Every species on Earth instinctively knows what to eat. Except us. We have these big, beautiful brains with which we have succeeded in complicating what should be the simplest decision we make all day. We have free choice and the ability to create endless choices for ourselves.
Unfortunately, it’s these choices that are our downfall. Choices invite opinions, and strongly held opinions are divisive. Suddenly we have raw vegans on one side and the bacon wrapping keto folk on the other side spouting off about how their position is the right one. Things can get tense.
When did food become dogma?
For that matter, when did food become a fad? I have a hard enough time keeping up with clothing fads, now I have to watch diet fads? We have the fat issue, which is hot right now. I mean, fat was bad. Now it’s in. Kind of like Mom jeans. Then there’s the low-carb fad that has been around for awhile. Does that mean it’s a trend? And what is the Cabbage Soup diet? That sounds awful.
Ads, headlines, flashy social media, blogs, and celebrity-endorsed diets make the situation worse. Our highly impressionable brains are pulled this way and that and our health ultimately pays the price.
So, what should we be eating?
The answer is simple. In fact, the simpler the better. Human nutrition is so simple I can narrow it down to four words. Eat. Real. Food. That’s it. Whole, minimally processed food is the only thing we are meant to eat.
Ideally, what you bring into your kitchen shouldn’t have ingredients or even a nutrition label. It should just be single ingredient, whole food. Like apples, celery, wild caught salmon, or quinoa. Bonus points if you get these things from a local market. Learn how to choose these ingredients and turn them into something awesome. What you can do in your own kitchen with single-ingredient, whole foods is likely an acceptable level of processing. With the possible exception of deep frying.
If it’s that easy, why does it seem so complicated?
Choices are hard. Especially at the end of the day. There are a finite number of decisions we can make every day before we enter decision burnout mode. You know, when you’ve made great decisions all day but now it’s evening and you are making up reasons why it’s okay to binge on snack cakes. I know that doesn’t just happen to me.
What about macros and portion size?
Some people say to increase protein, others say protein should be limited; some people advocate a diet high in carbohydrates, others say carbohydrates are evil; same deal with fat. So what is the right answer?
Again, it’s simple. We are all bio-individual. Everyone has different needs. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will disagree with me (remember that dogma thing?), but I say forget about macros. Concentrate instead on whole food, mostly plants, and don’t go crazy with the portion size on a regular Tuesday night.
Carbohydrates, fats, and protein aren’t bad or good in and of themselves. It’s the highly processed stuff that masquerades as food but is actually devoid of nutrients that is bad. Vegetables and berries are mostly carbohydrates and they are awesomely whole foods full of flavonoids and polyphenols. What to avoid is flour (it’s not whole, even if it says it is) and sugar (also not whole). Staying with this theme, highly processed oils and highly processed protein are also not good for you.
Don’t worry so much about what to have and what not to have, just focus on minimally processed whole foods. Does it look like it did when it was still growing? Eat that.
So I can’t ever have junk food?
Well, let’s not get crazy. Eat whole, minimally processed food most of the time. However, a bit of something here and there isn’t going to wreck you. Here are a few tips to keep you on track:
- Eat mindfully. Eat slowly, experiencing each bite fully with consideration for taste and texture. You won’t eat an entire bag of Doritos if you are eating mindfully. Plus, mindful eating increases pleasure and decreases the chances that you will feel guilty later.
- Choose the good stuff. Life is too short for fake people, fake butter, fake cheese or cheap wine. If you’re going to eat it, eat the good stuff. Also, if the good stuff happens to be in front of you, like on a trip to Italy or France, eat it (or drink it).
- Own it. There is a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from good food. Crusty bread slathered in fresh butter or dunked in good olive oil is one of those pleasures. So is cake. Make a choice and own it with no regrets. Your gut knows if you feel bad about decisions and will react badly.
- Enjoy the company. At special events or on holidays, there is more benefit in the sharing of the meal than the meal itself. People in areas of the world which have the lowest incidence of chronic disease and longest lifespan regularly enjoy their food with other people regardless of what is actually on their plate.
- Don’t make it a regular thing. Don’t deny yourself the occasional indulgence, but don’t make it an everyday thing. Some people recommend an 80/20 plan, others allow a cheat day once per week. I personally keep it simple by eating whole food which I prepare at most of the time, but I don’t stress about the occasional meal out with friends or a neighborhood barbecue.
The take home
Keep it simple by choosing whole, single ingredient foods. Learn how to prepare these foods in a way that makes you happy. It isn’t about denying yourself the pleasure of good food. Quite the opposite. Fresh, whole food is better tasting and more satisfying than processed junk. Once you make the transition you will see what I mean.