What Should I Eat!? —Beyond Nutritionism & Food Extremism

This is not about being thin. It’s about reaching a state where food is something that nourishes and makes us happy rather than sickening or tormenting us. It’s about feeding ourselves as a good parent would: with love, with variety, but also with limits.
— Bee Wilson
The first wealth is health

Because February is American Heart Month, and because heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States (every year, 1 in 4 deaths are caused by heart disease), this month I want to focus on eating our way to healthier hearts — while actually enjoying what we eat and taking some pressure off trying to live up to diet culture’s impossible expectations.  Heart healthy eating also helps prevent, improve, or even reverse other chronic conditions like diabetes, dementia, cancer, etc.

In future months we’ll explore other forms of Lifestyle Medicine (sleep, enjoyable movement, stress relief, nature connection, etc.) that play an important role in preventing and healing chronic conditions and that also just make us feel better in general, but for now I want to focus on food since that is where so many of you have expressed interest, frustration, and confusion.

So this month I’m going to dive into both the what and the how of eating well to be well here on the blog and on social media. You can sign up here to be notified when new posts, recipes, demos, and more are released. You can also join me on Facebook for periodic live demos and monthly office/kitchen hours, as well as on Instagram and Pinterest for fun behind the scenes and recipes, etc.  If you haven’t already, you can also get 5 free easy, healthful one-pot recipes here.

Ready? Here we go!

First we have to know WHAT to eat.

Then, HOW to make it, store it, buy it, plan for it.

And also know HOW to eat.

Knowing what and how to eat used to be instinctual and “common sense” for most of us, nurtured by the traditions of our culture and rooted in our place in the world and its natural seasons and cycles. But modern people have been bludgeoned by fad diets, nutrition reports, conflicting claims, body shaming, diet culture, and a modern culture that has elevated being healthy to a religious pursuit that turns how and what we eat and how we look—how we perform health— into criteria we are measured and judged by (and almost always found wanting). It is impossible to ever attain and maintain these standards in the scope of real life in a wholesome way.

We’ve forgotten how to eat—the most basic of life skills— because we’ve become largely disconnected from the land, the seasons, natural cycles, cultural traditions, and how the world (ecology) and our bodies (physiology) work.  And we’ve gotten sick from decades of industrial food and are desperate to get better and will often try almost anything to do so.

Enter Nutritionism:  

Rather than calmly relying on our cultural food traditions, body cues, and place-based ecological wisdom and local foods as we did once upon a time, Nutritionism in the form of reductionist science and hyperbolic media has stepped in to attempt to help us sort it all out. Nutritionism is forever trying to identify the best superfoods and diets to save us health-wise and the worst food villains that destroy our health utterly.  It focuses on macro and micro nutrients, usually out of context of real people living real lives in the real world.

We all know how that story goes though— decades of conflicting claims and seemingly dueling scientists, nutrition advice and fads that swing from one extreme to the other: oat bran! Margarine! Kale! Meat! Low fat then low carb,  Veganism vs. Paleo… and on it goes.  Throw into the mix profit-focused Big Food, Big Ag, and Big Pharmacology lobbying, funding research, and clobbering us with media campaigns and advertising.

No wonder we’re confused and frustrated.  

Enter Food Extremism:  

Many of us have gotten so sick of being told “DON’T EAT THAT!!! SOMETHING HORRIBLE WILL HAPPEN” In its shifting forms over so many years, we’ve come to mistrust those making recommendations as well as our own body cues and good judgement.  As a culture, we often swing to the extreme opposite conclusion of whatever the last extreme “recommendation” is.  We had a generation of “don’t eat fat- fat will kill you.”  Now the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme assumption that “No- wait!  It was carbs all along! Don’t eat the carbs!  Carbs will kill you!”  And some of us just don’t know who or what to believe and just try to tune it all out.  We figure no one actually knows what the heck is going on or what the answers are.

Food Extremism is all or nothing. Food is either the “magic pill” or evil incarnate. There is no room for nuance, gray areas, or moderation. It is incapable of holding in balance the complex and interconnected needs, realities, diversity, and subtleties of everyday humans, creatures, farms and farmers, indigenous peoples, bio-regions, cultures, and natural systems. Food extremism often reaches a fever pitch and religiosity that pits one group of “believers” against the other that is played out in nearly every comments section of every food or nutrition article online.

I tripped over an example of all this in a social media post recently: one section was titled “Real Superfoods” atop salmon roe, beef liver, and raw butter. The other section said “Fake Superfoods” indicating spinach and kale. (Cue the verbal wrestling match in the comments.)

Oh come on.  Enough already.  It’s all real food!  It's been common sense as well as well researched for ages that green leafy vegetables are really nutritious and wholesome.  Why the need to vilify spinach or kale? Why the obsession with “Super” foods?

We modern humans are losing our marbles a bit over all this, and we all need to just take a deep breath, take a step back, and regroup about food.

