The gym is packed again after a quiet December. My yoga class has grown from about five to 20, and we're all trying to wedge our mats in the room like a game of Tetris. Trader Joe's was ransacked New Year's Day and the whole store needed to be restocked. Everyone is trying to get a healthy start on the year.
A couple years ago, I stopped dieting completely. I stopped counting and adding up nutrients for careful analysis and just started eating food. This crazy notion came after reading Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," a book in which he explains what the majority of us are eating each day is not food but "edible food-like substances." That is, foods that are no longer a product of nature but a product of science. Pollan has several books on the topic, but this one is by far my favorite for its combination of fascinating research as well as practical and easy-to-follow tips all encompassed in the simple mantra, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
1. Eat food. It seems simple, until you realize that actual food takes up just a sliver of shelf space at the supermarket. Most of the aisles are filled with packaged, processed edible food-like substances. Food is anything that comes from nature, or as Pollan puts it, anything your great grandmother would recognize as food. Your great grandmother would recognize a banana or plain yogurt as food, but not a Poptart or squeezable yogurt in a tube. It comes down to eating food you can pronounce and recognize.
Eating food is actually very hard to get accustomed to when you become stunned at the realization that just about everything you have been eating is not food. It takes time to make the adjustment. But by gradually making new choices each day, you can eventually get to the point where you are only eating food.
Here are some tips for the next time you are grocery shopping: The main ingredients that you should be avoiding are high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, both highly processed and engineered food-like substances that come from genetically modified seed. It's very important that you read only the ingredient labels on the packaging and not the marketing promises, "more fiber," "all-natural," "made with whole grains," "30% less sugar," -- these claims are just ploys to make you feel like you are eating healthier. Conversely, these marketing promises usually indicate additional processing has taken place so that the food can make these health claims. To get a better understanding of what is or is not "food," I highly recommend the documentary Food, Inc. (which features commentary from Pollan). Check out this trailer.
As you get started making the switch from edible food-like substances to actual food, my blog posts for how to make your own granola bars and bake your own bread offer surprisingly simple recipes that constitute natural, food-only ingredients.
After reading Pollan's book and watching this flick, you'll be set on a new path to eating healthy, enjoying the richer flavors of the high-quality food and feel satisfied and pure by the energy it gives you. And if you get hooked on changing your lifestyle and living by this "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." mantra, consider staying current by reading the awesome blog at Fooducate.
2. Not too much. Okay, we got the complicated "Eat Food" part out of the way. The rest is easy. "Not too much" is surprisingly very simple when you start eating real food. After some time, your pallete will adjust and you will find your body is satisfied by the natural nutrients your body is receiving from whole foods. While the chemicals in processed foods are engineered to trigger our appetites and make us eat more (therefore more profit in the pockets of food processors), natural foods are more satiating and satisfying. For example, if you want a chocolate chip cookie, go for it. Just eat a homemade one and not a Chips Ahoy. Maybe you'll find one or two cookies will satisfy you, rather than a whole box.
A lot of people get stuck on trying to follow the first rule of "Eat Food" because real food is expensive. This is very true. You will spend more on 100 calories of fresh vegetables than you could on 1,000 calories of fast food. But the cost difference will not seem so severe when you realize you can live by eating much smaller meals of more expensive, healthier and tastier food. For ideas on how to incorporate the added expense of healthy, organic food into your grocery budget, I've got a post for that, too!
3. Mostly plants. Full disclosure here, I am a vegetarian and have been for about 16 years. While it's a great choice for me, eating or avoiding meat is a personal decision, and I do not believe it is my place to tell anyone to totally give up meat, poultry or seafood. However, no one ever got fat by eating vegetables! When you design your meals, start to think about what vegetables you want to eat first and build your meal around that.
Most people do the opposite. They think of the meat as their main course and plan what side dishes should go with it. Pollan suggests you consider the vegetables as your main dish and the meat as your side dish. Keep your meat portions small, and maybe even try to incorporate a vegetarian meal into your week. I love cooking vegetarian meals, like eggplant parmesan, for my friends who eat meat and showing them how delicious and filling a vegetarian meal can be. You just have to keep an open mind and be creative.
By following Pollan's mantra, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," you don't really have to give up any foods you love, you just have to be smarter about how you purchase, prepare and consume them. And there are many other revelations in his books that will inspire you to take this further by eating organic and local. In turn, you'll feel amazingly energized as you experience instantly improved health.
I hope more people will experience and enjoy this simple mantra to eating healthy. If you give it a shot, feel free to contact me or leave me a comment for tips and encouragement, and keep reading the Greater Good Life blog for helpful posts.