9 Keys to Healthy Eating

The 9 Keys for Healthy Eating

I have a penchant for short, pithy explanations to things that people – mostly people selling things – try to make complicated. My favorite example is Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, less of it, mostly plants”. There’s a whole lot of health and wisdom wrapped up in those seven words. Along those same lines, I like the advice offered by Runner’s World magazine for The Healthy Runner’s Diet. It lists six rules applicable to anyone interested in health and longevity:

1. Eat seeds or foods made from seeds
2. Eat five different colored fruits and vegetables daily
3. Eat plant foods with their skins intact
4. Drink milk and eat milk products that come from animals
5. Eat foods that come from cold water
6. Eat meat, poultry, or eggs from free-range or grass-fed animals

There are no calculations here and nothing to write down. And you don’t have to be a slave to every word. You won’t sprout hair on your palms if you forget your five colors a day. These are guidelines and not commandments.

I will add another three:

7. There are no forbidden foods. No food will make you die tomorrow. Observe moderation
8. There are no superfoods. No food will impart immediate health and longevity
9. Anyone who tells you to avoid this one food! or to eat this one food! is selling you something

Stay healthy! Do you have any pithy tips for better health or relationships? Please drop a line and comment.


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Healthy Advice for a Long Life

Okay. I Was Wrong and Healthy Advice

I admit that I’ve been wrong. I’ve long argued that people know what healthy habits are and that we just don’t do them. So I was shocked, recently, when a friend told me that he traded his cake and candy snacks for a jar of peanuts each day. “I’m trying to eat healthy”, he says. “Huh? You’re eating a jar a day?” “Yeah”, he said. “Better than donuts, right.” Now he was shocked. “Probably not,” I said. “Good gawd. Do you know how many calories are in a jar of peanuts? Probably more calories than you need in an entire day. Dude, you’re going to end up weighing 300 pounds.” He didn’t believe me and grabbed the jar. Sure enough, the suggested serving size was one ounce or ‘about 29 peanuts’. That amount conferred 170 healthy calories. Multiply that by sixteen servings in the jar and you are inviting serious health issues. So don’t imagine that everyone knows the things that Agus writes about. They don’t. And few who do know what healthy means actually live by it.

We need good health advice but where to find it? The fact that my local Barnes and Noble bookstore reserves about fifty feet of shelf space for books offering conflicting advice isn’t a help. So when I find a book offering sane advice consistent with other sane advice, I’m happy to endorse and recommend it. A Short Guide to a Long Life is such a book.

No Fads or Magic. Just Healthy Advice

The book isn’t sexy and makes few promises. You will not be a skinny rich movie star pooping golden eggs after reading this book. But, even better, if you choose to do so, you can embark on a path to increased health and longevity. The book is small and short and this bothers some reviewers. I like that the book can be read in a couple hours. It makes it easy to grab from the shelf for a quick reminder o the path you’re on. In it Agus lists sixty-five tidbits under three headings: What to Do, What to Avoid, and Doctor’s Orders. I’m sorry but there is nothing new, novel, or earth-shattering here. No magic pills or secret Chinese bulbs that will keep you in perfect health until age 150. What you will find is very excellent advice in all areas of health and well-being. Advice that is time-tested and accurate. Advice that actually will help you live longer and happier.

There is a good bit of Grandma’s advice here – grow a garden, don’t skip breakfast, have children (!) – but lots of new stuff, too, like scheduling your life on computer or getting a DNA screen. I especially liked the What to Avoid section where he slays a host of health myths: forget juicing (“Does your body really need ten carrots all at once?”), ignore `detoxes’, and no, GMOs are not going to kill you and your children.

I think this is a wonderfully handy little guide that makes a useful reference. Two thumbs way up. Read it all the way through or read a chapter and then work on it for a week. Either way will lead you to better health.

Purchase here on Amazon.

David Agus at the Aspen Ideas Festival: Look At The Data
David Agus, MD homepage here
More good advice here from Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva


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In Defense of Food – Excellent Documentary on Sensible Eating

The healthy eating mantra
The healthy eating mantra


If you think chugging a charcoal milkshake makes sense then you probably won’t get much out of this post. If you chase after superfoods and avoid putatively cancer laden staples then you’re probably in the wrong place, too. There are plenty of sites that shill everything from charcoal to fermented who-knows-what that are more exciting and happy to take your money. If you are interested in livable, sensible advice about food and health then we should get along fine.

