To help counter all the back and forth dietary blather, I’ve come up with 23 common-sense eating principles, tips, and thoughts on how to eat for exceptional health, overall life balance, and even weight loss. These are principles that I’ve learned over time, have seen working for many people, use myself, and aren’t likely to change when the next scientific study comes out tomorrow. My hope is that this list will reassure you that everything is ok—healthy living with food doesn’t have to be hard—and a lot of times it comes down to good old fashioned common sense.
1. As long as you aren't eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) and ARE making changes towards eating a wide variety of whole foods—including lots of vegetables and fruits, you are already doing a lot to prevent diet-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Historically, humans have survived and thrived on a wide variety of diets—from really high carbohydrate diets to eating mostly animal blood, meat, and milk to diets highly comprised of just fat. The only diet that seems to really make people chronically sick is our own nasty Western diet (coupled with minimal physical activity), also known by some as the Standard American Diet, which includes lots of refined carbohydrates, highly processed foods, meat, added sugars and fats, and few fruits and vegetables.
2. Don’t wait until you are hungry to decide what to eat (that usually ends in an overeating disaster). Have a rough plan in your head, know what healthy options you have on hand, and consider getting into the habit of eating smartly every 3-4 hours (this works well for some people).
3. If you don’t want to play the fad-diet-of-the-month game, don’t. You’ll live, I promise (and be much better off, I might add!). Speaking of diet fads, JUST DON’T DO THEM. They don’t last long-term (usually only a few weeks to several months), nor do they create new, healthier habits—these diets and fad eating styles are merely band-aids on a wound, temporary fixes that might give you a motivating high for awhile but will inevitably leave you back at square one again. I’ve seen fad diets fail, again and again and again. Enough already! The healthiest way to eat is the way that you can eat for the rest of your life—a way that promotes health, keeps you satisfied, is pleasurable, and supports a positive relationship with food.
4. There are no superfoods. At least in the sense that one particular food is so amazing you need to spend an inordinate amount of money, time, or effort to acquire and consume it to the exclusion of other perfectly healthy foods. No one food will guarantee life to 102 or cure your cancer. Unfortunately, nothing like this exists. Now, are some foods “more super” healthwise than others? For sure! But, there will never be one superfood that does more for your health than a balanced, overall healthy way of eating and living. The hard truth is that superfoods are good business for health gurus, food manufacturers, and the media—not for you and me. Tell Dr. Oz to shove his Garcinia Cambogia and Acai berry. Don’t fall for the hype!
5. Eat food. Real, whole, basic foods. What do I mean by this? Whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, intact grains, fresh fish, poultry, and meat. Avoid the cheaply manufactured, energy-dense, sugary, and salty foods that crowd the supermarkets and beckon to us from the fast food menu board.
6. Rely heavily on foods that have few calories by volume—conveniently, these are most often the plant foods we should be eating a lot of anyway, as mentioned above. Eating this way is a very promising strategy in weight loss and sustained weight control for life. When you think about it, it’s common sense: if you feel more full (on fewer calories) for a longer period of time, you will be less likely to consume unnecessary, extra calories that can lead to weight gain. Best foods to help carry out this strategy? You guessed it: fruits and vegetables--the beneficial components being a high water and fiber content.
7. Eat strategically to promote satiety—along with a larger proportion of lower calorie/high volume foods, you want to include a modest amount of satiety-promoting foods with each meal and snack. Fat and protein do the trick here: think regulated portions of nuts, cheese, avocado, eggs, or lean meat and fish.
8. COOK. From scratch. Start with whole, fresh ingredients. Hamburger Helper and Panburger Partner are NOT your new kitchen assistants. If you find yourself staring with dread at or are wondering how a handful of basic food ingredients sitting on your kitchen counter could ever be as exciting and delicious as the Monster Thickburger, you probably need some assistance getting started with healthy cooking. Pour over healthy recipes on the internet (check out my own blog recipes or one of my favorite recipe idea sources, Cooking Light), hire a dietitian to help you prepare healthy meals, or take some healthy cooking classes. Cooking for yourself is an essential survival skill in the healthy living wilderness!
9. Eat at home 95% of the time--goes hand-in-hand with cooking. If you can't eat at home, at the very least, BRING your food from home. Once you let restaurants, food-sellers, and food manufacturers prepare even a moderate proportion of your meals, you lose control over your eating...and your health.
10. Whole dietary patterns over time are more important than single foods or nutrients. Consistency with your overall way of eating is key, so it’s not necessary to get overly obsessed with nutrient details. Our health relies not so much on the individual nutrients we eat as it does on the source of those nutrients (the whole food item) and the amount eaten. So the next time a food fear-mongering health guru shouts at you “...but that has FRUCTOSE in it!” just smile to yourself and eat on. You know better.
