Discover how to eat well and eat simply with our guide to a balanced diet.
Meals and snacks made from whole-food ingredients packed with energy and nutrition — whenever we’re hungry.
Doesn’t sound so confusing. Yet eating well and getting proper nutrition can seem exceedingly difficult — so much so that obesity is an epidemic; American girls as young as 7 report being on diets; and weight loss is a multibillion-dollar industry. Why? The seemingly simple ways of eating well are obscured by a number of factors: Marketing, convenience, misinformation, stress and boredom, just to name a few.
We eat for many reasons — because we are truly hungry, yes, but also because someone cooked for us, or because it’s noon, or because we’re bored…or simply because food is there.
It can also be hard to know which foods to eat. Sometimes our bodies crave foods we know aren’t good for us. Sometimes we don’t feel good, and we don’t know if food is the culprit. Sometimes we read conflicting information about what foods may or may not benefit us, or trigger inflammation, or lead to weight gain. And often, we eat foods that are not ultimately nourishing simply because they deliver fast energy.
For all of these reasons and more, getting into a positive rhythm of eating can seem challenging. But honestly, getting there is the only hard part. When we tune in to our bodies and figure out the real food rules that work best for us as individuals, we look and feel our best. Then we can rely on our bodies to know instinctively what to eat, when, how, where and how much.
Barring medical conditions that can’t be improved through diet, the food we eat is truly our greatest ally in achieving optimum health. According to Samantha Durland, a physician who specializes in women’s health in Lawrence, Kansas, “At least 80 percent of how you look and feel comes directly from your diet.”
Eating a well-rounded diet made up of a variety of whole foods and focused on eating lots of plants, plenty of high-quality protein, and satiating, healthy fats helps ensure we feel satisfied and energized all day. Many times food cravings indicate either we are dehydrated, in need of sleep or are eating for a non-hunger-related reason. Eat plenty of healthful foods, and we often find food cravings diminish or disappear.
What to Eat: Respected food writer Michael Pollan said it best in his best-seller, Food Rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” “Eat food” means real, whole foods made from real food ingredients. “Not too much” means eating when we are hungry and stopping when we no longer feel hungry (as opposed to when we feel full). And “mostly plants” is self-explanatory. Although there are many valid styles of healthful eating, one thing all healthy diets have in common is plenty of leaves, roots, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains.
When to Eat: Although advice on this topic abounds, the most recent research suggests that when we eat is far less important than what we eat. Experiment to see what eating schedule works best for you. Holistic nutritionist Stephanie Small emphasizes the importance of paying attention to your body. “Through a period of trial and error — trying out what’s been shown to work well, and then checking in with your body, energy level and even emotions to see if that works for you,” she says, “you can identify the eating schedule that suits your needs.”
In the end, the schedule that makes you feel your best, provides sustained energy throughout the day and sets you up for a restful sleep is the right one for you. It will deliver the nutrients your brain and body need to perform their numerous functions, including detoxification, which is something our bodies usually know how to do all by themselves when we take care of ourselves well. The importance of keeping our bodies consistently nourished and blood sugar stable must not be underestimated. When we consume simple, processed carbohydrates, the glucose signals our bodies to release insulin to manage it. A fast drop in blood sugar follows that and leaves us hungry again. If we eat more processed carbs with lots of glucose, this roller coaster just keeps going. Eventually, our cells can become resistant to insulin, leading to myriad illnesses with severe consequences. Regularly eating plenty of protein, fiber and healthy fats; getting enough sleep; managing stress — these healthy habits all contribute to stabilizing blood sugar.
Various types of fasting are practiced all over the world. Besides the cultural importance of certain fasts, modern science tells us that the practice does have practical benefits. Fasting can reduce inflammation, improve energy and boost metabolism. For many people, keeping blood sugar steady is too important to allow for intense periods of fasting, but we can still get some of these health benefits, physician and herbalist Aviva Romm says. Simply stop eating each evening in enough time to allow for at least 10 hours of fasting. For example, if you stop eating at 7:30 p.m., go to bed around 11, wake around 6:30 a.m. and then eat breakfast at 7:30, you will have fasted for 12 hours.
