Category Archives: Eating

All Calories Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal Than Others

Jung Animal Farm

The human body uses energy and nutrients from foods to do work and to build and repair tissues. If it has extra calories, it stores them as fat. This is normal operations — humans evolved in conditions of modest food security, so it should not surprise us that we are descended from people who made the best of sometimes very bad situations. And in order to do its work, the body will use any source of calories — protein, fat, carbohydrate — for energy. If the only thing we needed food for was energy, that would be the end of the story. But we need more.

It Still Matters Where You Get Your Calories

As the famous historical example of scurvy in sailors shows us, navies throughout the world had to give thought to how to provision ships for long voyages in order to prevent both food spoilage and malnutrition. You can’t live on Twinkies alone — at least not well, and probably not for long. Even the “Twinkie Diet” guy didn’t; he had a daily protein shake, canned vegetables, and a multivitamin to ensure that he had his basic nutrients. (He also exercised every day, which certainly contributed to his health.)

Blood Sugar and Satiety

Foods do have different effects in the body. Some people have less stable regulation of blood sugar than others, and may feel worse when they eat refined carbohydrates, especially sugars. An extreme example of this is people with diabetes, who must take care in how they put together the foods they eat, and space their meals throughout the day.

Different foods also leave us more or less satisfied or full. Protein-rich foods and fats are more satiating than refined carbohydrate, for example, and fiber-rich foods are more filling. (Beware: The satiating effect of fats can be undermined by being combined with salt or refined sugar to keep you snacking on foods like chips or cookies.)

Two Budgets: Calories and Nutrients

We have two requirements for healthy eating: enough calories to cover our energy requirements, and enough nutrients to maintain our tissues and body functions. If we eat fewer calories than we need to cover our energy use, we can lose fat. However, if we are missing nutrients, we can lose muscle or worse. The one part of the “Twinkie Diet” guy’s plan you should definitely follow is to make sure you get those basic building blocks in your diet.

Image: illustration by Christina Jung, created for an edition of Animal Farm.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superfood!


“Superfood” is a marketing term, generally applied to expensive ingredients or foods that are not common in the Western diet, like chia seeds or acai berries. Typical claims for “superfoods” include rapid weight loss and the prevention or cure of disease. The term makes a lot of experts in nutrition crazy, because it encourages magical thinking about food and lopsided or wasteful food choices. The very idea is frequently debunked, although the value of some of the foods claimed to be super is still perfectly good.

Many of the foods that show up with this label have a good place in a healthful diet — they often contain vitamins or fiber (or both), for example, and are low in total calories. This doesn’t give them super powers, but you are certainly free to enjoy them as part of your diet. Marketing claims may encourage people to eat large amounts of specific “superfoods” (relative to their total intake), and that’s not a great idea with any food — a healthful diet should have a balance of nutrient sources, and a good way to achieve that is with variety.

If you are depending on “superfoods” to have a direct, predictable effect on your weight or on an illness, you should avoid them. While a healthful, balanced diet can improve health and help maintain a healthy weight, that can be achieved with plain old traditional, inexpensive fruits, vegetables, beans, meats, and whole grains.

If you learn about a “superfood” that sounds delicious, though, feel free to eat it. Combine “superfoods” with other ingredients. Enjoy them. Blueberries usually show up as a superfood at one point or another, for example, and they are delicious and nutritious. Other foods, like kale or crimini mushrooms, may be something you’ve never tried, and could be a fun experiment or turn into a new favorite.

It’s OK to use the “superfood” concept for your own purposes. If you’re new to mindful eating, you’re learning more about the nutritional value of different foods. There’s a lot to learn, and on the way, you will find that some foods are more versatile or enjoyable than others. (I recently had an experience with sweet potatoes that can best be described as “Where have you been all my life!”) Figure out your own “superfoods” — small snacks that really hit the spot, options that break out of the standard meat + potatoes or bag-o’-snacks template, and new ways to enjoy what you eat while getting the nutrition you need.

Creative Slow Cooker Meals


If you have a crock pot or slow cooker, you probably already know it makes a great stew, but you can get a little more creative, too. Keep some single-serving containers on hand, and you can freeze most of the recipe for an easy sack lunch or quick dinner option anytime.

The photo above is from Foodie Crush, showing Vegetarian Lasagna Soup. It’s one of 39 slow-cooker recipes gathered by Greatist. Take a peek and see what looks good to try!

Are You a Binge Eater?

cookie monster

Nia Shanks has a nice post about the skills and mindset that helped her emerge from a diet–binge cycle. She emphasizes getting away from the cues that appear in “lose weight fast” pitches — like rigid, unsustainable rules and a laser focus on fat loss — in favor of thinking about positive actions you can take, like healthful eating habits and improving your exercise ability.

This is neither rocket science nor brain surgery. It’s a personal, practical discussion of what amounts to brain science — ways to step back, adjust your goals, and discover an enjoyable, sustainable way to live (without giving up excellence).

What If I’m Not a Binge Eater?

Good! Don’t start. And take a look at this other post by Nia Shanks, “13 Ways Women Can Be MORE, Not Less.” Shanks focuses on women’s experiences in her training business, but, as with The Art of Manliness, these ideas cross gender lines. “Be More, Not Less” has good suggestions for anyone who’s having a tough time getting away from messages that make it hard to be kind to themselves.

Image from Shirt.Woot. I used this image in another blog entry, too — it’s too wonderful to use only once.

