Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Quick and Dirty Guide to Eating Well


I decided to write this blog post after several people have asked me how I've lost so much weight. When I talk to people, it becomes clear that many people really know far less about eating healthy than I assumed; I had always operated under the assumption that people know how to eat right but simply don't because they prefer the experience of eating unhealthy food, since this was largely the case for me.

To be clear, I am not a nutrition expert or health professional, so consult a doctor before making any major changes to your diet, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or suffer from any chronic health conditions. That being said, I have no reason to believe that the diet suggestions in this post will cause health issues in a healthy person. If anything, it should improve your health.

I do not buy into any of the recent fad diet schemes, though I borrow elements from many of them. Maybe it's the pragmatist in me. I generally think there is good information to be found in almost all of them, but many of them take their central schemes and run too far with them. Also, simply ignore any dietary advice provided by a governing body; their diet schemes are strongly influenced by corporatist lobbying by certain food industries.

First, I want to go over the bad stuff. The things you have to be willing to do if you want to eat a healthy diet. If eating healthy is not important enough to you to do any of the below things, then you will fail if you try to change your eating habits. I think this is important because any lifestyle change involves commitment, and many people show a passing interest but falter the moment they have to make any sacrifices to achieve the goal of eating well.

The Bad Stuff

You're going to spend more time shopping. Bottom line. Fresh fruits and vegetables tend to go bad fairly quickly. You're almost never going to eat out at restaurants or fast food chains. You're almost never going to order food for delivery. You're going to have to spend more time looking at the food you're going to buy before putting it in your shopping cart.

You're going to spend more time preparing food. This diet involves minimal cooking and preparation, but that doesn't change the fact that you will not eat prepackaged meals. This means packing a lunch to take to work, and at least arranging food on a plate to eat at home. Fresh fruits and vegetables will often need to be packaged or prepared for storage when you bring them home from the grocery store.

You're going to eat some things you don't like the taste of. Nothing I am going to suggest eating is putrid or disgusting, but some of it will be off putting to someone used to a typical Western diet. The good news is that, over a relatively short period of time, you will likely come to appreciate flavors you previously disliked.

You're not going to eat many things that you love the taste of. My favorite food is BBQ. Whether it is a rack of ribs or pulled pork, I absolutely love it. And I have not eaten it in over 2 months. Sometimes the achievement of one value involves the sacrifice of another, lesser value.

If you're still reading, it is time to go over the good stuff! What makes eating well worth it?

The Good Stuff

You're probably going to spend less money on food. The exception to this is if you're eating dirt cheap as it is. But if you're like me and are used to frequenting fast food chains and eating prepackaged meals, eating well will significantly reduce the amount of money you spend on food. You'll be amazed at how cheap fresh vegetables are in particular.

You're probably going to lose body fat. It's actually difficult to eat too many calories on a healthy diet. You'll likely experience weight loss without doing any calorie counting whatsoever.

You're going to experience short term health benefits. You'll have more energy throughout the day, generally be in a better mood, and experience few problems with stomach discomfort. The high fiber intake will also ensure that your bowel movements are regular and comfortable.

You're going to experience long term health benefits. Generally speaking, eating well means a reduction in your risk for various cancers, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses. These benefits only come from eating well over a long period of time, so you'll only get these benefits if you stick to it.

You're going to have better performance during exercise. If you do either resistance or cardiovascular training (I recommend doing both), you will likely notice an increase in energy levels and overall performance during these activities.

Basic Nutritional Science

Before we dig into it, we need to go over some basic nutritional science. Don't worry, this will be short and sweet.

All food is made up of three basic macronutrients, along with a variety of micronutrients and other chemicals. A macronutrient is essentially a nutrient that you need in very high amounts. Essentially, all of the calories that you eat will come from macronutrients.

The three macronutrients are:

Protein. Protein is used for a number of things in the human body and is most well known for its role in maintenance and growth of muscle tissue. If you were to eat literally no protein, you would eventually get sick and die. It's that important. Proteins occur in nearly all foods to some degree, though some foods (meats, dairy, nuts, legumes) tend to have much higher amounts than others.

Protein molecules are made up of amino acids. Think of amino acids as nutrients. There are essential amino acids, which you absolutely need to survive, and non-essential amino acids, which your body can manufacture on its own even if you don't consume any.

