I believe in unrestricted and flexible eating – in being able to eat anything I want, whenever I want. Blasphemy?… not in my experience. Problems tend to arise in eating in such a way as often as we want. The other related issue is having an appetite that resonates mainly with hyperpalatable foods and with rich, comforting, and extravagant foods. Which is why I also believe in establishing practical and healthy guidelines around what I eat most of the time. Thereby giving me the freedom to eat whatever I want the rest of the time. As ironic as it may sound, discipline enables freedom.
Once you’re healthy and at a reasonable weight, eating needn’t be remotely complicated or restrictive. Until then however, it is not unreasonable to expect a little less leeway. I don’t think one is ever in need of a strict ‘diet’, but a prudent strategy is warranted and will always be warranted based on the tremendous impact of food on our physical and mental form. What follows is my personal version of that strategy – or at least a good part of it. It’s not unique by any means. Much of this you already know and is old news.
Nevertheless, news that would seem more relevant than ever before based on escalating levels of obesity and other chronic diseases. Besides, things that are important are worth repeating. It also bares emphasizing that in my undoubtedly biased opinion, many of these foods/products aren’t all harmful on some regular occasion. But because we indulge in so many of these items with habitual frequency, eating whatever we want whenever we want eventually ceases to be a realistic option.
Of course, no need to tackle all of these at once. Just start by considering the possibility of each and that there might be room for improvement. If in doubt, see what others are saying. But be wary of your old logic. Because if you’re looking to improve your diet or body composition, then you will need new logic. Above all, go after the ones that speak to you most.
1 – Processed, Packaged, Convenience, and Ready-Made Foods
These foods contain undeniably problematic ingredients such as excessive levels of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, refined carbs, poor quality fat, and many questionable chemicals that act as artificial flavorings, dyes, preservatives, additives, stabilizers etc. And it’s not just the crap they contain, but just as importantly that they lack. They lack in fiber, in natural and original vitamins, and in important micronutrients such as minerals and polyphenols. To top it off, much of these foods are powerfully addictive because they rely on sugar, fat, refined carbs, and chemicals.
These products may usually be found in the interior isles of the supermarket but just about everywhere else as well. Food items of this nature revolve much more around marketability and profitability then they do around vitality and sustainable health. That being said, there is a massive difference between minimally-processed foods, and ultra processed foods – so say between a jar of pure nut butter vs a jar of Cheeze Whiz. Or between a boxed cereal that has 5 or 6 ingredients vs another that has 25. For this reason, never put anything in your cart or basket that comes in packaging without first checking the ingredient label. Only accept those items that have reasonable or few ingredients showing, or ones that you could reasonably pronounce and/or mostly recognize.
2 – Junk Food
This includes chocolate bars, chips, candy, ice cream, cookies (especially store-bought), doughnuts etc. Perhaps fantastic on occasion but obviously best avoided if health is a long-term priority. Aside from containing a bunch of empty crap calories, one of the biggest problems with these items is their utter ubiquity, and how frequently they need to be resisted. Even if you’re succumbing to them on just 10% of occasions, that could easily add up to an item or two each time you go grocery shopping based on the large number of decisions getting made. What it comes down to is that the more questionable choices we make, the easier it is to repeat them and the harder it gets to resist them.
3 – Food Service – Fast-Food, Take-out, Delivery, Cafeteria, Chip truck, and Restaurant Food
The main issues involving this category is that most food establishments rely on lesser quality ingredients including industrial oils that provide an inferior (inflammatory) source of fat. This ‘food service’ fat taken together in combination with the inferior fat most often found in processed food, and you’re now effectively setting yourself up for chronically elevated systemic inflammation and thus the many chronic diseases that go with it including diabetes and obesity.
Reason being is that all of our trillions of cell membranes are made up of a lipid (fat) bi-layer that precisely regulates the materials that enter and exit the cell. The more poor-quality and wrong kind of fat consumed (leading to massively distorted Omega 6 vs Omega 3 ratios), the higher the likelihood that the function of the cell membranes will be impaired since they’re made up of roughly 50% fat. This is in large part why our diet is so closely linked to chronic disease most of which revolves around excessive inflammation. As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. Over time, the building blocks we give our bodies speak volumes. My philosophy is to let my home be the origin of most anything I eat. I make exceptions of course but considering the unending opportunities to eat out those exceptions are very few.
