From the moment you’re born you have to put food in your pie hole to stay alive. But because human beings can consume practically anything, it makes it difficult to know what we should eat. You could survive on everything from the latest Taco Bell mashup to vegetables grown in your backyard. But your health will probably look a lot different depending on if you eat more things like fast-food Tex-Mex or more things like fresh-picked veggies. I gained a good twenty pounds in my first couple years of college on a pizza-, nachos-, and ramen- centric diet. Cliche? Sure. Filling? Yes, and then some. Healthy? Decidedly not.
So how do we navigate all the different things we can consume? No one really teaches us how to eat as we grow up. We mostly end up feasting on whatever is served to us by family or whatever we can afford when we’re buying groceries and meals for ourselves.
The latest science and health news isn’t a very reliable guide. Over the last several decades, it’s vacillated between very pro this or that–carbs, fat, protein, etc.–and villainizing them. Empirical studies of nutrients have given us vastly different answers on different occasions.
Either way, a full-fledged diet rarely works. They’re often too restrictive and make you loathe eating altogether. Or cut out foods that are actually beneficial for you. Or help you for a time, only to have you falling back to earth when you plateau or can’t maintain it.
So if stringent self-limitation and the lack of clarity over good and bad nutrients are ineffective, what can guide us to eat well?
The best thing I’ve come across is in the writings of Michael Pollan. If you don’t know his work, you should check it out. Not in a fad/cult kind of way. We don’t need another Oprah or Dr. Oz, and I don’t sense that he’s trying to be one. As a regular-person journalist, Pollan’s books and speeches are primarily investigative–trying to comb through research, culture, and real life to get to the bottom of our relationship with food and what constitutes eating for wellness. Appealingly, his advice can be summed up in three short sentences.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
You can’t simplify things much more than seven words. So what does it mean?
Eat food: As in consume things that are real food. Not food-like stuff–processed science projects, tweaked for shelf life or taste, that your body can’t easily recognize. Soda is out. Most things that come from a drive thru are out. Anything with a bunch of ingredients you can’t understand is out.
Look for actual food. The more whole or original its state, the better it probably is. Whole grain (with the beneficial germ and bran). Whole apples, avocados, bok choy, ginger, and the rest. The spectrum of edible things is still vast and compelling even after you take out what went through an R&D lab. Eat lots of different food.
Not too much: This is primarily about the manner in which you eat. The French (excusez-nous for generalizing) have notoriously rich, fatty meals. And yet, their overall health is quite exceptional. Why? Many think it’s because they slow down and have multiple small courses over a long period of time. Lots of socializing. Lots of effort preparing the different dishes and plates. Lots of pauses to let the digestive system do its thing.
Eating is supposed to be a gratifying social experience–from the growing or purchasing of the ingredients to the shared experience at the table with family and friends. Many people eat too fast. Eat alone too often. Eat too much at once. Eat too many of their meals on-the-go, at odd times, or in front of a screen.
Food should be savored in smaller portions, at regular sit-downs, with people that you want to share time with. The fact that work or a general culture of busy challenge this possibility suggests there is an issue with work and culture–not with eating. We need less food that’s ready to eat on the move and more respect for the meal table. Eating food is more than a nutrient delivery system–it’s for pleasure, identity, ritual, wholeness. The manner and context in which you eat are significant and meaningful.
This also means we should ensure that we’re not obsessing over what’s on the plate in front of us. “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Forgive yourself for breaking the rules once in awhile. If you’re stuck getting a burger from a chain for lunch, or decided to snack on some Oreos (like I did the other day), don’t be too hard on yourself.
Mostly plants: Perhaps the most controversial, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s mostly plants, not only. There’s still room for meat every so often (if that’s something you want to chow down). It’s just that plants have been shown over and over again to improve overall health and life-expectancy. There are vibrant Seventh-Day Adventist communities–eating mostly plants or strictly vegetarian their whole lives–with an average age in the 90s. They’re clearly doing something right.
Plants are remarkably diverse, and can provide us with an equally diverse array of things that our bodies are looking for. We don’t fully know what makes plants so great, but it’s likely that fiber, omega-3s, and phytochemicals (being careful not to render anything angelic or immortalizing) are just some of the things that are super beneficial for us. Stick to the broad rainbow of vegetables as much as possible, and let meat, fish, and other foods be subtle complements.
Eating like an adult–a healthy adult–does not have to be hard. It’s even better when you yourself cook everything you eat. That, of course, takes time and know-how–something I’d love to talk about in a future How to Adult post. But for now, whenever you’re about to eat, remind yourself to: eat food; not too much; mostly plants.