Basic rules for healthy eating

We live in a land of ease and abundance.

For the most part, that’s a good thing. There are vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and washing machines to make our housework easier. There are lawn mowers and sprinkler systems and snow blowers to make our yard work almost painless. And there are computers and software applications and an entire ecosystem of specialists to help make our work work … work.

Certainly we can bemoan the excesses, but the ease with which we live our life is good.

Our food system is a story unto itself. Due to improvements in machinery it takes fewer and fewer farmers to feed more and more of us. Thanks to advances in science and food processing the foods we eat can travel further and last longer. And now, with changes in business practices in the form of convenience stores and fast food restaurants and an abundance of options on our grocer’s shelves, we are within arms length of just about anything we could want or need to eat.

Unfortunately, that ease and abundance in our food supply is slowly killing us.

I don’t have to remind you that we are facing an epidemic of obesity and chronic illness that is largely self inflicted.

Upwards of two-thirds of us are overweight. Health care costs are soaring as a result of increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and other ailments caused by what we eat over a lifetime.

And the screwy thing is it isn’t our fault.

We are genetically hard-wired to crave sweets and fats, and to eat as much as possible when food is in front of us.

It worked when we were on the savannah and food was scarce and the danger of getting it was high. Today, not so much.

Today we have at our fingertips all manner of food designed to sate our sweet tooth and tantalize our taste buds. To use just a single example, the average annual consumption of sweetened soda by a typical American peaked at about 40 gallons.

Fortunately, our total calorie consumption is on the decline, and now we only drink, wait for it, 30 gallons of soda a year.

Let’s try zero gallons.

But that probably won’t work. Special interests spend millions lobbying the government to avoid the rules, regulations, and taxes that might limit consumption. Meanwhile they are getting fat and happy off the profits generated from our appetite for excess.

But here’s another screwy thing – it’s not their fault, either.

Just as we are hard-wired to lust for that sweetened beverage, businesses are hard-wired to provide what we long for.

It’s all a virtuous circle of satisfaction. Profits for them. Pounds for us.

So if government is too big and slow to help us, and business too wrapped up in their rightful self-interest to not harm us, what are we to do?

Well, if as Pogo asserts, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” and we are eating and drinking too much harmful food, only we can save us from ourselves.

We need some basic rules for healthy eating that we can live by. A dietary dictum, if you will.

The less complicated these rules are, the better. Easy to digest and absorb into our consciousness. Here are three.

1) Eliminate as many processed foods as possible.

Processed food is anything that changes food from it’s natural state. Potato chips are processed potatoes. Bread is processed flour.

There is an important distinction in those two examples, however. Potato chips are highly processed. As are hot dogs and sodas and candy bars.

Bread is lightly processed. So is pasta and canned vegetables and canola oil.

My doctor once told me that my blood pressure wouldn’t kill me, but 30 years of it would. And the last several would not be pleasant. So I started taking a mild diuretic, which brought it down to normal.

You might think of highly processed food in the same way. A diet composed of large quantities of it won’t kill you, until 30 years later when your heart is clogged and you have diabetes and you’re overweight and your life is miserable.

Why do that to yourself when you can avoid it?

Except that changing habits are not easy, and changing eating habits are especially difficult. Just ask anyone who has tried to diet in the past five years. Almost all will have lapsed to their old habits.

To completely eliminate highly processed foods from your diet, if you haven’t already done so, is not practical. Besides, they taste so good. A hot dog on the Fourth of July should not be missed. Nor should the occasional trip to the ice cream store.

But over time, and with practice, we should be able to eliminate the vast majority of the highly processed foods we eat. The next time you’re thirsty think about your mindless reaching for a soda and, instead, grab a glass of water.

Likewise, lightly processed foods are okay to eat in moderation. Things like butter and salt can be excellent flavor enhancers, so long as you don’t overdo it.

As a basic rule, your diet should consist mostly of unprocessed foods. This includes moderate amounts of meat, poultry, and fish.

2) Eat more fruits and vegetables.

I can tell you from personal experience that, if you aren’t already a vegetarian, this is a tough one. Again, it gets back to habits.

We have been conditioned for a very long time that animal protein is the main ingredient of every meal. So we have a nice steak or piece of chicken for dinner and adorn it with side dishes.

The same is true for breakfast (eggs) and lunch (roast beef sandwich).

At the very least we should try to eat more fruits and vegetables today than we did yesterday. And more this year than we did last year.

Ultimately, our goal should be to treat the meat as the side dish. A three to four ounce portion, once a day, is ideal.

Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, form the foundation of a healthy diet. By definition they are unprocessed.

3) Limit the amount of food you eat.

This is another tough one. If we are programmed to eat as much as possible, and that appetizing buffet is in front of us, we might need all the willpower we can muster to resist the primal urge to splurge.

In the aggregate we are getting better at this. How many times must we look down and wonder where our toes have run off to before we say, “Enough already!”

There are many tricks to help us to eat less.

The Japanese remind themselves to only eat until they are 80 percent full. But how do you measure that? Especially when it takes your brain about 15 to 20 minutes after the fact to register that your stomach is full.

One way is to stop eating when you are no longer hungry. Full doesn’t even enter the equation.

Another is to use smaller plates, which will reduce your portion sizes. Likewise, when you are out, order less.

And take mini breaks between bites. Simply give your fork a rest for awhile and eat more slowly.

To those of you who leap to the thought that you could exercise more, I would exercise caution. For one thing, physical activity burns fewer calories than you might think. A 30-minute jog, for example, only burns about 350 calories. If you’re overeating by 1,000 calories a day, that won’t help much.

Exercise has significant health benefits and should be a vital part of your lifestyle. But as a weight loss prescription, eating less is far more effective than exercising more.

These three basic rules for healthy eating are not unique. Many authors and health experts give much the same advice. Michael Pollan got the ball rolling with his now famous suggestion that we “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

But if you are struggling with your diet, be it with a capital “D,” as in the Atkins Diet, or a small “d,” as in what you eat every day, they are simple, straightforward, easy to remember, and, most importantly, easy to implement.


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