When I promised to post a blog describing what healthy eating really is, I almost immediately realized that I was opening up...well... a can of beans. People are passionate about their eating and food plans, and if you question their habits, be prepared for an avalanche of objections.
In part, that may be a good thing. When it comes to healthy eating, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. The Dalai Lama eats meat because he gets sick when he doesn't. Several friends follow a modified raw food diet; they seem full of radiant good health. Another friend avoids sugar--she's lost 35 pounds--but otherwise eats as she will. My 92-year- old aunt seems to subsist mainly on dark chocolate candy, and she's fit and sharp. Me, I'm a contented omnivore (full disclosure). Of course, you will consider your own health conditions as you read this blog.
How you decide to eat depends, as everything does, on your motivators. Do you want to lose weight for your health? Then your eating plan must involve reducing calories. Do you want to run a marathon? There's an eating app for that.
Most of us are searching for eating patterns that keep us healthy, well-nourished, and happy, while maintaining a healthy weight. "Healthy weight" can vary from person to person. I would define it as weight that significantly reduces your risk for such diseases as type 2 diabetes, heart problems, certain types of cancer, and eating disorders, while giving you energy, vitality, and strength.
A summary of good reasons for healthy eating, besides the obvious one of staying alive, includes these motivators:
• Weight loss or maintenance.
• Bonding/social connection.
So, are there any guidelines for healthy eating that could apply to all of us? Here's a Top Ten list that attempts to incorporate the 5 goals above. You can adapt these to your own particular goals and situation. Please feel free to add your ideas in the "comments" section.
1. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This is writer Michael Pollan's credo, and I'm not sure there's a better summary of healthy eating anywhere. If you don't have time to read on, just memorize those 7 words.
2. By "eat food," Pollan means eat real food--whole foods, not processed foods.
3. Ask yourself, "Do I want to drink my calories or eat them?" An effective and easy way to lose or maintain weight is to eliminate, or greatly reduce, all sugary, high-calorie drinks from your diet. These can include alcohol, some fruit juices, and soda. Replace with water or sparkling water.
4. Eat three tasty meals a day. Make your mealtimes predictable so you never need worry that you will go too hungry for too long. Depriving yourself of food may trigger a binge.
5. Keep portions small. That's the "not too much" part of the Pollan credo. For easy-to-remember visuals comparing everyday objects to healthy portion sizes, see here.
6. Make mealtimes, and eating in general, a pleasure. Eat slowly and mindfully, savoring your food. When you eat, take a complete break from work and chores. Enjoy your alone time or the good company of friends or colleagues. Food eaten while working, while standing up, or while gulped down in a hurry-flurry is food that you won't know you've eaten. Result: You'll eat more than you want to.
7. Have some "treat" foods. Keep these under 200 calories/day. That's one or two delicious cookies per day. If you are a person for whom sugar can trigger a binge, try fresh or dried fruit instead.
8. Forget the injunction to "clean your plate." Eat until you are satisfied--not full. Avoid the pain and discomfort of overeating. If you do overeat, use this pain to help you discover what your limits are.
9. Eat some protein, some carbs, some healthy fat, lots of colorful fruits and veggies, and whole grains most every day.
10. Plan a guilt-free lapse in your healthy eating patterns for occasions and holidays (assuming this would not injure your health). Go ahead, have a piece of wedding cake. Then train yourself to get right back on your healthy plan.
Life being what it is, you might have to wander outside these guidelines. That's OK. You don't need to be perfect in your eating patterns. If the Dalai Lama eats meat, you can have seconds on sweet potatoes from time to time.
Now I'm off to lunch, where I'll eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Next time: Planning a Lapse for Thanksgiving Day
(c) Meg Selig
I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For short tidbits on habit change, willpower, and healthy living, follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter.
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." See http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html. "Unhappy Meals," by Michael Pollan, NY Times Magazine.
The Dalai Lama eats meat. Osnos, Evan, "The Next Incarnation," The New Yorker, 10/4/2010, p.67.