Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Scott of the Modern Forager blog.
I have been a big fan of Zen Habits site for quite some time. As I embarked on my own journey of simplifying life and putting things in perspective, I found this site to be a big motivator. Today is an opportunity for me to give back in an area that I have immersed myself in for about five years now: how to eat and why.
A few weeks back, Leo posted a link to one of my favorite posts, Nutrition 101: The One Rule To Remember. I don’t want to rehash everything that was in that post, but I will include what I think is the most useful part further down. My goal today is to see how it can be implemented in a simpler, more productive life focused on the things that are important.
Why Has Eating Become So Difficult?
Along with sleep, what you eat is likely the biggest determinant of how healthy you are. Not exercise. Not supplements. Sleep and nutrition. We’re not here today to discuss sleep, but you probably need more of it, so go to bed…after you finish reading this and leaving a comment. Moving along now, the real question is: why is it so hard to figure out what we should be eating? A wolf doesn’t have a problem figuring out what is a healthy diet. A bird knows exactly what it should be eating. What’s our problem?
I think the answer is that most of what we’re presented with isn’t Real Food. When I walk through the grocery, I see lots of (to quote Michael Pollan) “edible food-like substances,” but precious little “food”. We’ve been convinced that the foods Nature has provided us are inadequate and need tweaking. We steer clear of fat, demonize carbs, and dissect food, then put it back together in unnatural ways, generally making sure that we never eat anything remotely resembling the foods our body recognizes.
Unfortunately, the laboratory has yet to outclass the foods that we evolved with. Couple that with our omnivorous ability to eat virtually anything and you have a recipe for confusion.
How To Simplify Eating
I really don’t think it’s all that difficult to figure out what to eat, however. It’s as simple as “Eat Real Food”. So what do I mean by Real Food? Simple…I mean foods that are in, or very near to, their natural state. Here’s a short list of guidelines to lead us to real foods:
- Food grows and dies. It isn’t created.
- Food rots, wilts, and becomes generally unappetizing, typically rather quickly.
- Food doesn’t need an ingredient label (and probably isn’t in a package either).
- Food doesn’t have celebrity endorsements.
- Food doesn’t make health claims.
If you apply this list to your food shopping, you’ll probably realize that much of what passes your lips doesn’t pass muster.
Implementing It In Daily Life
All that is well and good, but the real key is being able to take the above guidelines and put them to work in your life without making eating a chore. I don’t know how it is outside of the United States, but here, we’re in love with our microwaves and convenience foods. The quicker dinner can be served, the quicker we can get back to more important things, like American Idol and work.
How can we eat unprocessed, unpackaged foods without spending our lives in the kitchen? There’s nothing ground-breaking about what I’m about to say. But as all of us at Zen Habits know, simplicity and the basics are what works best.
Cooking At Home
When it comes to healthy eating, you just can’t beat your own kitchen. In fact, I’ll guarantee that the more you cook at home, the healthier you will be. Obviously though, having healthy foods on hand is imperative. If the food isn’t there when you’re hungry, it’s unlikely you’re going to go much out of your way to get it. The same rule you’ve heard over and over again applies: keep vegetables, fruits, and nuts on hand and ready to eat. Further, keep the Twinkies, cinnamon rolls, ice cream, and cereal out of the house, except when you’re treating yourself. If it’s there, you will eat it.
So quick access to the right foods is important, but boredom has killed the best laid dietary plans many more times. Food manufacturers have conditioned our taste buds to seek overly salty and sweet foods. It took me a long time to be able to enjoy the natural sweetness of a carrot. My eating pleasure really took a flying leap though when I figured out how to add flavor without sugar or salt. In a nutshell, love your herbs and spices. Find five or seven or ten go-to spices, keep them on hand, and try combining them in novel ways. Branch out and try others.
Here are a few of my favorites: garlic, basil, cumin, ginger, black pepper. And I’m currently eating lots of sage and rosemary that I’ve been picking up at the farmer’s market. The fun of learning to eat right is getting in the kitchen and seeing what new flavor combos you can create. I like cumin, soy sauce, and garlic together. What you come up with might be weird, but it’s all yours. Oh sure, you’re going to mess something up or create a meal that just ain’t quite right, but Rome wasn’t built in a day…or something like that.
And here’s another aspect of cooking that seems to scare many people off: you don’t have to be competing for the title of Iron Chef to cook delicious, healthy meals. In fact, most of what I cook are simple one-skillet meals where I saute an onion and something green (kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, etc) with ground beef (or other meats, like chicken), throw in a load of whatever spices I have on hand, perhaps a touch of tamari, and get on with eating. It doesn’t always have to be duck confit with a something-something reduction demi-glace.
So where do you find all of this food? My favorite place is my friendly neighborhood farmer’s market (and by “neighborhood,” I mean “across town, but worth the drive”) where I can find fresh, seasonal produce, typically for about 1/3 less than I’d spend at the grocery. So the food is both cheaper and fresher. What else? A bigger benefit is that you are unlikely to find much of temptation there as the farmers are selling fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, raw cheeses, and grass-fed meats and eggs, not pies, cookies, and bagels. Real food from real farmers.
