For much of human history food was the primary focus of the average person’s daily life.
Food had to be grown, gathered or hunted and having it in adequate supply was a constant concern. While this continues to be a struggle for many in the developing world, thankfully, for a growing number of people, worldwide this is no longer the case.
This unprecedented abundance has transformed the reasons for eating.
Sure we eat because we need to. But more than ever we eat for pleasure or comfort. We eat when we’re bored. We eat for entertainment. There is even growing evidence that some people may eat because they have a form of addiction.
Unfortunately this evolved relationship with food has led to unprecedented amounts of cancer, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and a variety of other health maladies.
There are a myriad of popular ideas as to potential culprits for these conditions. However, the reality is that we just don’t know what it is about our diet that causes so many issues. In his book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, journalist turned food investigator, Michael Pollan addresses this conundrum and then explains why it doesn’t matter:
“The arguments in nutritional science are…all about identifying the culprit nutrient in the Western diet that might be responsible for chronic diseases. Is it the saturated fat or the refined carbohydrates or the lack of fiber or the transfats or omega-6 fatty acids – or what? The point is that, as eaters…we know all we need to know to act: This diet, for whatever reason, is the problem.” (Emphasis mine)
Michael defines the “Western diet” as “lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains…”
Fortunately Michael offers hope for those currently on this havoc wreaking diet:
“People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health. We have good research to suggest that the effects of the Western diet can be rolled back, and relatively quickly.”
In other words, we don’t understand the physics of what makes people on the Western diet sicker than everyone else in the world. But so what?!
We know that something about the food we’re eating is creating outrageous amounts of illness in our society and we know that when people stop eating a Western diet their risk of those diseases drops dramatically. That’s all we need to know to change our behavior to increase our physical freedom and avoid becoming statistics.
Are You Eating Food or Fuud?
Have you ever noticed in the grocery store that sometimes you’ll find an artificial product dressed up to look like a real product? Sometimes they even give it a name that resembles the name of the genuine product but different enough so that you know it isn’t real.
This food industry practice of giving artificial products real sounding names has led me to divide the products at the grocery store into two categories defined as follows:
Food: Plant and animal products, or their derivatives, arriving to your table with minimal processing or additives. Examples include fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, whole grain products, minimally processed dairy products.
Fuud: Blends of concentrated sugars, chemicals, artificial colors and flavors held together by just enough highly processed plant or animal derivatives to make them resemble food. In extreme examples fuud is brewed into liquid form for maximum chemical delivery to the body. Examples include most things in boxes, cans or brightly colored packages at the grocery store.
Fuud ≠ Food
Food is deemed edible and worthy of human consumption by nature and history.
Fuud is deemed edible and worthy of human consumption by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Just keep in mind those are the same people who approved all those drugs that gave people conditions that lawyers on TV are now talking about.
I’m sure the FDA means well but good intentions can’t change the reality that highly processed chemical concoctions just aren’t good for you, no matter how delicious they may be.
So What Should You Eat Instead?
Go to the “nutrition” section of your local book store and you’ll find shelves filled with books all telling you about the perfect diet to make all your wildest dreams come true.
Which one should you pick?
Personally I pass on all of them. I’m not a big believer in strict diets or rules about exactly what you can or can’t eat. I’m more of a believer in principles. The more complicated and restrictive the solution you try to implement the less likely it is you’ll stick with it.
So keep it simple.
Keeping It Simple
The reason I love Michael Pollan’s book so much is that it’s so stupidly simple. It’s not obnoxious, it makes no claims about miracle diets, converting you into a body builder or losing 50 pounds in a month.
It’s just filled with extremely simple, straightforward general advice broken down into three overarching principles:
- Eat food
- Not too much
- Mostly plants
The majority of the book is a compilation of half page guidelines that provide more detailed ideas for following the three principles.
I’d like to discuss two of these rules.
Rule #1 – Eat Food
At first blush you may want to say “Duh.” But think about this for a minute.
