These simple and broad guidelines for eating clearly—feeling nourished, sustained, and sharp—help make any diet healthier. They can boost the way you function, feel, and look, and you can incorporate them whether you eat meat or not or whether you already follow certain dietary protocols for your unique needs.
Even if you eat very healthfully, you're likely deficient in some nutrients. The way our food is farmed and produced today leaves a lot of gaps in our nutrition, undermining our foundation of health. My philosophy is to keep it "real" (lots of whole foods and fresh produce), cook as many of your own meals as you can, and always get the best ingredients you can afford because they will deliver the highest nutritional value to every cell in your body. This way of eating doesn't have to be pricey. Stock up on produce at farmers' markets; get bulk-size pantry items (beans, legumes, grains) from health food stores and co-ops; and find deals online for fats, oils, nuts, and seeds and ship them to your door. All this puts quality foods in your pantry and fridge while saving a little money for better-quality eggs, meat, fish, and dairy products if you eat them.
Organic is a big word in my household. It still costs more than conventional—though this is changing by the year. One cost-saving strategy is to check out the "Dirty Dozen Plus" for the foods that have the highest pesticide load when farmed conventionally. Make them your priority when buying organic.
Applying perspective helps here. You can feed yourself and your family food that is cheaper and more convenient to prepare, but you will likely eat a lot more of it because the food itself won't make you feel as full as nutrient- and fiber-packed ingredients would. And don't discount how the real cost will come later when it impacts your health. Plus, getting more nutrition out of your meals is actually more about spending time than money; after all, homemade lentil soup is as cheap as it comes.
Tip: Many farmers' markets offer fresh, pesticide-free produce that is not certified organic because it's expensive and hard for small producers to get the certification. By asking around, you can find "nearly organic" produce at very good prices.
For meat, dairy, eggs, and fish, the most nutrient-rich choices, if you can afford them, are grass-fed meat and dairy above grain-fed; pasture-raised eggs or, secondly, organic eggs above regular; and wild fish above farm-raised. Some cheaper cheats? Get canned fish—like sardines, mackerel, herring, and salmon—into your pantry. They are less gourmet than fresh fish but an incredible way to get protein and essential omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. Frozen vegetables and fruits retain many of their nutrients as they are usually picked and flash frozen ripe. Ideally, get organic if you can.
When buying packaged goods—nut butters, nut milks, cereals, and healthy snacks—look for products containing the fewest ingredients, with names you actually recognize and with nothing extraneous or artificial added. Make sure they have the lowest sugar content you can find. Reading every word on the label only takes a few extra seconds.
We all know that eating fresh vegetables and fruits at every meal is good for us. They infuse us with a rainbow of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients with powerful protective benefits, as well as fiber. But that doesn't mean we always do it! All that information can go in one ear and out the other. A small side serving of lettuce once a day just is not enough. Our bodies thrive on a lot more than that! The trick is to shift the way you see your plate.
Try relating to your leafy greens from a new point of view. Yogic texts say that fresh produce—raw and cooked—will bring more prana, or life energy, into your body. Just as plants deliver oxygen into the air, when eaten, they bring that same life force into you! I know that when my diet is full of leafy greens and other colorful vegetables, I feel clean, alive, at ease, proud of my body, and more mindful. So as you commit to consciously using your breath, it goes hand in hand to also eat more greens. Here's how:
- Substitute a big portion of steamed vegetables any time you'd normally have crackers, toast, or chips. Try going for cruciferous or leafy veggies most of the time: broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, chard, spinach.
- Prepare roasted squash, beets, and carrots where you might otherwise use white potatoes. Discover the spiralizer: a nifty gadget that peels vegetables into noodles that you can steam and use instead of pasta!
- ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Throw handfuls of spinach into a smoothie. This is a savior for my kids; they get their greens without any bribing or cajoling on my part. Before you know it, you'll be using greens and vegetables at every meal and in your snacks.
Once you get on a roll with this, it becomes a habit, something that makes food prep creative and fun. And the benefits of a plant-rich diet will start to sink in. There is so much to discover when you open nature's medicine chest.
Tip: If your plant-rich diet leans toward vegan, take care to include foods that are fortified with B12, or take B12 supplements. This is an essential vitamin we cannot get from plant food alone. Adding nutritional yeast on savory dishes is a great way to add this in—it's used in many of my recipes—though if you eat exclusively vegan, you'll need more than this alone to be well.
The science is irrefutable: The low-fat fanaticism of the past was based on faulty thinking and pushed people to consume lots of carbohydrates instead. The problem is that eating refined carbohydrates and sugars in excess spikes insulin, and these foods get stored on the body as fat! The new science shows that this is what creates saturated fat in our blood (not eating butter or coconut oil!), wreaking havoc on our health. It's time to fall back in love with fat.
Every system in your body needs fat to function well—including your brain. Incorporating enough of the right fats into your diet will make a big difference in how grounded you feel and how clearly you think. They give you more energy per calorie than any other food, reduce hunger so you eat less, keep you warm, support a stable mood, and give you shiny hair, strong nails, and good skin, plus much more. Though some body types do well with more fats, and some do better with less, your lifestyle and activity level will also impact the amount that works for you. Bottom line: There is absolutely no reason to be scared of the letters F, A, and T!
