The 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.
- Baba ganoush
- Sauces: tomato, barbecue, ketchup
- Nut butters
- Flour from grains or beans
- Sports drinks
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.