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Healthy Eating is Mostly Common Sense

Healthy Eating is Mostly Common Sense
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Unless you have been locked away in a cave for the last thirty years, you will have noticed that every day there is a new “miracle diet” that will make you slender, increase your energy, cure your health problems, and make you new friends (just kidding on the last one).   There’s the low carbohydrate diet, the high carbohydrate diet, the low fat diet, the high fat diet, the low protein diet, the high protein diet….well, you get the idea. Each promises to be the best diet, and yet each offers conflicting views about what are the right foods to eat.  I’m going to try to cut through some of the confusion and point out that really, most of us already know how best to eat; we simply don’t follow our own instincts.

Let ‘s start with a basic fact:  You have to eat!  Starvation is not an option, unless you plan to die in the next few weeks. (We’re not talking about fasting for short periods of time, which many recommend as a way to detoxify the body.  Fasting simply to lose weight, however, is never a good idea and in fact can ultimately derail any weight loss program.  More on this later.)

OK, so you have to eat.  Where do you begin?  What types of foods should you focus on, and which should you avoid?  Here is where we can start to use our common sense.  Food should be recognizable as food.  Our bodies evolved over thousands of years designed to eat real food, not batches of chemicals with added sugar and preservatives.  So, most plant foods qualify.  Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are for the most part excellent choices to form a basis of one’s diet.  Small quantities of lean animal protein, especially fish and poultry, can certainly be a part of your diet.  Healthy oils, such as those found in olive oil, almonds, and walnuts, are important nutrients and should also be eaten, as long as we recognize that along with their health-giving properties, healthy oils come laden with the extra calories typical of any fats.

What do we avoid eating?  Anything created in a factory.  Check out food labels carefully.  If you see an ingredient that you cannot pronounce, you should probably stay away.  The same is true for most additives, preservatives, artificial flavors and artificial colorings.  (It’s always been a particular bone of contention for me that even over-the-counter drugs often add artificial colorings.  Why would anyone care what color pill they’re swallowing?)

Avoid excess sugar.   Humans evolved eating food we could hunt, gather, and grow.  Our bodies were never designed to process concentrated sugar.  Ever notice that after you eat something with lots of sugar you feel great (for about 15 minutes), then you crash and look for another sugar fix?  Too much concentrated sugar overwhelms the body, and immediately the body goes into overdrive to push the extra sugar out of the bloodstream.  This leads to a vicious cycle whereby we crave another sugar fix, and another.  Eventually the constant stress we place on the body from all this excess sugar may lead to diabetes, heart disease and possibly even cancer.

If you need something sweet, eat a piece of fruit.  And notice I said a piece of fruit, not fruit juice.  Fruit juice is really like soda pop with a few extra vitamins.  It is loaded with sugar and does not have the fiber contained in the actual fruit, which would slow the sugar’s absorption by the body. Many parents that would not dream of feeding their children soda pop will allow them to drink apple juice, thinking it is a much healthier alternative.  Absolutely not true.  Give them an apple instead.

Let’s talk about weight control. More and more of us are becoming overweight or obese, and many people who look for the perfect diet do so not because they are seeking a superior level of nutrition, but because they want to lose weight.  So here’s my first suggestion: When you eat, eat.  Don’t read, watch TV, or work on your computer.  If you can, avoid even conversing with people while you eat (of course, if you’re at a dinner party you may have to break this rule).  The point is, eat consciously.  Smell the food before you taste it.  Take one bite, and put down your fork.  Chew 20-30 or more times (digestion starts in the mouth; in addition, chewing well allows you to savor the food).  Most people eat too fast; this doesn’t allow time for the stomach to register that you are full, and you wind up overeating.  It can take up to twenty minutes for the brain to get signals from the stomach that you are full.  Imagine the extra food that you can pile in during those twenty minutes.

Why do we eat?  To avoid starvation, yes.  But most of us are not starving.  So again, why do we eat?  Here’s my next suggestion:  Only eat when you are hungry!  This is so obvious, and yet it is totally ignored by many people.  Next time you are about to eat something, think for a moment: “Am I really hungry, or am I bored?  Or depressed? Or upset?”  Or am I eating because it is dinner time, or because I’m invited out and someone is serving food? None of these are reasons to eat (although to avoid offending your host you may have to munch on vegetable sticks – those will not make you fat, unless you cover them with dip.)

Here’s another suggestion: eat early in the day.  Years ago an experiment was performed.  Two groups of people were given the same 2000 calorie diet.  One group ate all their calories in the morning, and the second group ate all of theirs at night.  The morning eaters lost weight , while the evening eaters gained weight, even though the amount of calories consumed was the same for both groups.

Many people trying to lose weight skip breakfast.  This is a big mistake.  When you skip breakfast your body doesn’t know there are twenty restaurants within one mile.  Remember, we evolved living off the land and eating only when we could find food.  When you skip breakfast the body thinks there is no food to be found, and goes into protection mode against what it perceives to be possible starvation.  Metabolism slows, and we burn fewer calories.  Not to mention that we feel sluggish because we haven’t given our body any fuel.  So eat a hearty breakfast.  Whole grain oatmeal with fruit and a little flax seed is a good choice.  An egg white omelet with onion and peppers is another.  Yogurt with fruit and a sprinkling of nuts (not too many) is another.  And make sure to use plain yogurt, not the kind with added sugar!

But the average dieter thinks “Aha, I’ll skip breakfast and save all those calories.”  They’ll work through lunch, again avoiding eating.  Maybe at 3 PM they’ll grab some snack from the vending machine (probably loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients).  While they were at work they were preoccupied enough that they could avoid the body’s hunger signals.  Finally they arrive home and start eating, first a snack, then dinner, and then they eat continuously throughout the evening until they go to bed. They wind up consuming more calories than if they had eaten sensibly throughout the day.  In addition, because most of their calories were eaten late in the day they are more likely to put the calories on as extra weight and not use them for energy. (Remember the experiment with the two identical 2000 calorie meals)

So where are we?  We know that we should eat real food, not manufactured food (one of my favorite snack bars has only two ingredients – cashews and dates.  Compare that to the “natural” food bars that have 20 or more ingredients, including some you cannot even pronounce and haven’t a clue as to what they are. )  Eat whole grains, not grains that have had the germ and bran removed.  If the label says “enriched wheat flour” that’s nutritionally the same as white flour.  Remember in kindergarten what happened when you mixed white flour and water?  You got paste!  Do we really want paste gumming up our intestines?  If you can afford to purchase organic products, definitely do so.  Our bodies were not designed to eat pesticides.  Most people should cut back on salt intake.  Excess salt consumption leads to water retention, and although the jury is still out, there is evidence that in some people excessive consumption of salt may lead to high blood pressure.  Drink lots of water; don’t wait until you are thirsty.  By the time you are thirsty you are starting to become dehydrated.  And many times when we think we are hungry we are really only thirsty.  A glass of water can avoid our eating an unnecessary snack.

Listen to your body; not everyone is designed to eat the same foods.  If a food makes you feel bloated and uncomfortable, stay away. If you notice your energy is lower after eating certain foods, perhaps these are not the best foods for you. It’s OK to experiment with various diets as long as you stick to the basics: natural foods, eaten in quantities appropriate for your level of physical activity.  And don’t think you can never enjoy a cookie or a serving of ice cream.   Just don’t make those the staples of your diet!  Enjoy everything in moderation, and make sure to enjoy life.

Finally, and this is very important, if your style of eating is a million miles away from my suggestions, don’t try to change overnight.  You’ll only be setting yourself up for failure.  Change takes time; a habit takes six weeks to become ingrained.  If you’ve been living on fast food, chips and candy, don’t try to do a 180 degree shift. It took years to develop your unhealthy eating habits; give yourself a little time to develop new habits.  Try making one healthy eating change at a time, and once that change is solidly incorporated into your lifestyle you can make a second change. If you are overweight don’t try to lose more than 1-1/2 to 2 pounds per week.  Rapid weight loss is usually followed by rapid weight gain.  Like I said in the beginning, it’s all about common sense.  You know what to do, so just do it!

Dr. Roger Gilmore received a BA from Stony Brook University and a DDS from New York University.  He can be reached at




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