Basic Food Rules for Optimal Health

Food Is Big Business!

Americans spend a whopping $1 trillion dollars a year on food. Food is big business to say the least. The rising health concerns that accompany the rising obesity rates have prompted many food manufacturers to focus on key marketing terms, such as low-fat, whole grain, etc., in order to promote their products. For the food industry, mixed messages and confusion are good for business. In his book Food Rules, author Michael Pollan said:

As a journalist I fully appreciate the value of widespread public confusion: We’re in the explanation business, and if the answers to the questions we explore got too simple, we’d be out of work. Indeed, I had a deeply unsettling moment when, after spending a couple years researching nutrition for my last book, In Defense of Food, I realized that the answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we should eat wasn’t so complicated after all, and in fact could be boiled down to just seven words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Basic Guidelines

Eat Real Food

It doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out. Basically, man will never improve on what God has created.

“Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups while choosing foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans-fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.”

The problem is that the common sense has to compete with a powerful trillion dollar food industry that bombards us with messages calculated to make us eat more and more of the worst possible food. Generally speaking, there is an inverse relationship between nutritional value and profit when it comes to food. The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes. The more processed it is, the less nutritional value it retains. That is why we see things like enriched flour. They try to stuff some of the nutrients back in that they processed out. What we end up with is a far cry from what God gave us. Packaged and processed food companies spare no expense to push more of their products on their target market. More than 90 percent of their product sales are made to less than 10 percent of their customers. “In the case of processed food, that coveted 10 percent consists largely of people weighing more than 200 pounds and earning less than $35,000 per year.”

In his book, The New Wellness Revolution, economist Paul Zane Pilzer observed:

No expense is spared to hit every psychological button that matters to the target market… Like a deer caught in the scope of a hunter at close range, the target never has chance.

At times, the ruthlessness of the process troubles the consciences of the $200,000-per-year marketing executives in charge of it. Some actually refuse to attend their own focus groups. Rather than confront their future victims in person, they prefer to review transcripts in the safety of their offices.

One of the great scandals of the junk-food culture is the extent to which its most enthusiastic promoters personally avoid the very products they are pushing.

Pilzer goes on to point out:

These food companies do something even worse than targeting lower-income, unhealthy, overweight consumers for their products. Once the target actually tries the product and becomes a customer, company chemists ensure they will never be satisfied with eating just a healthy amount of it.

[They] have been altered to ensure that “nobody can eat just one” of them. This chemical alteration causes great overconsumption, promoting obesity and destroying the natural tendency of our taste buds to seek variety in what we eat.

Perhaps at this point you are beginning to feel a bit of righteous indignation. We have allowed ourselves to be led astray like pigs to the slaughter. I am reminded again of the words of Jesus, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). These things should not surprise us. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves so that we know good from bad. Which brings me back to this point. The single best thing you can do to ensure proper nutrition is to eat primarily unprocessed whole foods. Real food, not edible food-like substances. Real food meaning:

  • Leafy Greens
  • Fruits
  • Lean Proteins
  • Whole Grains
  • Healthy Fats
  • Legumes (beans, peas, etc)

If the majority of your diet consists of real food, you will get better nutrition and feel more satisfied while consuming fewer calories. A good way to make sure you are eating real food is to shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle

You have probably noticed that most supermarkets are laid out the same way: For the most part, fresh food-produce, meat and fish, dairy-are on the outer edge, while processed foods dominate the center aisles. Also, many stores place the organic and whole foods sections on the periphery as well. If you keep to the outer edge of the store you are much more likely to wind up with real food in your shopping cart. This strategy is not entirely fool proof since HFCS, artificial sweeteners and other non-food ingredients have snuck into the dairy case and are hiding in flavored yogurts, pudding and some forms of cheese. Also, good foods, such as brown rice, dried beans, old-fashioned oatmeal, whole-grain pasta, etc. are usually found in one of the inner isles of the store. Still, the less time you spend in the center isles, the better off you are. Think of it as a baseball diamond-when you are running the bases it is best to stick as close to the baseline as possible. Deviate into the infield too much and you will find yourself back on the bench.

Pay More, Eat Less

We have all heard the age-old adage, “you get what you pay for.” Food is no exception. Quality is more important than quantity. Pollan observed, “There’s no escaping the fact that better food-measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond)-costs more, because it has been grown less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is a literal shame, but most of us can.”

As with everything else, there is also a cost trade-off. As food costs have declined, food quality has declined and we end up having to eat more food and in reality spending just as much money. You probably end up spending more on health care as well. We complain about range-free organic eggs being $3 a dozen but don’t blink at coke in our hands that cost $0.75. If you spend more for better food, you will probably eat less of it, it will probably taste better, and you will be more satisfied. So choose quality over quantity, nutrition over calories. Or as our grandparents used to say, “Better to pay the grocer than the doctor.”

Eat When You Are Hungry, Not When You Are Bored

For a lot of us, probably most of us, eating often has very little to do with hunger. We eat when we get bored, or for entertainment, or to comfort or reward ourselves. Make a conscious effort to be aware of why you are eating, and only eat when you are truly hungry. One old wives’ test says “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, than you’re not hungry.” Eating out of boredom or for comfort is a very costly antidepressant.

Don’t Drink Your Calories

This doesn’t mean don’t consume beverages that contain calories. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have protein or meal replacement shakes. It means be careful of what you drink. It is far too easy to get an entire day’s worth or even two days worth of calories from a single indulgent drink.

You even have to be careful with many so-called “health drinks.” The restaurant industry can easily fool health-conscious consumers with labels like “reduced-calorie.” There’s nothing “reduced” about a smoothie with more calories than a Quarter Pounder or four times the sugar in a chocolate-frosted cake doughnut.

Do I really even need to mention cokes or sweet tea? Like P90X Creator and Fitness Guru, Tony Horton says, “Drink your water, people!”

Break the rules once in a while

Obsessing over food rules is bad for your happiness and probably for your health too. Far too many people fail because they promise themselves that they will never eat this or that only to break that promise. It is important to have a relaxed, healthy relationship with food. There will always be special occasions where it is okay to throw all of the rules out the window. What matters most is not the special occasion, but the everyday practice. It is one thing to sin, but quite another to live in sin. It is often said, “All things in moderation,” but that is an easily abused philosophy. As Bo Bennett said:

The credo of the average American is “all things in moderation”. This is the same average American that is about 20 pounds overweight and has a one out of four chance of dying from heart disease.

I prefer the addendum offered by Mark Twain:

“All things in moderation, including moderation.”

The Bottom Line

Okay, so we know that we should eat healthier, the way God intended for us to eat. We all know that Krispy Kreme doughnuts are bad for us and that fresh fruit is good for us. Knowing isn’t the problem: doing it is another story. Why? Because we are in the habit of eating bad. We have to create a new habit of eating healthy. Since this is a lifestyle, it has to be doable. For starters, it is important to be realistic. A good general plan is to use the 80/20 rule. If you eat clean 80% of the time, you can afford to cheat 20% of the time. Personally, I tend to lean towards 90/10. Part of that is because the longer you eat clean, the less you want to cheat, and the more your body will let you know when you cheat. Not just by an added pound or two but by the way you feel. Once your body gets used to running on the high octane fuel God intended, you will notice that it doesn’t run as well on the edible food-like stuff.