My friend Brian came to me recently with a problem:
“Matt,” he said, “the other day I decided I was going to start eating healthy and get myself in shape. But then when I got to the grocery store, I realized I had no idea where to even start!”
This post is for Brian and anyone else in that same boat. If you don’t know where to start, start here.
The most important (incredibly simple) rule of healthy eating
A lot of seemingly “extreme” diets work. But just when you’re tempted to buy into one, you hear about a diet that’s extreme on the other side of the spectrum that also works.
But then there’s fruitarianism (also known as “30 bananas a day“), which is 80 percent carbohydrates. And Michael Arnstein, the most visible leader of the movement, won the Vermont 100-miler and has run several other incredible times at that distance.
And of course, there’s “plain old” veganism, which today I’ll call “plant-based,” to remove any moral or ethical connotation. Ultramarathon great Scott Jurek eats what appears to be a pretty traditionally-balanced vegan diet. Then there’s Brendan Brazier, Thrive author and former pro Ironman triathlete, who also eats plant-based, but focuses more on raw and alkaline-forming foods.
How can such wildly differing diets all produce healthy people, elite athletes even?
The only logical conclusion is that the mix of nutrients you eat simply doesn’t matter all that much. (Which is why I try not to obsess over nutrition numbers.)
What these diets have in common is that every one of them focuses on whole foods and avoids processed food. That’s what you have to do to make your diet healthy.
How to start eating whole foods
A little bit of bad news for anyone who subsists on the Subway/Chipotle/you-name-it-restaurant diet:
The only economical way to base your diet on whole foods is to cook your food at home.
Assuming you’re not a trained chef who can throw together ingredients and produce something delicious, this means you’ll need recipes. There are a bunch of vegan recipes for athletes here, but recipes are everywhere. And the good news is that with the availability of wholesome ingredients being what it now is, you can make just about any recipe healthy (barring, perhaps, those that depend on deep-frying).
So here’s what I suggest you do if you’re like my friend, and you want to start eating right but don’t know where to start.
Choose recipes first, then go to the grocery store to get the ingredients you need.
This might sound simplistic or obvious, but plenty of people do it the other way around — first stocking up on ingredients that seem healthy, then trying to find recipes or come up with meals that match what they have in the fridge. This generally results in a lot of waste and meals that aren’t very tasty.
What recipes to choose
As I said, you can make almost any recipe healthy simply by starting with mostly unprocessed ingredients. In case you’ve never done this before and the idea of even choosing recipes (much less changing them) is overwhelming, here’s a framework to give your upcoming grocery trip some structure:
1. A smoothie recipe. I recommend starting every day with a smoothie, and a benefit of the one I’ve linked to here is that the parts are interchangeable, so you can mix it up. Start, perhaps, by just swapping out the frozen fruit each day with a different kind than the day before.
2. A salad recipe. Salad is another one you’ll want to have daily. It’s pretty easy to throw together a salad without a recipe, but I suspect the reason a lot of people “hate” salads is because they’ve never made an inspired one. Search for one that excites you. (Perhaps one of these summer salads that Veganomicon co-author Terry Hope Romero posted on NMA?)
As long as you’re making the dressing yourself, it’s hard to go wrong. I’m a big fan of these oil free salad dressings.
3. A soup recipe. Soup is generally easy to make, requiring you to throw some ingredients in a pot and let it simmer. It’s also easy to make a big batch at once, so you can avoid cooking for a day or two. Recently, chickpea-pasta soup is one of my favorites, and by subbing in whole-wheat or an alternative grain pasta for white, and perhaps throwing in some greens during the last few minutes of cooking, you can make it healthier. (And sub vegetable stock or water for chicken stock, of course.)
4. A veggie burger recipe. Homemade veggie burgers are a thousand times better than frozen store-bought ones. They’re also great for freezing, so that you’ve got something in a pinch when you don’t feel like cooking. Here’s a blueprint for how to make your own.
As for the bun, it’s optional. These burgers work on their own, topped with lettuce, salsa, or whatever you like. If you want to have a bun, choose a whole wheat one, or better yet, a sprouted grain one, though these can be expensive and (cardboard-y).
5. A grain, a green and a bean. This is such a versatile formula for producing a quick, cheap, healthy, and delicious meal. Make it from a recipe like this one first, then experiment with others on your own.
6. Tacos of some kind. I’ve included this one because I know tacos are a favorite of the college- or twenty-something chef, for their simplicity and deliciousness. But I like them because they’re a great vehicle for raw foods — you can cook the main filling, but then top it with fresh tomatoes, jalapenos, lettuce, cilantro, lime juice, and anything else.
Serve them in soft corn tortillas for some authenticity, or if you want bonus points, wrap them in large collard green or kale leaves.
A healthy eater’s guide to the grocery store
The recipes I’ve linked to above are mostly based on whole, fresh ingredients, so you probably won’t need to do much substituting there. But I hope you’ll choose some other recipes as well, and in some cases, you will need to change out ingredients for healthier alternatives. Here are some basics to keep in mind when you go to the store.
You know you’re doing well if you spend about two thirds of your shopping time and money in the fresh produce section. You almost can’t go wrong here, as long as most of what you’re getting isn’t in packages.
