We were born knowing how to feed ourselves. From our first day, almost everything we encountered went into our mouths. That’s why mom had to childproof the house, to keep random objects from finding their way into our tiny digestive tract.
But there’s a difference between knowing how to feed ourselves and knowing how to eat. We have to learn how to nourish our bodies in such a way that we can be the vibrant, strong, functional beings we were meant to be.
In the summer of 2009 I weighed over 200 pounds. Now, that’s a great size for an NFL running back, but for a 5′ 8″ lawyer who sits at a desk all day, not so much. What’s worse, I was in terrible shape, even though I exercised religiously. My knees would swell and stiffen just from standing up, not to mention walking or running. I was on high blood pressure meds. I always carried a packet of Kleenex because my nose would run incessantly, and I tired of wiping it on my sleeve. Snot does not leave an attractive stain. I had sleep apnea, and I snored like a freight train. Worst of all, I thought these maladies were normal, an immutable consequence of human mortality.
Fortunately I attended a diet seminar at my gym one sunny July afternoon. It changed my life forever. I lost 30 pounds in about a year, and have kept it off ever since. Now, losing 30 pounds is no big deal. Keeping it off for six years is. More importantly, I no longer need high blood pressure meds. I can run for miles without any swelling in my knees, and the only stains on my sleeves come from food. My pockets no longer bulge with Kleenex packets. On the rare occasions when I snore, it’s because I’ve enjoyed a couple of strong drinks.
All this happened because, at 50 years of age, I finally learned how to eat. How do I eat? See the featured image. That’s it. That simple!! No counting calories, no points, no expensive prepackaged food.
Yes, I went on a diet. Stop being afraid of that word. It’s a four letter word, but it’s not a four-letter word. A diet is simply a way of eating. Look it up. That means that every living creature is on a diet. If your’re taking in nourishment, even through a tube, you’re on a diet. The only question is whether your diet is hurting you or helping you. Is your way of eating haphazard? On the other extreme, is it over-regulated, over-complicated and over-restrictive? It should be simple, sustainable, and most of all beautiful. Which is the whole point of this blog.
Here are the five simple rules of my diet:
1) Limit sugar. This one’s a no-brainer. All modern nutritional scientists agree on this. These include Gary Taubes, Dr. Robert Lustig, Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr David Ludwig, and a host of others. And if you don’t believe them, believe Dr. Oz. You have to believe him. It’s federal law. If you have a spare hour or so, see this video from Dr. Lustig. It’s been viewed 6 million times and was featured on 60 Minutes.
How to implement this rule, since sugar is everywhere? My simple solution: When I go to the market, I look at the food label. If the product has more than 5 grams of sugar, I put it back. Period. Simple. It doesn’t matter where the sugar comes from. It could be from high fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, honey, agave, whatever. Heck, it could be Nectar Of The Gods. It’s still sugar. Five grams of sugar per serving should be plenty to render the product tasty, or at least palatable. (This rule does not include whole fruit. I can have fruit. This is because fruit has fiber, which negates the effects of the sugar. See Dr. Lustig’s video.)
2) Avoid processed carbohydrates. One of my favorite food authorities is Darya Rose. She’s offers the most sensible, easy-to-follow diet advice there is. She’s one of the inspirations for this blog, and for this rule. According to her, and other scientists, grains are not necessarily the devil–but processed carbohydrates are. Here’s a quote from the text I just highlighted (I’m restating it because it’s so damned important): “It is universally agreed in the nutrition community that refined, processed carbohydrates are the worst things to eat on the entire planet. And it is impossible to overstate how remarkable this is. The nutrition community is one of the most disagreeable bunches in all of science. But across the board–from vegans like Colin Campbell to carnivores like Robert Atkins–not a single one of them considers processed carbs to be nutritionally neutral. They all consider them dangerous.” Why are these foods so awful? Basically, grinding the grain removes the fiber, enhancing the body’s ability to turn the carbohydrate into sugar. It’s kind of like injecting poison (sugar), but throwing away the antidote (fiber). For more detail, I’ll refer you to those authorities mentioned above as well as Darya Rose.
What’s a processed carbohydrate? Anything where the grain has been modified by being ground up. That includes bread (even “whole wheat” bread), pasta, cereal (even “healthy” cereal) chips, crackers (even ones called “thins”) and tortillas (oy). Yes, that’s about 75 percent of what you’ll find in a typical grocery store. That’s why the obesity epidemic is an epidemic. I basically follow this guideline: If it has a TV commercial, don’t eat it.
That means that if I do eat a grain, it still looks like a grain. What’s a grain that looks like a grain? Oats, barley, brown rice (white rice is processed), farro, quinoa. And since the body converts all grains into sugar, I try to eat them sparingly. That means that at least one meal a day will be grain free.
So, I eat intact grains in small amounts. I eat whole foods that grew out of the ground, walked, swam or flew. I shop the perimeter of the store and skip the middle where all the crappy food resides.
So, when people say that diet information is confusing and contradictory, to a certain extent that’s just not true. Just about everyone who has studied human nutrition says we all should avoid sugar and processed carbohydrates. Period.
