Good news for food lovers from 2012: starving yourself will not make you live longer. All those calorie-restrictive diets that increased life expectancy of lab rats by 30 to 40 percent? It turns out the concept doesn’t extend to primates.
I’m sure some people (the intentionally-starving ones) might have found this news disappointing. But to me it confirms my fundamental food philosophy: Don’t mess with Mother Nature. She is smarter than we are.
We’ve been manufacturing food for decades, and in that time we’ve become more obese and less healthy. The empty sweetness of diet soda may in fact make people gain weight. Hydrogenated vegetable oils that were supposed to be healthier than lard or butter turned out to be worse. Remember olestra, the no-calorie, no-cholesterol, no-fat fat of the ’90s? It bombed when people found it caused digestive woes and interfered with vitamin absorption.
Every week nutritional news has a new food to avoid or a new superfood to trumpet. Food studies are often funded by the food industry, so there is an inherent bias in what gets researched.
I think it’s time we stopped listening to claims of heart-healthy-low-fat-low-carb-vitamin-fortified fake food and started listening to our bodies instead.
When it comes to sensible food advice, it’s hard to beat Michael Pollan’s brilliantly concise answer to the omnivore’s dilemma:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
The how of it all can be hard. Here’s how I try:
- Listen to the body – Different bodies are optimized for different types of fuel. Know what works for yours. Some bodies prefer protein, some need more carbs. Some take bigger meals earlier in the day, others want a big dinner. Many people suffer unwittingly from food sensitivities that take years to identify. Learning about your body takes trial, error and persistence, but achieving synchrony with your system is key to maintaining good health.
- Daily fast – The idea of breakfast – breaking the fast – doesn’t work if you eat late into the night and start the minute you wake up in the morning. A long spell without food drops the body into a lower metabolic state in which it can operate comfortably without food. Constant eating deprives your body of this part of its natural cycle. I feel a 12-hour food hiatus gives my body a break from digestion to focus on repair functions.
- Volume satisfaction – I need to consume a certain volume of food in order to feel satisfied. A small amount of very heavy food just isn’t as psychologically satisfying to me as a large plate of lighter food. I want to linger over a meal, not have it be over in a few rich bites.
- Vegetable variety – Vegetables are low in calories, high in nutrition and generally high in volume. So having vegetables crowd out other items on my plate is beneficial in every way – more nutrition, more volume, fewer calories. The secret to eating more vegetables is variety. The palate loves stimulation. I might have a big leafy salad as well as a cooked vegetable or a grain salad with roasted veg. Each one makes the other more interesting, and they serve to reduce the volume of a “main” dish.
- Chemical avoidance – Food processors don’t make this easy, as a September “60 Minutes” episode about developers of artificial flavorings illustrated frighteningly well. There’s a big industry out there crafting irresistibly addictive chemical flavorings that make MSG seem quaint. Most conveniently flavored processed foods, even basic flavors like butter or lemon, use chemical versions of the real thing. And anyone who has ever dyed Easter eggs knows how much food coloring is needed to achieve the saturated hues found in soda, popsicles, colored frostings and the like. I try to stick with the basics – popcorn, yogurt, oatmeal – and add my own flavorings to avoid the chemical flavorings and dyes.
- Austerity Monday – In my youthful New York City days, I used to balance out weekends of eating out with “austerity Monday” – a welcome day of restraint. I like to maintain a consistent weight (helped greatly by slim genes), so when my weight nudges up, I work to nudge it back down. Restraint isn’t deprivation – it’s merely the opposite of indulgence. Some days I eat more, others less. And overall I find my body needs less food at 40 than it did at 20.
- Buy great ingredients, especially fruits and vegetables – It takes hardly any skill to put together a great meal with fresh, quality ingredients. The first step toward eating more fruits and vegetables is buying them to begin with. The cost of good seasonal ingredients is much less than a restaurant meal. With a smartly stocked pantry, one or two fresh items is all you need to put together a healthful, satisfying meal. And having fresh ingredients on hand is encouragement for the next step.
- Cook – For the most part, restaurants and food manufacturers only care that you enjoy a single dining experience. The only person that cares about your long-term health is you (and your mom). A restaurant won’t think twice about melting a stick of butter on your steak. The only way to know what goes into your food is to prepare it yourself. I don’t go to the gym, but I take the time to prepare my own food, and sometimes it’s as simple as cut vegetables, good cheese and good bread.
- Bring healthy foods – When we go to a friend’s place for dinner, I love to contribute fresh fruit and a generous salad. When we take the kids to a restaurant, I carry along fruit for the kids. As long as my family gets its fruit/vegetable intake, I’m relaxed about the content of rest of the meal.
- Have standards – Hippocrates, father of medicine, famously said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” More than calories, food is nourishment. I’d rather wait to eat something good than load up on filler food. To me it’s respect for my body and my health.
The food I feature here is what I cook. I don’t make anything crazy rich. I like my indulgences (mostly sweet). I don’t make anything too complicated. Simple food is what I like to make, what I like to eat, and what makes me feel good. I cook for my long-term health, and I share in hope that I can help you to do the same.
Here’s to enjoying the gifts of food and life in 2013. You inspire me to act on my intentions, to keep looking forward, and best of all, to remember.
- Balsamic vinaigrette – The recipe that originally drew many of you here, this simple salad dressing with a touch of honey just makes vegetables taste better. Use it to dress greens, drizzle over roasted vegetables, serve as a dip, spread on a sandwich.
- Roasted cauliflower with parmesan and green olives – No florets, this cauliflower is sliced thin. With parmesan, chopped olives, garlic and oven-roasted until edges are crispy, I swear this will convert cauliflower haters.
- Arugula, pear and parmesan salad – One of my all-time favorites, spicy arugula pairs so well with pear and big shavings of great parmesan.
- Fennel, orange and avocado salad – Refreshing in the wintertime, crunchy thin-sliced fennel is a change of pace from winter greens.
- Kale salad with cranberries and toasted walnuts – Lettuces from afar are sad in the winter, but sturdy kale is fresh, green and makes a great salad.
- Easy chicken and green bean stir fry – A handy one-dish meal that works with any vegetables you have on hand (broccoli, bell peppers, onions, even thin-sliced carrots and celery).
Very sound advice, CG. I would also add “Try to make every meal an occasion”. I think it’s important for children, especially, to see adults prioritising a joyful moment of sharing every day, something to look forward to and savour.
thanks, mm – a great add!
CG – Lovely post as always! I am almost at the point of convincing my steak and potato husband and in-laws that applesauce does not constitute the vegetable portion of a meal!! sigh… good old German beef stock flows in my husbands veins… my Chinese mother and I are making mean vegetarian stirfrys, bitter melon with egg, sweet and sour braised cabbage, and we are slowly converting the meat and potatoes palate accustomed to old school 1950’s meat with gravy cooking. My mother in law just asked for “that delicious salad dressing” recipe, hehe…. totally your vinaigrette recipe!! Thus with your blog and my mother’s stirfrys there is hope of a happy produce filled world! Keep up the good work, and happy 2013!
hi lingling – sounds like you are making great progress on your husband and in-laws. i always feel particularly successful when i get my midwestern in-law family to load up on the veggies. they are learning too. =) thanks so much for sharing back, i love it!