11. Most of what we need to know about what to eat (and what NOT to eat), we already inherently know; however, if you are still in doubt about whether or not to eat aerosol-can pancake batter, frozen pizza with over 90 ingredients, or Fruit Loops, use your common sense and remember Michael Pollan’s sound advice, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
12. Know how many calories you are eating in relation to how much energy your body needs. Yes, I strongly advocate tracking calories! I see the most consistent weight loss and lifelong weight maintenance results when people understand and use calories to their advantage. Determining caloric needs and tracking caloric intake will never be completely foolproof—and that is ok! Still, with close monitoring and subsequent tweaking over time, determining caloric needs for weight loss or weight maintenance can be very accurate. In fact, even having a rough estimate of how many calories you need and how many you are taking in is better than unawareness since the process helps you gain crucial knowledge and perspective about how the energy in food affects your weight. By monitoring caloric intake and needs in my own life, I have been able to keep my weight within three pounds of my goal weight for over 12 years.
13. Invest in food: you can’t afford to be cheap here! We spend countless dollars on clothes, jewelry, manicures, magazines, rent or mortgages, car payments, and other “stuff.” Surely our health and our bodies (we only get one body, by the way) are more important than anything else in our lives. You really get what you pay for in most cases, and that goes for food, too! If you spend a little more for better quality food, you likely will treat that food with more respect—maybe prepare it with more care or even eat it more slowly. Higher-quality food often tastes better, too, and, as a result, you may need to eat less of it to feel satisfied.
14. Eat deliberately. When you are going to eat, EAT. Don’t do anything else.
15. Recognize that food has a dual purpose: it is nourishment for both body and mind. Somewhere down the line, too many of us became more obsessed with the biological importance of food and lost sight of the fact that eating is pure pleasure, enjoyable, and culturally significant. Eat guilt-free. ENJOY FOOD!
16. How you eat affects the health of the planet. There's no skirting this issue anymore. With the health of humans’ only home (planet Earth) in peril, you can’t NOT think about this anymore and consider yourself a responsible or “healthy” eater. There are many ways you can eat to reduce our impact on the environment, but one of the most effective is to reduce your consumption of what Mark Bittman calls “inefficient food”—the most energy-intensive and “inefficient” foods produced being meat, dairy, and highly processed/packaged foods. Consider three powerful examples Bittman shares in his book Food Matters (a highly-recommended read) that illustrate the substantial energy toll meat-heavy diets take on the environment:
- “...eating a typical family of four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home.”
- “If we each ate the equivalent of three fewer cheeseburgers a week, we’d cancel out the effects of all the SUVs in the country.”
- “For a family that usually drives a car 12,000 miles a year, switching from eating red meat and dairy to chicken, fish, and eggs just one day a week—in terms of greenhouse gas emissions—is the equivalent of driving 760 miles less a year.”
17. Create an eating environment conducive to your goals. You wouldn’t put a tv, a bunch of your favorite magazines, and have your iPad open to Candy Crush on your desk at work and expect yourself to focus and get your job done, would you? So why would you expect that having a bunch of tempting, fast, easily-accessible crap food around your house and in your kitchen would help you commit to eating a moderate diet of wholesome foods? Get rid of the junk and surround yourself with better choices!
18. Don’t fear fat but DO eat the best kinds. If you avoid highly processed, manufactured foods and build your diet around mostly whole foods, eating the “right” kinds of fat becomes almost a nonissue. The best fats are found in nuts, avocados, olives, seeds, fatty fish, and olive oil. Embrace healthy fat!
19. You’re getting enough protein, trust me. Do me a favor: instead of worrying about whether you are getting enough protein, worry about getting enough vegetables. Any reasonably balanced, calorically adequate diet is going to give you plenty of protein. That’s not to say protein isn’t important or can’t be used to our advantage. When does protein specifically come in handy? Like fat, protein is great at helping us to feel full, which is why it is smart to include a little with each meal and snack.
20. Have a plan, and a back-up plan, and a back-up back-up plan when it comes to eating. You wouldn’t leave on a vacation without booking a flight, packing your luggage with essentials, planning sight-seeing opportunities, or knowing where you are going to sleep, would you? So why is ok to leave the house in the morning not knowing what, where, or how you are going to fuel your body? Always have a rough eating plan, and, along these lines, it's wise to carry healthy snacks with you. Never get caught with your proverbial pants down and “have” to resort to eating junk food or fast food. In other words, don’t let food "happen" to you; unfortunate as it is, in our obesigenic society today, it takes a conscience effort to make healthy choices, and planning helps keep you on the right path.
21. Eat today how you want to feel tomorrow morning. Pretty simple, but very effective.
22. Stop eating before you’re full. The Japanese advise to stop eating when they are 80% full. In India, certain traditions recommend only eating to a 75% fullness level while the Chinese specify 70%. The prophet Muhammad described a full belly as one that contained 1/3 food, 1/3 liquid, and 1/3 air (ie nothing). There’s also a German expression that says: “You need to tie off the sack before it gets completely full.” Take your pick.
23. Everything in moderation, including moderation. You only have one life, live it wisely and keep health at the forefront, but don’t miss important opportunities to truly savor it, even if that means a few extra glasses of wine or two pieces of birthday cake instead of just one. :-)