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You are what you eat

Posted by eric on December 16, 2011

Sure, it's a bit of an over-used cliché, but in the end we all are what we choose to eat. Or, at least, what we eat contributes to how we feel, how we look, and how long we'll live.

Unfortunately, most of us don't take the time to consider what it is we're eating and how it can impact our lives - either positively or negatively.

Here's my take:

It's pretty simple to say "I'm going to eat healthier [insert appropriate "today", "this week", "this year", "from now on" here]". What's not so simple is defining what that means, how you're going to do it, and how you're going to keep it up.

What it means

First of all, in order to eat "healthier", you have to know how it is you're eating now and what it is you plan to make more healthy about it. So to start, figure out what you're eating now by keeping a log of what you eat for a week. This will be your baseline.

I've recommended myfitnesspal.com before and I'll do it again because I feel it provides a tremendously simple and effective way to track what you eat and monitor key nutritional elements of the foods you're eating. They have a mobile app as well, so using it on the move is also easy. 

Once you have your baseline completed (no cheating or it won't be accurate or helpful) then you need to review it and determine what's bad about it, what's good about it, and what should be altered. Frankly, you should probably do this with someone who is qualified to do the analysis with you - a nutritionist, doctor, or some other health/nutrition professional who can explain what the numbers mean and what changing them will do. 

In lieu of working with a professional, myfitnesspal.com gives guidance on the amounts of each nutrient you should be eating, and makes allowances for your normal activity level, weight, age, gender, and any additional exercising you do, so it's a reasonable guide to start.

So, what it means to you is what you have to figure out. Based on what you're doing now, it could mean anything from limiting calories but maintaining the current breakdown of fat-carb-protein percentages, or it could mean eating the same basic foods/calories but with different nutrient percentages.

It could also mean that you should eat more food. Starving yourself, or eating too little of any one of the key nutrients won't help in the long run. It may serve short term goals, but it is ultimately unsustainable because the body needs each of the three key nutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and protein) in varying amounts depending on your goals and level of activity.

I wish I give give you the silver bullet answer, but there isn't one. Each person is going to be unique, but here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you establish your revised diet:

  • Reduce the amount of processed meats you eat.
  • Don't eat fat-free things. When fat is removed, chemicals are added. Oh, and you need fat, at least the good (unsaturated) kinds. Avocados are awesome, by the way.
  • Don't drink sweetened drinks. Water is your friend.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. No, I don't know how many you're eating now, but if you're like 98% of Americans, it's not enough.
  • Don't take vitamins. Get your nutrients from food, not from chemically-produced subsets of it. (Yes, I promote Juice Plus - this is not a vitamin, but a whole-food.)
  • Don't be afraid of eggs. They've gotten a bad rap, but eggs are pretty close to a perfect food. Your body produces much more cholesterol to deal with all the sugar you eat than it gets from the foods you eat.

The key is to get a good variety of foods the fulfill your body's complete needs. Natural sources are best since they'll contain the fewest chemical additives. Read the ingredients, not just the front of the box that says "All Natural". The qualifications for "All Natural" or "Whole Grain" are very low and don't often mean what you might think. 

How you're going to do it

The only way to really be successful is to realize that eating healthier could be a significant lifestyle change. If it is, it's going to be difficult. Let me say that again, because it's the single most important part of this - it's going to be difficult. When you've been accustomed to a certain type of food, or a certain level of food intake, changing that requires significant effort and determination.

I've done it before and it was a challenge. I didn't have a lot to lose - about 15 pounds or so - but convincing my body that it could get by on fewer calories, that a portion wasn't an entire dinner plate, that I needed to cut back on that beloved cherry pie, was tough. 

But it was worth it. That's not to say that I don't occasionally struggle with myself to turn away an extra cookie (I have a horrible sweet tooth) or eat an extra helping of chili, but now I know that if I wait just a little bit longer, I'll realize I really was full, or that I didn't really need that extra bite of whatever.

So make a decision to change your life for the better. Take small steps towards that goal - no one should expect to alter their lifestyle in a week or a month - it takes time to adapt.

Get help when you need it and give help to others as you can. Your health and your inspiration can be a gift; don't be stingy with it.

Enjoy the journey - being healthy should be fun, not torture.

How you're going to keep it up

Once you've made a commitment, you need to be consistent to insure you stay on course. Having friends or partners that are doing it with you helps - safety in numbers, so to speak. Encourage your loved ones to join you on your quest to be healthy - they'll appreciate it.

If you don't have a network of support locally, there are certainly those of us on the web that will be happy to encourage you. Again, with myfitnesspal, you can share your diary with others, which helps to maintain accountability. 

But in the end, it's up to you; no one else can do it for you. And no one else can take credit for your success. Be proud of the journey. Be proud of your successes, no matter how small they might seem.

Stay fit everyone.

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