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  • Tom Birchard

Health and Wellness Pillar #1 – Diet/Nutrition

I identified 4 key pillars of health and wellness in a previous post, and here we’ll take a deeper dive into diet/nutrition. You’d be hard pressed to find an area of life with more books written, systems defined, conflicting information, and just opinions in general. One thing is irrefutable though, if you want to live a long and healthy life while having great energy and feeling good about yourself, then paying attention to your diet and what you’re consuming is imperative.

I should probably throw out the disclaimer that I’m not a medical doctor, so nothing included here should be taken as medical advice. That being said, in an area where so much is written and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of seemingly contradictory information, I think some simple commonsense guidelines could be helpful to some people. I’ve read a fair amount about this topic while experimenting with various diets myself and consider myself to be in well above average health, so here are some principles around diet and nutrition that I believe are useful…

1. Consistent Start to Day – It used be commonly said that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Now protocols like intermittent fasting and time-restricted-eating often eliminate breakfast entirely. I won’t get into those programs in this article, although I think there’s increasing research supporting the benefits and I’ll probably experiment with some form of intermittent fasting at some point. For those that do choose to eat some form of breakfast, I think having a consistent, healthy, and convenient go-to meal to start the day is really important. As the day progresses there are increasing variables that could throw things off course and cause you to make poor diet choices, making that first meal all the more important. I usually opt for a smoothie to start my day. I’ve included a couple pictures at the bottom of the article but the smoothies include bananas, flaxseed, blueberries, cherries, avocado (the secret ingredient which gives the smoothie a creamy texture), spinach, vanilla protein powder, and a little water. I’m able to fill up the blender and make ~3 16oz smoothies so just freezing them and putting them in the refrigerator the morning before I’m going to drink them certainly checks the convenience box!

2. Greatly Reduce Processed Carbohydrates – Do you ever get confused and overwhelmed by the number of diets out there? Off the top of my head I can think of Atkins, Ketogenic, Paleo, Mediterranean, Vegan, Low-Carb, and The Zone…and I’m sure that’s just scratching the surface. Some of these are more similar than different while others vary greatly. Well there’s one thing you likely won’t find endorsed in any of these diets, and that’s processed (also called simple or refined) carbohydrates. Common examples of processed carbs are white bread, pasta, cereal, pastries, and sugary sodas. Not only are these carbs void of all fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but they also have a high glycemic index therefore being digested very quickly. If you’ve ever noticed eating a donut and being hungry very shortly after, now you know why. I really believe that a lot of the health and weight loss benefit from many of these diets largely stems from the reduction of consuming processed carbohydrates, so in whatever program you choose make sure to remember this, although they sure do taste good ;-)

3. Healthy (and Filling) Snacks – I haven’t researched it but I have to imagine with the increased work-from-home with COVID-19 that snacking during the day has also peaked. It would be easy to say to just avoid snacking altogether and depending on your goals that might be the best bet. However if you are going to snack, try to shop for and have on-hand some healthy and hopefully filling choices. I find nuts and seeds to be really good options including roasted pumpkin seeds, almonds, and pecans. Many people are unaware that peanuts are actually a legume and while I enjoy cashews, I might enjoy them a bit too much and risk overeating them if they are around. Most nuts are high in monounsaturated fat which makes them filling and satisfying as well.

4. Research Menu Ahead of Time – Have you ever had the feeling where you get to a new restaurant, you’re starving and start looking at the menu and everything looks delicious and you wish you could order all of it? Well that’s a pretty regular occurrence for me, and when in that situation the decision I make is hardly ever even a remotely healthy one. One tactic I’ve found helpful is to view the menu online ahead of time and hopefully at a time when I’m not currently that hungry and the cravings are less intense. If I’m determined to choose a somewhat healthier option that allows me to make that decision and commit to it ahead of time, whether that’s a salad or salmon with veggies, and not leave that decision to an inevitable moment of weakness while trying to decide what to order amidst the sights and smells of a good restaurant.

5. Find Something You Can Stick With – Winston Churchill once said “perfection is the enemy of progress” and I certainly think that can be the case with diet and nutrition. If you don’t take anything else away from this article remember this point, if the goal is to improve your health through conscious eating then make sure you commit to something you can actually sustain and stick with. Most important is committing to something you actually enjoy and find tastes reasonably good, whether that means indulging in a bit of chocolate every night or one big cheat meal or entire day per week, develop a program you anticipating adhering to for the long run. Too often I find people oscillate between an extreme diet usually centered around weight loss and they make good progress in a short period of time, but they ultimately revert back to their prior eating habits or even worse due to not truly enjoying the eating experience while on the diet. It’s also easy to design a diet for a very controlled and predictable environment and when you’re operating within those parameters, you’re probably able to sustain it. But inevitably life will throw you curveballs, you’ll travel, stress will get to you, and at those times if you don’t truly enjoy what you’re eating that extreme diet is likely to go completely off the rails.

I’ll conclude by saying that as with anything related to health and wellness, one’s diet and eating habits are highly personal and tie directly to goals and objectives. If weight loss is the goal, then calories in need to be less than calories out. If you’ve had some blood tests run and have an iron or vitamin D deficiency, then that calls for certain steps to be taken possibly including supplementation. If you have a moral objection to eating animals then obviously that will likely push you towards more of a vegan or vegetarian style diet. These are 5 principles that I’ve found helpful personally and I think would help the majority of people, but what do you think? What are some of the staples of your own diet that might be worth sharing? Thanks for reading!

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