Have you ever wanted to know the truth about food? Lucky for you, I read the 750-page book on the subject so you wouldn’t have to. Lucky for me, Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, earned degrees in medicine, public health and nutrition and sorted through thousands of peer-reviewed studies to write those 750 pages so I wouldn’t have to.
“The Truth About Food: Why Pandas Eat Bamboo and People Get Bamboozled,” dispels many of the myths that make up our beliefs about what we should eat and avoid. It turns out, many of the beliefs we cling to are wrong. This is because our beliefs are highly influenced by such factors as cultural norms, charismatic peddlers of products and diet plans that promise health and happiness, anecdotal “it worked for me” stories from friends and recommendations from well-meaning people. We often fail to base our beliefs on facts.
What is the truth about food? Surprisingly, it can be boiled down to three rules of thumb for optimum health: eat wholesome rather than processed foods, lots of plants and limit your portions. Tack on the rule of sticking to plain water as an everyday beverage. Across all studied countries and generations, these are the consistent guidelines found to produce the healthiest people on the planet.
In another lengthy book you now won’t have to read titled “The Blue Zones,” Dan Buettner summarizes research conducted in five cultures across the globe with the highest proportions of people who live 100 or more years. A team of researchers set out to discover the commonalities across these cultures. The team found the same three rules applied: they eat wholesome foods, mostly plants, and follow such practices as the Okinawans’ 80 percent rule — they stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full.
These truths about food aren’t groundbreaking. In fact, I’d bet deep down most of us have known them all along. Why are we so easily bamboozled? One reason is we’re inundated with so many conflicting headlines we get distracted from facts and swept away in confusion. Another reason is we’re wired to prefer the new and exciting over the tried and true. A third explanation is we gravitate toward diets promising easy answers and quick fixes. While adhering to “wholesome foods, mostly plants, and not too much” is truly the easiest answer available, it’s not a quick fix. This is because we must first address the biggest barrier actively working against us — the places in which we spend the most time that dictate what we eat. For most of us, this is our homes and workplaces.
Take a moment to mentally scan your kitchen, workspace and break room. What kinds of foods are readily available? Chances are you see easy to grab pre-packaged foods, enticing snacks and sugary goodies. Now, mentally assess the size of your plates, bowls and cups as well as the containers of food from which you serve yourself. Odds are these are all super-sized versions that cause us to overeat.
As I wrote in a previous column, behavior change depends more on how easy a behavior is to do than willpower. Considering an extreme situation illustrates my point. If you were stranded in your home for a week with nothing to eat but dried beans and vegetables, suddenly it would become very easy to eat more dried beans and vegetables.
Since we tend to eat whatever food is in front of us, making healthier choices readily available is imperative. We can trade easy-to-grab snacks for equally easy-to-grab
whole fruits. We can package our own nuts, seeds and dried fruits to have on hand as go-to snacks. We can encourage co-workers and vendors in the workplace to reduce the number of goodies there by talking openly as a team about the kind of food cultures we want to create. We can downsize our dishes and transfer foods from large containers into smaller or individual portions to effortlessly enforce portion control.
Whatever small steps we choose to take, the first one must be to refuse to be confused by the latest diet or alluring headline. Instead, let’s commit to relying on decades of consistent, sound science providing a clear prescription for healthy eating: stick to whole foods, mostly plants, and not too much. While it’s not a quick fix, it’s the only fix most of us will ever need.