“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
These simple seven words condense thousands and thousands of pages of nutritional texts into a comprehensive and viable diet-strategy for health, wellness, fitness and leanness… oh, and metabolic health.
It can be easy to get side-tracked by the over-abundance of seemingly conflicting information that circulates in the media. You run into arguments like the following:
“Keto is healthy” vs. “Keto will make you sick”
“Meat is healthy” vs. “Meat will make you sick”
“Paleo is healthy” vs. “Paleo will make you sick”
“Carbs keep you lean” vs. “Carbs make you fat” …and on and on it goes.
Of course, each of the above arguments can be fairly intricate all by itself, regardless which side you’re arguing. It’s easy to get lost, trying to keep up with all of it.
Not to worry, though, because regardless of all the complex arguments, I don’t think there is a more sound strategy for eating for health (and leanness) than the seven words you see above. If you’re looking for a “solution” or “path” towards a healthy metabolism, it would be encapsulated by those simple seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
It takes no time at all to understand, but it will give you a massive payoff, and huge rewards, in terms of health, metabolism, and leanness. In other words, don’t let the simplicity fool you. There is genius in simplicity.
Contrary to industry gurus, the truth is the human body does not recognize all calories as being equal. In other areas you can say weight is equal: a pound of feathers is equal to a pound of iron because both weigh a pound. But in terms of how your body recognizes and deals with food substances once they enter your body, the equation is not true: 200 calories of a Snickers bar is not recognized, processed, and assimilated in your body the same way 200 calories of asparagus would be. So let’s break down each component part of the brilliant phrase, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Eat Real Food…
High-quality whole foods serve and always have served to balance hormones that regulate your metabolism and gut function. These healthy whole foods also affect the hormones in the brain that are key to controlling appetite and hunger. This doesn’t need to be complicated stuff. You can get into all sorts of details about those hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, but at the end of the day it doesn’t much matter.
If you eat real, proper food, that stuff is taken care of. Conveniently, it’s also easy to tell what is a healthy, whole food, once you throw out any fears you might have from low-carb gurus or whatever. Eating a healthy whole food means eating foods in their natural state as much as possible, and with minimal processing. If it naturally comes from a plant, eat it; if it was “made” in a plant, don’t.
Very seldom is the food (if you can call it that) that you get handed to you from the drive-thru ever going to be a healthy whole food. Ask yourself: How is that food found in nature? Oh, and also: I hate to disappoint you health nuts here but things like “Almond Milk” are not natural whole foods eaten as found in nature. Almonds don’t naturally produce milk. Things like “almond milk” are not healthy whole foods as found in nature. It takes processing to get it.
The same is even more true of protein bars and powders and all the rest. Putting the word “engineered” in front of food is a complete marketing stunt. The actual word is “processed.” Protein powders and bars are not foods that our ancestors hunted, gathered, or farmed. There isn’t a food or meal replacement “product” in the market today that will have the same physiological, hormonally and metabolically balancing effects as actual, natural whole foods. (In fact, they’re “engineered” to be hyper-palatable and to fire off reward centers in the brain, to increase your drive to eat more, more, and more. This is what you don’t want.) The more ingredients in a food label, then the more that food has been processed, changed and altered.
You’ve probably heard some of this before. Real food seldom even requires a label. This is often referred to as “the silence of the yams.” You don’t need to advertise for the potato, and no one does because it’s not addictive like hyper-palatable, more marketable foods are, but it is a wonderfully healthy, whole food.
When you see word combinations that begin with “partially” or “un” and then more multi-syllabic, hard-to-pronounce words following that, you know you are not looking at a healthy whole food. The more a food with multiple ingredients tells you how healthy it is… the more suspicious you should be. (“The label doth protest too much.”)
Kids breakfast cereals are the obvious example of this. Most people know that a sugary cereal isn’t “really” that healthy. The more subtle examples are, as I mentioned above, “health foods” like protein bars, Clif bars, and that kind of thing. They’re still engineered and processed, and they won’t support long-term metabolic health the way real foods will. But they’re still marketed to the demographic that is all about “whole foods” and “organic” and the like. But that’s all it is: marketing. You can see this just by checking the labels of so-called “healthy” foods. Almost always, the real healthy whole foods, fresh or frozen, when they do have labels, will have 4-5 ingredients at most.
Finally, I want to add a note about “real” or “natural” foods: don’t go too far with this, or take it out of context. This means that cooking your foods is not only A-OK, it’s extremely healthy.
Not Too Much…
Does this mean depriving yourself and going hungry? No! Not at all. I’ve been arguing throughout this book against extreme deprivation. What this is referring to here is the something our ancestors couldn’t fathom: eating until you are “stuffed.” I talk a lot about the terms “justifiable hunger” and “tolerable hunger.”
A little bit of tolerable hunger keeps you awake, alert, and at your best. It was not until the advent of extremely convenient hyper-palatable foods (sugar, fat, salt) that people ate until they were stuffed. It is not natural or optimal to do so. There is a difference between tolerable hunger (a natural state) and being stuffed (an unnatural state). Being “stuffed” triggers certain hormones in the brain and gut, creating metabolic and hormonal dysfunction and obstruction.
Unfortunately, that “feeling” of being stuffed (especially when it comes from that combo of sugar, salt, and fat) acts like a drug and becomes a habit very quickly. No one ever overeats on healthy natural whole foods or gets addicted to them.
