If you’ve ever wanted to see an immediate display of Shadenfreude, tell your friends you are on a diet. The last time I did, the following happened:
- Some friends inquired into the details and then proceeded to tell me exactly how unhealthful my diet plan was.
- Some friends asked what foods were excluded from the diet – and offered them to me whenever I was in their presence.
- My closest friends said, “How can I help?”
Needless to say, I’m appreciative of the last response and a bit confused by the first two. I understand that the word “diet” comes with varied connotation and can create ire and anxiety. In my case the meaning is strictly: the things I choose to eat (that is, not a calorie metric)
I subscribe to the Michael Pollan approach: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Note that I subscribe, I don’t always practice.
Let’s examine my take on each of the above 3 rules.
Rule 1, Eat food: In general, I do eat food. Things that come without ingredient lists or highly simplified ones that do not need knowledge of organic chemistry nomenclature. Deviations from plan are well-known to my friends: doublestuf Oreo cookies, barbecue potato chips, and Dreyer’s all fruit lime popsicles. My family has a voracious sweet tooth; no breakfast ends without desert. Dinner can be preempted by pie.
Pollan’s first prescription is an outstanding path to health. With no ingredient list you’re left with: fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, meat. It’s likely been the most important health change in my adult life. It is in sharp contrast to the diet I had as a child – almost exclusively McDonald’s, DunkinDonuts, and Little Debbies. My parents equated processed food and high fructose corn syrup with love. They meant well; my father grew up during the Depression and my mother grew up in World War 2 Germany; food was cherished gift and they loved me extravagantly.
I digress. Bottom line – since I started eating food and stopped eating chemicals I lost weight – roughly 50lbs. Over the past 7 years I’ve maintained that weight plus/minus ten pounds. For those keeping score at home, I went from 185lbs to 135lbs in 2005. My weight went up to roughly 145 two years later; it varied and hit a low of 125 in December of 2009 (age 41.) In general I’m a few pounds on either side of 140. My adult low weight is 112; I was 23 years old, vegan, and a bit stressed out by graduate school.
Rule 2, Eat less: This is a challenge. I am 5’2″ but I can outeat grown men more than a foot taller. Hell, I can out eat teenaged boys who have spent an afternoon playing tackle football followed by an evening smoking pot. This is where rules 1 and 3 are very helpful – if you eat food, and it is mostly plants, it is extremely difficult to eat yourself into obesity. I dare you. Eating only dark greens, stalks, and a few blossoms try to pack on some weight. It won’t work. You’ll have to resort to the heavy sugars – fruit and potatoes – and the body’s insulin response. (For more information about the role of sugars and weight, do research on insulin resistance; it’s too complex to discuss in this post properly)
Let’s take a look at rule 3 – Eat mostly plants. Plants have the highest nutritional score per calorie – Whole Foods and Eat Right America have promoted this information via ANDI – Aggregate Nutrition Density Index. Kale has a score of 1000. Tofu has a score of 37. Before you gloat, the highest scoring red meat is sirloin Bison at 39. Tuna has a score of 47 but there is that pesky mercury issue as well as decimation of the world’s tuna schools. (Full disclosure: I am allergic to all seafood and shellfish. My body is so repulsed that the smell makes me ill. However, I have never met a cheeseburger I didn’t like.)
You notice, I didn’t say much about exercise. Exercise, central to health, is about keeping your body working – cardiovascular, lymphatic, digestion, enzymatic. With the exception of unusual endurance events, you can’t exercise enough to compensate for a poor diet. Also, I wouldn’t recommend a poor diet and an endurance event. The meaning of the word “Bonk” will become apparent in short order. Exercise is a topic for another post but it is so very important to long-term health. You don’t have to be an athlete but we evolved in an environment of motion and change, not Herman Miller Aeron chairs. Honor that history.
Regardless of your size or shape, love your body. Feed it real food as it is a complex chemical cell and needs the best reactants to optimize its product. Feed it regularly so it doesn’t think it’s starving and will hoard every last molecule. Enjoy the amazing abundance that we have in the developed world and perhaps consider a small gift to support programs for those who don’t.