Fat. The scientific word for fats is lipids and they are the oily component of foods. Fats are important for brain and nervous system health, and can also be used as an energy source. Fats are present in both meat and vegetables, most notably nuts.

There are different types of fat but I am not going to go into full detail here. The main thing to remember is to get plenty of omega-3 fats (found naturally in fish and eggs), and to avoid trans fats (found primarily in manufactured, industrial food products).

Carbohydrates. Often called carbs for short, these are sugars, alcohols, starches, and related compounds. They primarily function as an energy source. They are most present in fruit and dairy products, though they occur in nearly all vegetation to some degree or another.

One very important kind of carbohydrate is fiber. Fiber is vital for good digestive health and will help keep you regular. It will also promote the survival of gut flora (the bacteria that live in your intestines) which are vital to your immune system.

Other important core concepts:

Calories. Shorthand for kilocalories, it is a measure of the energy content in food. If you get too many calories, you get fat. If you don't get enough calories, you lose fat and, eventually, you starve to death. Somewhere in the middle, you stay where you are. All of the macronutrients contain calories, but fat contains more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates.

Micronutrients. These are what most people call "vitamins and minerals." Examples include vitamin C, folic acid, and magnesium. Many of these are vital for survival and health, but your body only needs them in very small amounts when compared to macronutrients.

An important factor when selecting foods to eat is nutrient density. This is essentially a ratio of the micronutrients in a food relative to its calorie content. A high nutrient density means that the food contains a lot of micronutrients per calorie and is likely very good for you, whereas a low nutrient density means the opposite.

I know that's a lot of information all at once, but it is very important for understanding food and how it relates to your body.

Basic Principles

This is going to be the part where everyone from any extreme dietary viewpoint will disagree with me. That's OK. I think a balanced diet is much healthier than a specialty diet. Take my views with a grain of salt, but apply that same skepticism to any other dietary school as well. Note that some of this comes from the book In Defense of Food and it's simple, elegant advice of "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Don't follow any of these rules all of the time. Common sense rules the day. If you occasionally have to break a rule, that's fine. The key is to mostly follow them. Few things are bad for you in small amounts.

Eat a reasonable balance of all three macronutrients. This means not low-fat, not low-carb, and definitely not low-protein. Consume adequate amounts of all three. Consider consuming extra protein and carbs if you exercise a lot, particularly if you do resistance training.

Eat nutritionally dense foods. The humble sweet potato is an incredibly nutrient dense food. Pop-tarts are not. Do the math.

Don't drink calories! This is a biggie. Avoid soda, fruit juices, energy drinks, etc. unless they have minimal calories. Drinks with calories are basically food that doesn't make you feel full at all. Coffee and tea are great and have no calories, but avoid loading them with sugar.

Avoid manufactured food products. If it doesn't seem like real food, it probably isn't. If the label contains a huge number of ingredients that you don't recognize, don't eat it. Focus on buying fresh meat and produce. Avoid food in packages whenever possible. Avoid foods that are fortified with nutrients; real food is nutritionally dense without being artificially fortified with anything.

Minimize (but don't eliminate) consumption of meat, dairy, and animal products. Some vital nutrients, like vitamin B12, can only be found in animal products, but animal products also tend to have low nutrient density. Consume enough of them to get the health benefits, and eat plants and fungus for the rest of your calories.

Minimize consumption of sugar. The sugar naturally present in food is fine, but avoid refined sugar, powdered sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Also avoid honey; your pancreas doesn't care that honey is "all natural." It's still straight sugar with little nutritional value.

Shawn's Food Groups

Ok, so for the sake of simplicity, I think it will be useful to modify the common food group schema to better fit an actually healthy diet. Any foods that do not fit into one of these groups should probably be consumed only sparingly or in small amounts.

Starchy Staples - These are vegetables and grains that are high in starch, a complex carbohydrate. They are also usually a good source of protein. You'll likely get anywhere from 25% to 50% of your calories from this group. Personally, I recommend avoiding grains, but if you choose to eat some grains, you should be fine.

Examples: Potatoes, sweet potatoes (recommended!), beans, rice.

