This post is in response to numerous requests for me to elaborate on what I eat daily. It is not meant to be a scientific explanation or argument for or against any particular diet, nutrition plan, or philosophy (I eat a paleo diet with the exception of limited amounts of cheese and alcohol—no strong reason for these exceptions other than I enjoy them too much to cut them out completely). My knowledge in this area is rudimentary and essentialist, leaving me far from an expert in nutritional science, so I will leave the justifications to those with better pedigrees. I try to know as much as I can in order to make smart choices without getting paralyzed by the minutia inherently common among issues that deal on the molecular level. Though I know chemistry is vitally important to understanding processes of digestion, energy transfer, and, really, all things biological, I personally find it far too boring to obsess over. Much more useful is a general chemical understanding, buttressed by the practical basics that come from trial and error and the lessons of ongoing experience. This is more in line with the theme of this post. It is simply an expose of the current state of my personal nutritional experiment.
In an effort to avoid simply regurgitating tips that have proliferated all over the internet (eating frequently, avoiding grains, dairy, saturated fats, etc.), I tried to concentrate my efforts strictly on things I think are either largely neglected, overlooked entirely, or are personal discoveries that have helped me get what I need from my meals. I’ve also tried to distill these ideas into as simple a form as possible, therefore making them easier to digest (pun?) and apply. After some careful thought, I’ve come up with a series of thoughts that govern what I do at mealtime. This can be seen as a brief menu of practical guidelines for those, like me, who are looking to eat better, but often find it too difficult, complicated, or inconvenient to do so.
1. Know what you need
While, biologically, the same dietary principles apply to everyone, they do not apply in equal proportions. This is, without a doubt, the most common and simplest mistake people make when embarking on any diet/nutrition plan. 2 points here. First, personal goals will necessarily affect your approach. A woman looking to lose 20 lbs will eat differently from a woman looking to gain 5; this has to be clear. By the same token, if your goal is to gain weight, you cannot eat like a bird and expect to get stronger. My good friend and animal Jim Bathurst of Beastskills.com wrote recently that he "accidentally ingest 2 eggs every time he walks past the refrigerator." This has to be your attitude if you're trying to get bigger. Second, you have to know your energy demands to know what to eat. If I’m burning 4000 calories a day but only taking in 2500, chances are I won’t be performing at my peak. If you’re burning 1500 and taking in 2000, you’re not going to lose weight… it’s a math equation. It seems that most people these days know the right foods to eat, but not how to use that knowledge to suit their individual needs. Bridging this gap is vital.
2) Mix your food
Eating Paleo approved foods gets pretty boring. The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to prepare meals that are huge jumbles of food, i.e. salads, stir fries, and scrambles. I like this method particularly because it allows me to get more nutrients in per bite. If variety is important in training, it’s doubly so when it comes to nutrition, if for no other reason than keeping you sane. If I had to eat grilled chicken breasts every day in order to be fit, I think I’d shoot myself. Or go to straight McDonalds. I’ve found that mixing food allows me to incorporate more types of vegetables, fruits, and meats in every meal, keeping them interesting and tasting better.
3. Go for color
I know I’ve read it somewhere, but I can’t remember where: Eat every color and you eat healthy. When deciding what produce to buy at the market, this is my anchoring principle. Purple cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, green cauliflower, yams, spinach, avocado, bell peppers, bananas, oranges, apples, blueberries… Not exactly the skittles version of tasting the rainbow, but it will do. Phyto-nutrients? Anti-oxidants? Vitamins and minerals? They’re all in there.
4. Cook with fruit and nuts
Most people just eat fruit and nuts as snacks between meals, but they’re really useful in spicing up otherwise bland concoctions. A personal favorite is slicing apples and throwing them in with cabbage, carrots, broccoli, and whatever else is in the frying pan. The natural sugars sweeten everything and help hold the meal together. Another great one is shredded coconut. I put this on everything from eggs to curry. It has good fats from the oil and tons of calories that I find hard to come by. Almonds, cashews and walnuts are great with salads, but in almost any stir fry as well. Starting to use the foods you’re accustomed to in different ways is a great way to eat better and to keep things interesting.
5. It’s all about the sauce
The key ingredient for any meal I cook is the sauce. It’s easy to throw away an otherwise healthy meal on a salad dressing full of trans-fats and disgusting, processed garbage. Equally easy is to find dressings that are completely healthy and make the meal waaaay better than it would be without them. Dry food is hard to choke down, let’s be honest. A few of my favorites: Pesto-surprisingly good with almost any combination of vegetables; Olive Bruschetta-such a strong flavor that you don’t need much to change the complexion of the meal; Salsa-this one is obvious for eggs, just get the natural stuff without added sugar; Hummus-actually not sure where this fits into the paradigm, but it’s cheap, full of good oils, and tastes great; Red Pepper puree-can’t begin to describe how good this is; Balsamic Vinegar-obvious for salads, but also good with just about anything; Curry-check the labels, but usually it’s not too bad.
To this point in the process, these are the guidelines I find the most helpful. I manage to cook 3 times a day consistently, with snacks and shakes sprinkled intermittently between and after workouts. Aside from the large amount of dish soap I go through, it’s really not that big of a hassle. Tupperware is amazing, use it people. No real excuse not to cook your meals unless you’re on the road for days at a time.
I will follow this up with a post detailing exactly what I eat during the day tomorrow. I'm always looking to learn, so if anyone has tricks to add please share.