The Truth About Healthy Eating

19 Jul

This is not healthy eating.

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As a person who is very interested in health and fitness, I read a lot of magazines, newspaper articles, and books about the topic and I frequent a health and fitness message board. I’m even contemplating going to back to school for a nutrition degree (but that’s a topic for another post).

While I don’t follow any strict eating regimen like Paleo or Clean Eating, I do make most of the decisions about what I eat following the mantra of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” What that means for me is:

  • I eat real food, not “food products” as he calls them, as much as possible.
  • I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full (this is also the mentality behind Intuitive Eating).
  • I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.

This is what a typical day’s menu has looked like recently:

Pre-Workout (5:00 am)

1 slice of whole wheat bread with 1 tbsp creamy peanut butter (I don’t eat natural peanut butter because it’s more expensive and the partially hydrogenated oil in un-natural peanut butter is so negligible, they don’t even list trans fats on the nutrition facts.)

Breakfast (7:30)

1-2 cups of cereal (common varieties are Honey Bunches of Oats, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Kashi GoLean Crunch!) with ½ cup blueberries and 1.5% milk from Royal Crest Dairy

Caffeine Fix (9:00)

1 ½ cups iced coffee with 2 packets of artificial sweetener and 1-2 tbsp fat-free liquid crack (aka Coffeemate hazelnut creamer)

Morning Snack #1 (10:00)

Banana

Morning Snack #2 (11:00)

Light flavored yogurt

Lunch (12:00 pm)

1 portion of leftovers from dinner on a bed of spinach or a spinach salad/wrap with blueberries, dried (sweetened) cranberries, feta cheese, slivered almonds, low-sodium ham, and Kraft poppyseed dressing (my favorite salad EVER.)

Afternoon Snack #1 (2:00)

Apple

Afternoon Snack #2 (3:30)

6 generic Triscuits, 1 oz cheddar cheese

Dinner (6:30)

Since this varies a lot (and my other food is usually pretty much the same), I’ll give a few common ones:

  • Homemade pizza (whole wheat pocketless pitas with store-bought pizza sauce, turkey pepperoni, artichoke hearts, black olives, mushrooms, and part-skim mozzarella)
  • Elk burgers on whole wheat buns, baked sweet potato fries sprinkled with sea salt
  • Butternut squash and sage lasagna, garlic (white) bread, spinach salad

Late-night treat (2-3 times a month when training, 4-5 times a month in off season)

Glass of wine (or a serving of full-fat ice cream)

As you can see, I don’t eat perfectly. I would go crazy if I did. It’s too hard and too expensive to buy all of the “healthiest” versions of all foods (not to mention that sometimes the refined foods are simply more delicious). My main focus is on eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and buying the whole-grain/least processed version of everything that is reasonably priced and that I enjoy eating. (Eating healthy foods you don’t enjoy is not fun or sustainable.)

If you’re curious, I eat about 2,000-2,500 calories a day when training; 1,700-2,000 when I’m not.

Over the course of my informal research, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of misconceptions about healthy eating floating around in the general populace. Lies like “Eating healthy is expensive” and “You have to stop eating donuts for breakfast.” In general, generalizations are wrong. 🙂

To set the record straight, here is what my experience has been with eating healthily (but I am not a registered dietitian so take what I say with a grain of salt-free Mrs. Dash).

1. I spend less money at the grocery store on healthy food than I did on processed crap.

On average, I spend $40-75 a week on groceries for 2 adults (not including condiments like ketchup and olive oil). I buy mostly produce (bananas, apples, oranges, spinach, potatoes, onions, green beans, asparagus, blueberries, zucchini, yellow squash, etc.). I also buy whole wheat pasta, whole wheat crackers, low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk (we get ours delivered), low-sodium deli meat (Boar’s Head), chicken when it’s on sale (for red meat, we eat elk that Travis shot), and whatever additional ingredients I need for the 3 dinner recipes I chose for the week.

My guess is that people think eating healthy is expensive because they don’t know to not buy certain produce when it’s out of season. I don’t spend $5 a pound on grapes, buy $6 pineapples, eat gold-plated raspberries, or spend $10 on a 2 oz bag of dried apricots. If you pay attention to prices and buy the cheap and in-season produce, eating healthy is actually very affordable. Vegetables are notoriously cheap almost year-round. You can’t buy a couple pounds of potatoes, onions, and carrots and tell me they were expensive.

Also, check out grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Sunflower Farmer’s Market that have bulk bins. I now buy tons of stuff from bulk bins that I would have bought at a regular grocery store and spend way less: flour, dried fruit, trail mix, popcorn kernels, couscous, granola, etc. Just recently, I bought 50 oz of flour for $1.50 and ½ lb of dried mango for $2.00.

