(Let’s pretend it’s a lot.)
That is, in fact, the double whammy of all my work here: for every post about food, fasting or ‘cheating’ that I’ve written, and for all the research I’ve done into figuring out just what we should eat, the real insight—the real truth—is kind of painful to admit.
I can’t give you The One Perfect Diet. I’d like to, certainly, but that’d be implying that such a thing exists — that it’s easy, that it’s cut and dry, and that every single book on your Whole Foods bookshelf agreed on what we should be eating.
They don’t. The bloggers, gurus, and health geeks don’t agree either.
What we’re left with, then, is us. We’re left with the people like you and me who can experiment, tweak, and change our minds on a monthly basis, trying our best to make sense of the mess that is modern nutrition. I’ve been doing just that for the past two years of my life, now, and I can say without hesitation that there’s still plenty of road left to travel.
Long and short of it? I can’t give you The One True Diet, no. But I can lay down the diet that we should be able to eat, as it serves a pretty good goal to start working toward.
The Ideal Diet
In this diet, macronutrients don’t exist. When you stare down at a plate of meat and vegetables, there are no carbs, protein or fat. There are no vitamins, minerals, or complexities added to what is otherwise a delicious dish.
It’s just food.
Think about that. As grateful as I am to Paleo/Primal for expanding my knowledge of food a thousandfold, I’m a little less impressed with where it puts a lot of the emphasis: on carbs. On grams. On tablespoons and ounces. That’s not unique to Paleo, no, but it does say a lot about how a diet with good intentions can still get bogged down in all the silly details.
Let’s keep it simple.
This, as I’ve come to understand it, is the Ideal Diet:
- 90% of the time, eat real food.
- 10% of the time, break rule #1.
But that doesn’t make for a very useful blog post, I know, so let’s break it down a bit further.
What is real food?
Meat. Fruit. Starch. Veggies. Eat as much as you need of all four of these. Enjoy it.
You don’t need to count carbs, protein or fat, but you do need to make sure that the vast majority of your meals revolve around what the earth alone can provide.
But what about rule #2?
It’s okay to indulge.
There’s some hesitation, here, as I write this. I don’t want this to be regarded as a blank check for binge eating at the local donut store. But I do want to echo one of the core messages of this blog: be kind to yourself.
You’re not perfect. You’re not ever going to be. And if having a slice of cake (okay, maybe two) at a wedding will help remind you why you do what you do, then eat the damn cake.
These occasional indulgences are just that: occasional. They do not form the core of your diet. But they can add a tremendous amount of happiness whenever you do introduce them, and for that reason alone they shouldn’t be followed up with misery, regret, and tears if you ever want to succeed.
But what does it all mean?
There are implications here beyond the obvious: that it’s okay to have junk food on occasion. That it’s okay to eat as much fruit (oh, the carbs!) as you want. That it’s okay to enjoy safe starches like potatoes and rice.
This is Paleo, I think, without the fear of carbohydrate — Paleo the way it is meant to be. (Paleo 2.0, in other words, though we’ll talk about Kurt Harris later on.)
This is, I think, the Ideal Diet. There’s no fuss, no drama, and no intense fear over what one small sweet potato might do to our waistline. Food is just food, at the end of the day, and we can treat it accordingly: as something to be celebrated, cherished, and shared freely.
This is my diet. I didn’t come to this straight away, mind you. Two years after taking the first plunge into Paleo/Primal waters, I’m just now settling into what I believe will be the way I eat for the rest of my life.
But there’s a catch, here, worth mentioning. Simple though it may be, the Ideal Diet isn’t built on ignorance. It wasn’t created, in other words, by me shoving my fingers in my ears and trying to forget everything I’ve learned. Instead, its roots trace back to a few observations I’ve made over these last two years of tweaking, all of which are covered below.
Everything I Know About Food
Disclaimer: what follows is what I believe about what we should eat. Your experience might suggest otherwise, and that’s just dandy — in fact, that might be the whole damn point of this post.
Sit tight. You’ll see what I mean.
1. You have to experiment.
This is your health.
Think about that for a moment. This is important.
While I’d love to pass off everything I write here as gospel, I know that wouldn’t be doing you any favors. What I’d like to do, instead, is be painfully honest right from the start.
What follows is what works for me. I am, at this time of writing, a 24 year-old smartass with no health complications to speak of, which puts me in a vastly different situation from the average person who might be reading this blog. The points below are what brought me to this stage, but the biggest factor, by far, was my willingness to experiment along the way until I found what worked for me.
I’ve done low-carb. I’ve done high-carb. I’ve done-low fat. I’ve done protein fasting. I’ve done a wide variety of things in these last two years, in other words, in an attempt to find the combination that made me feel strong and happy (and, luckily enough, the combo matches the Ideal Diet above). I think the ideas below still have relevance, that being said, to anyone looking to eat better, but I can’t pretend they apply universally across the board.
Try them out. If you don’t like how they make you feel, try something else. Just don’t stop until you’ve found the right combo that you can live happily with for the rest of your days.
