A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, a quick article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And one thing we all ought to know is how to eat well — both to keep weight off and to keep ourselves healthy.
Sadly, despite the fact that we live in an era of ridiculously abundant food, this is harder than it ought to be.
The problem with modern nutrition boils down to time — it takes time to cook. It takes time to learn how to cook. It takes time to gather the materials to cook. And we spend most of our time at work where we don’t have the time or ability to do those things.
When we don’t have time to cook, we either buy pre-prepared meals or we eat out. Most pre-prepared meals fall into the category of processed food, which we’ll cover in a moment. And most outside eateries skew their food towards what most people like to eat, which is not always what we ought to be eating.
And even when we do have the time to prepare our own food, we are bombarded by endless dieting fads that actively work to hinder our ability to cook real, good, inexpensive food. It’s important to note that almost every diet has some uncommon component food that costs a dollar more than everything else at the grocery store. A cynical person might start thinking that there’s a reason why that’s the case.
The consequence of this is that we do not get the nutrients we need and we, as a society, are rapidly gaining weight to an unhealthy degree. We need a better way, and I have opinions on that subject. We’re going to break this down into a handful of topics, because maintaining proper nutrition isn’t down to just one thing. These are:
- Avoiding diets
- Understanding calories
- Understanding “balanced” meals
- Realities of supplements
- The truth about fat, sugar, and salt
- The truth about (un)natural foods
- Practical nutrition for practical people
Listen, we’re going to get this one out of the way first: everything that modern research has shown indicates that diets simply do not work. There is no such thing as a silver bullet that will keep weight off. Diets actually tend to harm you by triggering binge eating once you stop the diet, starving you of nutrients, and in some cases radically throwing off the balance of nutrients (I’m looking at you, keto diets). Diets are unsustainable, often slightly dangerous, and proven to not work. So, stop trying to diet your way healthy; “diet” is just “die” with a t on the end.
Instead, let’s think in terms of permanent, long-term lifestyle changes. This is about shifting habits for good, not over a short period of time. This can be very hard. Habits are nasty things to try to break. But it is doable, particularly if you have support from friends and family, and it works. We’ll talk more about that a bit later on.
Next, we’ve got to get a grip on what calories actually are. A calorie is nothing more or less than a unit of energy. It is an expression of how much chemical energy is stored in a given volume of a given food. This does not necessarily mean that your body will extract the sum total of that energy from that food, and not all calories are created equal because your body has to do different things to extract energy from different foods.
Your weight is a direct result of the difference between the calories you take in and the calories you burn over the long term. This is significant because many people who try to lose weight will alter one side of that equation, but not both. Many other people will try to alter these equations in unhealthy ways — starving themselves and then trying to run marathons, that kind of thing.
Instead, the best thing you can do for weight management is to engage in daily exercise, and eat healthy — not necessarily less — food. Do not think about burning calories as a day-to-day process. Your body doesn’t; why should you? Instead, think about caloric balance over the long term — a week or a month. It’s ok for your weight if you eat a big meal one day, as long as you exercise the next day or the day after.
Understanding Balanced Meals
Ok, now we’re getting into the meat of the article. A “balanced” meal indicates that you are eating:
- Enough food to power your activities for a set period of time
- Different kinds of food (vegetables, fruits, nuts, meat, carbs, etc.)
- Good proportions of food (i.e. not all meat, not all carbs, not all fruits, etc.)
One does not eat to bursting when eating a balanced meal — eat until you are satisfied, then stop. One does not eat too fast when eating a balanced meal either — your body takes a few minutes to report how full it is, so slow down and let your stomach report in. Your body will tell you how hungry it is, and you should eat until you are no longer hungry, but not totally stuffed. This stops your body from thinking that it is starving, which means it will not try to conserve calories or make you eat more at the next meal.
Eating different kinds of food does a few things for you. It provides different levels of energy burn — sugars for immediate needs, carbs for mid-range burn, and protein for long-term fuel. This prevents you from eating and then feeling hungry again soon afterwards. It also is the best way to provide a variety of nutrients; no one likes scurvy. Finally, it allows you variety in the taste palate, which means you can design meals that aren’t boring.
Eating the right proportions is also important. Don’t eat too much meat. Don’t eat only vegetables (unless you’re vegetarian, of course, in which case make sure you vary your vegetables). Don’t eat only carbs. If you can, try to have vegetables take up half the space on your plate, with the remaining half split between 25% carbs and 25% protein. That’s easy to visualize and easy to serve.
Lastly, remember when we talked about habits and community support earlier? Mealtimes are the place to look for both, particularly in family settings. It is infinitely easier to learn how to eat balanced meals from your parents as a child than it is to figure it out later on in life. Eating at a regular time, in a regular location, with a regular group is a habit-forming activity in its own right, and is a very valid fulcrum around which to shift your eating habits.
However, if you live alone, it can also be very useful to set normal eating times. This serves the same purpose of helping you to plan around meals, and forces you to think about what you will eat every day. This makes it more likely, in turn, that you will eat balanced meals, since you’ll be thinking about meal prep a little more religiously.
Dietary supplements are one of those things that have grown out of the chemical-industrial-pharmaceutical complex, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s not great to treat supplements as substitutes for food, and in general Americans have been trained to have an overly-positive view of supplements.
Some supplements can help, and some won’t do a damn thing; some are even dangerous. In general, vitamin D supplements and fish oil supplements have been shown to have some positive effects. Multivitamins have not. They are expensive chalk, for all your body cares, so stop taking them. Calcium supplements are dubious as well.
If you want to know whether or not you should be taking supplements, you should go to your doctor and do a blood test to check for various imbalances in your body’s chemistry. This is not something you can decide on your own; sometimes you do need to call an expert, and playing with body chemistry is one of those times. If your doctor (or nutritionist, if they are different people) doesn’t indicate you should be taking supplements, you probably don’t need to be taking supplements. Save yourself the money.