I also think that people get hung up on the superfoods. These are a marketing ploy. Did you know that grapes have just as many antioxidants as acai berries? They’re also cheaper. I love this quote from the Cooking Light article called The Truth about Superfoods:

Almost everything in modern nutrition research suggests that your whole diet—which should be a varied one, containing lots of plants, with moderate amounts of total fat and salt—is the thing to focus on. Dark chocolate, edamame, and green tea do not a whole diet make.

I don’t follow food trends. I didn’t jump on the pomegranate or acai berry bandwagon and I won’t jump on any in the future. Usually, these products are overpriced and their health benefits, while real, are very comparable to benefits from other, more common (and cheaper) produce.

After reading In Defense of Food, I stopped giving certain vegetables the cold shoulder and adopted the opinion that if it grows on a plant or in the ground, it’s good for me. Vegetables like corn and russet potatoes have gotten a bad rap from the health nuts over the years because they supposedly don’t have much “nutritional value.” The truth is, corn is high in fiber and potassium and russet potatoes have fiber and protein. (Take that sweet potatoes!) Moreover, Michael Pollan makes the argument that we don’t know how different vitamins and minerals in natural foods work together. A less-processed, more-natural diet is always better. Choose the corn over vitamin-fortified, protein-injected health food.

2. I hardly ever get sick.

When I was in high school, I got sick all.the.time. Even through most of college, I got sick quite often. When I got married, learned/had a reason to cook and started eating things besides cereal and sandwiches, I started eating a lot more fruit and vegetables. I am now a believer that an apple a day keeps the doctor away: since moving out to Colorado on Labor Day weekend of 2007, I have only been sick twice. Once I had a cold and the other time, I contracted H1N1 (eeee…). I think that’s a pretty good track record.

If I start getting the feeling in my throat like I’m on the verge of getting a cold, I dial up the amount of fruit and vegetables I’m eating and try to get more sleep. I like to think I have staved off many a cold with this strategy.

3. I maintain my weight easily and happily.

I am not a carb-deprived, pill-popping, drooling-over-donuts-in-the-shop-window, I-can’t-eat-that-because-I’m-on-a-diet monster. I eat food. I love food. Even donuts. Especially donuts.

But there’s a balance. If you want to discover what that balance is, read Intuitive Eating. I cannot praise this book highly enough. It changed my eating life (it didn’t change my whole life — Jesus did that). Starting in high school, I had a friend who did not have a healthy relationship with food and it rubbed off on me. I used food as comfort, a reward, and an activity to do when I was bored. Over time, it morphed into the enemy that constantly whispered to me about how much I wanted it but couldn’t have it. I religiously watched what I ate, tracked every calorie, but then frequently overate, to the point where I was so full that all I wanted to do after eating was lie down.

Finally, I got sick and tired of counting calories and obsessing over everything I put in my mouth. I was sick of having food control me. I was sick of having no willpower. So I read Intuitive Eating for the second time in the fall of 2009 and actually did what it said. I let myself eat donuts, Twizzlers, ice cream, wine, and white bread (gasp!) when I wanted them, making sure to only eat when I was hungry and to stop when I was full.

At first, it was a little scary. What if I gain weight? But over time, I learned to eat what I wanted and to make sure I really wanted what I was eating. If something didn’t hit the spot, I didn’t eat it. If something had looked better than it tasted, I didn’t eat it. If I was comfortably full, I didn’t go for dessert anyway. I knew it I would enjoy it more if I wasn’t trying to squeeze it in between my spleen and liver.

It worked. The first time I really noticed a change in my relationship to food was Thanksgiving of 2009. My parents were out in Colorado visiting and my mom and I had cooked up an entire Thanksgiving feast for the 4 of us with all of my favorites: stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, dinner rolls, jello salads. I ate until I was comfortably full and then did the unfathomable: decided to not eat pumpkin pie afterward. I knew that if I did, it would push me over the edge to being uncomfortably full. And I hate that feeling.

I felt like I was in a twilight zone as I decided to just have a cup of coffee. I had energy to do dishes and move around after the Thanksgiving meal. You mean I don’t have to feel like I’m exploding? It was revolutionary for me.

Fast forward 2 ½ years, I hardly ever feel uncomfortably full anymore. I still do slip up once in a while when there’s a particularly tempting meal or treat, but more often than not, I stop at a good point because I know that food won’t make me happy, even though according to David Kessler, my body’s wiring tells me it will.

4. I still eat donuts, ice cream and French fries — occasionally.

I couldn’t survive without them! I think this is the #1 biggest mistake people make on diets: they don’t let themselves eat anything that is considered “bad.” (This is one of main tenets of Intuitive Eating: there are no “good” or “bad” foods. There are no food police.) The #2 biggest mistake people make is not eating enough food when they’re trying to “eat healthy.” Eating healthy does not mean eating perfectly 100% of the time and it doesn’t mean always being hungry.

