10 Simple Guidelines for Eating Healthier than Ever

healthy eatingThe more I learn about habits, the more I believe that simplicity is the best policy — especially when it comes to food.

I’m not a fan of restrictions or numbers when it’s time to eat. People often email me to ask why I don’t include nutrition facts with the recipes on No Meat Athlete, and I always answer that I simply don’t believe they’re good, except perhaps in cases where extreme weight loss is required.

Food, and the time we spend eating it, should be enjoyed — it’s one of the great pleasures of life, and to constrain it with complicated rules and numbers is completely unnatural.

Simple is good

Simplicity is the reason Michael Pollan’s three-sentence manifesto from In Defense of Food resonated so well (“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”). And the stickiness of that phrase is probably what led Pollan to write Food Rules, another goodie full of short, memorable rules-of-thumb like “Eat only what your great-grandmother would recognize as food.”

And so here I list the simple food rules I live by. They’re not meant to be as catchy or easy to remember as Pollan’s, but they’re an honest distillation of what I believe is the healthiest way to eat. Not just this month, or until you lose those last 15 pounds, but for life.

1. Avoid processed foods and choose whole, unrefined foods instead.

This one should come as a no surprise. It’s listed first because if you were to throw out every other message you’ve heard about healthy food and retain only the three words “eat whole foods,” you would dramatically improve the way you eat if you’re currently doing something different.

But this single guideline flies in the face of the way people eat in the Western world today, so you’ll have to reject the shiny pseudo-food that food manufacturers want you to buy.

Some specific examples of what this rule implies:

  • Brown rice instead of white.
  • Fruits instead of fruit juice.
  • Whole wheat flour instead of white (more on wheat in a bit though)

2. Get most of your food from plants.

I’m not asking you to become vegetarian or vegan if you’re not already and it doesn’t appeal to you — I like to provide tools and hopefully some inspiration to do so, but it’s never been my M.O. to try to coerce people who aren’t ready.

Unlike many other vegetarians and vegans, I tend not to believe that animal foods are inherently bad for you (dairy products are an exception — I don’t think drinking milk from another species makes any sense). We’ve seen that people can thrive on a variety of omnivorous and plant-based diets, and I think we’re built to handle either one pretty well.

The problem with meat, to me, is the sheer amount most people consume. While our ancestors might have gone several days between successful hunts and the meat that resulted, modern people treat every meal like a post-hunt feast. The caloric density of that much meat leaves little room for other foods, and puts a digestive load on our bodies that leaves us feeling sluggish and full for hours after big meals.

People in many other countries than the United States use meat as a flavoring agent — or as a side dish, perhaps, but rarely as the focus of the meal. I believe that if you’re going to continue to eat meat, this is the healthy way to do it

3. Cook your own food.

To follow the first guideline of eating whole foods nearly dictates that you prepare your own food. Nonetheless, I’ve included it because it runs counter to the way so many people now obtain their meals.

Several posts on this site are dedicated to helping you make your way into the kitchen and start cooking. But it doesn’t stop with preparing meals: just about any food worth eating can be prepared at home, bringing you one step closer to the food you eat and giving you complete knowledge of every single ingredient that goes into it.

Here are a few things you might be tempted to buy that you can make at home with equipment no more sophisticated than a food processor or high-speed blender.

4. Make raw fruits and vegetables a big part of your diet.

There’s a lot of debate over the virtues of raw versus cooked food. Some say that raw food is more easily digested, since digestive enzymes that exist in the raw state are denatured by excessive heat. On the other hand, many foods are inedible unless cooked, and cooking is something that has gone on for much our existence (long enough to have influenced our evolution).

I take the middle ground on this one, choosing to eat foods in both states. But since we’re so used to eating cooked foods, it’s only raw foods that we need to make a conscious effort to make sure we eat each day.

One of the best habits you can develop is that of having a mostly-raw smoothie each morning and a big salad each afternoon. Combine this with a few pieces of fresh fruit for snacks throughout the day, and you’re getting a significant amount of wholesome, raw food without even thinking about it. Which brings me to guideline number 5.

5. Drink a smoothie and eat a salad every single day.

Even if you ate whatever you wanted the rest of the day, I’d be willing to bet you wouldn’t get fat as long as you made sure to drink a smoothie and eat a big salad every single day.

