Three years ago I set out to crack the code of effortless healthy eating.
Since then, I’ve experimented with half-a-dozen different diets, plans, and systems in pursuit of a way-of-eating that was easy, fun, tasting, and completely healthful for my body.
It’s all about well-being—if you’ve gotta live, you might as well live well.
First, I tried a vegetarian diet, inspired by my discovery of the Engine 2 Diet.
I had dappled in triathlon for a while, so I was intrigued by this diet being endorsed by notable triathlete Rip Esselstyn. After one week, it only left me feeling over-hungry and malnourished. A virtually protein-free diet wasn’t sustainable for me as a moderately active person.
Second, I tried to eat a conventionally “healthy” diet based on commonly talked about principles such as low-fat is better, whole grains are healthy, and don’t eat too much junk food. I lasted for a whole summer, but came out of it feeling no discernible difference in my overall health or well-being.
Then I went to Europe for 4 months.
Sometimes I ate like a king. Other times I ate like a fool. Often times I ate like a pig. By the end however, I had seen and eaten my way across 11 countries and a couple-dozen cities. Traveling Europe taught me many things about food and the history of food consumption over the last 2000 years.
When I returned from Europe I found myself over-stuffed and ready for a reset. Most people in Europe were fit and healthy, and didn’t think too much about what they ate or how they stayed fit. I knew there must be something too that. I also knew that I still didn’t have it figured out.
Next I tried this thing called the Primal Blueprint, a diet by some guy named Mark who apparently took his eating advice from a 10,000-year-old caveman. While I didn’t subscribe to the whole caveman bit, this time I experienced a noticeable difference in the way I felt. I shed some of that extra fat from my Euro-trip and noticed better energy levels and mood. There was something to this.
Then came the holidays.
After a month of feasting on cookies and festive dinners with a few too many baked potatoes, I was once again feeling a bit less than “healthy” and a in need of a break. I had noticed throughout my time in Europe and the ensuing holiday season that I was easily controlled by cravings for food and had a difficult time controlling myself when food was put in front of me.
I knew something needed to change.
That’s when I found the Whole30. The Whole30 is a health-first, food and living plan that aims to quench cravings, squash bad habits, and reset your probably unhappy digestive system. What really resonated with me about Whole30 was that it was about more than just the food. It was about your relationship to food. It wasn’t about what you eat, it was about how you eat.
So many of us have bad habits, cravings, and generally poor relationships with food. And that’s where the real problem lies.
My Whole30 was hard, sometimes really hard, but what it taught me was that eating healthfully required a change of attitude. A new mindset. Rather than getting caught up in what was good or bad for me, rather than feeling helpless and guilty when I binged on chocolate cake, I was able to take each decision as an opportunity to choose health. I trained myself to think differently, and I began to act differently because of it.
After experiencing the benefits of the Whole30, I applied what I learned to my daily life. I ate whole, unprocessed foods that were full of nutrients and made me feel great. I avoided sugar and junk food and empty calories. I felt better and healthier and happier than ever. And when I messed up—when I ate something I knew I shouldn’t—I didn’t worry about it, because I knew that it was just one decision out of many, and that I would have thousands of opportunities to make the right decision in the future.
My journey to learn to eat heathily lasted one year. Throughout the entire process I reflected on my experience and made note of what I learned. The following five points are the results of those reflections.
Five Simple Rules For Happy, Healthy Eating
- Eat your veggies
- Get some protein
- The 80/20 rule
- Mind your calories
- Eat from the earth
1. Eat your veggies
This is number one because, as everyone knows, vegetables are incredibly healthy for you. They are packed full of all kinds of vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients that your body needs to be its best. They also occur naturally and can be easily obtained in their raw and unprocessed state. They exist in probably millions of different forms and varieties, making for a broad and plethoric source of nearly every nutrient the body needs.
If you were to eat just one food group and one food group only for the rest of your life it should be veggies (and I mean real vegetables like leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, onions, etc. not simply plant foods like wheat, corn, beans, etc.).
2. Get some protein
This is second because protein is utterly essential to human functioning but it is not supplied in the optimal quantity and quality from plant sources (yes you will hear vegetarians preach that you can get all 8 essential amino acids from plant sources, but there are others that are important, and even the most abundant plant proteins pale in comparison to meat sources). So if veggies are the most important to eat, meat is the second most important. This doesn’t mean go to your local McDonald’s and order a Big Mac thinking that it’s healthy, but rather to eat whole, healthy, and wild/grass-fed/free-range/cage-free/organic meats. They say good cheese comes from happy cows. Well healthy beef comes from healthy cows too.