Getting There

jitenshasw had a lot of weight to lose, and had always been heavy. In this post, she shares her process of discovery and success. No quick fixes here — just a willingness to ask herself tough questions and actively decide how she wanted to eat and move. She took time to be clear about how she could take care of herself, and vastly exceeded her original goal. It’s a terrific story of taking simple steps in the right direction — go read the whole thing. [Contains mature language.]

What Makes Food Delicious?

Analysis of flavors in a recipe

Fat. Sugar. Salt. But what if you’re trying to improve the nutritional value of your food and want to get away from those appetite-whetting ingredients? One of the best ways to make food delicious without undermining its nutritional value (or encouraging overeating) is spices. And few (possibly no) traditions have as sophisticated a spice palate as India.

Indian food is celebrated around the world. Its remarkable appeal has been extolled for centuries and deeply analyzed recently at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur. Their conclusion was, generally, that Indian foods tend to combine contrasting flavors to establish their overall taste (whereas other cuisines tend to blend “positive” flavor combinations, with more overlap). Scientific American lets you explore some of these flavor relationships in a lively infographic.

Whoa. Complicated. What does this mean for me?

There are a few staple dishes that are easy to prepare in batches and portion out for bring-from-home lunches and easy-prep healthful dinners. They generally involve simply prepared vegetables, beans, or grains like couscous, and chicken. It’s a running joke among athletes that chicken gets particularly dull, and spices are an easy way to … spice all this food up. This could be as simple as marinating your chicken breasts in your favorite salad dressing, and once that’s predictable, too, there’s a big world of Indian spices out there that can give your food a new lease on delicious. Indian cuisine is vast and varied, but just beginning with a few of the basic flavor combinations can give you a nice introduction to what makes it so good. (Real Simple also offers a starter checklist for basic Indian flavors.)

Illustration of a computation from research at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur, discussed at the Washington Post.

Vegetable, Fruit, Berry

Berry Club

So it turns out a tomato is not only a fruit but — botanically speaking — is also classified as a berry. This is rough news for aggregate fruits like strawberries and blackberries, which, it turns out are not, technically, berries at all.

Fun! But all it really means is that scientific classification of plants is not necessarily in line with common names for them. Whether berry, drupe, pom, or aggregate of drupelets, fresh fruits are delicious fiber-rich foods that are good for health.

What about all that sugar?

Even Dr Robert Lustig, who is probably among the most hostile of modern voices critical of sugar (followed closely by Gary Taubes, who discussed Lustig’s views in the New York Times), has made an exception for fruit: “When God made the poison, he packaged it with the antidote: fiber.” In nutritional terms, a food may have a high glycemic index — that is, contain a lot of sugars — but still have a low glycemic load, if its total composition offsets the sugar, as fiber does in fruit and vegetables. (Some vegetables, like peas, are as sugary as fruits.) This is the reason that whole fruits are so healthful while fruit juices are basically just sugar water — fruit juices strain away the fiber.

Wait, Orange Juice Is Not “Part of a Complete Breakfast”?

No more than a couple of tablespoons of jelly or an iced donut. You’re better off just eating an orange (or an apple or a banana). And whole fruits pack easier for bringing to work or school to keep healthful snacks on hand. OK, bananas can be fragile, but there’s a solution!

Image by the delightful Mr Lovenstein.

Are You Enjoying It?

Fried Chicken Oreos

Do you have a particular food you can’t have “just a little bit” of? Some foods are easy to keep eating — not only do they leave you hungry, they may even leave you thinking you want (“need”) more of the same. Candy and chips often have this effect — people will eat as much as is in front of them.

The funny thing about these foods is that they don’t even have to be a personal favorite — they might just tickle something in the brain that likes sweet or salty. And that kind of overeating can leave you feeling frustrated or angry with yourself later.

So ask yourself if you’re really enjoying it. Your brain might surprise you with its honesty — and you might be low on something you really do need. There are lots of suggestions out there that this or that craving is because of some deficiency or another, but the answer is usually simple: people generally feel full or satiated when they eat fiber-rich foods, protein-rich foods, or fats. (Beware, though: fats can be “undermined” by sweet or salty ingredients.)

OK, It’s True, I’m Not Enjoying This — Just Eating It Anyway. Now What?

Switch gears: Have a glass of water, a stick of gum, or even a quick break to brush your teeth. These palate cleansers can help you stop.

Take inventory of what you’ve eaten that day: Chances are good it wasn’t a lot of fresh fruit, vegetables, or protein-rich foods. Try a snack from one of those groups.

Even when we need to eat less food overall, most of us could stand to eat more good stuff — particularly fiber-rich foods like vegetables, beans, or whole grains. And eating some extra protein can help keep you satisfied with less total calories. If you know you’ll be near a danger zone — like a string of fast-food joints or a snack cabinet at the office — pack some good stuff to bring with you.

Image: an Oreo lover photoshopped this packaging idea for a new Oreo flavor. Nabisco says it has no plans to offer it!

Cleansing the Mind of Snake Oil


You can’t actually “detox” your body, but a market eager to sell you One Weird Trick and various magic elixirs makes it impossible to go very far without seeing a pitch for it. The reality is both harder (a single purchase won’t restore health) and easier (regular walking and sensible eating can). So why do we keep that snake-oil market alive (and how can you learn to cut through the bogus claims?

Image from Andrew Kuznetsov, at Flickr