Sure, if you were to eat at McDonald’s for lunch and Outback for dinner the rest of the time, you could probably succeed at packing on a few pounds. But here’s the thing.

The smoothie and salad act as “anchors” that keep you on track, to remind you just how great it feels to put real, fresh fruits and vegetables in your body. After you start the day with a smoothie, McDonald’s for lunch doesn’t seem so good anymore. And when it’s time to start thinking about dinner, the salad is there to help you make a good choice.

In this way, those two healthy meals turn into three or four … which doesn’t leave much room for junk.

6. Don’t eat too much wheat. (Or any one food, really!)

I realize that you might have no desire to stop eating bread and wheat pasta. And that’s fine; I don’t either.

But so many food products in our culture are now based on wheat that it’s very easy for it to show up in every single meal you eat if you don’t pay attention! Relying so heavily on a single food just doesn’t make much sense, even before you consider the reasons many top athletes now cite for avoiding wheat.

People have varying levels of sensitivity to wheat. For some people, gluten is tremendously difficult and inefficient to digest. For others, the sensitivity isn’t so severe that it’s recognized as a problem, but wheat nevertheless may adversely affect their energy levels. Problems associated with gluten occur even with 100% whole wheat products, not just refined wheat flour (which most athletes avoid anyway, except at certain key times around workouts).

The good news is that there are now plenty of good alternatives to wheat products, especially when it comes to pasta, the runners’ staple. My favorite is spelt pasta, but there are lots of other varieties, made from rice, quinoa, and even chickpea flour.

My suggestion: Don’t cut out wheat completely, but limit it to one meal a day instead of three or four, or ideally to just a few meals a week, just like any other food.

7. Eat a wide variety of foods.

If the idea of eating a mostly-vegetarian diet doesn’t appeal to you, it’s likely that you view it as a “taking away” process. Maybe your meals are centered around meat, and without it, the plate would seem pretty empty.

But the reality is quite different than that. If you’re mindful of what you eat and don’t simply rely on vegetarian junk food, you’ll actually end up adding many foods to your diet as you’re forced to go outside of your normal routine and explore new options at home and in restaurants.

This is a great thing for your health. It means you’ll get a broad mix of vitamins and minerals, rather than potentially getting way more than you need of certain ones and none of many others, as you might if you were to eat the same few foods over and over.

8. With the exception of a daily smoothie, don’t drink your calories.

If you’ve paid any attention to healthy eating over the past few years, this guideline probably isn’t new.

It’s essentially a restatement of the “eat whole foods” guideline, since most drinks with substantial amounts of calories are processed.

Since drinks — even fruit juices — take up relatively little room in your stomach, it’s very easy to take in way too many calories before you feel full.

This reasoning applies to smoothies as well, since you can drink much more fruit when it’s blended into a smoothie than you could eat whole. But as long as they’re made with whole ingredients, I give them a pass since they’re such a great way to start the day with a bunch of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But please, do whatever it takes to stop drinking soda, even the diet kind. It’s caffeinated sugar water — or fake-sugar water, perhaps worse — and it has no place in a healthy diet.

9. Eat when you’re hungry, but make sure you really are hungry.

Eating is one of the true joys in our lives, and to me, imposing a limit significantly takes away from that.

Fortunately, if you’re eating the right foods, limiting your intake is unnecessary unless you’ve got a serious weight problem. As we’ve mentioned several times now, when you eat foods that contain all of their original nutrients and are in a form close to their natural one, your body will naturally feel full. The stretch and density receptors in your stomach tell your brain that you’ve had enough for now, and additional intake will become uncomfortable.

That is, if you give your body a chance to realize you’re full. Rushing through your meals sidesteps the system, allowing you to take in excess food before your stomach has had a chance to sense fullness. So take your time, chew your food, and pay attention to how you feel.

The Japanese have a phrase hara hachi bu, which refers to the practice of eating only until you are 80 percent full. It works well because there’s a lag time between when you eat a food and when you feel its volume in your stomach. Start paying attention to how full you feel, and use that as an indicator of when you should stop eating — instead of waiting until your plate is clean or the sitcom is over.

10. Break these rules from time to time.

To me, this guideline is crucial. Especially if you’re new to eating healthily, the idea of “I can never eat ___ again” is poison to your long-term goals.