I constantly hear from clients, “Once I start eating one cookie [or one chip, or one piece of chocolate, or whatever] I just can’t stop eating until the whole bag is gone!” I’ve never ever heard that said about a bag of apples or skinless chicken breasts.
If you follow the first part (“eat food”) and you’re eating healthy whole foods, then 90% of the time this second part becomes a non-issue. It just takes care of itself. If you eat healthy whole foods, you tend not to eat until you are stuffed, and you learn to accept being a bit hungry while yet having lots and lots of energy.
Genius in simplicity! So, eat food, but not a lot. On to the last part…
Eat Mostly Plants
Let me say this again: your exact macro breakdown simply doesn’t matter. I remember when training competitors who were locked into calorie-control nonsense they would break rice cakes or asparagus spears in half in order to “be precise” with calories-control.
Talk about breeding potential obsession!
The truth is that if most of your meals are composed of healthy whole foods coming from plants, you will be healthy and lean, without having to obsess about calories and macros and all the rest of it.
3-4 meals per day to ensure you are following the rule above of eating food but “not a lot” makes great sense for hormonal balance. Once again modern approaches like IF (Intermittent Fasting) don’t properly account for the brain chemistry involved in how hunger is managed and controlled and generated, from the brain to the gut and back again. Sure these concepts are fancy “scientific” stuff (taken out of context), but they fly in the face of optimal hormonal and metabolic reality
I’ll try to make it a bit simpler: at first…
Make 1/4 of your plate a protein serving or two , or a protein and fat serving (like raw nuts),
1/4 of your plate a carbohydrate source
then make the other half of your plate fruits or veggies
For instance, one of my meals right now is 40 grams of raw nuts and as much whole fruit as I want, because I’ll get satisfied, way before I could get fat.
Calories for this meal are not an issue. Macro proportions are not an issue. My body is smarter than I am in that regard, and so is yours! Once again, this is not complicated stuff here, and if you need to start somewhere, start with abiding in the mantra “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” and ask yourself, “Is this food choice something my ancestors, hunted, gathered, raised for food or farmed?
This leaves your “Clif Bars” and your “Organic Rice and Hemp Seed Protein Powder” out of the equation, and hopefully out of your grocery cart. Also not that “plant-based food” doesn’t just mean endless amounts of leafy greens. It means potatoes, rice, legumes, starches — those are all fantastic as well.
Some Exceptions Now, of course, there are exceptions to all simple rules. For instance, not all “man-made” foods are taboo, especially the ones with minimal processing. One that comes to mind here is rice cakes or corn cakes.
These foods actually have pretty minimal processing and can be great choices, especially if limited to only once per day. Some nutritional and fitness gurus will go on and on about the “glycemic index” of rice cakes, and call it a no-no food. But these gurus tend to be the same characters who forbid “carrots” for the same kind of kindergarten-level logic.
Rice cakes are very easy to digest and for someone with digestion issues like bloating and stomach distension and the rest, rice cakes once per day can be an especially great choice, as they’re very easy on the stomach. Try them, and see how your stomach and your hunger thank you.
Artificial sweeteners are another big example. I choose man-made artificial sweetener over any other “real added sugars” out there, because of the hormonal and metabolic costs of eating such sugars. Sugar comes in many forms and “natural honey” or “raw honey” is still a sugar. Yes, “sugar” comes from the sugar cane plant, but in this case, it still has to go to the factory for processing before it becomes “sugar,” the kind of sugar that can wreak havoc on your hormonal and metabolic balance and function.
Also, before you get all high and mighty about your artificial sweetener alternative of Stevia, let me remind you that Stevia goes through the exact same processing, starting as a plant and then be processed in a factory. Just because it comes from a plant before being processed into its final form does not make it “superior” except in that it can be marketed that way. It’s a way of selling “health consciousness” as an identity. More on this in the chapter on artificial sweeteners.
University of Ottawa obesity specialist Dr. Yoni Freedhoff once said this: “If the choice is between sugar and sweetener in patients trying to manage their weight for health reasons, there is no doubt, and no question, that the current state of the evidence would be in favor of using the sweeteners, of course.”
Finally, having reward meals, half day rewards and reward days (I would only ever introduce and full day reward if someone was extremely lean, so don’t get ideas) where you eat outside your standard diet.
Do this for enjoyment. These foods are not exceptions like rice cakes are: you are eating highly processed foods sometimes. But that’s because you may have a sweet tooth, and enjoy them, and you’ve structured your diet and timed you refeeds such that within the context of your overall diet strategy, they serve their purpose and your personal health and fitness.
So there, you have it. A diet-strategy to promote health, control weight and get and stay lean as well:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
And once you factor in what real “food” is, then you know that eating “not too much” doesn’t mean deprivation and starvation. Also, you should be aware that as with any rule there is the odd exception here and there (e.g. rice cakes). I know it’s simple, but with those seven words, you are well-armed for a starting point in your weight-loss and weight-control goals.
None of this is complicated and none of this needs to be. Overcomplication offers only the illusion of control, but it is mostly wasted effort if you’re not four weeks out from a fitness competition.
Remember always that “the truth is simple, and simplicity is the truth.”
Hope this help!