I try to consciously eat, move, and live in a way that promotes good health and longevity. It’s never glamorous nor is it always easy – I’ve yet to meet a pastry or hot dog that I don’t like and much of the food industry sets itself against me. Like everyone else, I am busy and have two girls who will only eat a handful of ‘foods’. I know it’s not the most healthy option for me or for my family but I buy convenience foods and snacks and the kids live on chicken nuggets and noodles. I have no beef with grocery stores or industrial food plants and take lone responsibility for my health.

I have always liked Micheal Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I like what he says because he just makes so much sense. He’s not inflammatory. He’s not chasing. He’s not selling the latest and greatest nor is he warning us that eating this will put in the cancer ward in a year. His focus is on good food and from there touches on all things related to it including nutrition, economics, and family. He comes across to me as a wise friend who encourages me to just try something – if I like it great! If not then that’s okay too.

If any of this resounds with you then you might like to watch the documentary In Defense of Food. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking hour and a half that looks at food from dirt to grocery to plate. They show how urban kids in last chance schools, given a garden and help growing vegetables, learn how to cook and enjoy eating what they grow. The French Paradox is explored: how is it that the French dine on fat, pastry, and wine and are more healthy than we are in the US? (Hint – they eat small meals, don’t snack, and relish fresh food).  I was fascinated with the segment where several people were brought in a room for a pasta taste test. They grabbed plates, spooned up portions, and then discovered that the food was only lukewarm. The ‘hosts’ apologized and brought out another pot with new – slightly smaller – plates. The same folks dished up and each one put less on the plate. Sounds easy and self-evident? Then why not try it?  In a similar exercise of social engineering, a high school sorted food in its cafeteria line from healthier to less so. Kids filled their plates with the healthy first and found less room for less healthy alternatives. In a very short time, the school went from needing 25 pounds of carrots a week for carrot sticks to 75. No one complained and no one demanded more space for pizza. This kind of engineering is foisted on us every day by food companies. They spend millions of dollars each year on advertising, packaging, and lobbying to put more and more food in front of us for more profit. Pollan also addresses meat since he’s been beaten up by both vegans and carnivores for the ‘Mostly plants’ part of his healthy mantra. He clarifies that he’s not against eating meat and that meat can be healthy and enjoyable. It’s the amount of meat we eat that is unhealthy. Be sure to watch for the surgeons pulling solidified cholesterol from a clogged artery – that in itself might help change your habits as much as any sage or sane advice.

I haven’t a clue how long the documentary will run but if the brain health or Wayne Dyer shows are any indication if you miss them this time they will be back.



Cooking at home – always better – even desserts!


Even these are better for you if cooked at home.
Even these are better for you if cooked at home.

It is increasingly clear that food is the primary driver of health and there is hardly any one thing you can do to improve your health and relationship with food that is more valuable than cooking at home. Even foods that aren’t quite as good for you, like the donuts shown here, are better for you if cooked at home.

There is some downside. Cooking at home requires more time to shop and more time for cooking but can be offset by the time saved eating out or driving to the fast-food joint. Meal planning helps by cutting out time spent wandering through the aisles wondering what to buy. If you lay heavy on expensive meats or fish then cooking at home can be expensive but there are alternatives. Go meatless for a couple of nights each week. Extend meat purchases by not making them the centerpiece of the meal but by adding them to pasta or rice. And you can start slow. If you don’t normally cook at home, don’t know what to cook, or even how to cook then pick one night a week to start. Remember – you’ve spent a lifetime developing the habits and tastes that you have. They won’t change overnight. Feel free to take it slow. Just be sure to get on the train.


Obviously tangible benefits…

1. You know you ingredients

When eating out or when cooking from boxes you’re at the mercy of the restaurant or manufacturer. You hope the restaurant is clean, sanitary, and uses only the most fresh ingredients. My intuition and people sense tells me that this isn’t always true. And Gordon Ramsay makes me feel as comfortable about restaurant pantries as the movie Jaws makes me feel about swimming in the ocean. I’m even less confident about boxed foods. I know what’s in there and not much of it is food. Learn to enjoy the farmer’s market and stick to the outer rim of the grocer’s where they usually keep real food. Wander into the inner aisles at risk.

2. You can control portions

I’m not lying. I went to a restaurant recently and ordered a hamburger. What came out to me was a plate-sized hunk of beef stuck between two huge pieces of bread. Every liquid condiment known to man was slapped onto this behemoth. I ate about a quarter of it and tossed the rest. Then fasted for the rest of the day. You can avoid this at home. Of course, you can always go back for more but that’s another issue. A rule of thumb is that a ‘portion’ is about the size of your palm.

