Over and over again, I meet clients who want to eat better, but who don’t know where to start. I really sympathize, because it’s not that long ago that I was overwhelmed and confused, too.
Should I eat high-protein? Low-fat? Low-carb? Which vitamins and nutrients do we need the most? Should I avoid eating carbs at night? Should I eat lots of small meals, or avoid snacks?
Every nutrition “expert” has his or her opinion on all these things, and the miracle of the Internet has given us a LOT of “experts’ to choose from. So where should you start? Which expert should you believe?
Let me suggest three basic, common-sense rules that a lot of people seem not to know about. I’m shamelessly stealing them from Michael Pollan’s excellent article, titled Unhappy Meals, that appeared in the New York Times Magazine way back in 2007. It’s an excellent read, and I highly suggest reading it if you haven’t already.
Anyway, here are three simple rules for better nutrition, whether you’re interested in fat loss, better health, or increased athletic performance:
1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. […] There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.
This one is simple enough. Eat food, avoid processed food products. Avoid things that wouldn’t spoil if you left them on your counter for a few days or a few weeks. This sounds so breathtakingly obvious, and yet the average American family’s weekly food shopping tends to look like this:
I would argue that there are more edible foodlike products in that picture than actual real food. If your shopping cart looks like this, consider buying a few more things that don’t have ingredient labels (meat, fish, vegetables, fruits), and put back some of those boxes of processed foodlike products.
Or to put it another way, buy foods that ARE ingredients, instead of products that HAVE ingredients.
2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.
My favorites in this category are any foods that are labeled “low-fat.” Most things that are labeled “low-fat” are heavily processed, and full of sugar and other questionable substances to make them taste good. Fat by itself is not a bad thing, and I would much rather eat a real grass-fed steak covered in grass-fed butter than eat a low-fat processed frozen dinner.
I die a little inside when I see people buying margarine because they think it’s healthier than butter.
3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.
To this I would add, anything that contains the words “partially hydrogenated” is a dead giveaway for trans fats, which are very harmful even in small doses.
Hint: if your ingredients list looks like this, it’s not likely to be Real Food. (This is taken from a package of Lunchables, which many parents buy for their kids’ school lunches.)
Cherry Flavored Water Beverage With Other Natural Flavor: Water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, sucralose (Splenda brand sweetener), natural flavor. Cooked Ham–Water Added–Chopped And Formed–Smoke Flavor Added: Ham, water, contains less than 2 percent of sodium lactate, potassium chloride, modified cornstarch, sodium phosphates, sugar, salt, sodium diacetate, sodium ascorbate, flavor, sodium nitrite, smoke flavor. Pasteurized Prepared American Cheese Product: Milk, water, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, whey, whey protein concentrate, contains less than 2 percent of sodium citrate, salt, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, cheese culture, enzymes, oleoresin paprika (color), annatto (color), with starch added for slice separation. Artificially Flavored Candy: Sugar, invert sugar, corn syrup, modified corn starch, tartaric acid, citric acid, natural and artificial flavoring, yellow 6, red 40, yellow 5 and blue 1. Crackers: Unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [Vitamin B2], folic acid), whole grain wheat flour, soybean oil, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, salt, leavening (baking soda and/or calcium phosphate), whey (from milk), soy lecithin, natural flavor
There are over 60 ingredients on this list, well over Pollan’s arbitrary cutoff of 5. Many of the ingredients are unfamiliar and polysyllabic (does anybody know, off the top of their head, what sodium diacetate is?). And it contains both high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats. Yuck.
So there you have it: 3 simple rules that will get you started on the right path. They all point to the same thing: eat real foods, and avoid heavily processed foodlike products. Try it out for a few weeks and let us know how you feel!