I get asked often what my best nutritional advice is by those who are starting their journey to a healthier lifestyle. The problem is, there’s so much to cover. I’ve covered some of it when answering questions about Clean Eating and related topics, but never in terms of outright nutritional advice so far.
The truth is that most of my advice, though, often winds up boiling down to “Don’t fall into “health” traps”- and unfortunately there are a lot of them.
Number One: Always Read Labels
If you can and have the budget to do so, opt for foods that are naturally low in unnecessary ingredients, processed sugar, and salt- but which don’t contain harmful or unhealthy alternative products like Splenda, High Fructose Corn Syrup, etc, in order to make up for their low quantities in these areas. In other words, you’re aiming to purchase items that have no additives if you can swing it, or whose additives are as minimal as possible.
Number Two: Sugar is Sugar
Table Sugar, Fruit Sugars, Sugar in the Raw, Baker’s Sugar, Superfine Sugar, Brown Sugar, and others… There really is no difference. They’re all made up of the same building blocks of Sugar in general: Sucrose, Glucose, Fructose, and so on. While some are better for you than others (such as Raw Sugar vs White Granulated, or White Granulated vs. Artificial) all Sugar is Sugar and really does the same thing.
If you’re concerned about it? Stay away from the Sugars that are more processed or refined- like Powdered Sugars, Granulated White Sugars, and even “Agave Nectar” (which, despite coming from a “good source” still requires a lot of processing to achieve). Instead, reach for Fresh Fruit, Rock Sugars, or even pure Honey with no additives. You’ll get the added nutritional benefit, and you’ll often need less of it to achieve the same result.
Number Three: Don’t Skip Gluten
“Gluten Free” is completely unnecessary. Unless you have an allergy or intolerance to Gluten, you don’t need to buy products that are labeled “Gluten Free”. As a health measure it actually does nothing for you in the long run. Furthermore, the commodification and co-opting of Gluten Free items by the Fitness, Health, and related communities often drives the prices up, making them harder to afford for those with legitimate Gluten-Free dietary needs.
So if you don’t have a Gluten intolerance, save it for someone who actually does- or don’t buy Gluten free products from companies obviously using it as a marketing ploy. Especially since you’ll usually see a clear price difference between products produced by the “health” industry, and those produced for the community of legitimate people who need those items for dietary reasons.
Number Four: Don’t Skip Fat, Either
Not everything labeled as a “Fat” is created equally. In fact, there are actually two very different types of fats: Good ones, and bad ones.
Bad fats increase LDL (low density lipoprotein) Cholesterol levels within the body. This does all kinds of crazy things like increase your risk of Heart attack and Heart Disease, Clog your arteries, cause bloating, and so on. Good fats like those found in Avocados and Egg Yolks, however? Do the exact opposite. These help lower LDL Cholesterol levels and raise HDL (high density lipoprotein) Cholesterol Levels. This can actually decrease your chances of Heart attack and Heart Disease, and all the other nasty stuff that comes from “High Cholesterol”. So stop seeing all fat as the enemy to a healthy body; don’t skip the Egg Yolk, grab a handful of Cashews, and munch on some Avocado every now and then. Your body will thank you.
Number Five: Eat More Food in General
Don’t fall into the trap of Diets that tell you to eat less than 1,000 calories a day, ever- and anything that tells you to eat 500 calories or less a day is even worse. Calories are a measure of energy, and they’re our body’s fuel. Any diet that tells you to eat that little is ultimately unhealthy on all levels unless doctor-mandated for a health condition. This is because while we do need to create a small deficit between calories in and calories out, we still needs a large quantity of calories to survive, for continued organ function, and more.
In other words, there is a reason why labels say “based on a 2,000 calorie diet” and use that as a baseline against which to calculate the Daily Recommended Intake percentages for the nutrients it contains; your BMR (or Basal Metabolic Rate) is the total number of calories that your body needs to maintain Organ Function as the lowest possible activity level (think Comas). This is the amount of calories you absolutely need to be consuming daily, without fail, no questions asked.
