“Ketogenic.” “Counting macros.” “LCHF.” In today’s world, keeping up with nutrition buzzwords can feel overwhelming. While plenty of information about “healthy foods” is available online, much of it is contradictory and confusing. Are carbs actually the enemy? Are diet drinks healthier than their full-sugar counterparts? Is a high-fat or high-protein diet better?
For busy professionals on the move, finding a well-balanced meal — or at least its nutritional building blocks — can be a protracted, time-consuming, and disheartening task. Proper nutrition is a discipline worth pursuing, however, and it’s not as daunting as it might seem for those who know what to consider.
A Health Scare
Nearly a decade ago, I experienced chest pains during a 10K and found myself in the hospital. I had just sold my previous company to Google a few days before the race. It was the most successful time of my life up to that point, but I was jarred when I realized I wasn’t taking care of myself. What was the point of my hard work if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it?
Lying in that hospital bed was a huge wake-up call for me. My father had his first heart attack at age 45, and I knew I was at risk to follow suit if I didn’t make some significant changes.
Over the next few years, I did everything I could to turn my lifestyle around. I lost 40 pounds, transformed my diet and ran three marathons. It wasn’t easy, but that transformation showed me the type of mindset that is required to maintain good health. It’s a commitment and an investment — one that pays dividends.
A Crash Course in Health Terminology
Health became my mission. I set out to improve my lifestyle, develop my health literacy and reward others who were working toward similar goals. The first step involved untangling the mess of terms and misinformation out there to get a sense of what was truly healthy and what wasn’t.
Food packaging, for example, is notoriously confusing. I had to learn what terms like “no trans fats,” “zero sugar,” “low-calorie” and others actually meant. These terms were created to misrepresent nutritional qualities and lead consumers to view processed food items as “healthier” alternatives. In reality, the benefits promised by those “healthy” processed foods usually don’t exist.
After spending a lot of time Googling, reading credible research and talking with peers about their success stories — or years of rigorous research — I was able to get a better sense of what it means for food to be truly healthy. My simple conclusion? Better food tends to be closer to nature and simpler. Processing of any kind immediately sabotages food’s nutritional value. When I go to the grocery store now, I follow these five practices:
1. Stick to the perimeter.
Grocery stores generally have similar layouts: Produce is on one side, baked goods are on the other side and meats and dairy are in the back. Processed foods go in the middle, thanks to their longer shelf lives (read: preservatives). Perimeter shopping limits purchases to mostly produce, lean meats and dairy. This approach helped me avoid the temptation of attractive food packaging and focus on filling my basket with nutritious foods.
2. Select a handbasket instead of a cart.
Portion control at meals is incredibly important, but the same practice applies to grocery shopping. Rather than filling a massive shopping cart, only use a handbasket. This strategy helped me buy the right quantities of fresh, healthy food that I could consume within a couple of days. It’s also a much more European approach (there aren’t nearly as many massive grocery stores across the pond), and Europeans are known to lead healthy, active lifestyles.
3. Just eat real food.
The acronym JERF (Just Eat Real Food) became the cornerstone of my nutritional approach. If I couldn’t pronounce an ingredient or didn’t know what it was, I wouldn’t put it in my cart. This helped me avoid buying many processed grocery items that contained food colorings, preservatives, or complicated ingredient replacements that lowered nutritional value. My best friend in recent months has been a daily box of grilled vegetables from the grocery store hot bar. I snack on it throughout the day to keep my fiber intake high while minimizing my processed carbs.
4. Learn the language of nutrition labels.
Being mindful of the composition of the food items, recommended portion sizes and additives was key to cleaning up my diet. It wasn’t about being perfect — I just wanted to be conscious of what I chose to put in my body. For example, I discovered that the sauces of many of my favorite Indian dishes actually contained a lot of hidden sugar. Take this quiz to see how well you know nutrition labels and whether further education might be helpful.
5. Get your family on the same page.
Make sure everyone agrees about the foods that should and shouldn’t be in your home. That lets everyone support and hold each other accountable. I try to keep the food in my kitchen at home relatively healthy — just like I do in the common areas of my office. That isn’t always easy with teenagers in the house, but I work to keep junk food to a minimum. This helps everyone avoid and resist temptations.
By setting goals, committing to them and shopping more mindfully, it’s possible to overhaul your approach to nutrition. Trust me — it’s a commitment worth pursuing.