Simple concepts to help us eat better
Nutrition Most of my life, I have consumed the traditional American diet, with the Arizona twist of a good dose of Mexican food. And, like with many of us, that eventually caught up with me. When years of heading the wrong direction finally got my attention, I decided to learn and apply some basic principles to form better eating habits. I am not an expert, and the nitpicking even among the experts is endless, so do not read my experience as a recommendation for you. Since I am not a professional athlete, trainer or nutritionist, why am I even writing on this subject? Because I am one of you—a busy professional (lawyer) with a family (wife and five kids—now mostly launched), civic responsibilities (church, professional organizations), with average physical capacity, who has, while being one of you, figured out how to get in much better shape, drop 40 pounds (25% of my body weight–from the very top to the very bottom of my “normal” body mass index range) in under 2 years, and keep it off for another 5 years and counting. As I discuss in some other posts, I didn’t do it just by eating differently (marathons, meditation, etc.), but changing the way I ate was a major part of it. These are some brief observations of what I learned and did (and am doing) on that path.

First, I know that opinions on how to eat better, particularly for weight loss, are seemingly endless. When I decided to get serious about how I was eating, I went to Barnes & Noble to find one or two “authoritative” guides. This is what I saw (Not kidding; taken with my phone):

So, go ahead and do your own thing. But, meanwhile, here is a summary of what I think the most reliable science tells us about weight loss:

  1. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.
  2. If you consume the same number of calories as you burn, you will maintain your weight.
  3. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight.

Yes, go ahead and make your points about medical conditions, body building, and the “quality” of some calories over others. Whatever. I’m still convinced this summary covers most of it.

When I wanted to learn to eat better, I was after weight loss, so I wanted to consume fewer calories than I burned. I also wanted to be healthy (I was training for my first marathon), so I needed to learn to still give my body what it needed. This made me sensitive to what I started thinking of as “exchanges,” the idea of trying to exchange foods that were high in calories and low in nutrients for ones that were low in calories and high in nutrients.

Here is an example:

Sugar has 775 calories per cup, and no nutrients (other than being a simple carbohydrate).

Broccoli has 31 calories per cup and the following nutrients: Vitamins K, C, B1, B2, B3, B6, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc, fiber, folate, and more.

You would have to eat 25 cups of broccoli before hitting the same calories as the sugar, and you get that boatload of nutrients as well (how do I calculate the multiple when sugar starts at zero?). So, a cup of broccoli instead of a cup of sugar is a good exchange of calories for nutrition. Of course, another main point to this change is to get full faster. You will not be able to eat 25 cups of broccoli at a sitting; you will be full long before that. Sugar, on the other hand—blink of an eye.

This sugar vs. broccoli exchange may be a painstakingly obvious example, but it is not “silly.” This understanding, and the decision-making process it triggered, formed the basis of how I learned to eat better. Even as much as I was running, I needed to eat better in order to get my calorie consumption below my calorie burn. When I started really paying attention, I saw certain common foods are generally low in nutrition compared to their calories. This list will surprise no one:

  • Sugary foods
  • Foods made from white flour (even if it is colored brown). This, and even white rice, is basically a simple carbohydrate, like sugar.
  • Oily foods (like, fried)
  • Fatty foods (like, pepperoni, donuts, whole dairy)
  • High carb foods, even complex ones (pasta, potatoes, whole grains, brown rice)

The last one, complex carbohydrates, is tricky, because they also have nutrients, and are processed by the body more slowly than simple carbs—so they are healthier than the simple carbs, and can be a regular part of a good diet. But, they are still pretty high in calories for the nutrients, especially in comparison to vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, and even clean meats and lower fat dairy. Also, of course, we need a certain amount of healthy fats in our diet. This post isn’t about perfect nutritional balance; only the value of being sensitive to these ratios to get our calorie consumption down and nutrition up.

As I learned to make these tradeoffs, it was easier for me to feel full, consume fewer calories, and give my body what it needed, all at the same time. I would be lying to say it was (or is) easy. My biggest early shock was when MyFitnessPal (I started using it early in this process, and continue to) showed me that the innocent little flour tortilla just holding my “wrap” or beans was 200 calories of nothing! So, not easy; but “easy” got us here, where many of us do not want to be. I looked for (and found) ways to use those calories better.

Early in my exploration, it became evident that many of the reliable nutrition advocates (including some remarkable athletes) advocate a completely or nearly plant-based diet. I did give that a try, and have been vegetarian for these 7 years and plant-based (mostly) for the last year (translation, eggs and dairy are basically gone). But, those are not dominantly “exchange” based decisions. There are still many good meat, dairy, and egg-based good food choices for calories vs. nutrition. However, my personal experience was that I had to learn to eat a lot more vegetables to get the results I wanted from a change in the way I ate (yes, environmental impact played a part in this decision). Could I have done it without becoming vegetarian/vegan? Probably, but I don’t know; that isn’t what I did.

Let me address a couple other common obstacles to better eating habits—because, in these, I am also one of you. First, you can eat healthy and still eat out regularly. This is a constant, like daily, part of my life. Over time, yes, I have learned where the healthy restaurants are—and they are abundant in the Phoenix Metro area (future post?). But, more importantly, I have learned that almost all restaurants have some healthy options. I don’t mean less unhealthy; I mean, truly healthy. I am writing this post in a café where I just had a business meeting, while eating oatmeal topped with blueberries, almonds, and honey, and an herbal tea to drink. Look for it and you will see it, too.

Second, it would be easier to eat healthy if I were a good chef, or even a passable cook. I have set this resolution many times, purchased some really cool cook books, and have failed so far. I am not a cook and apparently won’t become one any time soon. But, I still eat healthy at home. There isn’t a lot of variety, and l likely satisfy the craving for “fancier” dishes by going to the professionals (see, immediately prior reference to restaurants), but I really enjoy the simple things I prepare and eat at home. Despite what you’ve heard about the importance of variety in your diet, most of that is so we will get some good foods in with the junk. It becomes much less important when you are eating truly healthy foods. You will find your go-to’s.

If you want to lose, and then maintain, weight, getting the most bang for your calorie buck is essential to success. Learning to make better “exchanges” of high nutrient and volume foods in place of high calorie foods helped me. It may help you as well.

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