Eating a healthy diet seems to have become increasingly complicated of late. If you’re not counting macros, activating your nuts and chucking raw cacao/baobab/unicorn dust into your meals then you’re obviously not doing it right. And the big question? Do you eat ‘clean’? Because if you don’t, you’re a bad person and processed foods are the Devil.
Ok, so I’m exaggerating. A bit. But given the recent slew of cookery books and blogs from a host of healthy eating gurus in their 20s (and many without any kind of legitimate nutrition qualification) you could be forgiven for thinking that your storecupboard has an inferiority complex if it isn’t stocked with maca powder, raw cacao and coconut blossom syrup. No one I know eats like that. I don’t ask my clients to eat this way. I do not eat this way to be healthy. It is completely unnecessary and beyond the weekly food budget of most people.
We seem to have ended up very far away from eating ‘normal’ food, just enough for our energy needs and optimal nutritional value, and not too much of it, to paraphrase food anthropologist Michael Pollan. We also have so many labels attached to different ways of eating: Paleo, ketogenic, ‘if it fits your macros’ and of course ‘clean eating’, a phrase from which many early embracers are now distancing themselves as it has become increasingly associated with forms of disordered eating.
Now, I don’t prep clients for bikini competitions, so you’re not going to get me wading into the debate on how many grams of protein you need per kilo of body weight for ‘gains’. There are plenty of people out there who will do that for you. I just want to remind you of some very simple guidelines for eating a balanced diet for solid nutrition and offer a few tips for fat loss, if that is something you are working towards. I don’t want you to weigh your food or be the goon who turns up to someone’s wedding feast clutching their plastic box of chicken and greens. No, really. Just don’t. Food can be a joyous social celebration, so get stuck in occasionally. For the most part, here’s what to bear in mind.
– learn how to compose a plate. Start with vegetables, 2-3 kinds to take up half the space. Add a palm-sized portion of protein (meat, fish, two eggs, tofu, beans, lentil) and a dribble of healthy fat such as olive oil. You can also cook with a small knob of butter, eat a small piece of cheese or add a few nuts. Add starchy carbs like rice or other grains only after exercise to help refuel your muscles, if you tend to over eat them. Ultimately, though, if you are trying to lose weight, you just need to consume fewer calories than you expend, and carbs can still make up some of those calories. Just choose wisely.
– three meals a day? Five? It doesn’t matter as long as you don’t eat more than your body’s energy requirements. See my previous post for the link to the Precision Nutrition calculator
– you’ll get more nutrition out of your food if you cook it from scratch. Ready meals can be high in salt and low in nutrients. However, we’re all busy so do shortcut where you need to to. I use those packs of microwaveable rice (no, microwaves don’t kill you) and prepped meat or fish fillets with some kind of sauce. With a bag of mixed vegetables, it’s a quick and healthy dinner at the end of a long day. If you do have time, batch cook a big casserole or curry on a Sunday. Home made ready meals can’t be beaten when you’re home late and tired and only have to quickly reheat something tasty.
– Remember that the basics are healthy: eggs, chicken, fish, lentils, cheese, vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds and dairy. You don’t have to do all the fancy stuff and add loads of supplements – there is no evidence that they work. You don’t need to cut out dairy or gluten unless you have a clinical reason to. If you care about the welfare of your dairy and meat, buy organic and free range if your budget allows, or eat less of it. There are plenty of plant-based sources of protein but you will need to combine them to get complete proteins; these only come from animal sources.
– if you’re worried about eating out, many restaurants post their menus online so you can have a look in advance and make the best choice based on what’s available.
– if you are starting to gain weight around your middle over 40, then you may need an honest look at what you’re eating and start creating more of a calorie deficit. Cutting back on alcohol is a good place to start if you have become a regular wine drinker of an evening. Getting more weight-bearing exercise will help maintain bone density and strength as you age, too. Get moving and avoid being sedentary as much as you can. All the incidental exercise adds up.
So, keep it simple and feel free to ignore the complex advice and ingredient lists. Poached eggs on a slice of good quality toast with some creamed spinach, or a piece of grilled fish with a green salad is far less fuss and just as good for you as some bonkers recipe full of sea buckthorn berries and baobab powder. And there’s always room for cake. Keep it real, people, and you won’t go far wrong.