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There are better things to focus on than what not to eat

Agnostic healthy eating, food principles, holistic healthy habits

· Health and Nutrition,Goals and Habits

Should you go vegan and stop eating meat? Or go Paleo and stop eating grains? Or go keto and stop eating carbs? Or go carnivore and stop eating everything besides meat? Or how about start fasting and just stop eating all together?

I just watched the Game Changers documentary on Netflix about vegan athletes, and then listened to Chris Kresser on the Joe Rogan podcast spend 3 hours debunking mostly everything in the movie. The arguments on both sides are incredibly persuasive, yet contradictory, which leaves me feeling like there has got to be way better things to focus on than what not to eat.

I'm not talking about food allergies or food ethics. I'm more frustrated by the diet wars - everyone's got an opinion and thinks they are right, diet theories are persuasive and rooted in science but even the science seems to contradict itself, and there is so much noise out there that it's too easy to get distracted.

Diet culture in general tends to focus on restriction; here are the list of approved and not approved foods, limit yourself to this many calories per day, and so on. Restrictive eating often can lead to a bad relationship with food and health.

What I do like about a diet is that it usually comes from a place of wanting to be healthier, paying closer attention to what we are eating, and trying to be more disciplined in our approach to food. But you don't need to identify under a certain diet label to have this approach. You don't need to focus on the restrictions, the extremes, the fad diets.

Instead you can focus on the positives - nourishment, gratitude, compassion, feeling good. To create a positive relationship with food, it's got to feel good.

In the 21st century, we are easily distracted and have unlimited access to information. The way we grow and improve is by narrowing our focus, finding the handful of really good sources of information and ideas to pursue.

So here is what I am choosing to focus on:

Agnostic Healthy Eating

In a world where nutrition can be as polarizing as politics and religion, being noncommittal is a way to escape the noise. We can accept the fact that we don't know what the best diet is, partly because everyone is different, and partly because everything happening in our bodies is so interconnected, complicated, and invisible.

Agnostic healthy eating is a diet in which no food groups are excluded, no nutrients are marginalized, but in which the overall quality is very high. It's a flexible, inclusive way of eating that is culturally normal yet far from the standard American diet.

It's like having an open relationship. I love that vegans promote eating more plants, that paleo promotes whole foods, and that keto promotes healthy fats. It's easier to see what healthy is when you focus on the positives. I love to eat at vegan restaurants even though I'm not vegan.

Eat a variety of whole foods - vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, high-quality meats and fish, whole grains.

Eat a good mix of the 3 macronutrients - carbs, fats, and protein all have a purpose in the body.

Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to get a wide variety of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Mix it up every now and then with cooked, raw, fermented, blended, juiced.

Food Principles

There are fundamental principles of nutrition that can be applied to nearly any dietary approach. You can have an approach or philosophy towards food without falling under a dietary label. And I think that having an approach or philosophy is important.

  • When thinking about eating better, add vs subtract. Crowd out the bad foods with good foods. When you deprive yourself of “bad foods” the more you think about them and the more appealing they seem. Instead, focus on adding healthy stuff and there will be less room for the food that doesn’t support your goals. You’ll find yourself eating better without feeling deprived or like you are “dieting.”
  • Hydration, sleep, and stress play a big role with our energy, appetite, cravings, and ability to make good food decisions.

Here are the 3 Eat Wisely principles from the Blue Zones.