I’m not saying you should break all of them. Some — like eating only plant foods — may carry with them an ethical obligation for you, in which case you probably won’t wish to break them ever.

But for the most part, I think being flexible in your approach to food is healthier, and better for your entire being, than being overly restrictive at every meal of your life.

So break these rules when the time is right. For some, like Tim Ferriss, that means having a “cheat day” once a week where you can eat literally any food you want, and being uber-strict the rest of the time. If such extremity doesn’t work for you, find an alternative plan for allowing yourself to zig instead of zag.

Best of all, strive to reach the point where you don’t need a plan — indulge when the rare situation arises, knowing that your healthy way of eating is so ingrained that you’re not at risk for “falling off the wagon” because of a single transgression.

Don’t forget … start!

What it comes down to, at the most basic level, is cooking your own food with real, whole ingredients. It takes more planning, more time, and probably more money than the alternative. But with practice it’ll become easier, and soon a habit will form and this way of eating will be second nature.

And in all likelihood, that means more time and money down the road, in the form of a longer, healthier life and fewer medical bills.

There’s no better time than now to start. Once you do, I promise you’ll wonder why you didn’t start sooner.

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Comments

  1. One of the best things since going vegan is being able to eat as much as I want, not count calories and not gain a pound. I am so in tune with my body now and just listen to what and how much it wants! Great post Matt!

  2. This is all such good advice. I’ve been vegan for a few years but never really felt an improvement in my health because I still ate a lot of junk and processed foods. For the past few months however I’ve been eating mostly whole foods (including a smoothie and salad each day)and I really feel better-more healthy and energetic! Plus, I’m down to the same weight I was in high school, 25 years ago! To save time, I buy the prewashed bags of greens (romaine, spinach and kale), and to save money I buy beans in bulk and cook them in the crock pot. I’m certain my grocery bill is less than it was when I bought meat and processed foods. I hope everyone who reads this takes your advice and tries this way of eating-the benefits far outweigh what you might think you’re sacrificing (and besides, you can always have that (vegan) pizza and beer once in a while, just not every night!).

  3. GREAT advice! I think people get so overwhelmed with nutrition advice that they just give up. Really, it doesn’t have to be hard and it’s not black and white – eating well is not an all or nothing proposition.

    I do disagree with the smoothie thing though! It’s like a soda, with fiber!

    • Have to agree with the smoothie thing. One day I will write a vegan cookbook called “not another stinkin’ smoothie!”
      Know what tastes better than a smoothie? Fruit. and Kale. And spinach. Prepared and eaten seperately. And they are a more satisfying way to consume your calories.
      I just don’t get what the whole smoothie thing is all about.

  4. Sound advice for anyone, thanks! I was just marveling today, because a Carl’s Jr (Hardee’s) flier with coupons came in the mail, that I can’t even eat that stuff anymore, much less crave it. That’s the power of eating whole foods and cutting out soda. Over time, the right choice becomes the appealing choice!

  5. Julian Smith says:

    NMA rules; can’t believe how much good advice I have gotten from you that I use every day (i.e. the ultimate smoothie recipe for one example). So the chance to get a new blender and use it for more of your great ideas sounds awesome!

  6. I just wanted to mention that spelt is wheat. So if a person is trying to avoid wheat, they should also avoid spelt.

  7. I don’t really agree with the “eat only when you’re hungry” concept. Eating only when really hungry generally leads to gorging/over-eating, whereas eating regular, smaller, closely spaced meals leads to fewer calories consumed, a more consistent sense of fullness, and likely a more steady blood sugar level.

  8. Thank you for your insightful post, Matt.

    Homemade anything is always better because there is the addition of the magical ingredient of love. There is the benefit, too, of quality control. Thanks to my health conscious husband, all my baked goods are made with organic ingredients. Previously I received compliments from friends and family, now I receive rave reviews.

    Also my husband is sensitive to wheat so I’ve become an expert in gluten-free sweets. I’ve noticed most folks enjoy my gluten-free on equal footing with my wheat flour goodies. So your point about reducing wheat is right on track. As is your comment about
    hara-hachi-bu (腹八分). In New York Times Bestseller Geneen Roth’s Women, Food and God she focuses quite a bit on the importance of listening to and respecting the body.

