Rules To Eat By

A dear friend who is chronicling her efforts to lose weight and run the Richmond Half Marathon said to me this weekend that she wanted to talk to me about nutrition because I “know how to eat.” Her comment took me by surprise; everyone knows how to eat right? I do believe everyone basically knows how they should eat, but in a world where every week there is a new “diet” book out and every magazine marketed to women has a new way to eat to “lose that belly fat forever,” it can get very easy to lose sight of the basics.

I will start with Michael Pollan’s “Rules” with my personal addendum in brackets.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly [lean protein and] plants.

That’s it. Simple and common sense. And pretty much everyone knows that stuff whether they have ever even heard of Michael Pollan or not.

So let’s talk about these basics, using Pollan’s Rules as a framework.

Eat food.

What is food? Food is nothing more than potential energy in a form that our bodies can digest and turn into kinetic energy. But it is SO much more than that. Food has deep cultural and emotional roots in most of us, both of which make it more difficult for humans to look at food as simply fuel and make it much easier to over-indulge.

In American food culture, we have the additional problems of what I think of as edible food-like substances. Think Lucky Charms, Kraft Singles, powdered non-dairy creamer, which are just a few examples that come immediately to mind. I am not saying these things are inherently evil (okay, I do think Lucky Charms are inherently evil…), just that they are not good ways to be getting nutrition. I also believe that these food-like substances confuse our bodies, mix up our hormones, and contribute to our obesity epidemic.

An occasional Pop-Tart is not going to kill you or make you fat by itself. But is it going to do anything for you aside from making you not hungry for a short while and fill some empty spot in your brain that said “I have a sweet tooth”? No, of course not.

My suggestion is this: enjoy your pop-tart (or whatever your unfood of choice might be; mine was a dunkin donut this weekend) but don’t use them as a meal or eat that stuff daily. Even better when have a sweet tooth attack would to be to eat a real food treat.

Homemade chocolate chip cookies? That is a much better choice than a Chips Ahoy! cookie out of the bag (I know, I nibbled on one this weekend, then threw it and the remains of the bag of cookies in the trash. Yuck.) A slice of cheesecake is better than a fudge round made with transfats and high fructose corn syrup. Do either options qualify as health foods? No. But I would bet you that the higher quality choice will leave you feeling better.

As for your daily meals, keep them simple and focus on high quality ingredients; higher quality means generally more nutrients and better flavor. The more elaborate you try to get with your meals, the more time it takes to prepare and cook them, making you less likely you are to cook your own foods. Make protein the largest part of your meal (more on this below), make your carbohydrates as complex as possible, and eat a little fat with each meal!

Fat? Oh noes! The Horror!

Fat is NOT the enemy. Fat is essential for the absorption of many essential vitamins like A, D, and K. Fat adds flavor. Fat keeps you fuller longer (actually, calories help keep you full, but what else is fat but concentrated calories/energy). The trouble with fat is it is a key feature in most processed foods (cheap way to add flavor) and most meals in restaurants (more flavor means happier guests, happier guests come back and spend money at the restaurant again!), which is where we get most of the fat in our diets. Eat at home when you can.

Not Too Much.

This is a murky spot for me to offer any advice on. I had to be surgically altered to stop overeating, so maybe I am not the best person to offer advice, but I will give you tips on what I do now, because it is still very easy for me to overeat, just my version of overeating is different from most everyone else’s.

If you are cooking at home and you KNOW you are a late-evening grazer, don’t cook more portions than you need to feed everyone; you say you will take the leftovers to work tomorrow, but chances are about 9:30 there is food right there waiting for you and you end up eating a second dinner.

Start your meal by eating your protein first. Protein is denser, takes more time to chew, thereby slowing your eating, and will fill you up fastest.

Don’t drink liquids with your meal. What’s this you ask? This is one of the rules I have to live by post-gastric bypass. Why? There are separate issues at work for weight loss surgery patients involving mineral and vitamin absorption, but for the normal GI tract, water, tea, or whatever, with your food washes the food more quickly from your stomach to your intestinal tract, and an empty stomach triggers the brain to request more food. Your brain will ask for more calories even though your small intestine will be busy with the ones you just consumed.

