Our body is all we have. Without it, we have nothing. When we consistently eat and move well, it brings about positive changes in everything we do, and it enables us to do everything else that much better. Simply put, it is essential to maintaining our personal effectiveness.
Living a healthier life comes down to three things: eating right (70-80%), exercising regularly (20-30%), and doing them consistently. That’s it, but it’s much easier said than done.
I wrote about eating and moving (exercise) briefly in Eat, Move, Sleep. I’ll write about movement in the near future. For now, I’ll share a few things (among many) that I’ve learned about eating right.
How we think about food is the problem. Here are some things that come to mind:
Diet. We don’t “go on a diet”. We have a diet. A diet is not a one-size-fits-all thing. What works for one won’t work for another. Diets have to be personalized based on our lifestyle preferences.
No particular food is good or bad. It all depends on what you eat, how you eat, and when you eat. That is why diets have to be custom by definition, which means we need to seek health experts to find the right diet for us.
Also, there is no such thing as “safe food” or “fattening food”; it’s all about eating the right food in the right quantities at the right time. There is a lot to be unpacked from that statement, but eating right basically boils down to that.
“Going on a diet” is often associated with starving oneself. The fact is that diet is not synonymous with starvation. We need to eat to lose weight.
Extreme diets (such as detox, low-carb, Atkins, high-protein, low-protein, or what have you) don’t work because our bodies were never designed for those kinds of diets. And secondly, they are not sustainable. You might be able to pull it off today and tomorrow, but it’s unlikely that you’ll do it a year or two down the line. And we know that no habit is worth starting today if we can’t see ourselves doing it five years from now. Any diet that is not sustainable in the long term is flawed from the start.
The amount of nutrients in food is more important than the amount of calories in it. Every calorie we take in should be loaded with nutrients.
Losing weight is about fat loss, not weight loss. When most people say they want to lose weight, what they really mean is they want to lose fat (while keeping muscle).
We look at food as a way to escape or to avoid the real problems in our lives, but we are eating for the wrong reasons. We use it to overcome distraction, boredom, and to seek pleasure, but eating food is never about food itself (just like checking email is never about email). It’s what the food (or email) allows us to avoid. Using food as a crutch to feel good about ourselves only hides our real problems. By doing so, we are living in denial. The fact is that food will never make us feel the way we want to feel. It can help us avoid feeling (a reason that makes it hard to give up), though only temporarily (more on this below).
We need to eat right and exercise regularly. Doing regular exercise alone cannot compensate for not eating right. Conversely, no matter how much you eat right, you will never get enough of a result without regular exercise. We get positive results from exercise only when we eat right. Eating right always comes first, while exercise comes second. But, we still need both. Also, exercising regularly doesn’t give you the liberty to eat more. So stop trying to justify poor eating by exercising. In other words, stop using exercise as a way to compensate for a poor diet.
Before we delve into the How and the What of eating, let’s discuss the mindset first (the Why). Without having the right mindset, tactics (the What) won’t work. Once we have the correct mindset, then it comes down to our habits.
Eating right is not about “controlling” our diet or ourselves. It’s about changing our relationship with food so we can make better choices about what we eat without relying on willpower. It is thinking about how we feel about food and whether eating something will help us or not. It is about setting up the right habits and systems to make that change sustainable.
One of the things we need to understand is that we need to eat for the right reasons — eat to live, not live to eat.
When we feel hungry, we often eat without taking a pause. How do we know when we are eating for the right reasons. According to Adam Gilbert, a health expert, there is something that he calls emotional hunger. When you feel hungry, but not for anything specific, then you’re actually hungry. When you crave a specific food, then you’re not physically hungry. Emotional hunger is never about hunger, but emotions. It is never about the food — it’s what the food allows us to avoid. We are eating to suppress emotions or eating to suppress ambition.
