Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Non-negotiables of Healthy Eating

I have not written a blog post in a while for our Healthy Understanding group and have been meaning more and more to do so, largely because I never stop seeing the constant parade of fad diets and the flood of information out there.

If you are relatively new to trying to eat healthy or exercise, you may be overwhelmed by how many different opinions, diets and workout programs seem to be competing for our attention.  And all of them of course advertise themselves as the absolute best way to do it.

For exercise, should you do a workout program at your gym, DVD program, CrossFit, Zumba, Jazzercise, circuit training, running, lifting, swimming, etc. etc. ???

For diet, should you do paleo, gluten free, vegan, Mediterranean, DASH, Mayo clinic, HCG, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach or maybe a shake like Shakeology, Vitalus, etc. etc. etc. ???

With "health and wellness" being an over $60 Billion a year industry, the books, diets and exercise fads will keep coming out... year after year after year. Because we keep buying them!  And we keep buying them because they either do not work or only work short term.

It would be OK if people were not just losing weight and gaining it right back. It would be OK to buy a new diet book each year if you were becoming more and more independent, knowledgeable and regularly eating healthy.

Trying a new exercise program or sport every year to keep yourself interested and enjoying it would be fine too, just as long as we KEEP moving and are not suddenly clueless and lost if we suddenly are without access to a gym, group program or DVD player.

In my trying to make permanent changes to my diet and exercise to better manage my chronic pain and other health issues, the first thing I noticed was the mountain of often contradicting information on diet. Some diets called carbs the enemy and others blamed fat, while others blamed animal protein.

The other thing that was intimidating was book after book with all these recipes and exact measurements that made me feel like I would be lost ever trying to memorize them all or if the books were suddenly not available.

To cut through all the mass information, I recommend reading books that find some commonalities of healthy diets and exercise regimens, like Healthy at 100 and Younger Next Year. Another new and popular one is called The Blue Zones.

Healthy at 100 was especially enlightening for me, as the author details studies that were done specifically to find the healthiest people in the world and find their commonalities. The book takes you to the Black Sea, Ecuador, Pakistan and Japan to try to find out why certain groups there are so much more long lived and relatively disease free compared to America and the rest of western world.

While there were a lot of amazing differences in these cultures and peoples, they all also had some very clear commonalities that for me help define what I think are the absolute non-negotiable requirements of diet and exercise for being healthy.

I am not focusing on exercise here, but I will just quickly touch on the fact that these remote and often technologically primitive peoples do not have gym memberships or DVD players!

What they often must do is walk for hours almost every day across very rough terrains and do that well into their 80s and 90s.  That's it. Walking.  But with the often rough terrain, that means a low to moderate workout almost every single day of their lives, just to get from one place to another.  So they statistically are living longer and much more disease free than most of us with a low impact, low intensity, moderate resistance, mostly full body workout. By simply walking at least several hours a day.

But of course, arguably most importantly, they have radically different diets than most Americans.

We focus on "diets" as short term crashes and deprivation of our favorite junk food to quickly lose a few pounds so we can fit into a bathing suit... and then go back to crappy, unhealthy eating.

But for these healthiest and longest lived peoples of the world, diet still stands for its root etymology from the original Greek word "diaita" which literally means "way of life".

They eat the same variety of healthy foods and abstain from the same western diet junk their whole lives. And are much healthier, disease free, stronger, mobile and arguably happy for it.

From their commonalities, I have derived a fairly short list of what I consider the absolute non-negotiable requirements for healthy eating. This does not even touch on the huge list of things most Americans have to practice to rid their diets of the junk and eat better. It simply states this is what healthy eating looks like.

Here at what I consider the incredibly simple but absolute non-negotiable requirements of healthy eating and which guide most of my choices every day:

  • Most of the diet consisting of whole, fresh plant food
  • Half or more of diet is (seasonal) variety of whole, fresh greens, vegetables and fruits
  • Moderate intake of only whole grains
  • Very low to moderate intake of animal protein
  • Regular intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids
  • ZERO refined sugar, refined flour or processed foods
That's it. There are a thousands reasons WHY this type of diet (lifestyle, not fad) works and why the average American diet is killing us in comparison, but we complicate things far too much.  For the absolute majority of Americans, it would be impossible to not become healthier by switching to the tenets of this incredibly simple "diet".

There's no meticulous measuring or demonizing of one particular food or group. You could focus on paleo, gluten free, Mediterranean or vegan, but the weight loss and health benefits each of those diets have over the average American diet still draw back to the main points above.

We're eating too much meat, too much grain (wheat) and far, far too much sugar. We're not eating enough fruits and vegetables or healthy omega-3 fats. And that plain and simple is why we're so overweight and sick.

While you could argue that a good start or baby step for many would be to just eat MORE vegetables and LESS sugar, if the above type of "diet" seems impossible or unacceptable to you, then you need to ask if being healthy is even truly critically important to you or do you just want to lose weight?

The problem for many Americans continues to be changing how they eat in a way that is permanent and a diet that truly becomes a "way of life" to live longer and healthier, not to just to lose the same 25 to 50 pounds over and over each year.

If you want to switch from bouncing back and forth between diets and regaining pounds, you should start by asking which aspects of eating healthy for you are non-negotiable!

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