We need to let go of the idea of superfoods and the “perfect” diet and just EAT FOOD.  Let’s stop arguing over which ones are best or worst and just eat a diversity of real foods we enjoy, that make us feel good, and that we know are basically good for us via the weight of the common ground of sound scientific evidence and traditional and cultural wisdom we’ve accumulated over generations.  

Beyond that, we need to return to moderation, to place and nature connected eating rooted in the seasons and our own natural cycles, to eating real food (vs. industrial junk) when we can.  (And not beat ourselves up about it when we can't.) We also need to be very cautious/suspicious about anyone trying to convince us to eliminate entire food groups, deprive ourselves via dieting, or any other extreme claim, who likely stands to hugely profit off selling us their extreme system, fad, gimmick, supplement, etc.

It’s not about elimination and deprivation.  If a recommendation smacks of these, run the other way fast.

The problem with eliminating food groups, deprivation dieting, fad diets, and diet culture is that:

Diets don’t work

Diets don’t work

  1. They don’t work

  2. They stigmatize bodies that don’t meet a certain standard (thinness at all costs)

  3. They are actively harmful to our health, and

  4. They’re no fun!

Diets are not realistic and almost impossible to stick to long term, then when we “go off” our diet, we inevitably rebound and gain the weight back, and usually more weight than we even started with.  This is known as weight cycling and is really bad for our health— worse by far than any weight we were trying to lose in the first place. Studies have linked weight cycling to a greater risk of diabetes, hypertension, gallbladder stones, and shorter telomere length. Shorter telomeres mean rapid aging.

This cycle reinforces feelings of “failure”— we feel demoralized, bad about ourselves, and the cycle continues and can lead to or exacerbate disordered eating and mental health/self image issues.

And many diets are potentially harmful, for example:

  1. Ketogenic diets: Because they are so restrictive, ketogenic diets can be really hard to follow over the long run, which is probably why we don’t know much about their long-term effects—because it’s so hard to stick with that people can’t eat this way for a long time.  But we do know there can be dangerous or unpleasant side effects such as fatal cardiac dysrhythmias, mental and physical fatigue, sleep problems, bad breath, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and headaches.

  2. High protein diets (such as Atkins): high protein diets in general can lead to kidney damage or kidney stones, especially in folks who already have kidney problems or are predisposed to them.

  3. Low carb diets: Whole grains and starchy vegetables are good for us, despite what we’ve been told by some trying to sell us fad diets.  All carbs are not created equal, but complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly and they have less effect on blood sugar. Natural complex carbohydrates (found in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes) provide bulk and serve other body functions beyond fuel.  We need them to nourish our bodies. And low carb diets have risks. Most studies have found that at 12 or 24 months, the benefits of a low-carb diet are not very large. In the long term they can result in vitamin or mineral deficiencies, bone loss, gastrointestinal disturbances, kidney stones, and may increase risks of various chronic diseases. If you suddenly and drastically cut carbs, you may experience a variety of side effects, including: headache, bad breath, weakness, muscle cramps, fatigue, skin rash, constipation, or diarrhea.

  4. Low fat diets: in the processed food world, "fat-free" also often equals taste-free. To make up for that, BIG Food makers tend to dump ingredients like sugar, flour, thickeners, and salt into their products— which adds calories, can spike glucose, lead to insulin resistance, and cause other problems.  Plus, these products may be less satisfying or filling, so we often eat too much of them.  When it comes to health, the type of fat we eat can be more important than the amount of fat we eat.  Healthier fats include those found in things like olive oil, salmon, or grass fed, truly free range meat. Less healthy or even harmful fats include excess saturated fats, trans-fats (hydrogenated oils, etc.), and some oils with an imbalance of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids.  Extreme low fat diets have been associated with depression and suicide, hormone imbalances and increased risk for infertility, insulin resistance, and risk for nutritional deficiencies.

    5. Vegan Diets: a vegan way of eating can be healthful, but can be very harmful if not centered around whole foods instead of highly processed meat and dairy substitutes (such as fake cheese, meat, and some butter substitutes) that are full of salt, sugar, preservatives, additives, and highly processed ingredients that are packed with empty calories and lead to health problems (high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.). And vegan eaters need to carefully balance their eating to be sure to get all needed fatty acids and nutrients. 

So, diets don’t work, they are actively harmful, they make us feel bad about ourselves, often leave us hungry and unsatisfied, and they’re no fun. Elimination and deprivation are a drag.

Because here’s the truth Diet Culture won’t tell you: it’s impossible to starve yourself well. As with anything you cultivate, you need to feed wellness.
— Marcie Goldman
Food can taste good and be good for us

Food can taste good and be good for us

Who says being healthy has to be about self-flagellation?  It doesn’t!  There’s no reason that being healthier can’t be enjoyable and taste good.  We need to step away from the Puritanical philosophy of hard work for the sake of hard work, self sacrifice to the point of self harm, suffering as something to be celebrated and congratulated.  Enough already. 

