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How to eat healthfully (No numbers required)

Based on sensationalized media mentions, it seems like the only way to eat healthfully these days is to crunch numbers. Macros, calories, carbs--if you’re not somehow tabulating your daily intake, then you’re missing the disciplined, diet-savvy boat. Many clients come to me frustrated and weary from being chained to an app, feeling like failures if they don’t stick to their perfectly prescribed calculations.

One huge shortfall (and there are many) of relying on hard math to determine daily eating is that nutrition is largely reliant on estimates--not exact figures. Unless you’re consistently weighing your pesto with the precision of a drug dealer, nutrition accuracy can vary greatly.

Furthermore, appetite knows no math. Neither does your sense of smell, your mouth’s perception of texture, nor your emotional response to enjoying a comfort food from childhood. All of these things profoundly affect our eating experiences, and they cannot be assessed using a calculation.

In a complex health world with conflicting rules and unnecessary mathematical burdens, here is some simple guidance to eating well for mind and body—no numbers required. Do these things most of the time and you can kiss that calculator goodbye.

Most of the time… Pile on the veggies

Have you ever heard of a fad diet warning you away from vegetables? Imagine the flimsy claims: “Never eat vegetables again, and enjoy lasting health!” or “Studies are finding that plant foods are not necessary for balanced nutrition.” Sounds ridiculous to me, too. So, let’s start there.

The health benefits of veggies have long been substantiated in scientific literature and in practice. No other food group provides the same quality vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber and prebiotics for a healthy gut. And even the most extreme diets encourage regular vegetable intake.

Here’s more good news: no need to bust out the measuring cups to meet your daily veggie recommendations. Simply include them in most of your meals and snacks regularly throughout the day. Make vegetables the foundation upon which you build your meals. Reach for cut veggies for your afternoon snack. Make a soup packed with a rainbow of plant foods. Include a green salad at every dinner. Keep it simple!

Most of the time… Plan for balance

Now that veggies have your attention, time to add some substance to compliment them. Veggies are very nutritious, but generally low in calories. Cue the macros!

In order to keep this guidance simple, I’ll refrain from delving too far into the evidence of how much protein, fats and carbs a person needs. The minutiae isn’t critical. What is important is that you build your plant-based meal with minimally processed sources of macronutrients.

Start with including a good dose of protein and vary your sources. Chicken breast on menu-repeat gets dull quickly no matter how you marinate it. Try using lentils or tofu for a change. Consider adding protein with low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese instead of meat. Other options that aren’t considered “lean” but have fabulous nutrient profiles are salmon, eggs and nut butters.

Carbohydrates (oh, the poor carbs) …they get a bad rap. Without starting an internet brushfire with the low-carb enthusiasts, suffice it to say that carbs are not evil, I recommend people eat them daily in harmony with other macros and I eat them daily myself. Choose most of your carbohydrates in a natural form, like baked potato (skin-on) or sweet potato, steamed farro with herbs or rolled oats. Fruit, dairy and legumes are also winning sources of carbs with great nutrition packages.

Fat has interestingly shifted from health reject to show-stealer. Fat helps with long term satiety, various body functions and contributes texture and flavor to your meal. For the most part, fat can be used as a condiment--like cooking with olive oil, mixing in chunks of avocado, adding nuts/seeds to entrees or topping foods with a sprinkle of cheese.

And finally, in order to put this all together consistently you must plan to do so. Today’s food world doesn’t set us up for success based on the above. The term “meal prep” has become a savvy catchphrase but you know what it was called when I was growing up? Leftovers. Sounds so much less enticing, I know. The key is you needn’t toil over planning the Pinterest-worthy meals and snacks inundating social media. Make big batches of soup, cook extra protein for dinner, double your veggie side at the next opportunity and pack the unphotogenic but delicious extras away for a later meal.

Most of the time… Drink water

Beverages can sneakily sabotage good nutrition practices. Major culprits are those with sugar and alcohol, but there are many calorie-free options that also impact overall health. Find a way to make water your primary hydrating beverage, all day, every day. Milk with meals or a shake after an intense workout is strategic use of caloric, nutritious drinks. Unsweetened teas and coffee can fit once or twice daily as well. Beyond that, be intentional and mindful of how often you reach for drinks that are sweetened, blended, caffeinated, frothed, fortified and otherwise manipulated to make you think they’re special.

Most of the time… Be present and mindful in your eating

It is uncommon these days for humans to eat at home, sitting in a chair at the dining room table. For some, it almost feels weirdly formal to do so. We eat in our cars, at our desks, in front of the TV, standing over the sink…just about anywhere besides sitting at a table with proper cutlery and enjoying the act of nourishing our bodies.

Try this: prepare a meal at home, sit down and savor it with minimal distractions (no phones or TV) and see how it feels. Take note of your hunger at the beginning of the meal and how it shifts as satiety is achieved throughout the meal. Give yourself permission to eat as much or as little as you want based on what your body is telling you. Pause during a family meal or a social event and take it all in. The atmosphere and conversation that accompanies eating is just as important as the food itself.

Beyond having a mindful meal consider learning more about the world of food. Grow a garden. Visit a farmer’s market and strike up a conversation with the local vendors. Try a new recipe or a new ingredient you’ve never tasted before. Take a culinary class with a friend. Play around with food presentation through garnishes, use of color or attractive plating.

Finally, enjoy all foods in your eating pattern. This includes decadent, flavorful indulgences that have been placed on the banned list by many fad diets. Realistically, some foods are more nutritious than others. But that doesn’t mean a food is inherently “good” or “bad.” Rather, food serves many different purposes in our day- sometimes more for flavor or comfort, sometimes more for getting specific nutrients. Be clear on your intentions when choosing a food and give yourself permission to embrace the food world in its entirety without guilt or shame.

All of the time… Be confident!

It may be a struggle to let go of quantifiable numbers for a more nuanced approach like “most of the time…” But I challenge you to give it a go. Eating healthfully goes way beyond one meal or even one week. Practice these principles most of the time and you just may find you’re more confident in your nutrition approach all of the time.

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