If you’re really concerned or want to lose weight, then use your BMR alongside equations like the Harris-Benedict Equation. This allows you to calculate your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure)- which, in turn, is how many calories you actually need based on your average activity levels. Subtract 500 calories from the final result, and it should allow you to lose weight steadily- yes, even if you’re not working out regularly.
Number Six: It’s not what you do daily, but what you do most often.
One of the biggest things that I see in the weightloss community, is someone going on vacation and bemoaning the fact that they didn’t eat well for a week. They act like all of their progress has gone out the window, and like they’ll never lose weight now; that they’ve failed.. But here’s the thing: That’s not true on any level. Period.
Yeah, you may feel like crap because you ate like crap- and crap leads to bloating, fatigue, and all number of things… But your body doesn’t care what you do this week. It cares about what you do most often; a week without exercising, or a poor diet during a vacation? These things aren’t going to derail your progress unless they become daily, long term changes to your lifestyle. So eat a Twinkie, have that cake, and have a lazy day or two while you’re at it. Just make sure it doesn’t become all that you do, and it won’t change a thing.
Number Seven: But Beware of Supplements
There are so many dangers and problems with supplements that it deserves a blog post of its own- and eventually I will publish one. But for now, know that the only supplements that most people need are Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Anything else is usually overkill and is ultimately unnecessary unless a doctor explicitly says that you have a deficiency.
If you’re worried about deficits, though, please talk to your doctor before you begin taking additional supplements aside from a basic Multivitamin. Taking too much of any given vitamin can have serious health consequences and it’s important only to supplement for what you legitimately need.
Number Eight: Healthy Marketing Doesn’t Always Equal a Healthy Reality
Just because something is parroted as healthier doesn’t mean it actually is healthier for you. A good example of this is Agave Nectar, which is promoted by health food companies as a “healthier” alternative to sugar. But Agave Nectar requires far more processing than even white sugar in order to produce it. Grape Seed Oil is another one. Do your research of things marketed as “Healthier Alternatives” before buying into the hype surrounding them.
Number Nine: Don’t buy into the idea of “Detoxing”
Simply put, there is no such thing as a “Detox”. While you can certainly sweat toxins out of your body, drink more water to flush them out of your system, and similar things? The typical idea of a “Detox” doesn’t exist. Not in the manner that health gurus try and claim it does.
Eating [x] food or drinking [x] thing will not “flush toxins out of your body”. Simply put, it’s nothing more than a marketing scheme that plays on your ignorance as a method to sell you unnecessary things that you don’t need; if you have a healthy, working Liver and Kidney then the only “Detox” you need is the job they do just fine on their own every day.
Number Ten: Don’t buy into the idea of “Superfoods”
While undoubtedly high in vitamins and minerals, they still contain the same content as other sources. In fact, there are plenty of common alternatives to common “Superfoods” if you know where to look- and many of these contain them in the same levels at nearly half the cost.
All in all, “Superfood” labels are generally nothing more than the exotification of foods that are non-native to our areas. It is a marketing ploy to sell you things- as well as justify their exorbitant prices. And unfortunately, this huge price gouge is usually to the detriment of the native countries and cultures that produce them (and often rely on them as staple foods); the market for “Superfoods” is often racist and classist, drives up prices, destroys their local ecosystems and markets, and much more.
Number Eleven: Beware the “Natural” Identifier
Beware the word “Natural” on products. At best, it’s a sketchy and unregulated term. At worst, these products are not “natural” in the way that it is marketed to mean to you as a consumer. Furthermore, because there are no regulations on the use of the word “Natural” in marketing, there are also no stipulations on whether or not they cannot contain GEOs, or any number of items deemed “unnatural” by most people in the Fitness community, but which are ultimately deemed “natural” by modern science and agriculture.
