Food Rules – a Shortcut to Better Health
One year in elementary school I insisted that my lunch be only a bacon sandwich on a fresh onion bun, a container of jell-o brand pistachio pudding, a thermos full of chocolate milk, and an apple. And it was the only lunch I ate, day after day, for the entire school year.
Nowadays, my own son is unfortunately displaying the effects of his Dad’s picky genes. Despite starting him out on a broad diet including Mexican, Indian and Thai food, he has now narrowed his menu to include only cheese, apples, milk, French toast, Dad’s homemade bacon pizza, and a few types of fruits and berries.
Eventually I branched back out to become an omnivore who loves extreme variety, so I still have hope for him. But not everyone has such a bright future. I learned this when cleaning out the garage of one of my rental houses a few years back.
The tenant, a 21-year-old MBA student*, had moved out in a rush and left me with a line of ten (10!) oversized trash bags in the garage, plus a house full of junk as well. When moving the bags, I noticed clinking and rustling sounds which indicated recyclable materials mixed in with the trash.
If you’ve ever read the Trash Article, you know that Mr. Money Mustache gets a little uneasy when confronted with the idea of sending unnecessary things to the landfill. It’s one of my irrational weaknesses. So I put on some work gloves, and began to rip open the bags, and sort. And learn. And Holy Shit, you wouldn’t believe what this 21-year-old had been eating and drinking!
There were pizza boxes, almost universally still filled with 25-50% of a dried-up pizza. When stacked, these pizza boxes towered taller than my head. Little sucka must have ordered a pizza for himself virtually every night of the week! And yet he didn’t even have the foresight to save his leftovers in the 26 cubic foot stainless steel side-by-side fridge I had provided for him!
There were OVER A HUNDRED enormous 26-ounce paper cups from fast food “restaurants”, some still partially filled with Coke and other toxic sugar drinks. But that wasn’t all he drank – empty plastic pop bottles and empty cases of cheap canned beer were also in abundance.
Scraps of fast food along with their tragic disposable foam and paper containers filled some of the bags. Burgers, fries, chicken wings, and catfood-like taco bell “ground beef” remnants.
In the fridge were processed sandwich meats, processed cheese slices in plastic wrappers, half-finished TV dinners, and white bread.
By the time I sorted it all out, crushed it, recycled it, composted things that would rot and heaved the rest into a small dumpster, I was feeling pretty damned good about my own eating habits. I’m no angelic eater. I pig out occasionally, I’ve been known to consume all sorts of alcohol and various other drugs over the years, and I don’t count food miles or insist on an all-organic diet. But compared to this guy, my diet looked like a buffet beamed down directly from the Food Gods.
I was also set to wondering about this country’s populace as a whole. Do people really eat like this? Could this be the source of most of our early-onset physical and health problems? Was my renter’s diet the reason he was frail and pudgy and frequently under the weather, despite being almost fifteen years younger than I was?
Maybe healthy eating isn’t self-evident as I thought. Luckily, there’s a pretty neat book I recently read on the subject. It’s one of the shortest books you’ll ever read, with just a few dozen pages and a few words on each page. It is called “Food Rules, an Eater’s Manual“, by Michael Pollan.
I figured this idea was worth sharing, because the book’s recomendations align almost perfectly with some changes I’ve made to my own eating habits in just the past year or two. The results have been nothing short of dramatic to me. I’ve been trying to work out regularly and eat well for about 21 years now. But by switching to a less processed diet with more plants and delicious high-fat oily stuff, and just slightly away from things like bread and sugar, I very quickly lost about 15 pounds of fat without losing strength, leaving me with a leanness I had long ago written off as something that just wasn’t in my genes. So, thanks Vegetables!
And here are my top ten quotes from the book, so you can get an idea if you are already a wise eater, or if you need a crash course on The Rules yourself.
1: Eat food
“These days this is easier said than done, especially when seventeen thousand new products show up in the supermarket each year, all vying for your food dollar. But most of these items don’t deserve to be called food—I call them edible foodlike substances. They’re highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and they contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted. Today much of the challenge of eating well comes down to choosing real food and avoiding these industrial novelties.”
2: Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.
3: Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
4: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
5: Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap.
6: Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
7: Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.
8: Eat your colors.
“The idea that a healthy plate of food will feature several different colors is a good example of an old wives’ tale about food that turns out to be good science too. The colors of many vegetables reflect the different antioxidant phytochemicals they contain—anthocyanins, polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids. Many of these chemicals help protect against chronic diseases, but each in a slightly different way, so the best protection comes from a diet containing as many different phytochemicals as possible.”
9: Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature.
“In nature, sugars almost always come packaged with fiber, which slows their absorption and gives you a sense of satiety before you’ve ingested too many calories. That’s why you’re always better off eating the fruit rather than drinking its juice.”
10: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.”
Better yet, if you have any need to lose weight, avoid bread entirely. I think of bread products these days as “weight gain squares” – I do eat them, but only when my weight is getting below my target zone.
11: Stop eating before you’re full
12: Limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods. (fruits, vegetables, nuts)
13: Cook your Own Food – as often as possible.
OK, that was the top thirteen, since I couldn’t think of any more to chop to get it down to ten. It’s a good book, and you should read it if you have anything in common with my old rental house tenant.
* don’t worry, he doesn’t read this blog or even know it exists
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