When I first started on this journey, nearly ten years ago (!), it was the advice in Michael Pollan’s classic In Defense of Food that really called out to me, and still does today:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
In time, that became synonymous with the simpler advice to “just eat whole plants.” On a whole-food, plant-based diet, the “not too much” part becomes almost redundant.
As advice goes, it’s hard to improve on that.
But last night, as I was chopping some broccoli to make dinner for myself and my kids (my wife, Erin, is away visiting family), I was reminded once again of another distinction I’ve learned along the way, a crucial one that made it all click.
While “eat whole plants” is the what to eat, what I had to discover for myself was the how.
It’s what removes almost every last bit of stress from the process of eating and planning meals, and, for me, makes Pollan’s advice sustainable.
Last night, broccoli was a main course, and it was simple. It was what we had in the fridge, so I just steamed until just slightly crunchy, and served with a little whole-wheat pasta (no sauce) and some chickpeas on the side.
Until writing this blog post, it didn’t occur to me that what I served and ate was a grain, a green, and a bean, my favorite formula for a quick, healthy meal.
Actually, it barely occurred to me to call this a “meal.”
What did occur to me was that those were foods we had on hand — and that this “meal” was something I could throw together fast, fast enough to get a fantasy football lineup in before the Sunday night game started.
I still feel a tinge of guilt about meals like this (not the gambling, though!). More so when I serve them to the kids. It’s not that they don’t taste good — honestly, my kids much prefer simple flavors and textures like these to complex meals with rich sauces and lots of spice. (And if you’re a parent, I don’t need to tell you that less stress at meal time = win. Trust me, food being interesting for me is the least of my concerns.)
So why the guilt?
It’s that I still forget what I discovered back in 2013, driving across the country on my DIY book tour for No Meat Athlete.
And that is this:
Those times when it feels like you’re punting on a meal — when you’re not really cooking at all, but rather assembling, just throwing a few ingredients on a plate because it gets the job done — this is actually the way you should eat, most of the time. Not the opposite.
And in 10 years of thinking about healthy food being how I earn a living, my most important lesson is just two words long:
Like I said, I discovered this when I was on the two-month tour I did for my first book, No Meat Athlete (a revised edition of which is coming out later this month!).
That coast-to-coast tour took me through stretches where vegan restaurants aren’t a thing. Not even close, and without the usual next-best-things like Chipotle or Subway. (Once in Wisconsin I did Taco Bell — yes, it’s possible!)
But most dependable, what saved me on these stretches, was just stopping at a grocery store to load up my backseat with fruits, vegetables, hummus, and trail mix.
As long as I had a way to keep some of it (somewhat) cold, I could eat that way for days on end, even without stopping.
At first, I felt guilty about eating this way for several meals (then days) in a row: these weren’t square meals; there was nothing comforting or hearty about them. They didn’t have much of that satisfying saltiness or fattiness that provides the illusion (these days) of nourishment at the end of a day, and it felt like surely I was missing out on something.
But after a few weeks went by and I got used to eating so simply — free of the rituals and constraints that come with our normal, cultural concept of a meal — I realized that I was eating exactly (and almost exclusively) the foods I always strived to eat more of.
Fruits, raw veggies, beans, nuts, and seeds. And sometimes, if the grocery store happened to have a good bakery, whole grains.
Assembling vs. Cooking
Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking a meal. Health-wise, it’s a huge leap forward from eating processed food, and the first step for so many in turning their health around.
Plus, it’s fun. Recently I’ve enjoyed a renewed interest in cooking — mostly classic, regional Italian dishes, spending extra hours to make pasta and dumplings by hand (often with the help of my kids), and soups and sauces that simmer all day long.
But that’s a hobby; I do it under ideal conditions. Not when work gets busy or life is stressful. And certainly not under the guise of healthy eating. (Healthier than a standard American diet, sure, but that “standard” is a pretty low one.)
It’s food as entertainment — and now and then, I find it really entertaining.
And truth be told, most of the meals we eat at home aren’t as simple as broccoli, chickpeas, and whole-wheat pasta. Even for a family that eats as simply as we do, that would get boring.
So sometimes it’s burritos. Or “mac and broc,” a spin-off of this dish that’s become a staple for us. Or stir-fry.
But, for as many meals as possible, we try to assemble, rather than cook. A good day looks like:
- Smoothie in the morning (and if you don’t like that, then even better, just eat the raw fruit, nuts, and seeds that go in it).
- Salad topped with beans for lunch.
- A grain, green, and bean for dinner. (But remember, it takes many forms: it could be as simple as last night’s meal, but a lot of soups, tacos, and stir-frys fit the bill as well.)
And on the nights when a “real” dinner just isn’t happening — these illustrate the point best, perhaps — it might be just a smoothie and some steamed brussels sprouts. Or just a salad, maybe with a whole wheat pita and hummus on the side.
“But What About Protein / Macros / Calories?”
I want to emphasize an important point.