  • The 80% rule - Eat to satisfied, not to stuffed. If you stop eating when you are 80% full, you usually feel better, and that 20% buffer can be the difference between gaining weight and losing it.
  • Plant Slant - In the Blue Zones, beans are a cornerstone of the diet, and meat is eaten on average only 5 times per month. Even Paleo health experts argue that meat should only make up 25% of your intake (by volume, not calories). Sounds like a plant slant to me.
  • Wine at 5 - People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. The key is that it's usually with friends and food. Very interesting, because when we thinking of consuming alcohol we tend to think of it as a bad thing for our health, and of course if you over consume it is. But I think that this shows that the environment and mindset in which we consume - with friends, having fun, non stressful - can be just as important if not more important that what we consume.
Which brings us to a few principles about our mindset with food and health.
  • Stressing about your food choices makes it significantly worse. If you want to enjoy some dessert, just do it. The more you enjoy it, the more it's probably good for you, and the more you stress about it, the more it's probably worse for you.
  • Be mindful, chew slowly, and savor your food. Especially when I eat nigiri, I like close my eyes and chew slowly, enjoying every bite. I was also reminded of this when I was backpacking and we were running low on food. When you enjoy it more, you're content with less.
  • Food can be self-care. When I eat a fresh salad or drink a superfood smoothie, I imagine that it's a party inside my body for all my cells. Like a Vegas pool party when they bring out the bottles with the parade of sparklers, that's what I think of everyday when I'm having my post-workout smoothie!
  • Be thoughtful about food choices. Being thoughtful means thinking attentively, listening carefully, remembering consciously, caring deeply, acting intently. You have 2 homes - Earth and your body - take care of them.
Our relationship with food can only be as good as our relationship with ourselves.
  • Self-appreciation and gratitude - How we feel about our bodies determines how we take care of them. If we look at our bodies as bad or a problem to be solved it creates a disconnect with wanting to nurture and take care of them. Learn to appreciate body that you have. 
  • Check-in with yourself often. It's good to ask yourself - How does this food physically make me feel? How does this food mentally make me feel? With physical, recognize energy level, satiety (feeling satisfied), fullness level, GI symptoms (upset stomach), anything else. With mental, recognize any negative thoughts (guilt, shame, regret), positive thoughts (happy, pleasure, joy), or any underlying state (stressed, sad, lonely, tired). This can also help you deconstruct cravings.
  • Learning positive self talk and getting rid of negative self talk. Especially when you start to veer away from healthy habits. Don’t be hard on yourself. No beating yourself up. Any stress you put on yourself is probably worse than whatever you're stressing about, so chill. Just do better tomorrow.

Focus on holistic healthy habits

Health and wellness go far beyond food. It's also about other lifestyle factors like exercise, relationships, career, spirituality, as well as social life, joy and play, creativity, home environment, cooking, financial.

A holistic approach to health and wellness is an understanding that all these factors are interconnected. And integrative approach is the realization that health happens from the outside in (body > mind > soul) and the inside out (soul > mind > body). All the kale smoothies and broccoli in the world won't help if you are in a toxic job or relationship. And all the success and money in the world mean little if you don't have your health.

Try to integrate as many healthy habits into your life as you can. Take advantage of the keystone habit effect, when certain habits make it easier to stick with other habits. When you go to bed by 10pm, you usually have the energy and discipline to exercise. When you exercise regularly, you usually want to eat better.

Sometimes your choices won’t transform your body - like 10 min of exercise or resisting that one donut - but they do reaffirm your identity and further ingrain healthy habits. And with time and patience on your side, tiny habits can lead to big transformations.

Here are some of my healthy habits:

  • Smoothie every day
  • Exercise most days
  • 15 min of yoga a couple times per week
  • Shoot for bed by 10pm, and 8 hours of sleep on average
  • Drink alcohol rarely 
  • Monthly financial tracking and automated investments 
  • Learning, which involves reading/listening and writing, regularly 
  • Make an effort to hang out with friends and family 

These habits didn't happen overnight, it's taken me 5 years to build up to these. My health journey 5 years ago started with a daily juicing habit and giving up meat, neither of which I really do anymore.

I was actually a strict pescatarian for over a year, so to sound somewhat contradictory, I do think that diet experiments or challenges can be a fun and effective to break old eating habits and establish new ones. They can also be great ways to figure out what works for you.

It's crazy to think that I run 50 mile ultramarathons now, for fun, and it all started because a little over 3 years ago I got convinced to do a half marathon with friends. Turns out I liked the challenge of running farther distances.

So sometimes the best way to start a new habit is to get to the point of no return - where you sign up for a half marathon or throw away all the food in your fridge and pantry and start over. One of the best ways to keep a habit is to turn it into a hobby, like endurance racing is for me now.

Sometimes new habits stick, and sometimes they don't. But focusing on healthy habits is itself a habit, and if you keep experimenting and layering on new habits, your life can change in big ways.

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