Don’t eat at buffet style restaurants very often. It should be obvious as to why. They serve low quality, cheap food, very high in sodium and fat, and often are questionable in terms of food safety (how long has that chicken been sitting under a heat lamp?). These places are designed to get you to overeat. You feel like you need to get your money’s worth out of that bar (you won’t), not like you should eat only until you are sated. Just avoid these places when possible.

In fact, as I said above, it is better to avoid restaurants when you can. Portions are usually too large, and you are out of control of the ingredients that go into your meal. Occasionally is fine. Daily, every other day, multiple times a day, are all too much.

Mostly [lean protein and] plants.

This is where Mr. Pollan and I diverge a bit. Part of his “Mostly Plants” rule, in part, relates to the environmentalism of eating meat. No question about it, industrial farms where meat is raised in mass quantities are horrific places, bad for the animals, bad for the environment, and bad for us. It is an individual’s choice whether to support those Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) by buying industrially-produced meat, milk, and eggs, or not.

I personally believe that animal-based proteins are healthy in reasonable quantities and I am doing what little I can to flex my activist muscles and dollars by buying locally and humanely raised and slaughtered beef and pork. I have not been able to extend that to chicken yet, but we do get eggs locally, almost 100% of the time now. There are lots of non-animal proteins out there, but I feel their quality is not as good and many of them are highly processed (textured vegetable protein, anyone?).

My basic diet is not specifically Atkins, The Zone, Protein Power, South Beach, or any of those plans. My bypass requires that I concentrate on protein because it is very easy for me to develop a protein deficiency; this is not the case for a normal person, but I think my basic diet is still a fairly healthy example.

A typical dinner at my house might be like the one I made on Sunday. I roasted a whole chicken, seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and the side dishes were pasta w/ peas (as requested by Grace; it’s one of her favorite things), and a (unfortunately burned) sauté of sweet onion, mushrooms, and asparagus.

Tonight’s offering will be a little different. The remnants of the roast chicken will become chicken pot pie. Pot-pie usually means a billion calories, but because I know how it is being made, that lots of veggies are going in it, I know how the crust is made and what is in it (mostly flour and oil), and I know that this meal will be filling without being the fat bomb that something like the KFC version or the Marie Callender’s version would be. I will eat a little of the crust (because it is delicious) and a lot more of the filling and I am not going to feel guilty about it.

Last week, one dinner was a grilled sirloin steak, with broccoli and couscous.

These are not foods you generally associate with “diet” foods, but I think our mental focus on low-calorie meals rubber bands us back into sudden high-calorie food binges.

This last thing came to me while I was eating my somewhat odd (at least, it was odd to my coworkers) lunch of feta and olives from my favorite Greek deli.

Eat Food You Love

Whenever I hear someone talk about “gagging down a yogurt” because they know it’s “good for me,” I want to ask them to just stop. Eating food that doesn’t taste good to you only screws up your relationship with food even more. If you are gagging down food just because it is good for you, what is your brain going to start telling you about food that is healthy?

The message won’t be a positive one, that is for sure.

Bananas are supposed to be some wonder food; I personally find them revolting and you know what? I am not sure if they cured cancer that I would eat one then.

For every healthy food out there that you don’t like, there is almost always an alternative that you will like.

I hope this didn’t come across as preachy; talking about food and nutrition is something I genuinely enjoy since it is so very essential to my long term health. If you have any specific questions, feel free to leave me a comment and I will see if I can answer it.


2 responses to this post.

  1. This was very helpful and just what I was looking for. My relationship with food is like that bad boyfriend you can’t leave because you don’t feel worthy of better. I’m working on that.

    Also, bananas ARE nasty. I don’t care what they say.


  2. […] True Food Kitchens No Bake Chocolate TartHealth Help BlogRules To Eat By […]


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