Green Leaf Vegetables - These are literally the leaves of plants. They are very high in fiber and nutrients while being very low in calories. Consume several servings per day.

Examples: Spinach, lettuce, kale, collard greens.

Other Vegetables - Everything that isn't a green leaf. Typically high in micronutrients. Consume a minimum of 2 servings but feel free to go hog wild here.

Examples: Carrots, radishes, eggplants, onions.

Fruits - I'm guessing you know what a fruit is. Usually high in micronutrients but also high in sugar. Because of the sugar content, I recommend only consuming 2 to 4 servings of fruits per day and focusing more on vegetables. If you can afford it, berries tend to be the best option here.

Examples: Peaches, bananas, apples, pears.

Nuts - Nuts are a great plant source of fat, alleviating much of the need to consume animal products, but they are also very high in calories. Consume 2 to 3 servings per day.

Examples: Peanuts (technically not a nut), almonds, cashews, pistachios.

Animal Products - A blanket group that includes meat, eggs, and dairy. Vital for certain nutrients but nutritionally mediocre otherwise. Consume 2 to 4 servings per day.

Examples: Milk, cheese, eggs, beef.

An Example Day

This is just an example of what I might eat on a typical day. Note that my protein consumption is above average due to my resistance training; most people can omit the protein supplementation. Also note how my diet involves minimal cooking and what cooking it does involve is very simple.

Breakfast - 4 eggs, scrambled with a small amount of cheese and some red pepper. 1 scoop of whey protein mixed with almond milk. 1 banana.

Lunch - 1 large or two small sweet potatoes, baked. Several servings of kale, raw. 1 large carrot, raw. A handful of peanuts. A small cup of peaches in light syrup.

Dinner - 1 large bowl of refried beans with a small amount of cheese and some red pepper.

I don't recommend following that as a set in stone template, as it is designed to cater to my tastes and not yours. Feel free to swap out foods for others in the same food group, eat them in a different order during the day, etc.

Common Diet Myths

There are a lot of bad ideas out there regarding diet. Many common objections to eating well come from nonsense about diet that have perpetuated memetically long past their scientific obsolescence.

"You should eat many small meals throughout the day."
Right now, the science points to the exact opposite; there are apparently benefits to fasting during a large portion of your day. That being said, what you eat matters a lot more than the meal frequency. Eat however often you find easiest and most pleasant.

"Eating fat makes you fat."
In nutrition science, this is called the lipid hypothesis, and it is false. Eating too many calories (regardless of whether they come from fat) makes you fat, not eating fat.

"Eating carbs makes you fat."
Despite being well aware of the mistakes made by the proponents of the lipid hypothesis, the Atkins crowd makes the same error with regards to another macronutrient. Once again, it is all about how many calories you eat, not whether a lot of them are carbs or not.

"Eating before bed makes you fat."
You're probably seeing a pattern here. The pattern is "Something other than calories makes you fat." Not true. It does not matter if you eat before going to bed.

"I'm not fat, therefore I am healthy."
If you have the self-control, you can avoid being fat by counting calories regardless of what you eat. That does not mean eating at Jack in the Box every day is good for your health; there is more to human health than your body fat percentage.


People have varying views of supplements. My view is that, while it is true that you should be able to avoid being deficient in nutrients by eating a healthy diet, they still have their benefits. I recommend 3 supplements for non-athletes (I'm not covering athletic supplementation here.)

Multivitamin - A solid way to ensure you're getting adequate nutrients. I recommend getting a decent brand; it'll cost a little more, but you'll get more bang for your buck. I personally like NOW Adam.

Fish Oil - Omega 3 fats are hard to come by, particularly if your diet is plant-focused. Eating fish carries with it the hazard of mercury contamination. Most fish oil, however, is filtered for contaminants. Recommended that you consume it with any meal that is lacking in fat to increase absorption of fat soluble nutrients.

Vitamin D - If you get a lot of sun, you can ignore this one. Otherwise, it is highly recommended. Make sure any supplement you get contains Vitamin D3 and not D2.

Vitamin B12 (Vegetarians only) - Only necessary if you consume no animal products at all. Check your multivitamin first; most multivitamins contain a significant dose of B12 as it is. If it does not, supplement it separately.

No comments: