Over the years, I've come up with some "healthier" truths that I use for my own eating and for cooking for my family and that inform my recipes here on the blog. As is obvious on the "pages" here, I'm not into extremes or completely omitting entire food groups, but I try to cover many bases of health while maintaining flavor and enjoyment. I favor a mixed/balanced approach, loosely based on the NIH created DASH diet and a love of Mediterranean cooking of all sorts, along with a little portion control and some exercise.
Many have provided rules for healthier eating that I like and adopt:
Of course, Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Marion Nestle (Nutritionist and Professor at NYU): "My guess: If you balance food intake with physical activity and are not overeating, the specific proportion of fat, carbohydrate, and protein won’t matter nearly as much."
"While the arguments about fat v. sugar go on and on: Eat your veggies, vary the foods you eat, don’t gorge, and enjoy what you eat."
David Katz (Yale University Prevention Research Center): "A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominately plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention."
Now, Eating Well magazine has just come out with a list of 10 ways to cook healthier. I'm linking it here, but please be warned that although I like the magazine itself, its online presence is quite annoyingly littered with pop ups and ads and forces you to see their list in slide show format rather than as one article, which I can not stand and seems to be the norm for these magazine lists.
But this list is pretty similar to what I've been saying here for years, though other than in my "Why I'm Here" piece, haven't set out so concretely and perhaps should have. So here, with my usual caveat that I am not a doctor or nutritionist and don't even play one on tv, is my list of top things to do for eating healthier:
1. Cook at home more than you eat out and balance them out against each other. If you eat out most of your lunches, try to cook your dinners. If you eat out several dinners a week, try to bring a healthier lunch and be conscious of what you're eating while out. The salt, sugar and fat in most restaurant meals is excessive and will add up quickly.
2. Eat more vegetables and fruits. Fill your plate with your vegetables and salad before you add your protein and grains. Make two vegetables with dinner sometimes, instead of automatically making a starch. Vary the type and color of the vegetables you eat, and to the extent possible, try to eat them as seasonally and fresh as possible. If you buy fresh vegetables while they're locally in season, you don't need to add much to them to make them taste great. In winter, use frozen, which are usually frozen at the peak of freshness. Roasting and grilling can make lackluster vegetables taste great. Make a vegetable heavy dish, and serve it alongside a salad.
3. Be mindful and enjoy what you're eating. Enjoy a slice of artisan bread, a square of dark chocolate, a spear of just picked asparagus, a wedge of fabulous cheese, a slice of pizza, a glass of wine. Choose some foods that make you happy and actually slow down and enjoy them. You'll eat less that way, and enjoy them more. Yoni Freedhof, a weight management physician from Ottawa, and author of The Diet Fix, Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work suggests that rather than forbidding yourself any particular foods, that you be "thoughtfully reductive," asking yourself "is it worth the calories" and "What's the smallest amount that I need to be happy?" Consider keeping a food diary to help you be mindful of what you're eating.
4. Be conscious of the added sodium and sugars in any processed foods you buy, and choose brands that have less. Pinches of salt added to your own home cooking will rarely approach what is in packaged. Crackers and tomato sauces rarely need much added sugar.
5. For day to day, use lower fat dairy and use the full fat items for where it will really matter to you (and then enjoy them mindfully). Fat free Greek yogurt is creamy and delicious and higher in protein than regular yogurt. I like to cook with olive oil almost exclusively and use butter, buttermilk, full fat yogurt or labne, and creme fraiche in small doses where they will really add to flavor, texture and mouthfeel (aka enjoyment) of a dish. I know there have been many studies on this that seem to dispute the idea of limiting fats, blaming all our societal problems on sugar, but the experts I respect indicate that moderation in both areas is useful. I fear that, longterm, limiting only sugars will turn out to be as harmful to us as limiting only fats proved to be.
6. Choose whole grains over refined most of the time and be conscious of portions and glycemic load. Other than occasional pasta nights with a traditional Italian sauce that really wants to be married to a semolina pasta, I like to use whole wheat or farro pasta. Brown rice is easy to get used to and other whole grains such as farro, barley and bulgur are delicious. Quinoa, which is not even a grain but a seed and is filled with protein, is also good.
7. Go for flavor. Use spices, herbs, citrus juice and zest and seasonings (thought be cautious if they are high in sodium) to ramp up the flavor of foods without resorting only to salt. If you like, use a little salt in your cooking unless you've been told not to by a medical professional or already have a medical issue requiring you to curtail salt (see above). Most of my recipes here use this approach. If you're used to lots of salt, start by cutting back a little at a time and you won't notice the difference so much.
8. Buy the best quality ingredients you are able to and use your head to decide when it's worth it. I'm not saying to shop only at a gourmet shop (in fact, I rarely do), but buying grass fed, local, sustainable, pesticide free can cost more than most supermarket items. Certainly, buying packaged items without added salt and sugar takes you into the higher price category. However, if you're able to, pay your farmer and grocer now and, hopefully, avoid some medical problems later. While it's possible to follow these guidelines on a budget, it does require a little more planning and effort, but is still possible (and I'm happy to help you do so!).
9. Be conscious of your portions of pretty much everything but vegetables and some fruits. This is a hard one for me. Not everyone has to limit their portions. Apparently, some people's bodies are programmed correctly and stop them eating at the right point. For the rest of us, understand and be mindful of how much is actually enough. Enough to be full, enough to be satisfied, enough to be happy.
10. Feel free to disregard my truths in favor of what you know works for you.