Just Eat This: 5 Rules for a Healthy Diet
By Steve Edwards
"Can't you just tell me exactly what I'm supposed to eat?" is a question I'm often asked. Today, we'll look at the answer that, incidentally, is "no." It's a good thing that there isn't one perfect diet because we don't all like the same foods. The world would be a pretty boring place if we did. It also means that you have many choices when it comes to eating healthy, so why is it so hard?
Eating well, for most of us, requires eliminating junk from our diets. Therefore, it's easier to tell you what not to eat. But based on the questions I receive, that's leaving you too much leeway. Since I can't tell each of you exactly what you individually should eat, let's have a look at what I eat, why I eat this way, and how you can alter my diet to suit your personality and lifestyle.
There are a few rules to achieving a healthy diet. These will give you a far greater understanding of why I do what I do. So let's look at them first.
Rule 1: We should not all eat the same diet.
Humans are all different, even if it's only slightly. So when it comes to diet we cannot expect that foods will all work exactly the same for us. This is in contrast to what the myriad of diet books you can choose from will tell you. Most of those want us to think that there's only one way—theirs, incidentally—to transform and keep your body healthy. Of course, if this were true there'd only be one book to buy. So, just the fact that there have been hundreds of best-selling diet books is the best argument that there are many different healthy ways to eat.
There are many other scientific reasons for this as well. Some are proven, like allergies. Some are more speculative, like eating for your blood type, but all have some anecdotal evidence that they work, which is all the validation we need.
Dairy products are the best example to illuminate this point. There is plenty of science showing both pros and cons to consuming them. But regardless of what science tells us, some people do well eating dairy and others do not. When a food allergy is suspected, eliminating dairy is the first step most nutritionists recommend trying. It often yields great results, but not always. This makes dairy a food group that some of us can eat and others cannot.
Similar examples can be found within any food group. What it comes down to is that, no matter how you want to eat, you're going to need to evaluate your diet and see how it's working for you. This requires some trial and error. While that probably sounds daunting, read on and you'll see that it's not. By cleaning up your diet and eating for what you are doing, it becomes fairly easy to identify foods that agree with you and those that don't.
Rule 2: Eat for what you are going to be doing.
You've probably heard this before, especially if you're a longtime Beachbody member. Similar to not putting gas in your car when it isn't going anywhere, your body doesn't have the same nutrient requirements when you're sitting as when you're moving. Since it's simple to understand that you burn more calories attempting an Ironman than watchingOprah, it shouldn't be a stretch to understand that you have different nutrient requirements on different days.
Furthermore, most of us have different periods in our life where we not only do things differently on a daily basis, but have different goals. Some common goals, where diet and lifestyle are concerned, are:
to lose weight
to gain fitness (regardless of weight)
to maintain weight
to train for an upcoming event
For each of those objectives you will want to eat differently. We will discuss all of them.
Rule 3: There are things you shouldn't eat.
Or, at a minimum, that should never be in your kitchen. These are items that, somehow, have made it onto our daily menus that we could easily live without and, at least, should be treated as desserts, anomalies, rewards, or emergency rations. For a more complete list, visit your local 7-Eleven. Let's look at the major offenders.
Soda. How soda has made it into our daily lives is a testament to marketing. It's a dessert, at best, and when consumed daily makes it nearly impossible to have a balanced diet. If you'd like more info, read The Worst Food on the Planet.
High fructose corn syrup. It's not just for dessert anymore. HFCS is now found in bread, salad dressing, and probably 80% of the stuff at most convenience stores. It's not just that it's bad for you; it's also an indication that a food item is made using the lowest-quality ingredients possible. A 15-second label check can protect you.
Trans fats. These man-made fats help foods sit on shelves longer but serve no nutritional purpose for you. They do, however, have a terrible downside. Fortunately, they're on the dangerous food radar and now much easier to detect.
Alcohol. Again, it's not so bad in moderation but as a daily accoutrement to your diet you're adding a lot of calories and very little food value. While I'll be the first to extol its merits as a reward, it has no true place in your daily diet. This will also help to understand which alcoholic beverages are better than others.
Splenda, aspartame, and Sweet n' Low. Calories aren't the only thing to worry about. These sweeteners have been proven safe enough to not kill you but have no place as a regular part of your diet. They also can lead to an enhanced sweet tooth, something that won't make your fitness goals easier to achieve. Here are a few options and why you'll want to avoid them.
Rule 4: You don't have to be perfect.
Or even close to it. In fact, there are times when you should relax and let yourself eat whatever you want. I can even come up with a scenario where junk food is what you want to be eating. But we'll get to that later.
Your body is very resilient. Your mind, however, can be the opposite. A constant client excuse is to quit a program due to some type of misstep that they've stigmatized as "I've blown it." That's not how it works. As long as the big picture is better than what it was before, you'll be making progress. One bad meal, day, week, even month doesn't matter. All that matters is that you're moving in the right direction. As long as you're doing better than you were before, you'll feel and look better than you did before. And the fitter you become, the more your body programs itself to toss out those bad days. Translation: the more fit you are the more you can cheat. It's one of the best examples of being rewarded for your work in the natural world.
Rule 5: If it's processed, don't eat it (well, sort of).
Your diet should consist of as much whole food as you can fit into it. This means vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and meats that have been processed as little as possible. If your diet consists mainly of these foods then you're on the right track. Whole foods are also more regulating than processed foods. Eating them causes your body to respond in a natural way. It's pretty much exactly the opposite of what happens with soda and candy.
But you don't have to avoid all processed foods. As we learn to read ingredients and understand what types of nutrients our body needs we'll see that not all processed foods are evil. Look for processed foods with whole food ingredients. An easy guide to processing is the fiber content on the label. The more processed something is, the less fiber it usually contains. And fiber is your friend.
So let's get to my diet. I'm what is called a periodizational dieter. Meaning that I eat differently for what I'm doing throughout the year. Generally, I'm maintaining, but that changes as soon as I target an event to compete in, which is similar to you beginning a new Beachbody program. So over the next few months, I'll be providing examples of my daily diet for different sets of circumstances. Stay tuned!