2. Calories count.
Honestly? For the longest time, I didn’t believe it. Fresh from a reading of Gary Taubes, I believed the other c-word lay at the root of all problems: carbs. I remember telling family and friends, even, that they could eat as much food as they possibly wanted so long as they restricted their carb intake.
This isn’t true. Calories matter.
If you regularly eat well beyond your body’s required intake, you will gain weight. If you regularly eat less than your daily required intake (hello, fasting!), your body will be forced to burn stored body fat for fuel.
And doesn’t this make sense?
But here’s the thing, folks, meant to alleviate that sinking feeling in your stomach: who gives a crap? Seriously, who cares?
You don’t have to count. You don’t have to hop on the scale every morning and sweat blood while you wait for the ticker to stop spinning. You don’t have to weight, measure, and obsess over every part of the process, turning one of life’s simplest pleasures into a source of endless stress.
You do, however, need to be aware of what you’re eating. You need to flip your brain firmly to the ON position and think about what you’re chewing. Why?
3. You have to eat less.
In my earliest days of Paleo, I remember feeling full. That’s not unusual, but the duration of the satiation proved surprising — for hours each day, my stomach never asked for food, a fact which I chalked up to low-carbing, ketosis, and some other magical, fanciful process occurring under my skin.
I joke, but I might not have been far off the mark. Hardcore ketosis does tend to suppress the appetite, and my sudden increased intake of fat and protein—the latter being the most satiating of all—probably had a hand in it too.
Where Primal/Paleo has some of its greatest success, however, is in this: it makes you eat less without realizing it. Removing processed food and a lot of carb-rich snacks cuts down pretty dramatically on the amount of calories you’re consuming. Where I would normally sit down at a restaurant and order a big bowl of pasta, I started opting for a salad instead. Where I would have french toast and pancakes for breakfast, I started having four eggs and six slices of bacon instead (and then skipped lunch because I was still so full). My body rejoiced. My waistline followed shortly thereafter.
And this is why so many diets do work so long as they introduce a caloric deficit. I’m not a fan of vegan diets for a variety of reasons, but I won’t deny that they do help people lose weight by removing a dense source of calories (let alone nutrition) from their diet. Is it any wonder that vegans/carnivores/fruitarians/anyone with a restrictive diet can lose weight?
Again, calories matter. But you don’t need to count them, and nor do you need to stress about the ultimate goal of weight loss: eating less.
Don’t worry. It’s not as stressful as you might think.
4. You have to listen to your stomach.
Are you hungry? Drink a glass of water. Wait ten minutes.
Are you hungry now? Eat something. About half the time, though, you probably won’t need to.
Let’s just state this outright: we’re out of touch with our stomachs.
At a friend’s house the other day, I overheard an interesting conversation between a mother and her young daughter. It went a little like this:
Mother: “Are you hungry, baby? You didn’t eat lunch today.”
Daughter: “No, mommy.”
Mother: “You should eat something. Do you want a snack?”
Daughter: “No, mommy.”
Mother: “Let me make you something.”
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not picking on parents, here, who by and large do a staggering amount of work for the sake of their children. I’m commenting instead on an eye-opening realization about hunger: it’s a conditioned response. In the modern world, at least, hunger is a result of a thousand different factors, the product of our emotions and societal conditioning more so than an actual need for food.
But what about when we were kids? What about when we played outside for hours and didn’t think about food for a minute until our parents called us back home? What about this little girl, here, still in touch with her natural hunger cues, who is being trained—slowly but surely—to ignore them?
It’s possible to get back to the basics. I still struggle with it myself, now, but I’ve gleaned a lot from these last six months of tweaking. Here’s how to do it:
Stop eating when you’re full. Don’t sneak “just one more bite,” and don’t linger at the table where the sight and smell of food can tempt you to keep stuffing your face. Box that food up immediately and put it in the fridge, if you’re at home, or tuck your takeout box under the table if you’re out at a restaurant.
Stop eating out of obligation. If dinner rolls around and you’re not hungry, here’s a game-changer: don’t eat. No one is forcing you to cook something.
Stop eating when you’re bored. Just the other day, in fact, I found myself wandering into the kitchen and eyeing the pantry. Was I hungry? Nope. Was I bored and looking for a distraction from work? Yep. Realize that snacks, by and large, are not necessary to keep you going. Eat slightly bigger meals if you need to, and take any and all steps possible to stay away from the kitchen when you’re just bumming around the house.
Stop eating when you’re stressed. Easier said than done, right? But stressed calories, to an overwhelming degree, are some of the worst we can consume, especially since they tend to be of the sweet and processed variety. If stress is a constant factor in your life, realize a few things. First: you do need to do something about it. Second: you don’t have to eat. Your stress response is entirely yours, I’m happy to report, and can be shifted with tremendous benefits to anything else: meditation, yoga, exercise, a long walk, etc. You don’t have to eat.
That last line is the most important. We’re taught, from birth, that we should eat three square meals, and we’re told to expect terrible, terrible things if we don’t.
I’m happy to report that this is bullshit.
5. You (might) have to skip a meal.
I’ve called Intermittent Fasting a tool—and an optional one at that—many times before on this blog, but I want to take a moment here to belabor the idea a bit longer.