4 – Heavily Fried and/or Deep-fried food
Most often, these foods are empty calorie bombs that relatively speaking are nutritionally void. Also, the oils that these foods depend upon are usually dominant in polyunsaturated Omega 6s. These are essential to the diet but as it stands we consume far too many Omega 6s and far too few Omega 3s – this is mainly a reflection of the times and culture.
Polyunsaturated Omega 6’s are more molecularly unstable (relative to other fats) and therefore more susceptible to oxygenation and becoming rancid when overly or repeatedly heated like they are with frying/deep frying or through refinement. Similarly, Omega 6s tend to be inflammatory while Omega 3s tend towards being anti-inflammatory. The main point about Omega 6s being that not only do we need way less but that we also need to improve the quality of that intake. And so remember that the Omega 6s coming out of the neighbourhood deep fryers will be of a lesser quality then those coming out of your Instant Pot at home or what you might get through eating some nuts and seeds.
5 – Refined Vegetable Oils
This category is closely related to all of the ones above and the repetition is highly warranted. In order to minimize and avoid chronic systemic inflammation, you really want to minimize and avoid poor quality fat. This includes fat that has been either compromised in quality (through commercial refinement/chemical extraction, and/or through repeated exposure to heat and oxygen), or fat that is of the more inflammatory and excessive kind to begin with (Omega 6 vs Omega 3). Therefore, avoid and minimize the purchase and use of common commercially refined polyunsaturated Omega 6 dominant vegetable oils including ‘vegetable’ oil, soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, and canola oils. Go ahead and use these on occasion, but you definitely want to significantly reduce your reliance on them. In the same way as mentioned above, minimize intake of similar Omega 6 dominant industrial oils by avoiding processed foods and the food supply industry.
6 – Store Bought Salad Dressings and Sauces
These often contain excessive sugar, high fructose corn syrup, unfavourable oils, gums and preservatives, and often a lengthy array of weird sounding crap that warrants a raised eyebrow. Keep a few of your favourites on hand (say mayo or soy sauce, or your favourite hot sauce) but really try to wean your use and purchase of many of these products – especially the ones that have a ridiculous ingredient listing. Make your own dressings and sauces whenever possible. A tasty and versatile version that you could put on most anything includes a simple mixture of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and salt.
7 – Refined Flour and Concentrated Sugar Products
It would seem that these days there’s an all-out war on sugar, carbs, and even plain old starches like potatoes, beans, and rice. On one hand there’s certainly some sense in reconsidering our approach to carbs which are especially easy to over-eat, but as is often the case we take a good idea and run away with it. And yet there’s definitely much to be said about reducing intake of refined white flour and white sugar considering the pervasive and excessive nature of these ingredients and the toll they have been taking on human health. This category of foods includes most commercially baked goods such as doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, crackers, breads, buns, croissants, wraps and 169 other unmentioned items.
One of the big issues here is the inherent reduction of diet diversity and thus a less robust microbiome. Because if you’re filling up on sugar and flour several times a day every day, then the probability of fruit, vegetables, or other whole foods happening will obviously be reduced. In time, this leads to more likely nutritional deficiencies as well because white flour lacks nutritionally to begin with. Concentrated sugar on the other hand actually requires nutrients to metabolize – it doesn’t provide nutrients, it uses them. And of course it needs to be said that refined flour and concentrated sugar very reliably pave the way for excessive and sustained blood sugar elevation which again leads to chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and weight gain. If you really like baked and sweetened goods then by all means make your own on occasion. But avoid the routine purchase of their conveniently prepared form which only leads to over-eating them.
8 – White Pasta and White Rice
At this point, likely no surprise that I am a fan of carbs and starches – they have always worked really well for me. But keep an eye on these if health, healing, or weight-loss are on the line. If they are, you’ll be more susceptible to excessive and sustained blood sugar elevation and that’s something that really needs to be minimized. So consider using more brown rice and whole-grain pastas, both of which will be significantly higher in fiber (also in vitamins and minerals), and as such will have a far less erratic effect on blood sugar. For that same reason, it’s helpful to include plenty of vegetables with your pasta, or legumes with your rice, instead of the more usual meat and cheese. That being said, and although more risky from a calorie standpoint, eating fat with starches (pasta, rice, potatoes) also helps mitigate overly-elevated blood-sugar effects.