If you have time to get a little bit of exercise before breakfast, so much the better, based on recent research published in the Journal of Physiology. The study compared three groups of men who ate a high-calorie, high-fat diet for six weeks and either exercised before breakfast, exercised after eating a carbohydrate-rich meal, or did not exercise at all. The only group that gained no weight and showed no signs of insulin resistance was the group that exercised in the fasted state. But don’t forget to enjoy a big glass of warm water before that run!
Not being prepared to eat well is a quick way to sabotage our best intentions. When we’re running late and don’t have something nutritious ready to put on the table, it’s tempting to grab fast food or order a pizza.
Prepare the kitchen: The easiest way not to eat junk food is not to have junk food on hand. Get rid of all the junk food in your house — excessively processed foods, sugary foods, salty fried foods,
foods made from refined white flour, and any foods you know you don’t tolerate well.
Stock the pantry: Consider what you eat and when: Do you always want a snack in the late afternoon? Plan what you are going to eat and stock your pantry accordingly. When we buy apples and peanut butter, we eat apples and peanut butter. When we buy potato chips, we eat potato chips. Keep a healthy snack stash in the car, office and anywhere else you find yourself hungry without a good food option. Think of (or look online, in books or in magazines) fast, simple recipes with ingredients easy to stock for emergency dinner situations. It can also be useful to develop a system to keep track of what you have. Tools like the Evernote app (for iOs and Android) allow you to keep reminders about groceries that you can check when you’re at the market.
Anna Thomas, author of the influential 1972 cookbook The Vegetarian Epicure and the more recent, award-winning Love Soup, says people have often asked her what they can do to improve their cooking. “Improve your shopping,” she says. “If you start with something good, you will likely finish with something good, perhaps even great. But no amount of skill or fussing can overcome poor ingredients. Start with the best ingredients you can get, and treat them with respect. Your cooking will improve at once.”
Develop systems: Grocery shopping routines help make eating well a habit that’s easy to maintain. Shopping on Saturdays, prepping food on Sundays and cooking quick, simple meals on weekdays works well for many people. Get in the habit of washing and chopping vegetables as soon as they come into the house so they’ll be convenient to use when you need them. Make a big pot of quinoa or garbanzo beans that you can use in different ways throughout the week. Try recipes that make great leftovers for the freezer. Create a meal plan that is easy to follow. For example, roast a chicken or filet of salmon every week, sitting atop different seasonal vegetables, and flavor this one-pot meal with different herbs and spices each time. Make every Friday Mexican night. Or find one great seasonal cookbook, and cook through it for a whole week, month or season.
Another strategy for simplification is sticking to one culinary tradition. Do as food writer Eugenia Bone does, and focus on cooking recipes of one cuisine, such as Italian or Greek, for a while. It’ll be easy to stock your pantry appropriately, and you’ll learn a tradition intimately. She can also help you strategically cook throughout the year through her Kitchen Ecosystem project (kitchenecosystem.com).
Reviews of studies conducted over several years confirm the relationship between eating at restaurants and weight gain, high body mass index, high bad cholesterol and low good cholesterol. According to physician, herbalist and midwife Aviva Romm, eating only one meal out each week translates to a two-pound weight gain every year. We simply don’t have enough control over what goes into our bodies when someone else prepares it. Of course, some restaurants are much better than others when it comes to using fresh, whole food ingredients. Eating highly processed foods made with inferior ingredients — such as fast food or food from most chain restaurants — is never good for our health. But even restaurants with healthier options generally include more processed ingredients, excess sodium, unhealthy fats and added sugars than we would ever use in home-cooked meals. When we’re working to establish good eating habits, it’s easiest if we eat most meals at home. Then when we’ve achieved a healthy baseline, we’ll be better prepared to choose wisely in restaurants — and to know when to splurge.
As we endeavor to discover and establish our own best eating habits and routines, our first task is simply to pay attention to what we eat and how it makes us feel.
