Cooking shows have become hugely popular in the last couple of years. Sadly, like televised sports, people are more likely to watch them for entertainment rather than inspiration.
At the same time, many overweight people like to complain that their skinny friends “can eat whatever they want” without gaining an ounce. Genetics and lifestyle play a role here, of course.
More importantly, though, it is possible to maintain a healthy weight while eating as much as you want – as long as you want to eat the right things, which generally means avoiding empty calories.
Let’s see how this works (compare left to right):
All these figures represent actual products from well-known restaurants and manufacturers. There’s no fancy low-fat cooking or statistical trickery involved here, you can go out and buy any of these dishes right now.
It doesn’t take a PhD to see that the less-processed options are better for you anyway, even while conveying only half the calories. The number of these you actually need depends heavily on your physique and level of activity, but 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day is in the ballpark for most people.
One surprising thing about this comparison is that the diet pictured on the right is actually a lot more satisfying: many people who could polish off every dish on the left in a single sitting would struggle to eat everything on the right over a whole day.
The main catch, of course, is that vending machines generally don’t sell carrot sticks and tahini dip, and it’s far easier tHighest o find a place that sells greasy hamburgers than one specializing in lentil dishes.
- Malnutrition and Undernutrition
- Myths About the Whole-Food Diet
- How to Start Eating Better
- Eating Your Way to Health
Malnutrition and Undernutrition
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food
Macro vs Micro-Nutrients
There are basically three types of macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein (you can also include water if you want).
These are the substances your body absolutely needs to keep functioning.
They are not, however, enough to ensure good health by themselves.
Macronutrients on their own are called empty calories; they provide energy and bulk, but that’s pretty much all.
Without getting in minerals and vitamins, you’re bound to become sick sooner or later. You can, in other words, eat until you burst and still not get the nutrition you need unless you eat enough of the good stuff, which in many cases means vegetable matter.
Under-nourishment occurs when someone doesn’t eat enough bulk nutrients, which is rare in the Western world except when someone chooses it for themselves.
Malnourishment is, unfortunately, much more common, especially in North America. By consuming a diet that’s heavy in macronutrients while neglecting the foods your organs need to work properly, you’re essentially starving even as you gain weight.
Everything suffers when your diet is deficient in micronutrients.
- Your brain doesn’t work as it should, affecting your memory, concentration, and emotions.
- Your kidneys, liver, and gut can’t expel waste products as effectively, leading to a whole new set of problems.
- Your immune system won’t do its job effectively, leaving you more vulnerable to infection
- You’re also much more likely to contract chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes.
All of this is well-understood and the solution obvious, yet a large fraction of consumers refuse to even consider the benefits of a whole-foods diet.
What is particularly worrying is that malnourishment in pregnant women and young children is known to lead to a variety of developmental problems.
Myths About the Whole-Food Diet
Avoiding empty calories can’t really be called a “diet” in the conventional sense. It doesn’t require you to weigh your portions, totally exclude certain types of food, howl at the moon, or take any kind of over-priced supplements.
It is, literally and exactly, just eating the way people used to before everything edible came in a box.
A time traveler from the year 1900 would no doubt be astonished at our ability to buy barbecue sauce, long-life blueberry muffins, and shrimp-flavored ramen – all at the same store.
His diet nonetheless has certain advantages.
For him, empty calories would have been a luxury, eaten sparingly. Mostly, his meals would have been composed of whatever was available, and everything he ate had a purpose.
When you eat in this way, all you really need to worry about is getting in enough protein and having a little variety in your diet. Calorie control and your wider nutritional requirements will basically take care of themselves.
Why, then, are people so reluctant to go the whole-foods route?
Myth #1: Cooking Is Hard
Cooking an authentic bouillabaisse or baking a soufflé is hard. Preparing a lip-smacking dinner needn’t be.
Anyone can, with a little practice and a couple of screwups along the way, learn how to prepare a dozen or so dishes perfectly. Nor do you need to spend more than a few minutes every day preparing hearty, nutritious dishes.
With a good electric pressure cooker, for instance, you need only cut up anything you’ve bought whole and leave the gadget to do its thing. While the meal might take some time to be ready, your active involvement with the process can be less than 10 minutes.
For smaller and quicker meals, just use an electric griddle – they can do so much more than just make pancakes and can be used while you sit at the table.
Another good example is a soup you’d happily pay for in a restaurant. Simply hack up some vegetables of your choice into convenient chunks, brown them in a saucepan, add boiling water, butter or cream, salt and pepper, and tjirrr it into a paste using a stick blender.
Even somebody who has trouble boiling an egg can do this in minutes, and the results are almost guaranteed to be delectable.
