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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Near-Universal Principles for Healthy Eating

When thinking about health and specifically diet, there are very few things that are applicable across the board. Recommendations must be tailored to the individual, which makes finding simple (yet accurate and evidence-based) advice difficult. Nevertheless, there are some basic rules which, when followed, will improve health in almost all cases. The strategies I discuss here may not be optimal for everyone, but they will be beneficial for the vast majority.

1. Strictly limit sugars

This is a crucial area where most people go wrong, and there are a few reasons why. Firstly, sugars sneak into nearly everything that we consume. While many people know to watch the amount of cookies and ice cream they eat, they’re not noticing the obscene amount of sugar in their milk, bread, protein bars, pasta sauce - you name it. On top of this, sugar is now being discussed in the literature as an addictive substance. Anecdotally, this has been true for me. It took me months to wean myself off of a moderate-high sugar diet, and even now short lapses will take days or weeks to fully recover from. These two factors combined make for ridiculously high sugar consumption among Americans, and the data could not be clearer that higher sugar intake corresponds with obesity and disease.

1a. Don’t drink your sugar

A key subpoint on the sugar topic: sugar-sweetened beverages account for the majority of added sugar consumption in the U.S. Sugar in liquid form is dangerous in that it can be heavily concentrated and consumed rapidly. High doses of sugar from drinks like fruit juice (which many people consider “healthy”) are absorbed immediately by the small intestine and will lead to severe blood sugar spikes. This is why sugar-sweetened beverages are specifically being targeted by local governments. If you’re looking for a “first step” towards improving your health, this is a great place to start.

2. Resist the urge to eat around the clock

I didn’t realize until recently how difficult it is for people to go several hours without eating. Most of us are in the habit of heading to the kitchen immediately after waking up, having food as needed throughout the day, and snacking right up until bedtime. This isn’t how we evolved — we have the mechanisms necessary to survive for weeks without calories. I don’t recommend fasting for anywhere near that long, but I do think that it is beneficial to set aside long periods of the day where you don’t eat. For one, this is a shortcut to calorie restriction which is known to extend lifespan. Additionally, it allows your body to utilize different fuel sources and to activate potentially beneficial cellular programs like autophagy. Some side benefits that I’ve come to appreciate are the discipline learned from resisting food and the eventual realization that we don’t have to be eating around the clock to thrive. To put this into practice, I’d recommend simply setting out to stop eating a couple hours before bedtime, and waiting a couple hours after waking up to eat.

3. Make whole, non-starchy vegetables the base of your diet

With so many foods to be avoided in our current environment, I think that it’s almost easier to focus on what you should eat and let the rest fall into place. Consuming a variety of vegetables is your best route to micronutrient sufficiency, and it represents another shortcut towards calorie restriction. This is because you largely avoid calorie-dense sugars and saturated fats, and those present will be absorbed slowly because of the high fiber content. Something that’s been helpful for me is adding extra virgin olive oil to vegetables. This is a great way to increase calorie intake and satiety while also getting healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols. If you’re able to prioritize eating large amounts of whole vegetables, it leaves less room for processed foods which cause most of the damage in standard diets.

So, in summary: limit sugar (especially sugary drinks), avoid eating all day, and eat lots of non-starchy vegetables. These are likely things you’ve heard before — there are no groundbreaking new ideas in this post. That’s intentional, though. Eating well does not have to be complicated, and it shouldn’t be. Those that are successful find simple strategies that they can stick with long-term, and that’s what these suggestions are meant to be. If a person did nothing else but follow these three principles, they would be markedly healthier than the average American. So start there, and as you become comfortable and confident you can add more nuanced and personalized modifications.


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