Eat Well

Strategies for Eating Well

The link between eating well and health is as old as medicine itself. Ideas about what is healthy come and go, and as Americans in particular, we have a rather bizarre obsession with fad diets and the next new thing when it comes to eating.

This week, I’d like to offer a list of ideas, or guidelines, for a healthy diet. Spoiler alert: none of these are going to be earth-shattering, and probably none of them are even new (see the essay on the importance of reminders). Instead, this is designed to be a list of easy-to-follow guidelines.

This is general advice, and might not apply in all situations– so if you have late-stage kidney disease, for example, this might not be relevant. These are not iron-clad rules, but instead, helpful heuristics to nudge in the right direction. I think of these as suggestions rather than dogma. Move in this direction, rather than adhering to this rigidly. Lastly, I’ve tried to write these in the affirmative: what to do rather than what to avoid. In no particular order:

  1. Enjoy your food. Food is one of the pleasures of life. Really. Food tastes good, and sitting down to a meal, particularly with friends or family, is an enjoyable experience. We sometimes fixate on “food as fuel” or on optimizing nutrition, but I would suggest that we can increase our life happiness when we focus on enjoying what we eat.
  2. Eat less processed food. This is meant two ways– eat food that is less processed, and eat less processed food. There are a couple of ways of illustrating this– one is peanut butter. Ingriedients in jar number 1: peanuts, salt. Ingriedients in jar number 2: Roasted Peanuts, Sugar, Molasses, Fully Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils (Rapeseed And Soybean), Mono And Diglycerides, Salt. Both are peanut butter, but one is a better choice. Another useful example is bread. Here’s the ingredients from a bread from a local bakery bread: flour, water, yeast, salt, vs the ingredients of a supermarket bread listed as Soft 100% Whole Wheat Bread: Whole wheat flour, water, sugar, wheat gluten, raisin juice concentrate, soybean oil, yeast, cultured wheat flour, molasses, salt, wheat bran, soy lecithin, grain vinegar, citric acid. Focusing on bread itself misses the point. Another way of thinking about processing: eat apples before eating apple sauce, and apple sauce before apple juice. If having a smoothie, think about sweetening it with dates before honey, and honey before cane sugar.
  3. Related: Pronounce the Ingredients: If you read a label, and you have trouble pronouncing the ingredient list, there’s a good chance its fairly heavily processed. Ingredients that sound like they belong in a science lab probably do.
  4. Shop at the periphery of the grocery store. This one was popularized by Michael Pollan in his great book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The periphery of the grocery stores has fruits, vegetables, milk and diary products, meats and fish. The center contains processed foods. While there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, as heuristic, it’s helpful.
    1. Or, shop at a farmers market when you can. You can’t beat the freshness, the little conversations are good for your soul and good for your health, and the processing issue takes care of itself
    2. Pay attention to the quality of the food. For example, meat from cows raised on pasture has a ​different nutritional​ profile than beef that is a fed a grain-based diet. Eggs from hens raised on pasture (compared to conventional, cage raised hens) has a significantly improved ​nutritional profile​. Put simply, the quality of your food matters.
  5. Eat more vegetables: Essentially all diets that have been associated with better outcomes have this in common. The DASH diet, DASH+ diet, the Mediterranean Diet, MIND diet, the Blue Zone diets– all share this feature: lots of vegetables. Vegetables as main courses. Vegetables in some form for breakfast. This does not mean vegetarian, but it does mean that meat usually plays a supporting role, it isn’t the main star.
  6. Eat more fish: Most (but not all) diets that have been shown to be beneficial on health contain fish at least 2-3 times per week. If you are going to eat meat of some sort, fish is the place to start.
  7. Eat Plants: Almost all the essential nutrients our bodies need can be found in plants (including protein). Particularly if less processed and from the periphery of the store, a plant based diet is the way to go. Again, some meat is ok (especially fish), but plant based diets generally come out ahead. Remember this in the context of less processed food too– basing a diet on plants, but highly processed plants, is not necessarily what we are going for.
    1. Eat More Legumes: Legumes include beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas (garbanzo beans), are high in fiber and protein, and form a great alternative backbone to various foods. Try and incorporate more of them into your diet.
  8. Eat with friends and family: This one relates back to #1– try to have your meals with people– friends and family. We are social beings, and food is one of the key ways we connect.
  9. Eat until you 75% full: There is a fair amount of good data that points to the idea that eating less has many health benefits. I am not suggesting you starve yourself (see number 1 and 7), nor I am suggesting you go hungry. Instead, I’m suggesting against routinely stuffing yourself. If you eat until you are almost full, odds are within 20 minutes you will feel completely full. If you find youself hungry, by all means eat. By limiting yourself a bit, you may find there is a lot of space between “I’m no longer hungry” and “I’m full.”
  10. Pay attention to what you eat: One of the best ways of eating good food is to simply pay attention to what you eat. How does it really taste, when you chew slowly and thoughtfully? How do you feel after eating? What happens to your energy level? Your mood? Many less-than-healthy food options feel great as long as we are cramming them down: when we pause to really savor what we are eating, they are less appealing.
  11. Make your meals colorful: Color indicates many things— a variety of micronutrients, a diversity of food, freshness, the list goes on. If you are eating plants, and eating whole food, more colorful meals are often a great thing to strive for. Sweet potatoes add color when combined with regular potatoes. A diversity of vegetables will naturally add color to a salad. Blood oranges and regular oranges will be more colorful than one alone. Plus, a colorful food plate is beautiful to look at.

So, this is the list to move towards. Think about it when grocery shopping, or when considering your next meal. If any of these suggestions are new, try incorporating one or two of these ideas and see how it goes.

Cheers!

-Dr. Justin