factory food. Not only are you what you eat, but you are also what your food eats. Some meat production factories feed their animals food past the expiration date, garbage, or even other animals – yuck. If you are going to eat meat, make sure it’s naturally sourced (and ideally sustainable). Grass fed beef. Wild caught fish from natural stocks that aren’t being depleted.
- Build with protein. Protein provides the building blocks for muscles and cells. The typical suggestion is to eat 1g of protein for every 3 lbs of body weight. Protein doesn’t have to come from meat; plants actually provide far more than most people think. Check out Vega’s Visual Guide to Plant Based Protein.
- Avoid white and refined carbs. Limit bread, pasta, etc. You don’t have to cut it out completely, just try to eat less. Most people who feel better on a gluten free diet probably do so because of this reason.
- Limit sugar. It’s basically a toxin. Delicious, but be careful.
- Drink lots of water. The average body is 50-65% water. A lot of the time you are “hungry” you are actually just thirsty. Drink up! #Hydration.
- Don’t drink calories. Fruit juice isn’t fruit – it’s sugar water without the fiber that comes from whole fruit. Milk was perfectly designed by nature to get a baby 50lb calf to a 500lb animal super fast. Soda provides no nutritional energy. Alcohol can be fun, but it gets broken down into sugar.
- Snack smart! If you are feeling low on energy and it’s not yet time for a meal, grab a healthy snack. My go-tos are a handful of almonds, veggies and hummus, a banana with almond butter, or an avocado. I love taking the avocado, halving and de-pitting it, then sprinkling on a high quality olive oil and some sea salt before eating it right from the shell with a spoon. Yum!
- Supplement. Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Omega-3s, and a probiotic.