9 – Pop and Soda (Including ‘Diet’)
Also avoid most forms of fruit juice, cheap sweetened beverages (Tang, Kool-Aid, Sunny D, Minute Maid etc), energy drinks, highly sweetened coffee style drinks, and excessive alcohol. In fact, beverages contain 47% of the added sugar in the typical North American Diet. So if you prefer carrying extra weight or having diabetes, then consuming these drinks with consistency will do that productively thanks to the exorbitant sugar levels and quick absorption (usually no fiber or fat to curtail absorption). Sugar is not the only problem with these. A lot of pop/energy drinks contain artificial sweeteners which can potentially trigger either the direct release of insulin, or likewise affect the gut bacteria in ways that ultimately lead to greater insulin resistance. Either way, putting your wager on the ‘harmlessness’ of artificial sweeteners is a risky proposition because the data is very contradictory. If you want a healthy life, it makes sense to avoid controversial chemicals in your diet. Excessive alcohol comes with its own set of issues, least of all it frigs up your heart, liver, and brain. Yikes.
10 – Meat and Dairy
Our family’s diet includes animal-based foods so I am certainly not into vilifying meat and dairy (though a great deal could be said about the industry). Nevertheless, I firmly believe that men tend to over-rely on animal products. Especially, lesser quality, factory farmed, and highly processed animal products laden with dubious cooking oils and served with refined carbs. It’s one thing to enjoy meat and dairy – to even rely on it. It’s another thing to be unable to see and enjoy any other options for dinner or when hunger hits. Yes, we’ve all heard of the carnivore diet but there’s a great deal of different and similarly extreme diets with vast amounts of favorable anecdotal evidence. So I generally avoid ‘diets’ and instead focus on sustainable eating patterns that involve far less speculation and that ultimately don’t deprive me of entire food groups or of anything I may want to eat. And so as mentioned, though this is hardly another rant on the effects of saturated fat or animal protein, my point remains that on the whole guys tend to eat too many animal products (especially of the inferior/processed variety) and not nearly enough fiber-rich, plant-based whole foods.
11 – Snacking
If you’re going to snack, make it count by eating fiber and nutrient rich plant-based whole foods in reasonable amounts and save the animals and richer foods for the main course. But be aware that the more you snack, the more diligent you’ll need to be with your choices because many choices over time have a big impact. Furthermore, your physiology/endocrine response (insulin sensitivity) will be much more effective if you’re not always eating. It’s clearly ok to snack, but all too often it’s a health debilitating fat promoting habit so pay close attention to how and why you snack. Or better yet simply avoid it. In any case, consider that much of the time snacking has next to nothing to do with being hungry. Two or three square meals simplifies life and should keep you going sufficiently on most days. And if you get hungry in-between, that’s ok – that’s what you want.
12 – Extra Calories
I don’t have a small appetite and in being a guy I typically don’t deprive myself. When I eat, I eat a lot, and it tends to be whatever I want. However, I don’t always eat. I am ok with being hungry between meals, with skipping meals, or even skipping entire days, occasionally weeks. Likewise, I rarely snack, consistently avoid fast food and empty calories, and minimize my intake of rich, inferior fat laden foods. In doing so however I am able to indulge whenever I want, to whatever degree I want, with very little consequence if any at all. Reducing over-all calorie intake – whether through fasting, lessening intake of fatty meat, dairy, and easily over-consumed carbohydrates, or even through approaches like the ketogenic or carnivore diet – is one of the very best things we could do for our mental and physical health. Caloric reduction is in huge part why a great deal of peculiar and controversial diets are effective to the degree they are. And although one calorie is certainly not like every other, calories matter. No need to count or obsess over them, but since e=mc2 is a thing, they definitely warrant attention. There’s a lot of very intelligent and well-intentioned folks in the nutrition and weight-loss realm, but be a little suspicious when someone suggests to all-out ignore the physics of energy and mass.
Bonus – Certain Medications
We often unknowingly outright assault our gut microbiomes through our eagerness and heavy overuse of popular medicines like antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors (commonly prescribed for acid reflux), and anti-inflammatory drugs, all of which detrimentally impact the balance and diversity of our gut flora. This isn’t good to say the least because a great deal of physical and emotional health hinges to a significant degree on the integrity of our gut bugs… and our gut barrier… which in turn is highly impacted by our gut bugs. When intake of these medicines is frequent or heavy or if health and metabolism are already in question, then the risk of undesired side effects that much more likely. And although these medicines may well be critical in some cases, try to reduce their intake if and when possible. As always, proceed with caution and awareness whenever putting any prescribed pharmaceuticals into your body… but especially when messing around with the cumulative biochemical consequence of trillions of living organisms that live inside of you.
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison”– Ann Wigmore