We can eat and be healthy without counting calories and nutrients, without hunger, guilt, shame, stress, tasteless or weird tasting ingredients and concoctions, and without harmful diets. Food should be enjoyable, not a passionless parade of weird ingredients, supplements, and “health” foods that taste bad and leave us craving something truly satisfying.  

Eating well can and should be delicious, enjoyable, and a sustainable part of everyday life.

If focusing on fear, negative consequences, shame, shoulds, elimination, is bad for us, isn’t getting us where we want to be, and is a drag—where do we start?  And what do we eat?

My concern is that by focusing on what to vilify and avoid, rather than what to celebrate and include, many clever Americans will find a way to avoid sugars but choose another not-so-healthy replacement (with the food industry’s help) and still manage to avoid fiber, vegetables, and a plant-based whole food diet…. Let’s focus on what Americans should eat more of- from a nutrient perspective, we should focus on fiber, from a food group perspective we should focus on vegetables, from a diet-pattern perspective, we should focus on a more plant-based whole food diet.
—  Christopher Gardner, PhD, Professor of Medicine, Stanford University

Start with Adding In. Start with Delight.

Start with adding in good stuff and enjoyment.

Start with adding in good stuff and enjoyment.

Start with adding in good stuff and focusing on delicious tastes, fun ingredients, feeling good, savoring flavors and scents, eating more local foods, and enjoying the act of eating.  What tastes good to you? What do you enjoy? What’s available in your area? O.k., so now let’s work on eating more of those things in ways that delight us, that are good for us.

By focusing on adding in the good stuff and enjoying what we eat, we’re making sure we’re getting wholesome and satisfying nourishment in our bodies, and often, at the same time, crowding out some of the more harmful industrial “edible food-like substances,” as Michael Pollan likes to describe industrial junk foods.

Also, focusing on the positive and having a positive experience with what we eat and how we feel about it will help build positive momentum that builds on itself and more wholesome eating habits and experiences.

As always, taking small steps is crucial. It’s not possible nor sustainable to try to change overnight. It takes time. Start with one or two small changes at a time and let them build positive momentum and good feelings.

O.k, but what should we actually eat?

WHAT to add in?  What IS the “good stuff?”

We need to move away from the language of diets, nutrients, and extremism and toward food language and recognizing what all sound eating traditions and research has in common.  This is beautifully and simply summed up in food journalist Michael Pollan’s statement to:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
— Michael Pollan

Simple, right? There’s no need to over complicate it.

This echoes what all reasonable eating plans, sound research, and many traditional ways of eating have in common— whole foods, lots of plants, not too much of anything.  Food that is not industrially processed or unrecognizable as food by our great grandmothers. For example: a potato, or a fillet of fish, or a blueberry= food. A Twinkie= “edible food like substance” that’s industrially processed. You can generally tell what animal or plant real food came from originally.  Bonus points for food cooked by humans (vs. corporations) and raised as locally as possible.

Calories count, but you don’t need to count them.  Nutrients matter, but the important matter is the foods you choose.  Get those right, and the nutrients tend to take care of themselves. Focus on nutrients rather than foods, and there is, it seems, nearly no end to the ways to eat badly.  Americans, alas, seem committed to exploring them all.
— Dr. David L. Katz

“Mostly plants” does not mean you have to become vegan or vegetarian.  We can absolutely eat meat and eat this way and be healthy. But the fact is that most Americans and folks in industrialized countries eat a lot more meat than we need to or that is good for us, and could stand to eat a LOT more plants. A largely plant focused eating pattern, with quality meat as a tasty supplement, is the backbone of many of the healthiest and longest-lived cultures world wide.  (There are exceptions of course- think the French Paradox, which we'll explore more in future posts). But generally, if we focus on adding in more plants, we'll be well on our way to eating for a healthier heart, and overall well being.

We’ll get more into specific foods and how to use them next time, but for now shoot for eating nutrient dense foods every day (real food, mostly plants), or as often as possible, in ways you enjoy.  These foods include:

      1. Greens and veggies

      2. Legumes

      3. Whole Grains

      4. Fruits & berries

      5. Nuts & Seeds

      6. Herbs & Spices

      7. Fish & grass fed/wild meats in moderation

      8. Water (o.k., so it’s not exactly food, but it is so vital to our well being I had to include this here)

To get you started without spending tons of time researching recipes and ingredients, I’ve put together 5 easy, healthful one pot recipes you can download here for free, that are full of the “good stuff.”

Next time we’ll dive into ways to include more of these foods in our day to day eating in tasty ways we actually enjoy.  Until then, happy munching!

Join me for NOURISH—a free 5 day online program to start to take back food, health, and pleasure from the grip of food & health extremism. No dieting, pressure, or lengthy assignments. Just a peaceful exploration of how you can start to reclaim nourishment to be well on YOUR terms. Learn more HERE. We start May 6.


Join me over on Facebook for healthy cooking classes and videos, monthly office/kitchen hours, Q & A’s and more.

You can get a copy of all 5 Week Night One Pot recipes free, here.