We don’t take this framework and then cram some other diet philosophy into it.
We’re not taking care to “complete our proteins” when we combine a bean and a grain. We don’t strive to eat 70% carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 15% fat, or any other magic combination that will supposedly unlock the vault of health. And we certainly don’t count calories.
What we do is eat whole foods, and forget all of that junk the diet books try to sell us.
Now and then, because I read a lot about food, I’ll focus on different things. Like being 100% oil-free for a stretch, choosing cruciferous vegetables and maximizing sulphorophane content, or getting as many of the 7 Foods to Eat Every Single Day as possible. Those goals keep it interesting, and if nothing else, provide a placebo effect of feeling great about the foods I’m eating and feeding to my kids.
But none of this stuff is important, really. What matters is what you do for years, what you make work on a near-daily basis and then sustain.
And for me, that’s what eating simply is.
To eat this way without stress requires that you give up several deeply held assumptions (and like I said, I’m still working on really, truly dissolving these in my own head):
- Every meal needs a “protein source.”
- Every meal should be “balanced,” in terms of macronutrients.
- In order to be nourishing, a meal needs to be filling, hardy, and comforting, and to provide a lot of calories for strength and health.
It turns out these are wrong — leftover from a time when we knew much less about food, and when avoiding malnutrition was the concern, as opposed to our current problem of chronic over-nourishment. And the industries that are built on them have certainly helped to prop them up.
Indeed, science is showing the opposite of these assumptions to be true:
- Protein deficiency isn’t a problem in the absence of general malnutrition, and whole foods (even plants) provide plenty. Too much protein (certain amino acids in particular), though, is linked to cancer and shortened lifespan.
- If you’re eating a whole-food, plant-based diet (i.e., keeping protein relatively low in comparison to other diets), macronutrient balance doesn’t matter. High-carb, low-fat is what most vegan docs promote, but David Jenkins’ “Eco-Atkins” diet experiment showed that the opposite (vegan low-carb, high-fat) works for weight loss too, and others have even demonstrated heart-disease reversal with it as well. Even if macronutrient ratio did matter, it would be only be necessary to balance the total diet, not each meal.
- Caloric restriction is linked to longevity. Whether you restrict calories deliberately or because your food just happens to be less calorically dense, fewer calories is better than more (again, assuming you’re not malnourished, or suffering from an eating disorder). So a lighter-than-usual dinner now and then is certainly not a bad thing, and in fact is a very good one.
I don’t pretend that it’s easy to give up beliefs we’ve held for years. But I know that “eating simply” has helped to free me from not just these, but all sorts of other hidden emotional attachments to food.
Everything I Need to Know About Healthy Eating, I Learned from My Kindergartner?
One final example, just because it makes me smile.
This is the lunch I packed for my daughter today, to start off her third week in kindergarten:
In case you can’t tell what’s what, from left-to-right, top to bottom, that’s hummus and carrots, whole cherries, clementine, rice cakes spread with peanut butter, pretzel nuggets filled with peanut butter, roasted seaweed strips, and big ol’ pile of chickpeas.
Sometimes the pile of beans is replaced with a peanut butter sandwich. Or the pretzel nuggets replaced with peanuts. But mostly, this is what lunch and snack look like for her.
Ellarie was born after we were already vegan. She was also lucky enough to be born after the “if it’s vegan, it must be healthy” phase (hello, Gardein Chick’n Tenders!) we were in when we had our son.
My wife and I often remark that Ellarie is the healthiest eater in our family, and this is why. Her favorite meals consist of a handful of whole foods, next to each other. Not combined with any rhyme or reason.
Call me inspired. (Well, except for the seaweed; that stuff is just gross.)
When our bodies aren’t accustomed to processed foods — with far more concentrated salt, sugar, and fat than you’d find in nature, day in and day out — it turns out that we actually like the healthy stuff. Even kids do.
Now, I’d be lying (and doing you a disservice) if I said we never gave her vegan ice cream, cookies, potato chips, or “normal” meals with lots of ingredients, spices, salt, and sometimes oil.
But I think that only illustrates how sustainable this “diet” is: she eats that stuff now and then, whenever we make it available to her. Sometimes she’ll shock us by not liking richly flavored cakes or super-sweet drinks, but usually, she loves these treats.
But then, when it’s time for the next meal or snack, she’s back on her routine, and quite happy to eat the way she does.
To me, this is what we should strive for. To be able to eat healthy food most of the time — even to love it, despite its initial blandness compared to processed foods or more intricate meals — with the occasional indulgence that adds variety, entertainment, and joy to life, especially when shared with friends and family.
And then, once that moment has passed, to go back to the routine of eating healthy, simple (and eventually, delicious) food — without regret or the desire to indulge again until it’s appropriate. And somehow, you know when it is.
Easier said than done, I know. But if you take small steps towards it — small so that you don’t throw up your hands and quit when perfection becomes unsustainable — and begin to question our unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes a healthy meal… then over time, you’ll get there.