Let's keep it really simple: Eat fats as close to the way nature intended as possible. Use coconut, virgin olive, flaxseed, walnut, and avocado oils. Always pick expeller- and cold-pressed oils; they are unrefined and have not been treated with chemicals or solvents in processing.
If you eat meat, get it grass-fed if you can: It contains a healthy balance of omega-3 to omega-6 oils, which helps to maintain good health and prevent inflammation and disease.
Steer clear of oils like soy, canola, corn, cottonseed, and peanut. They cause inflammation and create heart disease. Know that most restaurants, most processed foods, and all fast foods use these oils—yet another reason to cook your own meals. Whatever you do, nix the partially hydrogenated oils—aka the dreaded trans fats—which are directly linked to obesity, heart attacks, and cancer. Though these are being phased out of all foods, they still exist, especially in the cheapest baked goods and snack foods, fast foods, and butter-type spreads.
As you get to know your body well, you'll start to figure out how much fat you need. But it's fairly simple: When you eat real food and don't overdo anything, your body stays happy.
It's not that sweet foods are all bad; it's that we've completely lost our perspective on them. In nature, sweet foods like berries or honey are the occasional but delectable treat for the body as they are seasonal or hard to find. Today, sugary foods are available everywhere, all the time, and they are made up of completely unnatural ingredients that our bodies cannot use—like high-fructose corn syrup. It's in savory foods, in condiments (yes, ketchup!), and, worst of all, in drinks (sodas are literally liquid sugars).
My technique when I get the itch for sweets is to eat strong, dark chocolate. It hits the spot and kicks the sugar craving out of my body. If you've got a sugar habit you want to drop, try cutting all the sweet treats from your diet entirely except for two pieces of dark chocolate in the afternoon (or at night if it doesn't keep you up). If you don't like dark chocolate, try a (small) date or dried fig—nature's best candy.
Under these limitations, you will look forward to it and find it more satisfying. And you will lose weight. Plus, having sweetish healthy snacks in your repertoire will gradually change your palate. These strategies work for my toddler when she craves a cupcake; they can totally work for you!
If you don't have a battle with sugar cravings, then as long as your cup stays pretty empty, enjoy and seduce your senses with special treats—especially when shared with people you love. Make these treats occasional and good quality, and make them deliberate (when you're choosing to indulge with the full awareness that it's for the purpose of pleasure, then there's nothing to regret). For me, it's coconut ice cream or a magdalena pastry—a treat that makes me smile and remember that life is sweet.
My nephew, who was raised macrobiotic, used to call junk food "tricky foods"—things that look, smell, and taste like food but are actually horrible for your body. The crunch of orange-coated corn chips, the snap of Ritz crackers (with their high-fructose corn syrup), the rustle of bagged popcorn coated with trans fats—this world of impulse eating is scarily man-made and artificially enhanced. They "trick" you.
Apply some perspective, and you might see how corporations have designed these foods scientifically to light up your pleasure centers with unnaturally big flavors. They give instant gratification when you're bored, restless, or seeking distraction. Get present when you reach for them, and you may realize that when you're eating these things, you're almost never truly hungry. You're looking for something missing—a feeling, a sensation, a moment of satisfaction. You'll notice how they don't satisfy you; they leave you craving more because they are full of chemicals that the body cannot process and that merely trick it into feeling fed. Having that awareness is a little triumph and the start of letting them go!
But how do you physically ditch the habit?
The more you fill your diet with a diverse array of tastes and textures from good ingredients, the less interesting those fake-food sensations become. Your palate shifts: Natural flavors start to register as appealing while overly bold, phony flavors become garish to your mouth. Know that savory snacks often hook you in by satisfying your need for crunch and by using MSG and other synthetic ingredients that capture the sweet- salty-sour taste that chefs call umami. Ditching tricky foods becomes totally doable when you combine your own savory flavors and satisfy your senses. A crunchy rice cake topped with tahini and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast or a smear of miso paste gives the same umami flavor, as does flax crackers topped with avocado and tangy cheese (if you eat dairy) or a dash of nutritional yeast, which vegans often substitute for Parmesan.
Drinking plenty of water is critical for flushing toxins out of the system and for regulating blood pressure, and it also helps to moderate hunger. Often when you think you are hungry, your body is actually asking for water. Try hydrating first, and then ask how hungry you are again. There's no need to drink like a maniac; we also get water from raw vegetables, fruits, soups, and smoothies. When I'm breastfeeding, I use a secret weapon to stay hydrated: coconut water in the morning and evening. Compare the sugar content of different brands before you buy, however, as it can vary widely.
Start experimenting with these Big Ideas today. Know that dietary changes can take an initial period of being really strong, so make sure to use the Five Principles guidelines that follow to keep yourself on track. The good news is that your body does want to eat this way! Soon you will be craving a healthy diet and itching to start an exercise plan alongside it. It's like getting over caffeine. It sucks for a few days to a week, but then you feel reborn.