    Again, many thanks for a great post.

  9. Great post! I agree with most of your rules and have been following them for quite a while already.
    I personally disagree on the daily smoothie part, though. No matter how many healthy fats, protein powder, and fiber I add, a smoothie never keeps me full for more than one hour. Maybe it’s because I prefer to eat/chew my food. Plus, I don’t like cold or frozen dishes during fall or winter. Instead of a daily smoothie, I eat plenty of whole, raw fruit (mostly bananas, apples, and seasonal fruit) instead.

  10. Fab tips! I quite agree it is sometime hard to follow these directions to eat healthy food. That’s why from time to time I allow you to eat something delicious and full of calories, just make my soul satisfied. I guess one small piece of cake won’t harm your health.
    There are many disputes about raw and cooked food. But I can sure you that both of them are beneficial and I think it doesn’t matter to argue what food is best. I prefer to mix it up and have excellent results.
    Vegetable food is really useful to practive as a good way of body detoxification and losing weight. I was a vegetarian for 7 weeks. And what I had is 17 pounds lost, neutralized body and good mood. Thanks for your comments! It is kind of vigorous for me.

  11. Nice one Matt

    I keep it even simpler. Leave the animal products out as well. Just eat plants :)

    And why not consume any animal products you may ask, well, I’ll give the simplest answer there is (like I usually do when people ask why I do not consume any animal products): ¨I do not have to, so, why should I?¨

    This breaks down to three sub reasons:

    1. It is better for you, as an animal (there are no extra beneficial reasons to eat meat for your health unless you only consume vegan junk food that is, but as you say, eat as much whole food as possible and you can’t go wrong)

    2. It is better for the environment.

    3. It is definitely better for all the sentient beings that does not have to die because we like to eat their flesh!

    I do agree with the idea of not making things to complicated. Personally I like cooked food but I usually eat raw from I wake up until I make dinner (starting the day with a green smoothie, eating fruit as snacks through the day and a big salad for lunch) and make warm food at night. Living in an tempered climate… This is for me the best balance.

    I do a lot of sports, and I do them a lot and going vegan is, without a doubt, the best thing I ever done. Not only for because I am very active but it does have had a huge influence on my results, weight, recovery. But I must say, the biggest benefit is that my conscious is clean, no one dies (intentionally) because of me.

    Ps. stay of the coffee Matt, Just do It ;)

    • don’t do it matt. coffee is the same as mate or green tea. In moderation it’s not bad for you and can even have beneficial antioxidant properties, as long as you drink it black.

      • I still disagree with the “coffee is evil” group. Like anything else a person eats or drinks, I think these two rules apply:

        1) moderation is key and
        2) everyone’s body is different and thus so is the level of what is moderate for a person. You can only figure this out by trial and error with your own body.

        I agree with the general thrust of your post, though, and think that healthier eating is a matter of changing habits.

  12. I love having a smoothie every morning. I notice that when I don’t, I feel extremely sluggish and just down. I’m not sure why Sharon feels a smoothie is just like a soda with fiber.

    here’s some stats on soda – http://www.onecanofsoda.com/

    according to this a can of soda has 40 grams of sugar per 12 oz. now a premade naked brand smoothie (berry veggie) has 18 grams of sugar per 15 oz. (I used the premade to just give an idea of sugar)

    the soda has nasties besides sugar, such as sodium benzoate. check out what soda does to you here – http://dailyinfographic.com/the-harmful-effects-soda

    as far as the smoothie – yeah it has sugar, all natural fruit sugars, and if you make it at home you can add more veggies than fruit and reduce those sugars. you can’t even compare sodas to smoothies when you look at all the harmful things in soda. if sugar is your only complaint, you haven’t a solid argument against it.

    the benefits you get with a smoothie though – antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals – are worth drinking them. soda can never give you that; to the contrary, it zaps them from your body.

    in the end, you have to do what’s right for your body, so if a smoothie doesn’t make you feel good, don’t drink it. if it does, i wouldn’t worry about it.

  13. Great tips. Just to clarify: spelt is actually a variety of wheat and contains gluten, so not a substitute for wheat. Rice, quinoa and millet are good gluten-free alternatives to wheat. Oats are often milled in a factory with wheat, so look for oats which say ‘gluten-free’ if you have a sensitivity. Hope this helps.

