If you read my nutrition background post, it should hopefully give you the information needed to understand why, after years of reading/searching/studying food as a form of medicine, I make the recommendations found in this post. Without further ado-
The first approach to nutrition is to forget about weight loss. Forget about body composition or getting lean or “getting ready for summer.” This probably sounds ridiculous, and if you’re reading this there’s a chance you’re trying to find a diet that can help with dropping pounds. I’m not saying it won’t, I’m just asking you to step away from that mentality and goal. Weight loss is a finite, short-term goal, and it should never be the focus to achieving a sustainable, healthy way of living/eating. A six-pack does not equate to health. And, believe it or not, a scale reading 220lbs or a BMI of 27 does NOT equal unhealthy. Let go of aesthetics and numbers and truly allow yourself to use food as medicine. A drop in the number on the scale and a lean physique are simply side effects, NOT the focus.
How much should I eat?
Obviously the answer is: it depends. No two people will require the same amount of food in a day. But in short, you should eat as much as your body needs to accomplish the tasks that make up your BMR (basal metabolic rate..basically the calories required to simply lay in bed and exist) + your ADLS (activities of daily living) and exercise. You can get an estimate of your BMR from online calculators, but usually they are flawed since your true BMR is dependent on factors like muscle mass, genetics, what you did yesterday, etc. BUT its a place to start if you’re really struggling with deciphering hunger from cravings and knowing roughly how much to eat in a day.
While calorie counting in the short-term can be effective for weight loss, I truly recommend against it. I’ve noticed a serious trend of developing unhealthy relationships with food when people calculate and enter into a food diary every little crumb they consume. It breaks the body’s ability to detect hunger, and creates a restrictive relationship with food.
The goal should always be eating intuitively. Having a natural ability to understand your body’s hunger cues will be an everlasting tool. I think calorie counting for a short period of time (1-2 weeks) can be beneficial to help identify patterns of overeating, but the benefit is limited to this. Do you really want to be entering calorie counts into an online food log and obsessing over hitting some arbitrary number? Do you see yourself doing this 10 years from now? Probably not. So once you work on food choices, and you’re eating (mostly) nutrient-dense foods throughout the day, you can feel pretty confident that you aren’t overeating. With time and patience, you’ll be able to notice when you’re ACTUALLY hungry and when you’re actually full. A good simple rule is: if you’re not willing to eat an apple or cucumber slices, you’re probably not actually hungry/ you’re probably already full.
I know this advice is abstract, but that’s the point. Any other “method” of eating won’t last in the long run. We live in a world of excess, and the best way of knowing HOW much to eat is improving our relationship with food and making choices that ultimately improve our health.
What should I eat?
The answer: Lots and lots and lots of plants, with a little bit of everything else on the side. The less processed the food, the better. We know this. I know this, you know this, so why is it so hard to convince people to follow? The evidence is endless for supporting the simple notion of increased fruit/vegetable intake decreasing all cause mortality (read just one of the papers on this here.) Eat vegetables, live longer!! so WHY. AREN’T. WE. EATING THEM. Seriously, the rate of fruit/veggie consumption is atrocious. I’m not asking you to stop eating everything else, I’m suggesting you add these in. Set a goal for eating as many as you can in a day.
Breakfast: fresh chopped fruit
Snack: raw vegetable mix
Lunch: ENORMOUS salad
Snack- more fruit
Dinner- a ridiculous mountain of cooked veggies
^^^ And this is all the food not including everything else you feel like eating. But if you think you can eat this huge volume of fruits/veggies and still be interested in consuming the rest of your normal daily food choices, you’re mistaken. So, over time, you “crowd out” the food that wasn’t serving you or your health, and start to feel full and satisfied from largely a plant based diet. Then it’s a wonderful cycle– you start to feel so much better, you have less cravings for junk food, and this lifestyle somehow becomes sustainable.
Side note: another simple rule can be that you cook or prepare your own food. And preparing does not mean opening a box of Pringles. I mean, in the kitchen, chopping veggies, heating lentils on a stove top, baking a spaghetti squash. This will eliminate your tendency to eat food-like products over actual food.
I mean seriously.. this is not food:
Now, for optimal health you’ll need more than just fruits and veggies. Your body needs fats and protein, both of which are difficult to get from a raw diet. A word of advice: Do not fear fat. Just don’t. It’s a necessary macronutrient for a healthy body, and should be eaten liberally. Cook those veggies in coconut and olive oil, eat that spoonful of gooey almond butter, relish in the pure bliss of a whole avocado.
And for protein, the sources are endless and should be customized to your preferences and likelihood of sustainability. If you’re physically active, you’ll need a little more protein than the sedentary person but probably less than what bodybuilding.com would recommend (1-1.5g protein/pound of body weight? I choose to disagree.) Furthermore, your protein source doesn’t have to be meat or protein powder. Vegans who eat well aren’t in a protein deficiency, since eating a variety of vegetable, legume, and tuber source provides all the essential amino acids. I firmly believe that on a population level, we’d all live longer if we were vegetarians (to see just one paper suggesting this correlation, part of one of my favorite studies–the Adventist Health Study, click here.) However if we’re speaking strictly about health, eating meat [in moderation] will not be the death of anyone. It’s a complete and easy source of protein that I don’t yet have the power to convince most people and especially not my patients, to stop eating. (Is meat eating slowly killing the planet? Probably. but that’s for a different post and conversation altogether. And a disclaimer: I am not a true vegetarian. I eat fish often. But my consumption of any other meat is so rare that I’m close enough.)
What shouldn’t I eat?
The answer: nothing is off limits when eaten sparingly, and especially when it comes to holidays, traditions, and cultural gatherings. Being too restrictive will backfire, and mental health is equally important to optimizing physical health. Completely shunning certain foods including decadent desserts, pizza, processed snacks, unhealthy stuff at family gatherings is just as detrimental as eating it on the regular. Restriction can be socially isolating and lead to a seriously unhealthy relationship with food. Indulge on occasion. If you eat really well most of the time, you’ll find that you actually only want one slice of pie instead of the entire thing, and that your favorite childhood candy is kind of not that good. But you’ll also realize that missing out on your grandma’s scalloped potatoes, or your best friend’s slutty brownies is simply not an option if you want to live your fullest life. Food is part of our culture, which makes eating well difficult, but shouldn’t be so demanding that you miss out on the simple moments of human connection through sharing a meal.
In Summary: Eat whole, unprocessed foods (with a massive variety of fruits/vegetables) to live optimally. Cook and prepare most of your meals. Don’t fear fat, and obtain it readily from plant sources. With time you’ll learn your hunger cues when you’re eating mostly good foods. No food should be off limits and your healthy lifestyle should never prevent you from participating in the rest of your life.