Number Twelve: Likewise, Beware the “Organic” Identifier
Like with the word “Natural” in marketing, “Organic” is a sometimes also an incredibly sketchy term. Regulation concerning use of the word “Organic” in marketing is iffy, and sometimes the standards just aren’t clear.
If you want to know whether or not your product is truly organic, look for two things: 1. A “USDA Certified Organic” label / sticker; 2. The PLU sticker containing the item lookup code. Concerning the PLU, if it is truly organic, the PLU number will be 5 digits and start with a 9. Certified GMO / GEO products will have a similar 5 digit number but will start with an 8, and standard produce will only have 4 numbers.
If you are at a Farmer’s Market or other similar area selling Organic items without the standard PLU or other items? Then you can ask to see the seller’s copy of their Certified Organic Paperwork. Sellers (except those making under $5,000 usd a year) are required by the Federal Government to have this paperwork on hand at all times they’re selling their products. I they cannot produce this paperwork, then there is a possibility that it is not truly Organic – though this doesn’t ignore the fact that some people do actually grow Organic, but do not enter a certification program.
Number Thirteen: Avoid Marketing Buzzwords in General
Ignore labels that say “diet”, “low fat”, “low carb”, “low sugar” and similar things. What these products usually lack in those ingredients they make up for in other compounds which are far unhealthier. As an example, “low sugar” products may contain less sugar but will usually make up for it by adding unhealthy artificial sweetener products like Splenda instead.
Furthermore, these often occur or are found on products where it is unnecessary because the sugars, fats, and other compounds are healthy- as well as being integral to your body’s absorption of the nutrients within them.
Milk, for instance, is one such food item; some- if not most- of the nutrients in Milk are often what are called “Fat Soluble” nutrients. This means they require the presence of certain fats (found within the Milk) in order for your body to process them appropriately. Stripping out most or all of the Fat from the product therefore reduces your ability to process those nutrients… So next time you reach for the “low fat” cottage cheese, stop yourself and go for the whole fat.
Number fourteen: Don’t Hinge Your Health on the Spelling of a 4 Year Old
Falling into the traps of “don’t eat it if it has ingredients you can’t pronounce” and “don’t eat chemicals!!” and “Don’t eat it if your 4th grader can’t pronounce it!” is absolutely absurd on all levels.
While it is better to choose foods that have as few unnecessary ingredients as possible? There is a difference between “Don’t eat unnecessary ingredients if you can help it” and “don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce”. Furthermore, everything has “chemicals” and is made up of them… Chances are if you knew the correct scientific words for simple, healthy ingredients and compounds? You wouldn’t be able to pronounce them either despite the fact that they’re perfectly healthy. So don’t let a 4th grader’s vocabulary dictate what you do and do not eat.
Number Fifteen: Check Yes for Actual Science
If it’s parroted as a “healthier alternative” see what actual, legitimate science says first before jumping on the bandwagon; do your own research using scientific, unbiased sources- not health food blogs, opinion pieces, holistic “health” sites, etc. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what you find- as well as finding out just how untrue most marketing ploys are for most “health” products.
And Finally: Be Aware of “Healthy” Eating Disorders
While Bulimia and Anorexia are usually at the forefront of the intersection between Mental Health and Diet… Unfortunately they’re not the only eating disorders that we need to watch out for; other eating disorders exist on what is essentially ‘the opposite end of the spectrum”. Orthorexia and Exercise Bulimia are just a couple, but there are a lot of eating patterns that are ultimately disordered but which do not constitute as full blown Eating Disorders worthy of a name.
On the surface, these Eating Disorders may seem “healthy”. Unfortunately, their healthy appearances are what cause their biggest damage; people are far less likely to seek help when their brain tells them that what their doing is different than Anorexia and Bulimia- even when the behaviors are actually the same. But regardless of their appearances, they’re not healthy. So if you feel like you may be slipping into disordered eating patterns- even “healthy” ones- please seek a health professional.
There’s a lot more to it than this but maybe this will at least help you begin to make smarter food choices without falling into common marketing traps pushed by the food, health and fitness industries.