Scattered thoughts on nutrition

Sonnie Bailey

15 September 2015

I’ve recently developed an interest in nutrition. It’s fascinating how many resources on this topic are out there. Some of them are great, but many are lacking in terms of credibility.

Some of the better resources I’ve come across are:

  • Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, by Walter C. Willett, M.D. with Patrick J. Skerrett
  • Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, by Michael Pollan

Below are some of the overarching insights I’ve had since exploring this area. 

Being on a temporary “diet” is a terrible idea

With limited exceptions, the idea of being on a temporary diet is a terrible idea. If your aim is be healthy, a good diet should be part of your long-term lifestyle. Anything that is temporary or a stop gap is not going to be a long-term solution.

It’s better to make gradual changes that over time add up to something than to do something drastic, which doesn’t stick.

A corollary of this is that if you screw up, you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much about it. If you play the long game, you’ll have periodic set backs. The worst thing the set back can do is stop you from continuing to pursue your long-term goal.

There are shortcomings to the “Western diet” 

In Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Michael Pollan refers to the “so-called Western diet”, which he defines broadly as a diet that consists of lots of: 

  • processed foods and meat,
  • added fat and sugar,
  • refined grains, and
  • everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole  grains.

Pollan points out that “Populations that eat  [such a diet] invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer”. 

He continues that “science knows a lot less about nutrition than you would expect… in fact nutrition science is, to put it charitably, a very young science”. To a large extent, it’s not fully understood how all of the components of a food work together. And nor is this usually a focus: “the focus is on identifying the evil nutrient in the Western diet so that food manufacturers might tweak their products, thereby leaving the [Western] diet undisturbed”. 

It makes intuitive sense that processed foods consisting of added fat and sugar and refined grains might not be great for us. We may have evolved to crave these types of food where foods with these characteristics were scarce, but because they were scarce, our bodies haven’t evolved to be able to consume them on a regular basis. It stands to reason that chronic diseases could be a consequence. 

Pollan’s eight-word mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” 

This is a great, simple prescription from Michael Pollan. 

“Eat food” – whole foods

As opposed to highly processed food, which Pollan defines as “edible food-like substances”. 

This is part of the attraction of fruits and vegetables. You eat them in the form in which they were grown.

Even juice that you create at home isn’t as as nutritious as eating the fruit in its original form. The further the meal on your plate is from its source material in its original form, the more likely it is that it has lost nutritional content and acquired additional things that are not so good for us. 

“Not too much.”

Some tips:

  • Eat from smaller plates and taller, thinner cups.
  • Have your meals dished up on the plate rather than served “family style”. When food is served “family style” people reliably consume more.
  • Commit only to eating one serving rather than multiple servings.
  • Eat foods that are high in satiety. Ie, that make you fuller for the amount of calories consumed.
  • Focus less on feeling “full” and more on “not being hungry”. Think of your stomach as a rubbish bag. You always want to leave room at the top so you can tie a knot. 
  • Consider following the S policy – no snacks, sweets, or seconds on any day that doesn’t start with an S.

“Mostly plants.” 

Ie, fruit and vegetables. Another way of putting it: “Eat a crapton of vegetables“.

I’m not entirely convinced that going entirely vegetarian is the way to go (from a health perspective or even from an ethical perspective). But I think most of us would benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. 

Practical take aways

  • Eat at home as much as possible. Restaurant meals are often high in saturated fats and butter. We might have a general idea of what the meals are made of, but we don’t know for sure. As Pollan says, “foods and beverages that have been prepared by corporations contain far higher levels of salt and sugar than any ordinary human would ever add – even a child”. Wherever possible, you should “Sweeten and salt your food yourself.”
  • In my experience, and the experience of people I’ve spoken to, busy people often revert to one of a handful of default meals when they are cooking. So it’s important to make sure that your default meals are as healthy as possible

As well as thinking about nutrition, I’m also focussed on time and expense. I’ve started to subscribe to the idea of “investment cooking”. If you’re going to make a bolognese loaded with vegetables, for example, why just one? Why not make half a dozen meals and freeze those you’re not going to eat immediately? 

  • Buy lots of fruit and make it accessible. We used to have a standard fruit basket. It didn’t work well. The fruit at the bottom often ended up getting neglected and we tended to pick at whatever fruit that was at the top. Now, we have a big tray that’s easily accessible and we spread our fruit on that. If some of the fruit goes off and needs to be thrown out, we’re not worried about that. Better to have it accessible than not have enough of it in the house.
  • Develop “snacking strategies”. Especially when I am at home for the day (looking after kids, or working from home) I tend to snack on whatever is easiest to access. In the past this has included biscuits, chocolate pieces, cheese, and other “goodies”. Now, I spend the time every week or so to cut carrots and celery into bite-size pieces. I’ll often put these alongside other refrigerated fruit such as grapes. As long as they are available as options, it’s not hard to choose these over the others. 
  • It’s better to AVOID temptation than RESIST it. If you don’t have goodies at home you’re less likely to have them. 

When we think about long-term health, it’s worth remembering that eating well is one part of the puzzle. Physical activity is another. So is sociability. 

(Note: ensuring good nutrition can be complex. People who have special health needs in particular should consult with professionals to ensure that these needs are addressed.)

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