But that’s not to say I don’t exercise any self-restraint or discretion. Generally speaking, when I have a craving for empty-calorie deliciousness, I don’t go out right away and indulge. I let it simmer for a few days. Usually, I have an opportunity later on to go out for ice cream with my girlfriends or for a donut with Travis. Turn your splurges into social outings. With this approach, I splurge 2-4 times a month (and by splurge, I mean eat something that has low nutritional value and high calorie/fat content).

If I’m in need of a snack at 3:30 pm on a slow-moving Thursday afternoon, and the vending machine is my only option, I pick the healthiest thing I can enjoy eating. (Lucky for me, the vending machine here has Stacy’s Simply Naked Pita Chips. Score!) Picking the healthiest thing, even though you don’t like it or it’s not really what you want, isn’t a good idea because it won’t leave you satisfied and you’ll want to eat something else (yet another idea from Intuitive Eating). If you’re thinking, Well heck, the only thing I’d enjoy eating is a candy bar, then get one. Just make sure it either has nuts in it (which will make it more filling) or it’s low in calories (so it won’t destroy your daily balance).

Eating healthy doesn’t require perfection. You don’t have to set up monstrous goals that require an all-or-nothing commitment. It’s a consistent effort to make smart choices. It’s maintaining a balance (get a shake or fries, not both). Often times, it’s choosing the lesser of two not-so-great options (they are not “evils”). In order to eat healthy for life, you need to be able to adapt and react to the different situations life throws at you. You can’t throw in the towel if you happen to eat 10 cookies in one sitting. Brush off the crumbs and make a better decision now.

 5. I still get to eat good food.

I honestly enjoy eating healthy. I love the foods I eat and I love the way I feel when I’m healthy. I love fruits and vegetables. I admit that it’s very convenient that I’m not a picky eater (except when it comes to meat) and that it would be harder for a picky eater to eat healthy. But it’s not impossible.

One thing I’ve done to broaden my horizon is to intentionally try new foods. I’ve discovered some things that I really like (eggplant, edamame, wheat berry, butternut squash, sage, couscous, pistachios) and other things that I don’t like (kale, brussel sprouts, mango, quinoa, shallots). Experiment. Try new foods and new ways of preparing familiar foods. Puree cauliflower and carrots and add them to soups, muffins, and pasta dishes. My general rule of thumb is to eat some fruit or vegetable at every meal and for at least two snacks a day.

All this is to say, people make healthy eating a lot harder than it has to be. If you’re currently not making the best food choices, don’t do a major overhaul. Start small, perhaps with cutting down on or eliminating the amount of liquid you’re drinking each day that isn’t water. Eat an apple with an ounce of cheese for a snack instead of a bag of chips. Learn what portion sizes look like. Find out the nutrition information for your “usual” and make a better choice. Bottom line is, figure out what works for you.

But don’t come to me complaining about how hard it is to eat healthy. Diets are hard. Restrictive eating guidelines are hard. Eating healthy is different. It may take a while to get the hang of it, but once you do, it’s the new normal. I will admit it takes consistent effort, but so does going to doctor’s appointments for diabetes and cholesterol meds. I’m just sayin’…

Do you find it hard to eat healthy? What food is your weakness?  Mine is carbs – I love me some cereal, bread and crackers.

2 Responses to “The Truth About Healthy Eating”

  1. B. in the Know July 20, 2011 at 6:38 am #

    Now that I have been doing it, I do not find it that hard to eat healthy. I actually like it a lot more because my body feels a lot better with all the processed food. My weakness is sugar – I know it is bad, but it is just so good. SO, in moderation I allow myself to enjoy it. I cut it out for awhile to break the addiction my body had, and now I can enjoy a little and still be able to cut myself off.
    Much love,
    B

  2. blauka July 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Love your blog, Kathy! I’ve been applying the “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full” concept for the past month or so and feel MUCH better doing so. The hardest thing for me is to make myself eat breakfast in the morning. I’m not working right now, so I forget to get into the kitchen and eat, thinking I’ll be around all day to do so, and then all of a sudden it’s lunch time. My husband (Justin) and I are trying to incorporate more veggies in our dinners; he’s started taking a salad to work for lunch instead of getting a sandwich or burrito. I think for me the key is to not buy junk foods (we stick with pita chips and I make hummus) and to change up our meals throughout the week so we don’t get bored. I’m exploring new healthier options like quinoa (we LOVE it!) and we always eat lean meats. But you’re right, it’s not hard–it just takes getting used to the routine and finding what works for you. Thanks for this post 🙂 It was nice to hear that corn is still good for me!

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