Healthy Diet, Healthy Life


I’m fat, and I’m sick of the way it makes me feel. I feel tired and worn-out, almost like I’m sick. I can’t run far or do a lot of physical activity. I hate the way I look. Enough is enough, so I’ve decided that I’m going to change the way I eat and get thin once and for all. But, to be honest, I don’t know where to start. I know that people say fad diets don’t work, and that there aren’t shortcuts to eating well. I wish there were! I really want to lose weight fast. But if I can’t do that, I at least could use some help figuring out how to eat healthy in whatever way these anti-fad-diet people are talking about. I don’t know the difference between organic foods and “GMOs” and all of that stuff. Can you help?

First of all, congratulations on taking control of your health. While your frustration with your weight is understandable, the important thing here is that you are making the decision to get healthy. That’s a great decision, and you should be proud that you are making it, and prouder still as you progress and prove that you have the willpower to see that decision through! Try to stay positive, and remember that choosing to seek a healthier lifestyle doesn’t require you to get down on yourself about your current state--it just means making a healthier one your goal!

Let’s talk about diets and foods, because there is a lot of confusion surrounding this subject. We humans need food to live, but eating too much of it can cause our bodies to store that food as fat. Too much fat is unhealthy, so when we get overweight we try to “diet,” a term that usually refers to eating less in order to shed pounds. But our diets usually fail. Why is this?

To understand what’s going on, let’s take a step back and talk about how we should eat, assuming for a moment that we don’t need to lose weight.

A healthy diet--and now we’re talking about “diet” in the sense of what you eat regularly, not in the sense of a temporary restriction aimed at losing weight--provides the human body with the nutrients it needs. It also provides the raw energy a human body needs to perform the tasks that are demanded of it. And a healthy diet also lacks certain things: for instance, healthy folks don’t put too much alcohol into their bodies. And, of course, having too much fat can be bad. In fact, having too much of almost anything can be a bad idea, so a healthy diet is all about balance.

If you want to get technical with it, a healthy diet should provide the calories--those are units of energy--that your body needs to fuel its exercise. A pro athlete needs more calories than a couch potato, of course, so this number will vary. A healthy diet should also include the right amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These are the “macronutrients,” and each of them contains some more specific nutrients within them (there is more than one type of protein, for instance). Finally, there are more specific vitamins and nutrients: vitamin C, for instance, is good for your immune system.

It’s a lot to keep track of! Fortunately, it’s possible to eat healthy without using an Excel spreadsheet to track a bunch of different nutrients. Our bodies evolved to be fueled by the things humans have eaten for a long time, and we can find the nutrients we need in things like vegetables and meats. There’s only one thing to worry about: our modern processes for creating foodstuffs can strip these things of their vital nutrients. So when it comes to eating healthy, your number one rule should be this: eat “whole foods” (unprocessed foods like vegetables and fresh meat), and avoid processed ones as much as possible.

If that sounds simple, it’s because it is! You can track nutrients if you want, of course, and it’s never a bad idea to keep tabs on macronutrients and calories. But if you generally choose whole foods, especially vegetables prepared in a variety of ways, and eschew the processed stuff, then you’ll be pretty good shape in terms of healthy eating! Take it from food expert Michael Pollan, who suggests replacing nutrient-counting with simple guidelines like, “eat foods your grandmother would recognize as food,” and, “shop at the perimeter of the grocery store [where the whole foods tend to be].”

Don’t overthink things. The labels on your vegetables aren’t the end-all and be-all of health. Organic foods are often (but not always) safer and healthier than their alternatives, but you’re always better off eating celery--organic or not--than you are eating Doritos. And don’t sweat GMOs too much: they’re common in modern farming, say sorghum seed suppliers in Australia, and they’re not going to harm your health.

Now that we know how we should eat, let’s talk about how we do eat, and why our diets don’t work.

If you’re overweight, there’s a good chance that you’re eating the wrong stuff, and too much of it. Processed foods are “empty” calories, meaning they’re relatively devoid of nutrients and yet have a ton of calories. And they tend not to be filling: food scientists have designed your potato chips to encourage you to eat too many of them, because that makes snack companies more money.

When we eat this way and get too heavy, we then try to “diet”--and now we’re using that term in the sense of a temporary deprivation plan. The simplest diet is a calorie-deprivation plan: eat less of whatever you eat, so that you lose weight.

In theory, this works--sort of. Calories in versus calories out is a huge oversimplification of how our bodies work, but it is true that eating fewer calories will generally help you lose weight. But the problem is twofold here: for one, we may be eating less, but we’re not eating healthy. Second, we’re not developing a sustainable “diet” in the what-we-always-eat sense of the word. Deprivation diets are temporary, and when they’re done, we go back to our old habits--and, soon enough, to our old weight!

Fad diets tend to be deprivation diets of various sorts. Some have some common-sense roots, and others do not. Whether you go with low-carb, “paleo,” or some other diet, you’re likely to run into the same problems. Most of these diets are calorie-deprivation diets in disguise, and all of them are plans that most of us would never spend our whole lives sticking to. Throw in quick fixes like overzealous exercise plans and diet pills, and you have a recipe that, at best, will give you temporary success.

So what does work? Simple: you start eating the way you should have been eating all along. That means eating whole foods, especially vegetables, and steering clear of the processed stuff.

Now, we’re not telling you that you can eat as many calories as you do now and lose weight. But if you eat vegetables and other healthy foods, you’ll probably find that you get full before you hit those really high calorie numbers. If you want to, you can still count calories and do some mild “dieting” in the sense that we advised again. You can (and should!) try new exercise plans. You can even take (safe) diet pills like lipodrene, use multivitamins to help cover your micronutrients, and do whatever else helps you feel like you’re making fast progress. And you should absolutely prepare your whole foods in ways that you enjoy--while it’s best to eat a mix of raw and cooked veggies, the best vegetable is the one that you actually eat!

But the bottom line is this: you need a core diet that is built on healthy principles and is sustainable. You can supplement it with other methods that you hope will help you lose weight faster (just don’t go too fast), and you can adjust things a bit to make your goals attainable, but you absolutely must remember that your health depends on you eating healthy food in the long term. It is lifestyle change, not “dieting,” that will see you through.

“Good health and good sense are two of life’s greatest blessings.” -- Publilius Syrus

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