  14. Thanks for the tips Matt! I started following a part raw, part cooked vegan diet exactly a month ago today. I tried vegan before, earlier in the year, but noticed that I was relying more on processed foods. Now, I’m cooking every day and eating whole, amazing foods. It’s taken some time for my palate to change – I still have a few cravings for overly salty foods, but in general – my emotional eating health has been better than ever. I can’t wait to get my bloodwork done to see the effect that change has had internally. While I haven’t lost a ton of weight (which I really need to do), I’m definitely making progress. Your tips are ones that I will be able to use while losing weight and when I’m ready to maintain as well.

  15. “hara hachi bu”
    I’ve been doing this in the past year, and even when I don’t exercise, it manages to keep my weight stable and my fat minimal.I highly recommend it.

    Chewing slowly and appreciating the taste of food is something I also do and recommend. I’ve noticed most people eat their food quickly, which not only has you eat more than you should, but you actually can’t taste the food as much as if you have it spend more time on your tongue. Consequently, less taste enjoyment. I have a guess that our satiation is becoming more based on the mind and less on the tongue. We’re training ourselves to enjoy eating more, when we could be getting the same enjoyment from eating slow. Maybe more!

  16. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Great post Matt,
    I find it hard to make good smothies in the winter. Always eat the big salad once or twice a day. I need to learn to stop buying the chips.

  17. Great information in this post! It’s posts like this that make me a regular at NMA!

    I’ve had some debates with friends lately on the subject of “food should be fun”. While I certainly cook (vegan) meals that I enjoy, isn’t it mantras like this that glorify food as a form of entertainment? If we start thinking about food as an engergy source first and making enjoyment a secondary concern, aren’t we better off? While I have no grounds to argue that we should NEVER look at food as a source of enjoyment, I think that the “food should be fun” feels much more like a justification for unhealthy, unnatural, processed foods. It pains me to hear friends say “I could never be vegan because I ENJOY meats and dairy too much” because they seem to be putting the entertainment value of food ahead of it’s true purpose. “Foods” that are heavily processed with refined sugars and fats should never be considered food as they provide ZERO nutritional benefit; so a healthy approach towards what we ingest would never justify this, even on a cheat day!

    Of course, none of us are completely impervious to the food marketing that helps us justify terrible food choices (and beer, but that markets iteself!) but I think this fundamental notion of food as a form of entertainment is a dangerous one. It seems to me that if there was a disconnect between food and entertainment; soda, fast food and everything else sites like this fight against would not exist.

    Just some “food” for thought.

    • I think it depends on your idea of entertainment. I think it’s like any other form of entertainment: the more you know and become educated on the subject of food and nutrition, the more you enjoy different natural flavors. Most food marketed to us is equivalent of a Britney Spears song or The Jersey Shore- cheap, easy, and offensive to anyone who has developed a sense of taste in music and or television.
      If you want a truly entertaining food experience, try growing cherokee purple tomatoes. My dad has grown them the last few years, and we look forward to them as if we were going to hear Beethoven’s 9th being performed. They are that good.
      But most people do cheat and get that quick satisfaction from animal products (it is cheating if you add sugar,butter, cream, bacon, or duck fat to a dish) instead of developing their palates to learn how creamy an avocado can be, or how sweet a fresh apple can be.
      Yup. That’s the subject of my second cookbook. If I actually stop being a slacker and write it.

      • I love your take on this. It’s certainly not as black and white as perhaps I’ve suggested and it’s refreshing to hear about someone who has taken a healthy approach to “eating for fun”. I am just now developing a real appreciation for these great tastes you mention in plant-based whole foods and even more of a disdain for those animal fat-based tastes. I just think an overwhealming majority of our population has an unhealthy relationship with food by way of ignoring our most inherent reason for eating, which is to fuel our bodies. I think we can both agree that the foods most readily available to us are far too high in fat and salt and way too low on the nutrients our bodies need for enegery (also fueling our obsession with caffeine and energy drinks). I just think that this fundamentally accepted notion that food is a source of pleasure and entertainment BEFORE it is a source of fuel is a big reason why obesity and rising health care costs have become such an issue.