Eating out of emotional hunger allows us to avoid emotion by eating food only for a short time. Eating food never solves those problems for you. When we are emotionally hungry, we are simply after the experience of eating something indulgent, and not the food itself. We are using food as an escape to avoid the actual problems in our life. We are after the escape, distraction, pleasure, etc. We eat as a way to avoid boredom, but we forget the reason we eat food is to provide nourishment to our body.
The key really is pausing before you eat. The next time you feel hungry, ask yourself: am I hungry or am I eating to change the way I feel?
When it comes to eating right, we need to aim for success (momentum), not perfection.
The idea is to eat the right foods most of the time to get the results we want because it’s not realistic to not indulge in our favorite foods from time to time. The idea is to eat right as much of the time as possible to outweigh the negative effects of indulging once in a while.
How we eat affects the way we move and feel. When we make poor choices about food, we feel less-than-great about ourselves. We almost always regret eating something we feel we shouldn’t have. Feeling this kind of guilt and not enjoying the food is certainly no way to live.
The most important thing about learning how to eat is to understand that we need to have smaller (but more frequent) meals. That means we need to go from having three big meals a day (namely, breakfast, lunch, and dinner) to having 5-6 meals every 2-3 hours every day. We do that by cutting our regular meal portions in half and including 2-3 in-between light snacks during those meals. This way, we might be eating the same amount as before, but our body is now better able to process that food. We eat every 2-3 hours because our stomach is the size of our two palms. At any given time, it can take only the food that fits in your two palms, and eating beyond it would come in the way of proper digestion. Eating small quantities of food every 2-3 hours also keeps up the metabolism while burning fat. That means a flatter stomach.
Our bodies can digest the most amount of food before 10 in the morning, so our breakfasts can be hearty, healthy, and wholesome. Our bodies can digest the least amount of food at night, so it is crucial that we keep our dinners light. Having light, healthy dinners is the key to maintaining our diet. If you can get this right, it means you’re 99% on track with your diet.
We need to adjust our meals according to the intensity of the activities between them. For instance, when we are doing more physical/mental activity, we eat more, and during times of low activity, we eat less. This helps us maintain optimal energy through the day, while also helping us lose fat more effectively.
I suggest we eat 80% of our actual hunger. By doing so, we enjoy the food as well as the experience of having it without placing any unnecessary burden on our stomach.
Avoid having tea or coffee first thing in the morning. Instead, have your first meal within 10-30 minutes of waking up. This helps us jump-start our metabolism (which peaks at sunrise) and is optimal for fat burning.
We need to have our dinner at least two hours before going to bed to aid digestion. I wrote about this in my piece on sleeping.
Finish your last meal at least 2 hours before sleeping. This will help you digest most of your food, which leads to sound sleep. It’ll also leave your body free to do its repair work, and will make your body more effective in burning fat. Having dinner at the same time every night will help you keep on track. This goes back to scheduling your meals so you don’t have to think about it again.
Turn off the television and your cell phone before sitting down for your meals. It is important that we eat mindfully. We do that by eating slowly and deliberately, by taking our time to chew every bite. It is important that we eat in a calm state of mind; this helps prevent the conversion of food to fat. Also, the slower we eat, the less food we consume.
When you’re done eating, be sure to sit for at least 15 minutes. This will help you digest your food better. Avoid walking after your meals since that will only direct your blood to your legs. We need the blood flow toward our stomach post-meal to aid digestion.
If you’re going to indulge, do so with a relaxed state of mind. Pause to let your body know that you’re going to indulge. This helps your body to prepare mentally so as not to take the extra food by surprise. It also helps it deal with the extra fat that you’re about to eat.
Before we get into tactics, a note on carbs, protein, and fat.
We need carbs, proteins, and fats.
The body can carry out its function without carbs, but it cannot think without carbs. Carbs provide our bodies with energy it needs for normal everyday functioning, besides serving other functions. It also provides our body with many essential nutrients and fibers, which help in the functioning of our brain cells and neurons. Carbs also help you burn fat and keep your bowels clean.
