You need to learn how to eat better. Despite your decades of experience, there is room for improvement. You might need to eat better because weight gain has slowly crept up on you, or you find yourself in disbelief that you (you?) now have high blood pressure or cholesterol. Maybe you’re reading this because you have your first apartment and need a better plan for cooking and filling the fridge. Or now that you are quite grown you need better food skills to help your overweight child. Not one of these goals is unattainable, but you first need to accept your responsibility in the matter. Humble yourself to be open to change, because change requires doing things differently. Change requires learning something new, even if that new something resembles a lifetime familiarity of three meals a day.
Your body is built for nutrients most concentrated in plant foods. The cultivated plant inventory of produce, grains, nuts, and seeds are dense in thousands of compounds confirmed by science to keep your body working well, feeling good, and preventing disease. The fibers from these edible plants assure your digestive system is cleansed and operating efficiently. When you don’t eat enough plants you can feel lethargic, heavy, and bloated, and a deficit will cause you to double down on your risk of weight gain and illness. But despite the obvious health incentives you might not be eating as much plant food as you need because these ingredients are not as convenient as other options. Peeling an orange takes more time than popping a lid.
Healthy food choices are naturally high in fiber and don’t provide your brain the colossal sugar jolt it gets from convenience foods like snack crackers and bars. This works against your best eating intentions. A human brain is a greedy, primordial monster and desires basic survival above all else. Highly processed convenience foods offer the fastest, most concentrated form of mental fuel, causing logic to elude you when faced with a brownie versus an apple. Your brain doesn’t instinctively consider which food is better for your waistline or which lowers blood pressure, but instead encourages food choice based on how quickly it gets a wash of glucose (blood sugar). If unchecked by reason the brownie will always win. This is okay from time to time because brownies are awesome, but too many brownies and foods of the like will eventually cause you illness and disease.
You might choose the wrong foods for good reason: your visual food landscape holds a disproportionate amount of fast acting, convenient calories from simple carbohydrates. Try out this math- when you go to the grocery store, 80% of the food you see should account for only 20% of what you eat, and 20% of what you see should account for at least 80% of what you eat. Grocery stores are overloaded with highly processed convenience foods concentrated in low fiber, simple carbohydrates. Most stores relegate smaller departments of produce, dairy, and meat to its far outer reaches. This conditions your minds eye to accept convenience foods as not only good choices, but also as foods you should be eating most often. And given the innumerable options of convenience foods, shouldn’t you be eating a good bit of it? No. Because if you eat too much of these fast acting, simple carbohydrates you can quickly develop another problem: irrational food cravings.
Fast acting, simple carbohydrates come from foods categorized as white: fiberless white flours, white sugars, white potatoes, fat free white dairy products. Simple carbohydrates can also be referred to as “processed carbohydrates” and include added sugars of any variety: honey, maple syrup, concentrated fruit juice, etc. Due to the efficiency of insulin a healthy body knows how to handle simple carbohydrates with precision. Insulin is a hormone made by your body to transfer circulating blood glucose into your cells for task or storage. If you have more glucose than needed for cellular work, it gets converted to storage. This scenario is what causes weight gain over time.
Overeating the simple carbohydrates concentrated in convenience foods can cause another problem: the more of it you eat, the more you need to eat. A steady habit of energy bars, coffee drinks, snack crackers, pizzas, pastas, chips, and fiberless breads requires your body to produce an excess of insulin to accommodate regularly scheduled overloads of circulating blood glucose. One way your body calculates how much insulin you will need is by calibrating production based on historical need from previous meals. This might sound unimportant and boring, but this process is what can make or break a longterm commitment to healthy eating.
Let’s say someone is accustomed to lunches of burritos/pizza/fries, but one day decides it’s time to get healthy and “cut carbs” (because this is often the first- and absolutely wrong- choice for anyone trying to eat healthier). Instead of a typical lunch dense in simple carbohydrates, this someone decides to go for a carb-free salad. Lunch ends, and pride commences for having chosen something healthier this day. Feeling confident and on track this someone returns to their office/desk/errands, but finds by mid afternoon that the smugness of austerity has sprung a wicked cookie/cake/chocolate craving leak. In this unfortunate scenario there are only two outcomes. This someone will either surrender to a sugary snack followed with a chaser of self deprecation or suffer the torment of a massive starvation headache, all thanks to their carb-free lunch resulting in a far greater amount of circulating insulin than blood glucose with which to pair it. This is also why the first weeks of January can be so hard. Because after a month of simple carbohydrate revelry your metabolism is unprepared for the shear cliff of health resolve.
Eating plants, living well, and feeling good inside your body can live synonymously with many of your favorite, perhaps junkier, foods. The question of what to eat is answered by not only type of food, but also proportion. More than seventy-five percent of your daily food volume (amount, not calories) needs to come from produce, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. The remaining twenty-five percent gets filled with concentrated protein sources of your choosing: fermented dairy, meats, fish, and seafood. In this twenty-five percent zone is also where you put that brownie, afternoon tea and cookies, occasional side of fries, or evening glass of wine.
You can learn to ensure healthy eating habits by visualizing meal proportions. In general an eight inch plate or six inch bowl should account for an average adult meal volume; half of the meal volume should be produce (vegetables and/or fruits), one quarter as concentrated, high fiber carbohydrate (whole grains, products of whole grains, and/or starchy vegetables), and one quarter concentrated protein of choice (be the theme carnivorous, vegan, or vegetarian). If you are responsible for feeding children, the meal ratio for a developing child is portioned into thirds to accommodate their higher energy (calorie) needs.
How are you feeling? Sounds good, sounds hard? Maybe you are experienced some emotional background noise from previous trial and error. Don’t fret. Make a list, head to the grocery, and jump in head first. You are fully capable of navigating this change, one meal at a time.