Myth #2: Whole, Fresh Food Is Expensive
Unfortunately, this is partly true. The economies of scale caused by so many people choosing to eat junk food have made takeout and pre-prepared meals comparable in price to what you can cook at home. Restaurants that serve decently healthy food, meanwhile, charge a premium for their products.
Still, you don’t need to buy exotic or organic ingredients to get started, and when measured in terms of how much you really get out of it rather than simply how many calories a meal contains, whole foods win hands-down.
As long as you can afford the following, either fresh, canned, or frozen (the nutritional difference is actually negligible), eating well is most certainly within your reach:
- Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower
- Bell peppers
- Assorted seasonings: garlic, herbs, spices, etc.
Listed this way, these ingredients make up a pretty short list that doesn’t seem all that impressive. However, by combining them and cooking them in different ways, you gain access to thousands of different snacks, sides, and main dishes.
Myth #3: Home-Cooked Food Doesn’t Taste as Good
Have you noticed that Italian people tend to like Italian food, Chinese are fond of Chinese dishes, and so on? The truth is that your tastebuds can be trained, including by changing your mental attitude towards what you eat.
Most people are reluctant to try any food they don’t already like. Over time, this can harden into a kind of personal conviction, e.g. “broccoli is disgusting”. Of course, this is true if you insist on boiling it until it turns purple. Roasted or steamed and drizzled with lemon juice, on the other hand, or stir-fried with some sesame seeds, it becomes a totally different vegetable.
Fast-food chains wouldn’t advertise so heavily – especially around mealtimes – if this didn’t have a powerful effect on how the public perceives food. All that’s needed to break free of this kind of manipulation is to keep an open mind when it comes to fresh, natural food.
Myth #4: Eating Whole Foods Means Eating Less Meat
Dedicated carnivores often confuse eating healthily with giving up ribs. This is really not the case:
Everybody needs protein for their body’s upkeep, 60 g (2 oz) being a good minimum figure, rising to 100g (4 oz) or more for very active individuals (meat is roughly 15% to 25% protein). It doesn’t seem to matter very much whether you get this from plant or animal sources as long as you follow a balanced diet. By all means have that juicy steak if you feel like it.
Many people consume way more energy than they should. If this is in the form of white bread, white rice, pastries, and pasta, its micronutrient content is negligible and you’re only hoovering up empty calories you don’t even need.
Replacing these with vegetables may be a challenge for some, but there is good news: unlike with some diets, you need never feel hungry. You can eat as much of most veggies as you like without gaining an ounce.
Myth #5: Taking a Multivitamin Is all You Need
With a couple of exceptions, supplement pills are a waste of money and may even do more harm than good. A key concept in this regard is bio-availability, or how much of a given nutrient actually ends up getting absorbed by your tissues.
When it comes to vitamin C, for instance, your body has no mechanism to store it for future use. Anything over your immediate requirements therefore ends up in your urine.
Similarly, magnesium is important to your health in a number of ways, but if the supplement you take contains this in oxide form, you might as well be eating sand for all the good it does. Your body finds the nutrients in plants much easier to absorb, while you’ll also get the benefits of chemicals like phytonutrients and trace minerals not found in multivitamins.
How to Start Eating Better
Kicking the convenience food habit is not easy, especially since doing so means making the right decisions even when your blood sugar is low and you crave nothing more than a vacuously sweet pastry.
Plenty of people, perhaps after a health scare, realize that they need to lose weight. They then go out and buy 20 pounds of fresh produce and hopefully a cookbook. Nine times out of ten, they end up throwing more than half of that out after a week, deciding that they’re just not capable of changing, and resuming their former lifestyle.
Small changes accumulate more rapidly than you think, and taking it slow is usually the only way to make lasting improvements in the way you live your life. This, like everything worthwhile, takes effort, but you will soon begin to see the results: more energy throughout the day, better mood, clearer skin, and (eventually) a more toned body, especially if you exercise.
Coffee, despite having a bad rap, is a much healthier alternative, as are iced teas you can easily make at home. Substituting “energy drinks” and even bottled juice for soda is an illusory improvement. Although marketed as healthier alternatives, the amount of dehydrating, fattening sugar these contain is just ridiculous.
Alcohol in all its forms also contains zero nutritional value. Even if you’re only a moderate drinker, cutting down will already go some way towards restoring your caloric balance.
Adapting to a Low-G.I. Diet
One of the worst aspects of empty calories is that they tend to release their energy all at once, making your insulin levels spike and leaving you feeling hungry again before much time has passed. This makes your blood sugar and energy levels bounce around like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer.