Most meat in the U.S. comes from factory farms where cows (or chickens or whatever) are put in closed environments and forced to live in their own excrement with little-to-no semblance of exercise. They are fed leftover and ‘unsuitable’ grains and other waste foods that cannot be sold to humans, they are pumped with antibiotics and hormones, and they are utterly unhealthy. Sometime try buying the cheapest carton of eggs you can find and then buy a carton of cage-free, organic, brown eggs. Crack them side by side and notice the difference in the shell. Which one do you think came from a stronger, healthier chicken? Which one do you think is healthier for you?
Meat is essential because it provides quality protein, iron, B vitamins, and healthy fats (yes, you read that right, fats can be healthy). There is a common myth today that animal fat is unhealthy. Turns out fat is actually our body’s preferred and most stable energy source and that saturated fat is the most stable of them all. Read more about why fat is healthy here.
3. The 80/20 rule
The principle is simple. Everyone knows the importance of moderation. Nothing is sustainable when it’s extreme. Nobody could make perfect eating choices 100% of the time. Even if you could, it would be no fun. Life was meant to be lived, and we live it imperfectly. Don’t strive to be perfect.
The 80/20 rule simply means that 80% of the time, you make the healthy choice, and 20% of the time you allow yourself to splurge a little. Enjoy a special treat, eat that sentimental chocolate cake, or just plain forget about healthy for a second. Don’t use it as an excuse to binge or let it be a slippery slope back into old habits. Just let yourself live a little. You’ll find that it helps you be ok with yourself when you don’t make the right choice and be motivated to do so next time.
4. Mind your calories
Calories, calories. That awful, magical, highly misunderstood word. The truth is calories do matter. However, many people abuse that and turn to obsessive-compulsive means of restricting, calorie-counting, and what have you. It’s all overkill. Simply put, if you consume more food than you burn, you will gain weight. If you consume less than you burn, you will lose weight. Whatever your goals are, don’t obsess over it.
Listen to your body. You would be amazed at how much you can tell about your well-being by listening to your body. Did you know that your digestive system has its own nervous system. In a sense, that means that your gut has a mind of its own. Now don’t take that as an excuse to give up and let your cravings make your food choices. Instead, listen to your body and you will start to understand what makes it feel good, and what makes it feel icky. Pay attention to how much you eat, and how much energy you expend, and it will be easy and natural to get to and stay at your goal weight.
Listen to your body, eat smart, and the rest is easy.
5. Eat from the earth
This is a super important and blanket statement that applies across all food categories and situations. The closer the food on your plate is to the ground it came from, the better it is for you. That means unprocessed, that means fresh, that means food that has been unaltered (non-GMO, no hormones, etc.), is grown naturally in real soil, and is seasonally and locally grown (not shipped halfway across the world for weeks on end).
This is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind that can help inform any eating decision. Take this example: pasta or a salad? Well the pasta noodles are made from grains not veggies first of all. Secondly, those noodles had to be highly processed to transform from the their wheat field home to the pasta dish. Salad is definitely healthier.
How about a less obvious choice: two eggs and a couple pieces of bacon or a frozen dinner with organic veggies in a stir fry sauce? If the eggs are cage-free organic and the bacon is all natural and comes from a reputable source, that’s the better answer. Why? Look at the ingredients on the frozen veggie stir fry. There are likely all kinds of weird things in that stir fry sauce that don’t sound natural because they aren’t. Those veggies didn’t come out of the ground premixed with stir fry sauce and nicely packaged in the frozen section. Be wary of food that masquerades as healthy but is actually highly processed and has funky ingredient lists.
Those are the basic principles that guide every decision I make about food. Since my year-long food journey, I have spent two years living by and refining these principles. I’ve read dozens (hundreds?) of articles, some backed by science, others backed by the author’s first-hand experience. I studied nutrition and physiology at the college-level. I experimented on myself.
You’ll find that nutrition is one of the most stratified fields of so-called science in the world, with very little unified consensus on what is healthy and what is not. Through all the things I’ve learned and studied over the past five years, these five principles remain. By taking a step back and looking at food with a healthy perspective, you’ll find that it’s really not all that complicated to eat right and feel good.
Don’t overthink it and go on and enjoy your life.
If you have any questions about things that I’ve written about here or other topics related to health and nutrition, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment for me here or hit me up on twitter @dgaultiere.