5 Bits of Advice I Wish All My Friends Would Heed
October 26, 2007
I mentioned that I was going to the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference at CIA Greystone (co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School Osher Institute) a couple of weeks ago, and that was the impetus for this post. I’ve long believed that healthy doesn’t have to be ho-hum and delicious doesn’t have to be over-the-top decadent, and I’m inspired anew to see others think the same (as evidenced by so many of your blogs!).
I started out writing about travel, then shifted to food and wine after I moved to California and became smitten with the bounty of my adopted state. Eventually, though, I began incorporating a health and wellness angle to many of my pieces. Part of this was parallel to my own journey; I had struggled with ongoing health issues since college and had been on and off a laundry list of medicines with no improvement. In the end, it was a healthy diet and a balanced life that made a difference, and I wanted to share what I learned through my writing. Around the dinner table, doling out advice can sound preachy. But, I reasoned, if I wrote articles with the messages I wanted to pass on, my friends (and others, presumably) may read them and reap the same rewards I have.
So here, my friends, are five things I’ve discovered in writing about food, health and life that I wish to pass on to you. I could spin these five things a hundred different ways, but this is what they would all boil down to:
1) Eat More Vegetables.
There’s been quite a bit of talk about this in the pasta realm, as of late, and I’m glad to hear it. Five years ago, I lost twenty pounds and have kept it off (well, between fifteen and twenty at any given time any way), and I can honestly cite this one principle as being a major reason why.
When I was writing an article on how the healthiest cultures on the planet eat, this one kept coming up again and again (vegetable consumption has been proven to lower risk of stroke, heart disease—even more than some of the pills on the market—and some cancers). So I thought it was time to change my paradigm of what my plate should look like. Rather than filling half of it with some sort of meat, a quarter with some type of starch and a quarter with vegetables, I swapped it. Now, half of my plate has veggies on it (really yummy veggies, not the steamed stuff), a quarter has protein, and a quarter some variety of whole grain. With pasta, I simply half the amount of pasta and double the amount of veggies. And you know what? I find after a meal, I’m actually MORE satisfied with the new configuration.
2) Go For Whole Foods.
I’ve gotten reamed on various low-carb sites for stating that carbs are not the enemy, but I continue to stand by that statement. Our bodies need carbohydrates, in the form of vegetables and whole grains. What they don’t need are the huge amounts of refined carbohydrates that are rampant in our modern diet in the form of soda, packaged foods, white bread, rice, pasta—even pretzels. (There’s a whole sub-topic here on glycemic index and glycemic load, but I won’t get into it here)
When we eat whole grains and unprocessed fruits and vegetables (most of them, anyway), our body digests them at a healthy rate, absorbing the myriad nutrients and allowing our systems to remain balanced. But when the layers of fiber are removed from a food, as they are in refined starches, our digestive enzymes delve right in and get to work—too quickly. In this case, our bodies respond with a spike in blood glucose and epinephrine, essentially acting as if they were in danger. You can imagine that putting your body through this several times a day would start to take a toll, and it does. This is one of the reasons type II diabetes is on the rise.
I used to be intimidated by cooking whole grains, but lately, I’ve been challenging myself to explore a new whole grain every other week. I’ll buy a bag of bulk quinoa or bulgur or pearled barley and see what I can do with it and, I have to say, it’s quite an education. I find that once I get comfortable cooking a particular grain and incorporate its flavor profile into my repertoire, it opens up new worlds to the question, “what’s for dinner?”
3) Eat the Right Kinds of Fat.
It’s amazing, I’ve been writing about this for over five years now. I’ve spoken to brilliant experts who have proven time and again that fat, in and of itself, does not cause us to gain weight. And yet I still shy away from foods with higher fat content—even the healthy fats.
