As a follow-up to my Monday post on Meal Planning and my favorite cookbooks on Tuesday, I feel like it’s also worth stepping onto my soapbox about what makes up a healthy diet.
First, I think it’s important to start out by saying that I’m not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, or any kind of food expert.
I suspect that most people who give you diet and nutrition advice are also not doctors, nutritionists, dietitians or any kind of health expert either, so you should be careful of jumping into an extreme diet because it has worked well for a friend or because a celebrity has endorsed it. Some diets (I’m looking at you keto) carry health risks, so you actually should consult your doctor about these things.
As with many things, I find that when it comes to my diet: boring is better. Which is just to say, that when it comes to your diet, I firmly believe that most humans can be healthy and have a diet that includes bread, gluten, milk, meat, fat, and of course fruits and vegetables. You don’t have to eat chia seeds, kale and açaí berries for every meal. It doesn’t have to be all organic. It’s okay if a GMO vegetable makes it’s way into your digestive system.
In The Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes his basic rules for eating: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
That is nicely reflected in the “Healthy Plate” developed by nutritionists at the Harvard School of Medicine. I like that they illustrate how much of your plate should be full of each type of food. It emphasizes the importance of drinking water and eating more veggies than fruit.
But this plan is available for free on the internet. It couldn’t possibly be as good as the diet that requires me to invest in 18 kitchen gadgets and eat food that tastes like it’s gone bad, right?
One problem with many diet plans (in my humble opinion) is that they make eating a “healthy diet” too confusing and difficult. We don’t necessarily have time or energy to evaluate the health claims, so we can either spend a lot of money on specialty food that may not be any better for us or (worse!) we may just give up and eat Cheetos and Little Debbie snacks.
When I think about what kinds of recipes and foods I’m going to include on my meal plan and grocery list, I have a few guidelines I try to keep in mind:
- Are the rules of the diet I’m following so strict, rigid, or complex that I struggle to keep up with it on a daily basis? If so, I need to make it easier on myself to be successful.
- Do I have to buy a lot of expensive food and specialty ingredients that make it harder for me to actually enjoy the food I’m eating? If so, I need to find an easier or more affordable substitute.
- Is everything I’m eating pre-cooked/packaged/frozen? There is a place for convenience food in your diet, but I found Michael Pollan’s advice that if you’re making something in your own kitchen, you’re probably not going to put so much salt, sugar and fat into it to cause yourself long-term health problems. The problem is when all our food is shelf-stable that it necessarily has a lot of extra salt, stabilizers and other stuff in it that isn’t great for our bodies. The more we can make our food ourselves, the better it will be for us.
From my perspective, a sustainable diet is something you can maintain for your lifetime. If “cheating” for a day is going to set you back to “Day 1” of your diet, then maybe your diet is too complicated.
A sustainable diet is something that incorporates food you love. You should never feel guilty about pulling out one of your great-grandmother’s famous recipes because it doesn’t fit the rules. (Maybe you can’t eat it every day, but you should be able to enjoy it from time to time).
A sustainable diet also needs to be something you can afford. I find that cage free eggs DO taste better than regular eggs. Organic meat DOES have a different taste than the regular stuff. And for certain fruits and veggies (see the dirty dozen), it might be worth it to spend extra on organic. But…I’m going to have to make compromises because I also want to stay out of credit card debt.
I’m curious if I’m the only one who finds eating in our world to be a bit confusing and kind of oppressive. Especially as a parent, I want to give my kids a good start nutritionally, and I want to model a healthy relationship with my food and my body. But I find that I’m better able to do that when I relax a little and decide on the rules rather than letting the rules decide everything for me.