For me, a trip to the grocery is inevitable now and again though. For instance, I’m a big fan of olives and sardines, two items that just aren’t available fresh here in Louisville, KY. The key to the grocery store is sticking to the perimeter. Think about what you see on the outside of the store…meat, eggs, produce, nuts; all foods that are incredibly healthy and unprocessed. About the only thing I can think of worth venturing into the middle aisles for are things like the aforementioned olives and sardines, olive oil, vinegar, and things that you could make at home, but probably aren’t going to, like tomato sauce and coconut milk.
Resist the colorful packages with Spongebob Square Pants calling out to you. Resist the hottest celebrity flashing their tight body on the front of a package of Fritos. And reduce your marketing exposure by never exiting an aisle the same way you came into it. Once you enter, continue on through. It’s the second look that typically catches people and marketers know it.
Unfortunately, when dining out it’s more difficult to make sure you’re eating the right foods. You don’t know what kind of oils they’re using to cook. You don’t know what kind of seasonings are being added or in what quantities, though you can bet there’s a lot of salt. The food is probably not of the high quality that you demand in your own kitchen. You really don’t even know how fresh it is.
First, resign yourself to paying a bit of money to eat well when eating out. Restaurants with higher quality and better food tend to be more expensive. O’Charley’s costs more than McDonald’s. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse costs more than O’Charley’s. There’s a reason for both of these things. It doesn’t mean you have to pay $40 a plate. It does mean that relatively speaking, higher priced restaurants will probably be nicer to your waistline (and the damage to your wallet might keep you eating at home more often).
Okay, so you’re at a decent restaurant and looking to make the right choices. Where to start? First, keep the munchies out of sight. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask the server to remove the bread basket. I know, I know…it’s darn near blasphemy to go into a Mexican restaurant and not chow on chips and salsa (I’m guilty of this…we all have our vices!). And skip the appetizers. They’re rarely anything but processed crap.
Second, you know this rule: grilled or baked are better than fried. Grilled salmon, shrimp, steak, chicken. Also remember: you cannot go wrong with vegetables. Ditch the mashed potatoes and opt for a second serving of steamed vegetables. If you’re watching carbs, nix the rice in favor of broccoli. Most any sit-down restaurant is going to have a couple forms of vegetables from which to choose. Get olive oil and vinegar dressing for your salad. If you’re lucky, they’ll bring it to the table in two bottles, which you can then conveniently hang onto to add some flavor to your double order of steamed vegetables. You did order extra vegetables, didn’t you?
Now do you want one of my secrets to getting awesome food that is typically on the good side of healthy at good prices? Ethnic restaurants. And I don’t mean the Chinese buffet; I mean ethnic restaurants run by people that immigrated from the country. There is a Cuban restaurant here in Louisville called Havana Rumba that knocks the socks off of any pub fare you’ll ever sink your teeth into. Where else can I get a huge mound of pork marinated in lime and orange juices, olive oil, and spices? Try Ethiopian, Greek, and Irish fare for something new. You’ll taste novel new uses for spices that a burger and fries just can’t touch.
“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…But WHAT Should I Eat?”
Okay, time to wrap up before Leo gives me the hook. What foods do I associate with Real Food? Scroll back up and look at the list I tossed out under the second heading. Wow…quite a list huh? Seems to eliminate everything. Well, it does. Everything except meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seed, squashes, and tubers. I find that I’m better off without grains, but properly prepared (which is a whole other post), they can be a fine addition to your diet (though I’ll say that most breads and all boxed cereals do not fall into “properly prepared”).
Still think it’s restrictive? Let’s name some things that are most definitely Real Food: beef, chicken, turkey, pork, salmon, shrimp, crab, lobster, eggs, cheese. Spinach, kale, cucumbers, carrots, turnips, squash (spaghetti, butternut, and acorn to name a few), sweet potatoes, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, onions, radishes, bok choi, olives, cabbage. (Deep breath.) Apples, bananas, cherries, melons, berries (straw, black, rasp, and blue), pears. Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts. Coconut oil, palm oil, butter (yes, I said butter!), olive oil. And let’s not forget parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, garam masala, curry powder, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, and nutmeg. If I were more creative, I’d have made it rhyme, but I think you get the point.
Frankly these foods are far more tasty, more versatile, and healthier than anything you’re going to find in a package. They are far better than the foods with “Now with added X” or “less saturated fat” or “low-carb” or “low-fat” written on the front.
And Finally, Enjoy Life
My final guideline is to let loose sometimes. As I mentioned above, I will tear through some chips and salsa (or better yet, guacamole). But I don’t go to a Mexican restaurant when I plan to stick to my guns and I don’t go all that often. Pick a few smart vices (like dark chocolate, good beer or wine, chips and salsa, ice cream, probably not Dunkin Donuts) and pepper them throughout your life to make things enjoyable. Frankly, life is too short to give up everything, but by being good 90% of the time, you’ll find that the other 10% doesn’t really hurt you and is far more enjoyable.
What other guidelines do you have? How do you motivate yourself to cook good food at home instead of grabbing processed convenience foods? How do you keep on the straight and narrow when you’re eating out?
Read more from Scott at his blog, Modern Forager.