“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
For all the millions of pages written about eating well, these seven words sum it up best. This quote from Michael Pollan, the author ofThe Omnivore’s Dilemma, captures the essence of what we need to know to enjoy a long, healthy life. Eat Real Food!!
“Eat food.” By this, he means REAL food. The kind of food that comes from nature, that grows in the ground or on trees or on the ocean floor. Food that comes from animals who are treated well and not poisoned with chemicals or whose products come to us tainted by how they are raised, slaughtered, and processed. The kind of food that will go bad if you don’t eat it within a few days, because it’s not been fortified with artificial preservatives intended to ensure a long shelf life (and as few nutrients as possible). Remember this helpful adage: the longer the shelf life of a food you eat, the shorter YOUR shelf life will be.
“Not too much.” The majority of us simply eat too much food. The amount of food (and calories) presented on your average restaurant plate in America is astounding. Portion control, no matter what any diet plan says, is important. It’s not about deprivation or starving yourself, though. It’s about eating the right amount – no more, no less.
“Mostly plants.” Certainly, some people find nourishment, comfort, and strength from animal products like meat, fish, and dairy. But most of us eat far more of these kinds of foods that our bodies can possibly process and properly digest. And many of us can not only live without them, but we thrive when we replace them with plant-based foods. When we eat high nutrient foods, we find that not only are our bellies full and satisfied, but we feel their effects throughout our bodies – and beyond.
So, how can we begin to put Pollan’s simple little philosophy into practice? Here are the principles that, generally speaking, apply to all of us.
Start with greens. Greens, greens, and lots of them! Greens are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. The darker, the better. Eating salads helps ensure you get a lot of your greens raw, which means you’re eating them in their natural state. When cooking, steam them briefly, or cook them in a broth where the nutrients aren’t cooked out. You can even bake them on a low heat in the oven for a crispy chip-like texture. Very few people need to watch their intake of certain greens – both who might be sensitive to oxalates, for instance, or who deal with thyroid issues. As in all things, we must each pay attention to how our body responds to food.
Add a wide variety of vegetables to your meals. There are so many options in the produce department, so here’s a chance to experiment with new flavors. Eggplants, squash, zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, mushrooms, cucumbers, radishes… the list goes on and on. If you are unaccustomed to eating vegetables, it might take a little while to get your palate adjusted to their tastes and textures. But the key to getting all the various vitamins and nutrients available is color. A variety of colors every day will ensure a good mix of different nutrients to fuel your body exceptionally well.
Make sure your body is hydrated. This means hydrated with water, not DEhydrated by coffee, soda, beer, or other drinks. Conventional wisdom says 64 ounces a day is an ideal amount. But you need to let your body dictate how much water consumption is optimal for you.
Those three rules – lots of greens, lots of vegetables, and adequate water – are the most universally applicable. The following are generally applicable:
Fruits: Most of us should eat a few servings of fruit a day. Foods like berries provide a huge dose of antioxidants. Apples are a good source of fiber, bananas give us potassium, avocados have healthy fats… every fruit has several benefits, in fact. A word of caution, however, for people with diabetes or other blood sugar issues: Most fruits do contain fructose, and this can be problematic in the diets of some people. Though the sugar is natural, sugar is sugar. It can lead to weight gain or other more serious complications, so leaning more toward low fructose fruits is your best bet. And moderation (in all things!) is key.
Whole grains: Whole grains are the unprocessed kind, not the highly refined and “enriched” products we see in the bags of white sandwich bread and boxes of “instant” white rice on the supermarket shelves. “Refined” and “enriched” sound like such positive words, but don’t be fooled. Refined grain has been stripped of its raw nutrients and does little more than spike your blood sugar through its empty calories. It tends to be “white” food, or sometimes colored with an artificial ingredient to cover up its “whiteness,” as in the case with many so-called “wheat” breads. A good rule of thumb is to avoid foods such as white rice, white bread, pasta and even possibly white potatoes. Try red or sweet potatoes for a change, brown rice instead of white, and be adventurous with other grains as well – it’s not hard to find tasty recipes that call for quinoa, millet, and barley. Truly whole grain breads have very few ingredients besides the grains and whole wheat flour. You can even find live sprouted grain breads that don’t have flour, which are excellent sources of protein and fiber.
Beans and legumes: These nutrient powerhouses are tremendously high in protein and fiber. If you aren’t used to eating them, you may experience a bit of digestive discomfort at first. But as your overall diet improves over time, that tends to ease up. There are endless varieties of soups, casseroles, dips and Mexican dishes you can prepare starting with beans.
Nuts and Seeds: Avoid the roasted, salted, and oiled kinds. And of course, if you’re allergic, avoid them in all forms. But for the rest of us, raw nuts and seeds, as well as nut and seed butters, are excellent sources of protein and nutrients, and they also aid in the absorption of nutrients from greens in smoothies and salads. Nuts, in particular, are high in calories and should be enjoyed in moderation – a handful is an adequate serving for most of us.
A diet of greens, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds – along with adequate water intake – is a fantastic foundation for an overall eating plan. With very few exceptions, a diet consisting of just these foods can get our weight quickly under control, prevent all our modern lifestyle diseases, and even reverse them in people who already have them. Many people – former President Bill Clinton is perhaps the most famous example – stick to this way of eating and have no desire or need to consume anything else, while protecting themselves from cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, and a whole host of other health concerns.
But, while consuming more of these foods is a health benefit to almost everyone, eating only these foods doesn’t work for everyone. In the next chapter, we’ll have some suggestions for figuring out how to develop an individualized eating plan that works specifically for YOU.
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