        I do believe that relationships with food that are like yours, with a great appreciation for the unbelievable tastes available to us naturally that are the benchmark for a healthier culture.

        I hope that you get that cookbook out so I can continue on my way to fully appreciating these great foods!

        • Yeah, I agree that the way our culture associates food and recreation is often unhealthy (Do you NEED that giant vat of trans fat filled popcorn and gallon of soda to enjoy your movie?).
          And one thing I love about this blog is that it has made me actually think about myself as an athlete, something I’ve never done before (athletes are those popular jocks who played varsity sports in high school, right?) and therefore made me be more aware of the direct correlation of what I eat and how I feel when I run the next day.
          Just always found a subtle irony in the fact that the cultures that really enjoy and savor their foods, you will almost always find less meat and more plant-based and whole foods (i.e. Asia and the Mediterranean).

  18. Dave makes some great points about how we view food. I think food is often used as a distraction or compensation for lack of satisfaction. Like having drinks at the bar when what we really want is just to connect to the people there.

  19. You’ve nailed it, Matt! It really is that simple.

  20. I love all your posts! You are an inspiration!

  21. Matt, I enjoy your blog and I am a plant based runner and athlete for several years. I don´t consume any animal products except the occassional piece of cheese or cupcake someone brought to work. With that said, it was a good blog you wrote except where you mention, that you dont believe meat is bad for you, I think if you are giving people information, you have to give them all the information, as an athlete I encourage you to watch the film FORKS OVER KNIVES and if really keen, read The China Study or tune into nutritionfacts.org, where a doctor discusses plant based diets based on research in over 100,00 short video (2 minute) clips, its really helpful as a veggie and an athlete. Keep up the good work.

  22. I love my green smoothies and I’m slightly confused as to why they would be compared to soda… Fruit, greens, and hemp protein are a pretty safe bet. It’s been the best way for me to sneak on my spinach since becoming pregnant and finding I have serious aversions to leafy greens (there went the bulk of my lunches). Also finding myself eating a lot of wheat products these days– anyone have some vegan pregnancy advice to help with this?

  23. Cassie Damewood says:

    All good points but one particularly hit home with me. When I was a child and ate dinner at friends’ homes, I was astounded at how many had a loaf of bread on the table–even when rolls, potatoes and/or rice were being served! Mom told me it came from the Great Depression era when food was scarce and bread was cheap, so it was the mainstay of many meals. We traditionally only ate bread at lunchtime in our family…although it wasn’t very healthy with bologna and Miracle Whip between the slices! Tasty though…

  24. A bit late for sure, but to expand on the idea of not viewing eating more vegetables as a “taking away” process, as a meat-loving runner who switches to vegetarian/mostly-vegetarian when training, I always cook dishes that are traditionally vegetarian. I steer clear of veggie-burgers, vegetarian chili, etc, and make dall saag or beans and rice or what-have-you. Delicious dishes where it doesn’t feel like anything’s missing or been replaced. Because nothing is or has been.

  25. You’ve piqued my interest about making flour from grains or beans. Since you didn’t include a link, I’m guess you haven’t written about it…yet. Can you recommend a site with instructions on how to do this or create a post explaining your process? Thanks!

    • The easiest way to make your own flour is to invest in a vitamix. Honestly, I was skeptical at first, because it is a huge investment, but I have made quinoa and oat flour in it and both took less than two minutes to get to pastry quality flour. And I have to say that after reading someone’s post about the blender being the key to the perfect smoothie, the vitamix even turned me into a smoothie convert. While I still prefer eating my breakfast to drinking it, in a pinch, you can make a satisfying meal in a vitamix (also makes soups/salad dressings/dips). Ok. Infomercial over.

  26. Hi guys
    My saving grace is soup. I make big pots of delicious broths and then freeze them in meal sizes. I eat them hot or cold but especially cold in our hot weather in South Africa. I add all my beans and legumes, guinoa, chicpeas, splitpeas ( whatever I feel like) lots of veg, tumeric and cayanne pepper. Sometimes with tomatoes, sometimes without as I eat a lot of raw tomatoes. It is my “grab a meal” and my “comfort food” . I don’t use recipes but create them as I go along.
    A soup a salad a smoothy and a run a day and I dont even have to think about the rest!
    Thanx Matt, love LOve your work.

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