You don’t have to fast. I think you should, certainly, if you’re in otherwise pretty solid condition, but the core benefit of fasting comes back to one central concept: eating less.
I’m amazed, sometimes, at the mind-boggling amount of food we consume. Your average modern eater will start their morning with something like pancakes or waffles and a glass of orange juice, move on to a burger (with fries and soft drink!) for lunch, and top the day off with a few slices of pizza or a frozen TV dinner.
That’s too much food. Where we really stumble, however, is in how we deal with it.
We walk for an hour on the treadmill. We sweat blood for thirty minutes on the elliptical. Meaning well, we spend hours at the gym every morning to try and earn our after-dinner slice of cheesecake — not realizing, now, that all of our hard work in the gym can’t possibly make up for eating so much damn food.
Here’s a different idea: don’t be afraid to compensate.
If you eat far too much at a wedding, as I did last weekend, adapt accordingly for the week after. I’m skipping breakfast every day this week and eating smaller meals overall to help compensate. I no doubt undid weeks of good work in half a day at the wedding, but that’s okay — because I know I can eat less and move more to make up for it.
That’s the beauty of this Ideal Diet. You’re not eating strictly planned meals three times a day, and you’re not stressing over portion sizes every time you do plop down at the table. You’re eating to satiation 90% of the time and walking away afterwards, but you’re absolutely okay with lingering for a glass of wine and a decadent dessert every so often too.
Why? Because you have the tools to make up for it. Don’t be afraid to compensate.
Skipping a meal or just eating less overall will not cause your universe to implode. I promise.
6. You have to keep perspective.
Part of the problem, I think, is how easily we get wrapped up in the now.
We stress over each meal as we sit down to enjoy it. We worry about how many carbs are on our plate or how many grams of fat we just drizzled over our (preferably big ass) salad. We place an incredible amount of importance on this one meal, forgetting the bigger picture as we go. It’s one meal out of two or three each day. It’s one meal out of twenty-something per week. It’s one meal out of about a thousand per year.
The trick, accordingly, is to keep things in perspective.
One indulgent meal (food allergies aside) will not derail you. It will not utterly destroy all of the hard work you’ve put in, and nor will it set you on the slippery slope back to drinking hamburger grease straight out of your fast food delivery bag. That’s not an excuse to indulge every thirty-six hours, but it is a good reason to not feel like the worst human being alive whenever you do.
Health doesn’t hinge around a single meal. You had to eat a ton of unhealthy meals to gain weight, and I promise you’ll have to eat a ton of smaller, healthy meals to get to your goal. That’s not a popular perspective, I bet, given how obsessed we are with instant results, but it’s a lot more honest about the nature of healthy eating.
This is a lifestyle. This is not some short-term fix. Live accordingly.
Wrapping It All Up
I used to be the fat kid.
When I lay it out like that, now, I want to laugh. But that would be downplaying how much my weight has been an issue throughout my life — whether as the tubby, surly fourth grader or thick college graduate, my reading on the scale has never really been where I wanted. Discovering Primal/Paleo about two years back, accordingly, was a game changer. I’ve never looked back. I don’t suspect I ever will.
I’m not the fat kid anymore. And while I’ve been teased (and rightfully so!) endlessly about being the half-naked blogger, I don’t think I need another shirtless photo to prove my point. I had a moment, a few weeks back, when a chance glimpse of my reflection in a window rooted me to the spot. I looked lean. That’s a horribly narcissistic thing to say, I know, but I want to stress how incredible it was to even have that thought in the first place.
Am I exactly where I want to be? Not quite. But I’m closer than I’ve ever been, now, and I know I have every tool I need to keep going. I have the diet, too, that’ll take me there, and I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as simple and inspiring as a diet should be. To recap:
1. 90% of the time, eat real food.
2. 10% of the time, break rule #1.
That’s it. And there lays the ultimate irony: after two years of reading, researching, and devouring as much information as possible, I’ve found myself coming right back to the basics. Eat real food. What a revolutionary thought!
Where to Go From Here
That’s not to say I’m done reading. A couple of incredibly bright individuals are still pouring every ounce of energy they have into exploring health and nutrition, and I’d like to list them here:
Paul Jaminet (The Perfect Health Diet) — Paul is an outstanding writer and possibly the kindest, most patient person I’ve ever read, which only makes his continued work over on his blog all the more impressive.
Kurt Harris (Archevore) — Kurt isn’t blogging too much anymore, but his guidelines for Paleo-style eating (and, likewise, the origins of Paleo 2.0 as I came to know it) are the ones I most closely identify with.
Mark Sisson (Mark’s Daily Apple) — Do I need to say more?
J. Stanton (Gnolls) — Mr. Stanton’s introduction to his take on Paleo is a solid one all around. I’m still not overly concerned with fructose intake, but I do appreciate the emphasis on nutrient-rich animal organs.
And that’s a wrap, folks. Whew.
Any more that you think are worth reading? Sound off below! And check back tomorrow, folks, for the next installment in the Everything I Know series. I’m going out with a bang!