Avoid high GI foods (fast carbs) as they convert to fat quickly. Instead, opt for foods with low GI (complex or slow carbs). They aid in optimal fat burning and sustained release of blood sugar.
About the only time you can have high GI foods is post workout (when combined with protein) since that is when the body needs instant sugar. Just because you can have high GI foods doesn’t mean you have too much of it because then your GL will go up.
The primary function of protein is to build and repair/recover our body. It helps us burn fat by moving and circulating the stored fat in our body. Also, protein is the toughest nutrient to digest.
Protein alone can’t work; it needs balanced amounts of carbs and fat to make it work. Eating too much protein is not good for your body since that typically converts to fat.
For every 1 kg (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight, we need 1 gram of protein. We need protein post exercise. We might as well not work out if we are not going to have protein after it. Having at least 20 grams of high-quality protein within 10 minutes of working out is the most efficient way of taking it, but that should not be the primary way of having protein since it is only a supplement. You need natural protein (first) that comes from fish, eggs, chicken, meat, etc.
We need essential fats to sustain ourselves through periods of physical and mental stress, and prolonged periods of starvation. We need to eat fat to lose fat.
We need to make eating fats as a part of at least 3 meals in our daily diet. Having healthy fats in the right amounts ensures proper body functioning as well as optimum fat burning.
Include healthy fats in your diet. You can get fats from red meat, omega-3, flax seeds, nuts, cheese, milk products, etc.
Avoid having “low fat” foods from the market as they are the worst kinds of fat around for many reasons.
We also need vitamins and minerals. They aid us in using our energy well. Apart from their natural food (and energy) sources, they also come in the form of supplements.
A note on supplements: they work only when you have a good diet and regular exercise in place. It goes without saying that in order for them to work, you need a positive attitude and a relaxed state of mind as well.
When you eat with the right mindset, the tactics will help speed up the results you want.
- Maintain a healthy eating plan. Focus on eating small meals every two to three hours throughout the day, starting with breakfast. A high-protein, low-carb breakfast will jump start your metabolism and keep you from overeating later in the morning.
It is best to have sweets or desserts in the morning; when you have it at night, they’ll surely convert to fat.
When invited to a party or a social event, understand that you can’t eat everything (when there is a lot of variety), so you must make informed choices. Pick a few things and just eat them in moderation.
Drink 2-3 liters of water every day. We need it to use the nutrients from carbs, protein, and fat (more below). Drink water 20-30 minutes before a meal to suppress eating. You know you’re drinking enough water when your urine is clear (not yellow).
Have no more than two teaspoons of sugar in a given day. Most of us have it in our tea or coffee in the morning.
Avoid eating carbs after sunset unless you’re working out.
The best time to have chicken or meat is in the evening between 6 and 8. Having it during the day will slow you down.
Restrict eating red meat to no more than once a week, and when you do so, be sure to have the leanest of cuts with all the skin and fat removed.
There is no such thing as “eating too much”. It is about your body’s ability to digest the food that you eat.
Sleeping and waking up at the same time is great for your body. Plus it’s one less thing to think about. This goes back to bookending your day. Ideal time to sleep would be 10-1030, and the time to wake up would be 5-530.
Stress can make you fat; it often comes in the way of having a good digestive system.
Plan your meals on a weekly basis. That means knowing in advance when you’re going to eat, in what proportions, and at what intervals. It’s the best way to avoid endless temptations that override our self-discipline and cause us to go off track. Plus it’s one less thing to think about every day.
When we eat right and move regularly and consistently, it helps us do our work (and everything else) that much better. Simply put, it is the most important aspect of our personal effectiveness right there along with sleep.
Being fit is about allowing you to do everything else much better. When you feel fit and good about yourself, it snowballs into every other area of your life.
Commit yourself to eating right and exercising regularly, feel good about yourself, treat yourself well, and you’ll be able to do so much more.