Balance Series/Part 4: What Does a Balanced Diet Really Look Like?

I planned to make this month’s Balance Series topic about strength training but I was moved to veer off my plan because yesterday I read the following…

“This month I make a confession: The editor of the world’s biggest healthy-cooking magazine needs to lose 20 pounds,” Scott Mowbray, Editor-in-Chief of Cooking Light Magazine, August 2013.  As a result, Mowbray and some of his staff embarked on a plan they’ve named the Cooking Light Food Lover’s Social Diet.  He describes it this way, “…we who are doing this aren’t giving up the foods we’re passionate about, even – especially – the treats.  …Cooking Light advocates healthy body weight through good food chosen in the right proportions, deliciously cooked, and eaten in sensible portions.  I have long been a good cook, healthy eater (mostly plants), careful shopper, and regular exerciser.  I just need to do a little work on the sensible portion front…”

Mowbray’s dilemma and resulting plan are a message to everyone striving to be healthy.  His message resonates with me because it embodies my own philosophy regarding food.  And yet, this philosophy is all too rare.

When are we going to learn that deprivation, elimination and labeling real food as bad is counterproductive?  The first “bad” food I remember was eggs.  Eggs were bad because they supposedly increased cholesterol.  Doctors, RDs and politicians deemed to be health officials told us to eliminate eggs from our diets.  The claim was false.  Next on the list were fats – all fats.  Fats made us fat, the experts told us.  But they didn’t stop there, they told us to replace fat with carbohydrates and the low-fat, high-carb diet was born.  The sudden and steady rise of obesity saw its infancy during the fat-free, high carb product days.  So, while American waistlines grew, savvy diet gurus proclaimed carbs the enemy and protein the savior.  Dr Atkins made a fortune.  Then there was “The China Study” claiming that animal products cause cancer so veganism is our only hope to survive – never, ever consume even a trace of meat, fish, eggs or dairy.  The study was conducted by an American academic, funded by the Chinese government and criticized by peers for having contradictory conclusions and data.  But it was stunningly embraced by The New York Times and celebrities, so another nutrition author made a fortune labeling an entire category of food (some of which have been a part of the human diet since the dawn of mankind) as, not only bad, but poison!  Now, the latest, baddest food – gluten (aka wheat, aka carbs).  Round and round we go: bad protein, bad fats, bad carbs, bad proteins (again), bad carbs (again).   Each new round sends food companies to the labs to build a processed, chemically-infused, fake-food substitute for the real-food plant or animal product we’re told to no longer consume.  This ridiculous ride is 30+ years running and, instead of getting fitter and healthier, we’re getting fatter and more unhealthy at increasingly younger ages.  If you’re on the “bad” food merry-go-round, stop the ride, it’s time to get off.

My theory is we’re being told to deprive our bodies of nutrients they need and, therefore, our bodies begin to crave certain foods all the more, leading to warped metabolism, overeating and binging.  I also believe a mindset has emerged from this contrived good food/bad food war that is inherently unhealthy.  In essence, this mindset has created a culture that has an unhealthy relationship with food and we, sadly, are ingraining this bad relationship in our children.  Food isn’t bad.  Physically, we need food to survive and thrive.  Socially, we build, preserve and grow relationships over shared meals.  Think about the studies that show us children whose families regularly eat dinner together are less likely to have substance abuse problems.  Yet, we’ve conjured an altered reality in which food is a vice, making it possible to both medicate and poison ourselves with it.  I believe the bad food label is what put emotional eating on the map.  How unhappy and impossible a life where food makes you a bad person and deprivation makes you a good person.

The human body needs all three macronutrients – proteins, carbohydrates and fats – to be healthy and run efficiently.  In addition, the body needs a combination of micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – for healthy blood, organs, bones, muscles, glands and immunity.  Foods that come from plants and animals – all of which contain macro and micronutrients – aren’t bad.  These are real foods.  Highly processed, chemically altered, fake-foods should be the only things completely off-limits in our diets – partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, sugar substitutes, just to name a few.  These products don’t contain the macro or micronutrients that our bodies need and, therefore, our bodies aren’t going to crave them or be deprived without them.

It seems as though the advice that’s been given is constantly shrinking our options.  We don’t need to shrink our options, we need to shrink our portions and put balance back into our diets.  First rule: If the food (or the ingredients in the food) comes from a plant/animal, and the nutrition hasn’t been processed out of it or chemicals pumped into it, it isn’t bad for you.  Second rule: Moderation is achieved through variety – consume a  wide variety of proteins, carbs and fats – throughout each day and each week.  Third rule: Know the difference between good and better foods – eat more better foods.  It’s intuitive: have more vegetables than meat in a meal, more olive oil than butter in a day, more fish than beef in a week.  Fourth rule: Be strict about portions.  Use fats sparingly in food prep.  For meals, proteins and starches should fill 1/4 of your plate each, produce should fill 1/2 of your plate.  No seconds of proteins or starches.  For snacks, know the serving size and stick to it.  Still hungry?  Have fresh produce.  Fifth rule: Allow yourself treats (high quality, minimally processed sweets, alcohol) by having small amounts and savor it.  Sixth rule: Only eat when you’re hungry, don’t refrain from eating when you are hungry and stop eating when you’re full.  Seventh rule: Shop for and prepare the vast majority of what you eat.  This is what a balanced diet really looks like.

I applaud Mr Mowbray for his honesty and courage.  And I’m rooting for him, and everyone, who struggles to be fit yet understands that there’s no food boogie man but, rather, a path to a healthier, happier life through moderation and balance.

Previous posts in the Balance Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Author’s Note: I am an exercise professional, not a nutrition professional.  My food recommendations are based on the most current science-backed information provided by nutrition professionals in the fitness industry publications I receive and my personal experience.  Mine are general recommendations that are in line with the guidelines published by the US Dept of Health and Human Services for apparently healthy individuals.  If you have a health condition that requires dietary restrictions, I recommend consulting a medical doctor or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet.

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3 comments

  1. […] posts in the Balance Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part […]

  2. […] Previous Balance Series posts: The Fit Life, Balanced Exercise Formula, Cardiovascular Training, Strength Training, Flexibility Training, Balanced Diet […]

  3. […] Diet: A balanced diet means choosing a large variety of the healthiest carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the correct portions.  {Part 4: What Does a Balanced Diet Really Look Like?} […]

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