- Should you go organic? If you’ve got the budget for it, absolutely, but you can stretch your dollar by just getting organic varieties of the “dirty dozen.”
- Greens are good. While I think the currently-fashionable slamming of iceberg lettuce is a little unfair, it’s good to mix it up with some darker, more vitamin-rich leafy greens like arugula, spinach, kale, collards, or even simply romaine.
- When you can, get produce that’s local. (A farmers market is a better bet for this than the store.) This way you’ll be less likely to get mass-produced, pale, vitamin- and nutrient-devoid stand-ins for the real thing. Fruits and vegetables lose a lot of their nutritional goodness within a few days of being picked, so the closer to the source and the less time your food spends in the back of a truck, the better.
- Get a mix of fruits that you’ll enjoy snacking on, or even eating after a meal for dessert.
Recently there’s been a strong anti-grain (and especially anti-wheat) vibe in the health community, due probably to the popularity of the Paleo diet. I’m on board the grain train; but I agree with my friend and vegan dietitian Matt Ruscigno that while they’re good, we eat too many of them.
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to eat some form of wheat in every single one of your meals — bagels, cereal, pasta, bread, snacks, desserts. Don’t do that. As long as you don’t have a wheat allergy or Celiac’s, it’s fine to eat wheat (or ideally a good mix of grains), just not all the time.
- Get whole-, brown, or sprouted-grain versions of any grain-based foods you buy, rather than refined whites which have been stripped of their nutrients and the fiber that serves to tell you that you’re full.
- Most any grain can stand in for any other in a basic recipe. Don’t be afraid to try alternatives like quinoa (technically a seed), bulgur, spelt, barley, millet, and many others. Same goes for flours made from these.
There’s a lot of argument over what the best oil to use in your cooking is. One thing I’ve noticed with this blog is that no matter what oil I include in a recipe, someone will ask why I used that particular one, since it’s unhealthy. (Some people, like Dr. John McDougall, advocate eating no oil, since after all, it’s not a whole food.)
Personally, I use olive oil for salads and low-temperature cooking, and coconut or grapeseed oil for higher temperatures. Watch out for highly processed and heated oils, like most nondescript “vegetable oil.”
Whichever oil you choose, go easy on it. It’s not a whole food, it packs a lot of calories into a very small space, and it loses a lot of its nutritional value when heated.
Condiments and snacks
As long as you’re consuming condiments in relatively small quantities, I see no problem with continuing to eat most of the ones you enjoy.
The big thing here is to check out the ingredients list, and make sure you recognize them all and that as many as possible are whole foods. Look out for high-fructose corn syrup, which is anything but whole, and appears in countless condiments. And since many will contain oils, look for those like what I’ve mentioned above.
Check the sodium content too, since prepared foods can be the source of a huge amount of salt. Preparing condiments yourself will help tremendously, so find recipes for salsa, hummus, baba ganoush, barbecue sauce, and others, and make them yourself.
And while we’re on the topic of salt, opt for sea salt over processed table salt, since it delivers many nutritious minerals other than sodium, and less sodium as a result. Vegan ultraman Rich Roll, in his excellent cookbook Jai Seed, helped me feel much better about loving salt and using so much in my food.
For snacks, the same principles apply: Look at the ingredients and make sure they’re whole foods, and watch out for salt and processed oils. Whole, raw or roasted nuts are the best thing you’ll find in the snack aisle.
Meat and dairy?
Since I don’t eat meat and dairy, I’m not the one to tell you much about how to choose them. I believe you can be healthy and consume small amounts of them, but not the amounts and factory-farmed types that most Americans eat every day. (The idea of meat, especially fish, as a side dish at a few meals a week is one that would appeal to me if not for the ethical considerations.)
For dairy, keep in mind that skim or low-fat products are not whole foods. As Michael Pollan points out in his In Defense of Food, when the fat is removed from dairy products, your body’s ability to absorb the vitamins and nutrients in them decreases. In addition, when you take away the fat, you increase the relative portion of the food that contains casein, the protein that’s primarily blamed for dairy’s link to cancer in The China Study.
So if you’re going to eat dairy and you’re on a major calorie restriction, I’d recommend whole-fat versions over those that have the fat removed.
There’s almost nothing good in the drink aisle of the grocery store. (Coconut water and some natural sports drinks have their place, perhaps.)
Drink water. If that’s boring, add some lemon or lime juice. You’ll eventually get used to it.
A few more guiding principles…
For the newcomer or born-again healthy eater, I know of no better source of guidance than the aforementioned Michael Pollan. Pollan is not a vegetarian, and his whole-food-based, local, sustainable approach to eating is adaptable to a variety of ethical and health viewpoints.
What I find most appealing about Michael Pollan is the simplicity of his approach, and the resulting ease of applying his rules. Start with Food Rules for a quick understanding of all that he teaches, then move on to In Defense of Food for the “why’s.” A few of his most useful rules-of-thumb:
- Buy foods that are made with five ingredients or fewer.
- Don’t eat anything your grandmother or great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Go-gurt?)
- Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
- Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.
It’s not hard
I hope this doesn’t seem complicated. It’s anything but that, which is why my friend’s problem caught me by surprise, and I why I’ve written such a long post about it.
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 with 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.