You are what you eat.
Everything that you are, your muscles, bones, skin, face, hands, hair, and brain, is built and maintained from the ingredients you provide your body through what you eat and drink. The better your ingredients, the better your body works. Have you ever noticed the difference between a fertilized bush and a non-fertilized one? The fertilized bush grows taller, stronger, greener, and healthier. That’s how it works with you too.
Given all that we want to accomplish and experience in our lives, we want to be at our best. Making healthy eating a priority is just plain necessary if we want to live our lives to the fullest.
So what and how should we eat? Below is a lightning-fast high-level overview of some ideas you’ll want to put into practice.
Oh, to be 22 again!
The first, and perhaps most important, thing you can do to improve your health is to maintain a healthy body weight. For most of us, that means returning to the weight we were in high school.
Because we are not all the same height, healthy weight differs from person to person. So that we can all speak the same language, the Body Mass Index (BMI) was developed. While perhaps not quite as accurate as some other methods, BMI is very easy to use. See the chart to find your height and weight and to arrive at your BMI. A BMI between 18.5 and 25 is in the normal range. 25 – 30 is considered overweight and >30 is obese.
Walter Willet, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a professor at Harvard Medical School in his book Eat, Drink and Be Healthy points to evidence that suggests the likelihood of developing heart disease, cancer, and other modern afflictions starts increasing once BMI gets above 22 and continues to increase with each successive point above it. So he recommends people maintain BMI between 19 and 22.
The secret to losing weight
Want to know the secret to losing weight? It’s a simple math problem: Calories In minus Calories Out. Calories In means the number of calories you consume through eating and drinking. Calories Out means the calories you expend through exercise, sleeping and just living. If Calories In are greater than Calories Out, you gain fat. If Calories In are less than Calories Out, you lose fat. With some nuances we can speak about another time, it’s essentially that simple.
So, if you want to lose weight by losing fat, you can either eat less or exercise more. Probably you should try to do both. Personally, I’ve noticed that it’s easier to control my weight though the amount I eat, because it takes a lot of additional exercise to burn just a few hundred calories. But both elements play important roles.
What about low fat diets, low carb diets, and low baloney diets, you say? Doesn’t it matter what kind of calories I eat? Yes it matters a great deal if you want to be healthy. It’s very important to keeping your body running well. But you can’t lose weight (by reducing fat) unless you expend more calories than you take in. There is no way around it.
What should I eat? Quality over Quantity
Michael Pollan, author of the eater’s manifesto The Omnivore’s Dilemma has recently come out with a great little guide book to eating titled Food Rules. In it, his tips on healthy eating are organized under 3 little phrases that together I think provide the best advice I’ve heard on how to eat well. They are:
Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.
By food, Pollan means to distinguish real foods – plants, animals, and fungi people have been eating for generations – from the highly processed products of modern food science that are now dominating the western diet. He suggests: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Avoid things like potato chips, yogurt in squeezable tubes, packaged cookies, frozen pizza, etc. Instead, think apples, grapes, tomatoes, spinach, whole grain bread, fish, nuts, beans, etc. Shop the peripheries of the grocery store. Avoid the packaged food-ish substances in the middle.
Once you are eating real food, the next step is to be sure you are eating mostly plants, especially leaves. Meat should be used as a flavoring or on special occasions. By eating mostly vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts, you will get lots of fiber, consumer fewer calories to satisfy hungers, and be providing your body with key nutrients. When you do eat meat, make sure the animal you are eating has itself eaten well. Shop in stores or at farmers markets that have wonderful fresh vegetables. The food in these places tastes much better than what you’ll find in the normal mass market grocery store. If you like the food, you’re more likely to eat it.
“Not too much” means eating until you aren’t hungry. That’s very different than eating until you are full. Eating the right amount has a lot to do with focusing on your eating when you are eating. Don’t eat when watching TV, talking on the phone or while multi-tasking. Don’t eat because you are bored or because it’s “lunchtime”. Eat when you are hungry, to satisfy that hunger. Eat consciously. Sit down at a table, focus on the food, enjoy it, and stop before you are full.
One way to help control cravings is to avoid foods that make cravings. Foods high in sugar, fat or salt all cause cravings. Because they do, manufactured foods are full of this stuff to make you eat and buy more. By eating real food like your great grandmother did, you will avoid these trigger ingredients and stay more in control.
Make the change
If this kind of eating is new for you, get excited, because you are at the start of a wonderful adventure. Taste buds will reawaken, energy will return to you, and you will live longer. Focus on the wonderful new food combinations you are experiencing, rather than on the old foods you are giving up. Before long, you won’t miss them. Did you ever switch from whole to skim milk? Remember when skim milk tasted like water compared to what you were used to. Now you probably like it better than whole milk, which may seem like drinking thick paste. The same things will happen as you change to this better way of eating.
So welcome the adventure and dive in. It’s the single most important thing you can do to develop a healthy body, avoid cancer and heart disease, gain energy, look better, and live longer. It’s the kind of diet we have eaten as a species for millennia and it’s the approach to eating that will work best for you today.
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