Food Rules!

I‘ve been getting progressively fitter and healthier for the past five years. Yet, despite this, food is still a challenge. In the timeless words of Paul the Apostle, when it comes to food, “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” I can never take my eye off the ball when it comes to food, and neither can you.

Overall, I keep a pretty healthy diet, but there is still a lot of room to get better. This post is about my own personal food rules and how I have been able to stay on track. I’m not advocating that everyone subscribe to my plan; rather, I’d like to encourage you to be specific about your own plan and stick to it.

Diets vs. Rules

If you want to put a label on my rules, I tend to follow a version of The Zone Diet, although I’d never call it a diet. A diet is what addicts do to deny themselves for a short time so they can relapse back to their previous bad eating habits. Rules, in contrast, are the things you have decided to follow for the rest of your life. I’m a rules kind of guy when it comes to food. The rules for the Zone are pretty simple:

  • 1/3 of your calories should be lean protein
  • 2/3 low glycemic index carbs
  • A little fat–monounsaturated fat like olive oil, avocado, or nuts
The Zone Diet in a nutshell

Popularized 30 years ago by Dr. Barry Sears, the big idea behind this plan is to reduce inflammation, which many believe is the underlying cause of most western lifestyle diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even Alzheimers. CrossFit endorses this plan as their recommended diet and it’s hard to argue with some of the fittest people on Earth.

What I like most about this plan is that it’s not some lose-weight-fast-using-our-secret gimmick. Nor does it allow you to follow the “eat-anything-you-want” nonsense that many pop diets promote. It makes common sense. No one ever harmed themselves by eating too many vegetables and no sugar. When a diet doesn’t make common sense, and most fad diets don’t, you are probably not going to help yourself following it.

Eat the Same Thing for Breakfast Every Day

I find that eating the same thing for breakfast every day makes it much easier to plan meals and eat healthy. It reduces my decision fatigue when it comes to food. I don’t have to ever think about it and I always have the ingredients stocked. I alternate between two kinds of breakfasts on alternating weeks:

  • Breakfast #1: Oatmeal with a cut up apple, walnuts, and cinnamon and no sugar. I use Fairlife milk instead of water since it has double the protein and half the natural sugar of regular milk. Using this recipe, I can get close to 30 grams of protein in a bowl of oatmeal.
  • Breakfast #2: Egg white omelet with mixed veggies – onions, fresh spinach, mushrooms, or peppers with salsa on top. This meal has lots of protein without the high cholesterol of eggs and a large serving of nutrient-dense veggies.

Both of these meals take less than eight minutes to make.

Weekly Plan

If I don’t do a simple weekly meal plan, my diet tends to go off the rails fast. I don’t do anything complicated; it takes less than 15 minutes most of the time. As with breakfasts, I tend to eat the same things for two to three days at a time. Once again, it makes things easier, reduces prep time, and reduces my decision fatigue.

Go-to Easy and Healthy Meals

I hate cooking. This makes eating healthy quite challenging. To overcome this challenge, I have a list of go-to staple meals that I always have on hand. One of my favorites is (don’t judge me) three-bean and cucumber salad. I eat this stuff by the pound. Seriously. Green beans, garbanzos, kidney beans, and cucumbers with a little oil and balsamic vinegar. Sometimes I mix in quinoa which I make in a rice cooker in 10 minutes.

I have four or five other meals like this and you should too. I’m not advocating you eat three-bean cucumber salad by the pound, but I am suggesting you find meals that meet these criteria:

  • It should take less than 20 minutes to make.
  • It should contain about 1/3 protein and 2/3 veggies.
  • It should be very healthy (i.e. not full of sugar, bad fats, or refined carbs).
  • It should be made in bulk and eaten for at least three days.
  • You have to like it.

My go-to meals are always in the fridge, so I tend to eat them instead of snacking on less healthy foods. It’s too easy to grab fast food or empty carbs in the moment. Meals that meet all these criteria are hard to find, but for me, they are essential to staying healthy.

Sugar: The Arch Enemy

I’ve attempted to cut sugar out of my diet completely and I’ve been moderately successful. The average American eats 160 grams of sugar a day. Sugar is poison and, over time, these quantities of sugar kill us. I tend to eat about 30 grams, mostly from fruit. Sugar in fruit has fiber to mitigate how fast your body metabolizes it.

Added sugars spike your blood sugar, leading to all kinds of health issues. By middle age, we tend to become insulin resistant and eventually diabetic if we don’t take steps to fix this.

Besides the obvious sources of sweets, there are large amounts of sugar in non-fat yogurt, all cereals, and dressings. In other words, you can be eating those “healthy choices” like granola and Greek yogurt and still be killing yourself with sugar. Read the labels carefully.

The Never-Eat List

I’ve come to understand that nearly all of us have some foods that we just can’t help ourselves with. For me, these are Stacy’s Pita Chips, pizza, and those soft fluffy cookies the kids bring to family gatherings. In all seriousness, when it comes to these foods, I can’t stop myself. I can open a bag of Stacy’s chips and consume 1,500 calories over a few hours, going back for a handful at a time. I can eat a large pizza the same way.

The only way for me to avoid this behavior is never eat this stuff – ever. I can’t even have it in the house. Here is my list of foods I do my best never to eat…

  • Fast food: burgers, fries, and pizza
  • Sugary beverages: soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Refined carbs: white bread, white pasta, etc.
  • Desserts: cookies, candy, cake, and ice cream
  • Processed meat: hot dogs, bologna, sausages, etc.
  • Processed snack foods: crackers, chips, and pretzels
  • Trans fats: foods with partially hydrogenated ingredients

Honestly, I mess up and eat this stuff from time to time. It happens mostly when I am away from home and have to eat out or when I have not gone shopping and we’ve nearly exhausted the edible food in the house. When I fall off the wagon, I get back up, get my convictions back, and move on.

Nothing I’ve Just Written Works for Me Unless I Do This…

I have come to the conclusion that I tend to eat at least 20% more calories than I burn – and this is a big problem. Left to myself, my weight tends to creep up slowly. The only thing that seems to remedy this for me is to track food on an app. When I track my food on MyNetDiary I am forced to see the truth about how much I am actually eating. There is no more self-deception.

I tend to burn 2,400 calories a day at rest, plus workout calories. I confirmed this with a Resting Metabolism Test from BodyMetRX. On the days when I work out, I increase my calorie budget for that day by a value that seems appropriate for the workout, usually 300-500 calories.

A hidden benefit of food tracking is that it seems to improve the quality of the food I eat. If I eat something full of sugar or fat, it blows up my whole calorie budget for the day and I’ll need to go hungry for dinner to make up the difference. To avoid this, I tend to stick with nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods like veggies and lean proteins. I try to stay at 170 grams of protein a day since I lift weights throughout the week and want to build muscle.

I’m not a dietician, but I’ve found a non-gimmick approach to eating that works for me. I’ve found rules I can actually follow.

What are your rules? Most importantly, can you follow them? If not, find some new rules.