This is the first of (what I’m sure will be) a few posts responding to conventional nutrition “wisdom.” Today’s topic: Everything in moderation. My aunt says this to my mom all the time, but the truth is, as my mom tries to focus on healthy eating, having a little of this and a little of that would derail her efforts. The flip side is that for people who have been eating junk and not working out for years, my style of advice may seem a little puritanical in its fanaticism. (Read: impossible to follow, and therefore, may cause people to give up before they start.)
David Freedman at The Atlantic wrote an excellent piece critiquing the Mark Pollan‘s and the me’s of the world. He notes that the villianization of “healthier” but still processed, mainstream food options — like a McDonald’s McWrap or 100 calorie snack packs — may alienate the people who need health advice the most. He describes the world as so-called health-nuts would want it in a very negative light:
Too bad it would be one tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority. And too bad it would largely exclude the obese masses, who would continue to sicken and die early. Despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population—even in the unlikely case that your typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break lifelong habits to embrace kale and yellow beets. And many of the dishes glorified by the wholesome-food movement are, in any case, as caloric and obesogenic as anything served in a Burger King.
He goes on to focus on the fact that obviously unhealthy food often masquerades as a healthy option in high-end grocery or health food stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s:
Here at the register I’m confronted with a large display of a snack food called “Inner Peas,” consisting of peas that are breaded in cornmeal and rice flour, fried in sunflower oil, and then sprinkled with salt. By weight, the snack has six times as much fat as it does protein, along with loads of carbohydrates. I can’t recall ever seeing anything at any fast-food restaurant that represents as big an obesogenic crime against the vegetable kingdom.
Note that many of the health-nuts that he is writing against would agree that Inner Peas sound like a terrible (and processed!) option. They’re not fresh, full of additives, and are fried – just like most junk food. A response to this article will require several posts, because Freedman goes on to attack “wholesome” eating as being “fattening” (which in his “a-calorie-is-a-calorie” view, means just as unhealthy), expensive, and untasty. I happen to disagree with all three assertions (so expect responses forthcoming), but I do agree with many of his basic premises – for instance, that foods that are labeled as healthy/organic/natural may very well be completely unhealthy. And I fully agree with Freedman that every person needs to find a plan that is accessible and followable for them.
The problem with his article is that he focuses solely on weight loss and a switch from the terrible to the not-so-terrible. I think both of these goals are laudable and will vastly improve the health of many people. But for me and this blog, the focus has nothing to do with weight loss or feeling ok – both of those goals are reachable with less stringent requirements than what I will often propose. I am writing about what to do after you’ve reached that point. I am writing about maximizing your health so you can feel amazing and so that your body and mind can function best for work and play.
If those are your goals, it is going to take more than trading out the 800 calorie Big Mac with cheese for a McWrap. So, for those who are still with me, here’s my personal take on the role of moderation in diet and fitness when you’re trying to reach the next level of health.
I was going to start by saying that eating small amounts of crap every single day would be like putting a little diesel fuel into a regular car and hoping it would still run well. But it is probably even worse than that – it’s like putting mud into your tank and trying to see what happens next. I get that the analogy falls apart – our bodies are smart and adaptable, and will do as much as they can with whatever fuel we feed on. And I know this better than anyone – I left my body on “empty” for years and it did everything it could to perform in spite of my poor choices.
I also recognize that there are anomalies out there who eat loads of junk and have washboard abs and tight glutes – but I still truly believe that even those lucky ones would feel more energized, have better skin, and better internal functioning if they ate right. The blessing of having to eat right to look right is knowing that your body is truly in the best shape, inside and out, that it can be in. My advice: Treat your body like a high-end car — fill up with premium when you can and at least regular on a normal basis. After all, the body you’re born with is the only one you’ve got, and it runs best when you treat it right.
I think this is where “dieting” screws people up. Nutrition is a lifestyle. And it is about rewarding yourself, but not in the way that most people think. You had a great workout – awesome. Your next questions should be what can I eat to refuel best? What can I eat that will make me feel the best? Its not about weight or looking great. It is about feeling like you deserve to eat properly so you can be at your peak. There’s nothing rewarding about feeling like you’ve “earned” food that is so processed and devoid of nutrients that it slows you down and (let’s face it, vanity comes into play) makes you look less than your best.
This philosophy is why you will rarely see “treats” or “healthified” versions of processed foods that are still full of nut flours, maple syrups and honey, and other weird ingredients in my recipes section – those foods are rarely optimal sources of nutrition, and they actually make me crave the not-so-healthy versions of what I am replacing. (Don’t get me wrong, I make them sometimes, and they are almost always delicious! They’re just not the focus of my nutrition plan.) If I make a healthier version of something, I strive for it to still be something that doesn’t cause me to stray too far from my 55-30-15 macronutrient ratio.
The goal, though, is not to copy some magic ratio that someone out there (like me) says works for them. It is to experiment with your own eating to see what works for you. I fully recognize that some people still feel great eating more sugars and whole grains — but I am not one of them. I also want to be very clear that I’m not advocating NEVER eating anything with flour or sugar or that’s processed again. That’s unrealistic and I think it makes it extremely hard for people who are trying to transition to healthier eating to think “I can never have a Snickers (or a Cliff Bar) again.” (Had to throw in a little dig I’ve made for years at “healthy” bars since most of them are glorified candy bars with just as much sugar as their candy counterparts).
But know what your rules are and when you’re breaking them. Don’t trick yourself into believing that junk is healthy. This is where moderation comes into play: when you’re making an exception to the rules – eat the high-sugar or real-flour or fried whatever that you’re craving, but make it a reasonable portion and don’t let it spiral into days worth of eating whatever you can get your hands on. And don’t do it every day if you want to see significant results. The addiction to that type of food is real, so don’t put yourself back at Square 1 by eating too much junk.
Moderation also has a serious place with nutrition nutjobs like me – I tend to be a very rules-based perfectionist who likes to measure everything I eat on a scale and track it on a daily basis (not surprising given my confessed former life as an anorexic). For me, learning to let go a bit and eat until satiety (even if it is more calories than I think I should be eating) is a good thing. I actually see better results when I am more relaxed and “moderate” in my fanaticism. (Imagine that…) It also took me a while to realize that its better for me to have one serving of full-fat and full-sugar fig ice cream from Berkshire cows once or twice a year than it is to eat fakey food like Tasti-de-lite six times a year. When you do make an occasional exception to the nutrition plan that makes you feel the best, figure out what it is you really want, and indulge in the best version of it that you can.
One final note: this is absolutely true with fitness as well – moderate effort produces moderate results. Plain and simple. Not every workout needs to be 100%, but if you run for hours at a 6.0 mph pace, and that is easy for you, you’re probably not going to get any faster or build any leg muscle. Find what is comfortably hard for you, and then challenge yourself to push beyond that zone every once in a while. You have to know your body well enough to hold back when you’re risking injury, but the goal is always to explore your own limits and discover what you’re capable of.