In general, the rule of thumb is that supplements are not substitutes. If you can eat food with the nutrient that the supplement is supposed to provide, do that instead.
The Truth About Fat, Sugar, and Salt
Human bodies fucking LOVE fat, sugar, and salt. Guess which things are really hard to find in quantity in nature? If you said fat, sugar, and salt, you guessed right! These three things are all absolutely great if you’re living a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle where you need a lot of energy and, in the case of salt, you aren’t easily able to top off your neurotransmitters and pressure regulators. However, in an age when we almost all live sedentary lifestyles and have access to all the fat, sugar, and salt we could possibly want, they are much less useful.
The problem is that if you want to make anything — anything at all — taste good, you add fat, sugar, and/or salt. We’ve all heard that processed foods are bad. This is why. You can take a tree stump and boil it in butter, syrup, and salt and it’ll taste ok on the plate. The catch is that all you’re getting out of that meal is the fat, sugar, and salt. The tree stump isn’t useful.
When people talk about “empty calories,” this is what they mean — foods that have a lot of FSS (Fat Sugar Salt, I coined an acronym, deal with it) but not much else. They are sources of energy, not sources of nutrients. The difference between the two is that energy is what it takes for your body to move, and nutrients are what it requires in order to function.
Remember earlier, when we talked about people going out to eat and how that’s not good for nutrition? This is why. Restaurant recipes deliberately use a lot of FSS to make their food taste great so that you, the customer, will come back. Even restaurants that bill themselves as healthy eateries. Especially those guys. Look, there is no Healthy Eatery Police Force that goes around checking on those restaurants, it’s caveat emptor¹ all the way.
This isn’t to say that foods with a lot of FSS are useless. If you’re in need of a huge surge of energy, they’re fantastic. If you need to put on weight to survive the winter, they’re amazing. But otherwise they should be eaten in moderation.
This is not as hard as you might think. You can totally get away with drinking a soda a day, salting your meat, and cooking with olive oil. There’s nothing wrong with that. All I’m saying is don’t drink twelve Cokes for breakfast, eat deep-fried food for lunch, and have ice cream for dinner every day.
And it’s important to remember not to cut FSS out entirely. The body loves these foods for a reason — they are necessary. Well, not so much the sugar, but salt and fat certainly are. You have to have some of both to survive, so eat some of both.² Just keep it in moderation, and stay away from saturated and trans fats.
The Truth About (Un)Natural Foods
Every so often, you’ll hear someone say something like “You know, people aren’t really meant to drink cow milk,” or “The human body hasn’t adjusted to wheat,” or my favorite, “Gluten is bad for you!”
Almost all of this is bunk.
You can drink cow milk, unless you are lactose intolerant. You can eat wheat. You absolutely can eat gluten, unless you are gluten intolerant. Almost any time you hear someone — especially a fitness instructor — tell you that some common kind of food isn’t part of our “natural” diet, or the human body isn’t “designed” to consume it, ignore them.
The simple truth is that there is an enormous market for “health” foods of all types, including organic foods (pay attention to that markup, it’s someone’s profit margin!), and that market employs a large number of advertising professionals who try very hard to make you believe that commonly available foods are inherently bad for you. They do this so you will buy their special foods.
There is very little evidence that organic foods are better for you than “normal” food. As we previously discussed, most supplements aren’t useful either. If you are eating a balanced diet of normal food, you are probably getting all the nutrients you need. Feel free to vary the foods that you use, but know that if you buy it raw from the grocery store and convert it into a meal in your home, it is probably ok.
Practical Nutrition for Practical People
With all that out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. We have to eat something, and it ought to be good for us. This is what I tend to call “practical” nutrition. Practical nutrition boils down to cooking and eating a variety of foods, in the right proportions, at a calorie level that works for your lifestyle, while staying away from processed foods and restaurant foods for the majority of your nutrition.
Now, let me say some things that would get me shot in a Whole Foods.
This doesn’t mean you can’t snack on Cheese Nips. Just don’t eat more than a couple of servings a day, and don’t eat them for dinner.
This doesn’t mean you can’t go to restaurants for your main meal. Just try not to go more than a couple of times a week. This is good for your wallet, as well as your waistline.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend all day cooking. There is a whole industry of cook books that focus on quick, easy, healthy meals. I have a fantastic Weight Watchers book that sits on my shelf, and there are tons like it out there. There are also tons of recipes where you can cook a bunch of food at once (e.g. stews, soups, casseroles, chili, crock pot meals, etc.), so you don’t have to cook every day.
This doesn’t mean you have to buy expensive food. Carrots are dirt cheap. So are potatoes. So is broccoli. So is chicken. You can put together a filling meal that tastes good and hits all the nutritional markers for less than $5 per serving. And no, it doesn’t have to be organic to be good for you.³
This doesn’t mean you have to get all your nutrients at every meal. Your body is not going to run out of everything all at once. It’s ok to eat a variety of foods over the day and over the week, so you don’t have to cram all the nutrients in every day. The Daily Value is a guideline, but I can’t imagine how you would actually follow it in full without losing your mind.
Last but not least, this doesn’t mean you can’t pig out from time to time. We have feasts once in a while, if we’re lucky, and that’s fine. All I’m saying is that we should form eating habits that are appropriate most of the time. That way the pig-out days are the exceptions, not the rule.
Ultimately, practical nutrition is not about cutting anything out or overemphasizing any one food; it’s about keeping portion sizes reasonable, eating home-cooked food as much as possible, and lowering the FSS content for normal everyday meals. That’s good for your body, good for your waistline, good for your wallet, and good for your cooking skills.