If most of what you find at the grocery store is in fact fuud, then finding and eating food takes a little more effort than you may be used to. You’ll have more luck finding food by spending a little more time in the produce and butcher sections of the store and less time in the freezer and prepared food aisles.
Food tends to look very similar to what it looked like when it was first picked, plucked or butchered.
Food doesn’t generally carry labels about being “natural,” “fortified with essential vitamins and minerals,” having “45% less fat,” or being “lite,” “diet” or “low-fat.”
So here’s a basic rule of thumb, if reading an ingredients list seems similar to reading a shampoo label you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Look for foods that have short, simple ingredient lists made up, at least mostly, of things you can recognize.
Nobody wants to eat organic peas all the time but the point is: the less complicated the ingredients label, the less processing there was between the natural product and your table.
Rule #2 – Not Too Much
Bigger is not always better. Food is one of those places where bigger is absolutelynot better.
Go to most restaurants and they’ll serve you enough to easily feed two and sometimes three people. The focus is on quantity not quality.
You don’t need to gorge yourself on mediocre food in order to have an enjoyable meal either at home or at a restaurant. Here are a few ideas for how to not eat too much.
Spend more and eat less
Over the last few years I have discovered the benefits of spending more money to eat smaller portions of high quality food. I’ll probably write another post on this topic sometime because it’s such an important principle that it warrants more consideration than a couple of paragraphs.
But the basic principle is: choose to spend a little more to buy high quality food.
Where do you find the money?
Start by looking at what fuud items you normally buy. How much do you spend in a month on soda, chips, ice cream, prepared meals or other snack fuuds? Eliminating or even reducing your fuud purchases will leave you with extra money you can use to purchase healthy produce, higher quality meats and dairy products and whole grains.
By simultaneously eating smaller portions of these better foods you’ll find that you don’t need to buy as much which will also help offset the costs.
I found this principle to be true once more on a trip last week. I felt much better walking away from a quality meal than I did the quantity meal.
Use smaller dishes
Our minds seem wired to think we need to have a full plate. Trick your brain by using a smaller plate. You’ll still have a full plate of food but both your brain and stomach will be satisfied with less.
When we’re distracted it’s easy to overeat. You go to a movie and can eat a 5 gallon bucket of popcorn without even blinking. You sit down with a book and a carton of ice cream and next thing you know the ice cream is half gone.
At least occasionally, take time to just focus on eating. Taste your food. Enjoy it. Savor the flavors. Eat slowly. Not only will you enjoy your food more, you’ll find you get full faster and are less tempted to go back for seconds.
Don’t Go Overboard
As you consider how to improve what and how you eat, don’t go to extremes. Changing your diet and eating habits is as much a psychological change to the way you see yourself and the way you think about food as it is about the actual physical actions involved.
This is a perfect time to lower the bar by taking small but consistent steps towards the larger goal of improving your diet and increasing your physical freedom. If you take a measured approach rather than going on a crash diet you’re much, much more likely to actually stick with the changes and see lasting benefits in your energy levels, your waistline and your overall health.
You don’t have to completely cut fuud out of your life, it’s too delicious and life is too short not to enjoy the occasional treat. The important thing is to limit fuud to a very small percentage of your diet.
Keep A Long Term View
Depending on your current diet this may require some significant changes to your lifestyle. Those changes will be difficult and uncomfortable for awhile.
But keep your goals for a long, healthy life front and center as you exercise the discipline to make the necessary changes. The long term benefits of what you’re doing will more than compensate you for the temporary discomfort involved in changing your habits.
At the end of the day physical freedom is about longevity; maintaining good health for as long as possible so as not to limit your life’s options. What you eat is such a central piece of taking care of your body and ensuring that you’ll be around for a long, long time to come.
A body fueled mainly by clean, healthy foods, that gets regular physical exercise and adequate rest will give you the highest probability of a long lifetime with few limits on your capacity to work, play, create and improve the world around you.
And THAT is worth making the sacrifices necessary to pursue physical freedom now!