Keep a food journal: This is the best way to pay more attention to what we eat and how it affects us. Don’t count calories or obsess over every detail — you don’t even have to keep the journal for very long. But journaling is an excellent way to bring greater awareness to each food choice. Users often report its ability to positively affect food choices before eating. And many studies show that keeping a food diary is directly linked with successful weight loss. To try it, keep track of what you eat and when, and note how you respond — mentally, physically and emotionally. Journaling can help clarify our eating patterns. Use a simple tally at the end of each day to note how many plants you ate: Was it the recommended seven to nine servings? Take note of how many sugary foods you ate: Did it add up to more than you thought? Did you feel energized afterward, or happy or guilty? Besides helping us figure out certain foods or patterns of eating that might not work well for us, journaling increases awareness of what and how much we consume.
Eat mindfully: Awareness of what we eat leads directly into more mindful eating. A growing body of research links mindless, distracted eating with stress, anxiety and overeating. Practicing mindful eating, on the other hand, is about slowing down to become aware of all of our senses in the present moment in response to food, and tuning in nonjudgmentally to feelings of hunger, satiety and discomfort. It’s one of the most powerful ways we can learn how to nourish ourselves. We can start by taking a moment for gratitude before eating and asking ourselves simple questions whenever we eat something: Am I really hungry for this? How will this likely make me feel? Is there something I need more right now? (We’ll cover mindful eating in more depth in our next issue.)
After we’ve learned to pay more attention to our food choices, it often becomes clear what’s been working and what hasn’t. If you’ve uncovered habits that are hindering your healthy eating goals, identify them and work to change them.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, every habit consists of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. To create a new food habit, we must address all three components. Perhaps the cue to start eating fruit instead of sugar in the afternoon could be a phone alarm that reminds you every afternoon at 2 to get a piece of fruit. The routine is to eat the fruit. The reward could be as simple as adding a checkmark to a calendar or enjoying a small piece of dark chocolate afterward. Even if this seems counterintuitive, he says, our bodies eventually let go of the need for the chocolate and simply associate eating the fruit with the feeling of reward.
Keep in mind that our taste buds may have become accustomed to sugary, salty, greasy and artificial flavors, and that we can change what our taste buds enjoy. For example, many people discover that, after reducing or eliminating refined sugar, they find sugary items to taste overly sweet. It also takes time to recalibrate if we are addicted to sugar and caffeine, but it is possible. Be patient with yourself. According to physician and herbalist Aviva Romm, thousands of her patients have reported that it took them about five to seven days for their taste buds to unlearn old habits. It doesn’t have to be all about restriction, either. Look for herbs, spices and other new, healthy ingredients to try for flavor and variety.
If dietary changes produce unpleasant physical symptoms (fatigue, anxiety, irritability, constipation, sleeplessness, etc.), a dietary trigger could be to blame. Journaling and eating more mindfully can give us a hint of these triggers. But if that doesn’t prove to be enough, an elimination diet — in which we systematically remove and then reintroduce certain foods — may be helpful. Romm outlines a four-week program specifically tailored to women who feel chronically exhausted in her book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. She helps readers create the diet most right for them by removing unhealthy or problematic foods, and then replacing them with foods and nutrients that activate the body’s ability to repair itself. “Your body is genius at moving you toward health; you just need help clearing out what’s getting in the way of what your body knows how to do,” she says.
We don’t have to journal, breathe and pause, reflect, eat all our meals at home and never have anything sweet for all time. Do not focus on calories. Do not focus on macronutrients. Focus on eating real, whole foods that come from nature, and on paying attention to how your own mind and body react to the foods you eat. Learning to eat well is about establishing a baseline that we can return to, setting us up for a lifetime of health and wellness. Once we’ve given our bodies a chance to experience it, it’s not difficult to continue eating this way, which means we can focus strictly on enjoying food.
Celebrated British food writer Ruby Tandoh, author of Flavour: Eat What You Love, thinks cooking is self-care and that enjoying food is inherently nourishing. Her only food rule is “Eat what you love.” Hopefully we can all help ourselves get there!
Food Editor TABITHA ALTERMAN enjoys preparing whole foods-based meals for her family in Lawrence, Kansas. Her recent cookbook, Whole Grain Baking Made Easy, is available at motherearthliving.com/shopping.
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