Eat to Live
Finding the right foods is key to well-being
Illustration by Gayle Kabaker
My journey with food and fitness has fallen into two basic periods: “much younger” and “much older.” During the “much younger” phase, I could run anywhere from four to eight miles (and often did so, daily) and then also eat just about anything I so desired—a large pepperoni pizza followed by a pint of coffee-flavored Häagen Dazs was more the rule than the exception. But in the recent “much older” period, walking the dog two miles after dinner or playing a bit of doubles tennis, coupled with a generally slower metabolism, has led to a real need to adapt my, ahem, nutritional intake.
My problem? I’m always hungry. However old or young I am, whether training for a marathon or sitting at a desk all day trying to meet a deadline, how to get food into me at almost every waking hour of the day while staying at an ideal body weight is a challenge. While mostly being able to stay just this side of overweight, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve done the typical thing that even healthier Americans seem to do—gain weight slowly, but consistently, about ten pounds a decade or a pound a year.
While a pound a year may not seem like much, it does add up—20 pounds in two decades; 30 pounds in three. Exercise alone no longer does the trick: Either I do too little and therefore don’t burn enough calories anymore, or exercise too much—the more I work out, the hungrier I feel. So while exercise, sleep, and nutrition all work together to create an overall wellness picture, the food I eat (or don’t) has by far the biggest impact on my weight and overall wellness, especially during the latter, less forgiving years of my life.
Regardless of your eating preferences, those looking to make a change should have a plan. Choose one that is healthy and suits you—you’re more likely to stick with it. Here are four key things:
Is it sustainable? Whether vegan, paleo, Mediterranean, or any other, the diet you choose must include food you enjoy eating and preparing and therefore not based on deprivation. “Part of what I do right off the bat is figure out what people like and shift the pattern of eating as opposed to stopping certain things,” says Peter Stanton, dietician, licensed nutritionist, and founder of the Nutrition Center, in the Berkshires.
Is it, in fact, healthy over the long haul? Are there other credible people out there who endorse it as a healthy way to eat long term?
Does it work? Do you feel good on it and does it help you reach and maintain your desired weight? This may seem obvious, but many people who, for instance, are especially sensitive to carbohydrates don’t achieve results even when the diet is recommended and suits their taste buds.
Does it eliminate processed foods, sugars, and/or high-glycemic–index (GI) carbohydrates? An online search of low- or high-GI foods gives you a good idea of foods to avoid regardless of diet, and many may surprise you (bananas and corn, for example). The problem with high-GI foods is that they impact blood-glucose, often raising insulin levels, which can lead to, at best, my personal problem of nagging hunger and, at worst, type-2 diabetes.
My own solution has been to focus on eating slow-digesting foods as opposed to fast-digesting ones. It was fairly easy for me to move my chair to the paleo table, given how much I enjoy chicken, fish, and other high-protein, healthy foods, as well as all the fruits and vegetables I can eat—as long as they are low-GI ones such as cherries, plums, and broccoli. I don’t mind eliminating juice, soft drinks, or regular milk; nor cheese, pasta, bread, and all desserts. I love to eat eggs for breakfast and, yes, probably too much bacon, and don’t mind avoiding cereal, bagels, or, in fact, all other even more insulin-spiking breakfast choices. I usually eat chicken or a salad for lunch with some protein. For dinner, I enjoy salmon with a salad and a vegetable, less frequently steak or hamburger (no bun), or chicken.
It’s nice to get reassurance from credible nutrition writers, such as Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat, that this actually is a healthy, long-term diet that reduces the risk of diabetes, cancer, dementia, and heart disease. I also feel calmer and have more consistent energy throughout the day—and am no longer always hungry.
After a bit of trial and error, I’ve found a way of eating that works for me. What works for you may be quite different, but where there does seem to be some consensus among nutritionists is in the idea of eating “real” food whenever possible. Eat it slowly and mindfully (sitting down but not in front of the TV), and eat to appetite. And yes, a walk with the dog after dinner doesn’t hurt, either.
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