20 Apr Back to Basics: Simple Rules for Healthy Eating
I must’ve read over 100 scientific papers this month. As part of my Masters, I’m required to, even though a lot of it is scan-reading: is this gonna prove my point? is really what I’m on the look out for. And that is nutrition science 101 at this moment in history. Everyone is out to prove a point, and take the hard line, and be definitive, when science is anything BUT definitive. I can pretty much guarantee you that you can prove yourself right on anything now: fat is still evil, sugar is the new enemy, hidden gluten will kill you, you’re the reason quinoa farmers are starving and exploited. For every hard stance you take, there is an equal and opposite stance that someone else is taking, and they will fight you over it. And both of you are right and wrong in equal measure.
Nutrition reporting leaves a lot to be desired at present. Journalists are determined to put their spin on research that is clearly up for interpretation, and the sensationalist headlines are so far removed from the actual research. Everything you know about this thingymabob is a lie! The real facts about x,y, and z! Almost any scientific paper you read will conclude by calling for further research, because, although the data may point to something, one must take that with a pinch of salt. They come clean about their limitations, and tell you that if only more people took part or that they used a higher dose of something their conclusions might be stronger. They set out to prove something, and more often than not, they arrive at no conclusions. Statistically insignificant and statistically significant can sometimes equal the same thing; that they’re not quite sure.
So today I came across this lovely wee article in the New York Times that focused on some positive nutrition rules for a change. If you read my Kick in the Whole posts from last year, you’ll recognise a lots of these tenets, but there’s no harm in reminding ourselves.
Simply Rules for Healthy Eating by Aaron E Carroll (published in The Upshot in The New York Times 20th April 2015)
Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods. These include fruits and vegetables. But they also include meat, fish, poultry and eggs that haven’t been processed. In other words, try to buy food that hasn’t been cooked, prepared or altered in any way. Brown rice over white rice. Whole grains over refined grains. You’re far better off eating two apples than drinking the same 27g of sugar in a glass of apple juice.
Eat lightly processed foods less often. You’re not going to make everything yourself. Pasta, for instance, is going to be bought already prepared. You’re not going to grind your own flour or extract your own oil. These are meant to be eaten along with unprocessed foods, but try to eat less of them.
Eat Heavily Processed foods even less often. There’s little high-quality evidence that even the most processed foods are dangerous. But keep your consumption of them to a minimum, because they can make it too easy to stuff in calories. Such foods include bread, chips, cookies and cereals. In epidemiologic studies, heavily processed meats are often associated with worse health outcomes, but that evidence should be taken with a grain of salt (not literally).
Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, which should be prepared according to Rule 1. Eating at home allows you to avoid processed ingredients more easily. It allows you full control over what you eat, and allows you to choose the flavors you prefer. You’re much less likely to stuff yourself silly if you eat home-cooked food. I’m not saying this is easy. Behavioral change takes repetition and practice. It also, unfortunately, takes time.
Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation. Things like salt and fat aren’t the enemy. They are often necessary in the preparation of tasty, satisfying food. The key here is moderation. Use what you need. Seasoning is often what makes vegetables taste good. Don’t be afraid of them, but don’t go crazy with them either.
When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules. Ideally, you should eat at restaurants that are creating all of their items from completely unprocessed foods. Lots and lots of restaurants do. Follow Rule 1 even while out to dinner. Some processing is going to be fine, but try to keep it to a minimum.
Drink mostly water, but some alcohol, coffee and other beverages are fine. As I’ve pointed out before, you can find a study to show that everything either prevents or causes cancer — alcohol and coffee included. But my take is that the preponderance of evidence supports the inclusion of a moderate consumption of most beverages.
Treat all beverages with calories in them as you would alcohol. This includes every drink with calories, including milk. They’re fine in moderation, but keep them to a minimum. You can have them because you like them, but you shouldn’t consume them as if you need them.
Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible. This has benefits even outside those of nutrition. It will make you more likely to cook. It will most likely make you eat more slowly. It will also make you happy.
Eating should swing between mundane necessity and giddy pleasure, but never rocket to excess, nor plummet to distress. Strict rules may serve you for a time, but ultimately food should be enjoyed, and very few foods need to be demonised. Moderation can and does work. I never press my clients to completely ban any foods from their diet, unless there is an allergy or intolerance. Food is food. It is not the devil in disguise, nor is it the one true miracle cure. Do not get fatigued and disheartened by conflicting reports about this and that in the news. Trust me, no one knows anything for sure. And when in doubt, take the simplistic approach:
Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants