How to Eat in Seven Words


Eating Better

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Looking for advice on creating a healthy eating plan? There are so many diets that it can set your head to spinning. It reminded me to get back to basics.

Diet Confusion

These days, we have a lot of diet choices. To name a few: fruitarian, pescetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, omnivorian, macrobiotic, ketogenic, Mediterranean, low-FODMAP, Pritikin, Atkins, Zone, Paleo, South Beach. Low-carb, high-carb, low-fat, high-fat, high-protein, low-protein. Raw-food diet, fully-raw diet, blood-type diet, DNA diet, ancestral diet, immunity diet, sustainability diet, anti-aging diet(s). Breatharian, anyone? That’s certainly low-calorie and low-cost!

Over many years of looking at the claims for various dietary schemes, I’ve noticed they have 3 things in common:

  • Diet inventors or advocates insist their way of eating will prevent or cure diseases and syndromes, slim you down, increase your brain volume or your longevity, etc.
  • Critics generally refute the claims on scientific grounds, citing different studies or critiquing the studies cited by the advocates. 
  • Testimonials from individuals who’ve tried the eating plan and say it improved their lives in some important way.

Many advocates have spun off a variety of money-making products and/or services related to their plans! (For example, they sell dietary supplements, books, instruction guides, coaching services, prepared or ready-to-cook meals delivered to your door. This reinforces the idea that getting it right with food is so complex it requires professional help.)

The whole business of wondering what to eat creates confusion.

What to Eat

Noted food writer Michael Pollan famously summarized the business of deciding what to eat in seven words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

I’m not advocating specifically on behalf of Pollan’s ideas, but unlike other eating plans, his is easy to discuss.

1. Eat food. By “food,” Pollan means real food, food your grandmother would recognize, food that readily spoils. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, rather than the “edible food-like substances” that characterize much of the American way of eating. 

Food from single ingredients combined into nutritious meals. Eating real food means not only choosing foods that don’t have many, if any, added ingredients, but also choosing foods that haven’t been denatured by “refining,” which often involved removing the most nutritious parts of the original food. Eating real foods requires scratch cooking and knowledge about what to buy, where to buy the ingredients you need within the constraints of your budget, and how to turn them into appetizing meals.

Knowledge, yes. A little planning, yes. But eating real food doesn’t require hours of slaving over a hot stove.

2. Not too much. I’ve always had difficulty with this corollary to Miss Piggy’s sage advice: “Never eat more than you can lift.” I plead guilty to rushed eating and often eating while reading the newspaper or watching TV, all of which can lead to overeating.

Pollan and others suggest: leaving the table a little hungry, using smaller plates, putting your fork down on the table after each bite and chewing X number of times before swallowing, or eating five or six very small meals each day.

Those strategies don’t work for me. I feel anxious looking at small servings on small plates, or on large plates with lots of plate showing through. “Small meals” all too often become large meals. And pushing a plate away while I still feel a little hungry? I want to fill up.

My strategy? Filling my plate or bowl with a lot of green, red and yellow vegetables (and sometimes fruits, too). Lots of dry beans and lentils, which can pass as either/both proteins and vegetables. Vegetables make a meal look big and psychologically satisfying. Plus the nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber in whole vegetables aren’t only important for health; the fiber helps me feel full.

Plus slowing down. I will continue working at that.

3. Mostly plants. Even a cursory glance at the histories of indigenous cultures have shown that humans can thrive on a range of local diets, from almost entirely animal-based to entirely plant based. Many Americans have begun choosing diets higher in plant foods for their health but also concerns for the sustainability of high meat consumption. These concerns extend to fish-eating as well.  

In our household, we’ve always eaten a high-plant diet because we grow so many vegetables and fruits in our gardens and greenhouse. I highly recommend planting a garden of any size if you can, not just for the diversity of plant foods it will provide, but for the learning and the exercise involved, among many other benefits.

So what to eat? I say, stay with real food, as close to where it was raised as possible. Eat plenty of variety, but only foods you enjoy. Learn to cook the basics. Eat at home. Raise some of your own if you can. 

How about you? Have you tried different diets? What do you think?

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About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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