I’ve been squirreled away under a rock and a marching band and a broken leg this year, but if you manage to run into me, you’d notice that there’s a lot less of me to run into. I’ve been pretty aggressively working out and working on building a better understanding of health and nutrition since the new year. I’ve been trying to avoid the bullshit by seeing a nutritionist, and in terms of the exercise stuff the slow healing process from the broken leg means I can’t overdo it.
Someone asked me this weekend what I’ve been doing. To be fair, I’ve cut back my caloric intake to 1600-1700 calories per day (less when I couldn’t exercise at all), and tried to instill a good balance of foods. This means I stick to lean protein sources (fish, chicken, tofu), red meat only once a week if that, and a huge portion of vegetables. I have to say, this isn’t some crazy diet fad. My overall intake is less than where it should be (my maintenance level is somewhere around 2700 calories/day), but the balance of foods is something I will be practicing for the rest of my life.
Remember the food pyramid? I grew up with that model as my nutritional education as a kid. That model was retired a few years ago as it was seen to give some incorrect emphasis to some foods. It’s been replaced by a plate graphic that shows how much of your plate should be what.
USDA’s myplate graphic
So for my own personal eating practice thus far, fruit is limited to 2-3 servings of fruit per day, and that vegetable portion takes over half the plate. It’s easy for me to remember because it’s very visual, and my 3-4oz meat or tofu or whatever is roughly the same size as half the palm of my hand. I also only have 1 or less servings of dairy per day because I’m not a huge dairy fan, and it’s an easy way to reduce fat intake. I do love really good cheese, but if you saw what one oz of cheese looks like (a “serving”), you’d give up too. If you want some more info and good ideas about meal balance and what a meal might look like, I highly recommend digging around in the USDA’s myplate site because it’s a great resource and can help in terms of building a shopping list and thinking of what a good meal might look like.
The hard part has been falling into line with the grain intake, because rice, bread, potatoes all taste so good to me. Also I’ve been avoiding heavily processed foods like the plague. The hardest parts are these: not mixing beans and tofu (too high in calories and it’s a doubling up on the protein portion of the plate and i hate having less than a half cup of anything), and drinking maybe 3 beers a week. For the most part I skip the beer because I’d rather eat. That is something I never ever thought I’d say in my life.
This has been backed up by working out 5-7 days a week, at first just stationary bike stuff, then adding in weight training, now also adding yoga twice a week, and in June adding belly dance back into the mix. I have become an absolute pro at sweating. I haven’t been this small since I lived in China, which is the last time I actually felt energetic and healthy. Granted, Chinese folks still considered me plump if not downright fat, but more in an admirable way than in a “what a shame” kind of way. Actually my current state would be 健康 (healthy). I suppose that might seem judgemental or terrible, but i really miss a social environment where talking about body shape/composition was not a big deal. It was just factual. Now I get to watch people be preciously awkward trying not to imply that i looked like crap months ago.
Give me the opportunity to geek about something and I will. I am currently taking a coursera class on Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles through Vanderbilt University. I’ve learned that Americans generally think they’re doing better in terms of nutrition than they actually are. Also this is a huge time and socioeconomic issue. Aside from the plate divisions, the other main issue is to eat as many whole foods as possible. This means avoiding the middle of the supermarket as much as possible. This middle of the average supermarket is not very nutrient dense, it’s just calorie dense. There are good choices and options in there, but it takes a good amount of label reading. Maybe I’ll start posting things I’ve learned because all my hours of label reading should not go to waste.
The other problem with packaged foods is that they tend to come with a ton of salt, partly because it tastes good, it helps you want to eat more, and it often helps with preservation. When I was talking to my nutritionist and coming up with frozen meals to stockpile in my office she suggested meals under 500 calories, with less than 10% from fat, and under 500mg salt. I ended up settling on Healthy Choice because I had the most options, but less than half their meals fit my criteria.
It doesn’t help to think about foods as bad, it’s more helpful to think of foods in terms of overall balance. I can have a slice of cake, but it shouldn’t be bigger than my hand, and i certainly shouldn’t precede it with a bowl of potato chips or follow it with 3 beers. If I did, I’d managed to eat my entire daily needs in a 2 hour span, and those calories came with comparatively little nutritional value.
None of this nutritional stuff is set in stone. The more studies are done the more the ideas change. Harvard School of Public Health recommends a different plate than the USDA. I personally think either is pretty great, though it’s mostly a matter of portion. You can still have a plate with way too much food on it and still fit that diagram. I still think folks have to start somewhere. It also takes some work to know what it is to feel full (and it normally doesn’t set in until 5 minutes after you’re done eating). Lack of “conclusive” science is no reason to throw up my hands though. I think being healthy is important, and figuring out what that means for the individual is important.
It’s worth considering what you eat, and what other people eat, and try and try to think about balance. Peter Menzel’s book Hungry Planet is a great visualization guide. Time has a slideshow of some of his photos of families with their week’s intake of food, along with how much it cost.