IN FACT, THOSE ARE THE ONLY TWO RESTRICTIVE DIETARY RULES. The other three rules just help me manage the first two. So…
3) Eat protein, fat and carbs with every meal. I got this rule from Dr. Barry Sears, proponent of the Zone diet. Now, I don’t strictly follow the Zone, but this rule taken from that regimen is truly worthwhile. Really, it’s just a way of ensuring that I have a balanced meal. So, a typical day might look like this:
Breakfast: 1 Egg fried in Coconut oil (protein and fat), 1 or 2 chicken sausage links (protein), a handful of almonds (fat) and an orange (carb). This would be my grain-free meal. I like to get it out of the way first.
Lunch: I’ll visit a place like Chipotle when I want a cheap, fast meal. I’ll order the bowl, which includes: brown rice (grain that looks like a grain), black beans (beans are great–they’re both a protein and a carb), chicken or steak (protein), salsa (don’t know how I’d classify that, except as good stuff) and cheese (also protein). I’ll also order some guac for a healthy fat. No chips though (unless I’m having a cheat treat, which I’ll explain later).
Dinner: One of my favorites if I’m eating out is Nordstrom Cafe. I’ll order the Tuscan Chicken or Tuscan Salmon, which includes: chicken or salmon (protein), red and yellow peppers sautéed in oil (carbs and fat) and half an ear of corn on the cob (grain that looks like a grain). The entree also includes a few small russet potatoes (carb). I’ll have one, maybe. I eat very, very few potatoes, even though, technically, they are a whole food. I might have a few almonds as well because that meal needs a little more fat. Sometimes I won’t eat the corn, if I feel my diet has gotten a little sloppy.
Above you’ll find another example of a balanced meal. There’s a pork chop (protein), sweet potato and radicchio (carb), butter and olive oil (fat). We got this meal from Sunbasket, a meal delivery service. And, by the way, it was absolutely delicious!
That’s it! Simple! And, of course, there are infinite variations on that theme. My breakfast is generally the same, but the other meals tend to vary widely.
4) I don’t bring stuff I shouldn’t be eating into the house. This rule will be tough for some people, but it’s essential. I simply can’t eat it if it’s not there. If I do happen to have a sudden late night craving for a Pop Tart, my laziness will trump my greed, and I won’t go out and buy it. If it were there in my cupboard then God help me.
This will include the obvious stuff, like sugar, bread, cake, ice cream, cereal, granola and potato chips. It also includes some stuff that the food industry tries to pass off as “healthy”. They call it Nutri this or Nature that and think you’ll assume it’s good for you. Sadly, it also includes alcohol. This is where the crying emoticon should go. Alcohol is a sugar, plain and simple. The worst kind. It turns directly into fat. See Dr. Lustig’s video (again). That doesn’t mean I never drink booze, or eat any ice cream or pizza. See below.
Consider, though, all the great stuff I do bring in the house:
- Meat–that includes bacon!!
- Cheese (yay!) I’ll talk about dairy, which I believe gets a bum rap, in another post.
- Spices and herbs
- nuts–any kind
- seeds–any kind
- fruit and veggies
- popcorn (it’s a grain that looks like a grain–the heat just turns it inside out)
- brown rice, beans
- olive oil, coconut oil, and even a little canola oil
- Did I mention bacon?
5) Cheat! I try to eat clean 80 percent of the time. That means it all goes to hell 20 percent of the time. So, doing the math, I eat about 3 meals a day, plus one snack (a small meal of about 300-400 calories). If I don’t train that day, then maybe I’ll skip the snack. That adds up to about 25-28 meals per week. That means I can cheat about 5 times (5=20% of 25)! I break that up into 2 cheat meals and 2 to 3 cheat treats per week. A cheat meal means that I can eat anything I want in any combination. I’ve had fried chicken and waffles. I’ve had fried chicken and pizza. I’ve had fried chicken and pie. I think I’m seeing a pattern here. If I’m having a pizza, I don’t go for the gluten-free, low-fat pizza. I get extra gluten in that bad boy, if I can. I eat until I’m full, and I don’t regret a second of it. A cheat treat is just that, a small treat. It can be a donut or that bag of chips from Chipotle. A cheat treat for me would also be a glass of wine, an Old Fashioned or a bottle of beer. So that means that there’s nothing that’s really off limits. On this diet you can eat anything–it’s just that some things are eaten only 20% of the time!
I usually don’t use my whole complement of cheats and treats. That is, I’ll have 2 cheat meals and only 1 cheat treat, or (more often) 2 treats and one cheat meal.
If you think that’s a lot of cheating, it’s not. Remember, that’s for a whole week. My week usually starts on Sunday. So if I go out with friends for pizza on Sunday evening, I’ve got only one cheat meal left. All week. I’ll usually try to wait until Saturday to indulge, since Saturdays, at least diet-wise, are from the Devil. I find that most of my problems come in social situations–going out with friends, going to someone’s house for dinner. You don’t want to be a stick in the mud, and you certainly don’t want to insult your dear friend who spent 3 hours baking a pie for you. That’s why cheating is essential! Again, the goal is to live simply and beautifully. Eating a slice or two of your friend’s pie, which is actually an offering of love, is part of living beautifully.
So that’s it. See how simple? Basically, limit sugar and processed carbs, eat a balanced meal, don’t bring bad stuff into the house and cheat. You only have to be able to count to 5 (number of cheat meals and treats and maximum grams of sugar per serving).
Note: I’m not a doctor, dietician or scientist. Please follow your doctor’s advice. As you can see, I’m a little bit of a diet nerd, and have read a lot of stuff about nutrition, some of which I’ve listed here. I hope you’ll find that this advice is based on science.