Here’s the bottom line: fat, like carbs, are not bad. However, like carbs, there are types of fat that are really bad for us, types of fat that aren’t great for us and types of fat that our body needs to thrive. Here’s the bottom line, don’t eat anything with trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils (a label can have partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list yet claim 0 grams trans fats if it contains less than 0.5 grams trans fats . . . which means they can still add up to several grams of trans fats a day). Limit your intake of saturated fats—these can come from dairy or meats. Up your intake of monounsaturated fats (olive oil and canola oil), as long as you’re not going nuts with your total caloric intake (in other words, don’t douse a 14–ounce steak with olive oil and feel like you’re being healthier . . . instead, saute a bunch of kale in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and serve it with a small slice of steak).
I’ve found something very interesting happens on the subject of fat in my own psyche. When I’m focusing on sticking to a “low fat” diet, I feel like I’m depriving myself and more often than not will end up “splurging” in an unhealthy way. Yet when I just tell myself to focus on healthy fats—and in fact increase my consumption of good fats—I eat a lot healthier (more veggies, less slip-ups), feel healthier, and generally lose weight. It’s not an easy paradigm to shift; we’ve had the “low fat” message pounded into our heads for decades. But it’s an important—and ultimately enjoyable—one.
4) Eat Local and Organic as Often as Possible.
I’m sure I’ll get push-back on this one, and that’s fine. But I have a couple of reasons for believing this belongs here. First, local farmers and organic producers (for now anyway) are the ones on the front-line protecting our food chain. When lobbyists step in and try to weaken organic standards, or try to sneak a little something under the radar (just a little genetic modification wouldn’t hurt . . .), it’s these people who raise the red flag. And for that reason I believe we should support them.
The other reason is a selfish one—taste. I am sorry, but you cannot tell me that an heirloom tomato bought from the farmers’ market tastes anything like those pale red ones in the supermarket. It just isn’t so. I find it the same for lettuce, carrots, zucchini, beans, not to mention peaches and plums and figs. As a society, we’re only getting a fraction of the vegetables and fruits we’re supposed to be getting (the USDA is now recommending at least nine servings a day), and I’ve often wondered if that isn’t because the vegetables we buy at the supermarket—the cucumbers in February that have come from Ecuador and the asparagus in November that comes from Peru—taste so bland and boring. Grow your own, buy from the farmers’ market, join a CSA—just taste how incredible, and varied, really fresh produce can be.
And in case you were wondering, here’s my own hierarchy of how to buy, in descending order:
- Buy local and organic and seasonal produce. If I can’t do that then I . . .
- Buy local or organic seasonal produce (This one is up to you . . . some people feel more passionately that produce be grown closer to them, even if chemicals were used, rather than being grown organically and then shipped to their store.). If I can’t do that then I . . .
- Buy organic produce (If what I’m buying is out of season and I have the choice of conventional or organic, I’ll choose the organic one). If I can’t do that then I . . .
- Buy produce
5) Pay Attention and Enjoy.
I make pretty healthy choices about the foods I put in my mouth. Where I slip up is eating too much. When I’m running a million miles an hour and eating in front of my computer, I’ll eat whatever’s in front of me whether I’m full or not and not even really mentally process that I’ve eaten it. And that is the very opposite of mindful eating.
The flipside of that is paying attention to your body, to what you eat, how you eat it and how it makes you feel. New studies are showing that the simple act of being mindful at meals can have a huge impact on our health (I hope to be writing more on that in the very near future . . . stay tuned). No surprise. I find that when I’m more present at a meal, I feel satiated to the core—even if there’s food left on my plate. There’s something sacred involved in sharing food and wine, and when we tune into it, we’re allowing ourselves to be nurtured at a very deep level.
This applies to exercise too. I’ve heard several experts from all over the world say that, over the long haul, making a habit of taking a half hour walk every day will do us much more good than going to the gym in fits and spurts over a couple of decades. Philosophically, I embrace this whole-heartedly—what better way to reduce stress and stay fit than taking a walk with family or friends, noticing the details as each season passes into the next. But in the rush of the day, my daily walks get squeezed out more often than not. I’ll be working on this one.
So there you go. My five nuggets of wisdom that I wanted to share . . . forgive me if it sounded preachy. If it did, I’ll just let you know the next time I’ve got an article to show you . . .