Nutrient-rich foods like veggies and whole grains, on the other hand, digest slowly, releasing energy evenly over the course of several hours. You can find a list of some common low-G.I. (i.e. slow-digesting) foods here.
One happy consequence of this is that it makes no difference whether you eat a few large meals or snack throughout the day.
The bad news is that you have to be consistent with this approach if you want to see the full benefits, which means no more candy bars whenever you’re in a mid-afternoon slump.
Instead, you’ll have to get into the habit of filling the tank long before you step on the accelerator. A good place to start is switching to filling, whole-food breakfasts and whole-grain starches and see how you feel throughout the day.
You should also know that, since a whole food diet contains a lot of fiber, you’ll be visiting the toilet more often but spending less time using it. This can sometimes be inconvenient, but it’s certainly less uncomfortable than the alternative, and the efficient elimination of waste products is likely to leave you feeling much more vigorous.
Making Friends with Your Stove
Although many people see cooking as a time-wasting chore they’d rather avoid, it’s easier to leave empty calories behind if you’re willing to prepare your meals from scratch (or alternatively, pay through the nose for upscale, healthy meals).
The reason for this is simple: the easiest way for industrial manufacturers to make their food appealing is by lacing it with plenty of sugar, salt, fat, artificial dyes, and flavorings. It’s not difficult to picture how this relates to overall health, or more specifically diabetes:
All of the above is in addition to the numerous kinds of preservatives most packaged food contains. It’s not known exactly how these chemicals affect your endocrine system (the hormone signals different parts of your body use to communicate with one another) but it’s a fair bet that they don’t make things work any better than normal.
When you get right down to it, preparing your own meals isn’t complicated, and there are plenty of shortcuts you can take:
- Invest in a food processor if you don’t trust yourself around sharp knives.
- Prepare and freeze a whole bunch of stuff on Sunday if you don’t have much time during the week.
- Similarly, you can dry foods and store them as snacks for later use – have a look at our list of the best food dehydrators for this purpose
- Teach yourself a few of the many simple recipes you can make in under 20 minutes with fewer than five ingredients.
- Experiment a little and don’t get discouraged if things turn out differently than planned.
Learning to Love Legumes
Legumes (peas, lentils, beans, and so forth) are a fantastic source of minerals, fiber, and protein, yet less than one in ten Americans eat them on any given day.
This has nothing to do with their taste or texture, whether in a hot chili, soup, or side dish. What puts many people off is their tendency to produce gas.
This is because legumes contain complex sugars your own intestinal tract can’t break down completely, instead leaving it for the bacteria in your gut to deal with.
The good news is that you can reduce the fartiness factor significantly by preparing legumes the right way: soak dry beans overnight and discard the water before cooking, or rinse canned beans thoroughly and consider blending them into a paste rather than using whole.
As your digestive system gets used to them, you’ll also notice less gas over time, while types like lentils and peas are much less likely to embarrass you to begin with.
The Raw Food Diet: Is It Worth It?
Often mentioned in the same breath as eating whole foods is the concept of eating nothing that’s been fried, braised, roasted, sautéd, or exposed to heat in any form. Proponents of the raw food diet insist that cooking destroys a whole range of nutrients and that uncooked fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds can provide you with everything your body needs.
They are half right: some water-soluble vitamins are indeed destroyed at high temperatures. Contrariwise, some nutrients are actually absorbed much more easily once cooked. Mushrooms, for instance, are a good source of B vitamins, but their cell walls are too tough for your stomach enzymes to break down if eaten raw.
Although a few of the claims surrounding raw food diets are on the wacky side, eating raw fruit and vegetables is indeed a great way to boost your nutrient intake.
If you can’t bear the thought of eating a huge pile of salad every day, you might want to look into juicing. A fruit and vegetable juicer takes no time at all to turn 5 carrots into one cup of juice containing most of the beneficial stuff found in the whole vegetable.
The downside, of course, is that most of the fiber is taken out, but this shouldn’t matter if the rest of your diet is reasonably healthy. Fresh juice is also ridiculously tasty, and there are more delicious flavor combinations out there than you can shake a celery stick at.
Eating Your Way to Health
There’s very little doubt that the epidemic of “lifestyle diseases” we’re seeing today has everything to do with harmful, unnatural diets. The solution is right in front of our eyes, yet sacrificing easy, instant gratification for great future rewards seems to be too much to ask of most people.
One person at a time is the only way to reverse this trend and, like with any paradigm shift, the first step is the hardest. A small handful of mega-corporations dominate the food industry, giving them a huge and largely unscrutinized amount of control over public well-being.
You don’t have to let them make your decisions for you, though: it’s possible and highly rewarding to choose to eat naturally instead.