3. You can control nutrients

You don’t have to become a nutritionist but learn how to jumble the mix of carbs, proteins, and fats that you want. It’s not that difficult with real food. Work on reducing processed wheat and sugars.

4. You can address allergies and sensitivities

I have a daughter with nut allergies and a sensitivity to dairy. She has a hair-trigger – when peanut butter touches her tongue, whatever is in her stomach immediately comes up. If she eats more than a few bits of cheese or drinks milk we know that within a couple of hours – when the bacteria in her large intestine start feasting on undigested lactose – she will be swollen and hurting. We are able to control all of this by cooking and eating at home. It’s not always convenient but neither is cleaning up vomit. (Read my post here on lactose intolerance.)

5. It can save money

There is a constant battle about whether or not healthy eating costs more or less than providing the average American diet. It’s a case where it’s essential to look at what is being purchased. We eat lots of rice and throw in a lot of vegetables. We go two or three days a week without meat. We skimp on chips and snacks and no one drinks soda. When we do buy meat, though, it’s high quality and often more expensive. We love fish and buy fresh cuts of cold water fish – more expensive where we live. And when we want a dessert even a bag of chocolate chips for baking cookies costs three bucks – Oreos are probably cheaper. My guess is that we spend a little less than the average American family with kids. But we are both willing to spend a little more for a more healthy diet.  Even for fish and expensive meats, though, I find that by eating less at one sitting and spreading that pound sized fillet over a couple of nights you can extend your expense.

A little less tangible…

6. It’s easy and less expensive to try new things.

How many times have you been out to eat and passed on trying something different because if you don’t like it you will be hungry and poor? So try it at home. Substitute parsnips for carrots. We’ve learned to love mashed sweet potatoes. Give quinoa a try (it’s great.) One piece of advice I found somewhere was that I can cut sugars in half when cooking and still get the sweetness so on those times when I make deserts they can at least be a little more healthy.

The family has changed a bit but the value of the table hasn't
The family has changed a bit but the value of the table hasn’t

7. Family time

Remember that intangibles are as important for health as more obvious choices. Include the family in cooking and in eating together. My girls love to help and the mess and clean up is worth the time together. Take time to teach the family what healthy food looks like. Get them on board. If you are older – like me – then help them to recognize early how important health is so they don’t have to start over when they are your age.

8. But be careful…

Cooking at home – while healthier in almost every aspect – is not carte blanche permission to gorge on healthy chocolate chip cookies. This is a trap that I willingly fall into thinking that since I just ran five miles, well, those cookies are made with honey instead of sugar, certainly, a handful won’t hurt… Yes, they might be healthier than store-bought cookies moderation is still the key.


The purpose of food?

Unless you’re French and believe that the primary purpose of food is pleasure there are two needs that food fulfills but only one is ever talked about.  If you read anything about food you know that carbs, proteins, and fats all power your body. Fight it out however you want. Dietary science continues to uphold the fuzzy logic that humans are resilient when it comes to food, that there are no foods that will kill you and none that are super foods. Eat lots of different foods, avoid processed when possible, and eat lots of plants. You’ll be fine.

What you will very rarely hear about is the role of food in providing nutrition. While every cell of your body requires fuel for cellular functions they also require other chemicals. (Yes, nutrients are chemicals!) Many chemicals – minerals and vitamins – are cell, function, or organ specific while others are needed throughout the body. Many are needed in very small amounts and their use is complex and interconnected with other processes making their requirements difficult to understand. A lot of research goes into figuring out just what each person needs but the advice to eat as many different kinds of whole foods in as natural a state as possible is a good.

So when you’re sorting out just what kind of protein drink you need after your HIIT workout or whether or not you should pour turbinado or stevia into your morning tea take a little time to think about the chemicals you need to perform all day long and how our fuel choices provide the chemicals you need. Carbs, fats, and proteins are only half the story.

See the USDA good nutrition and meal prep page here.
Recent post about nutritional silly business – downing charcoal.
My post with guidelines for avoiding food hucksters here.

Is picky eating a childhood disorder? Maybe. Probably not.

Picky eaters? I’m not worried.

I have twin seven year-old girls. One girl eats – or will at least taste – most foods. She’s a pastanista, loves hot dogs, and happily munches on broccoli. The other girl is more picky. She has just recently expanded her repertoire of whole wheat waffles or pancakes with jam to include whole wheat bread and jam. She loves mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, certain yogurts, couscous, and milk. That pretty much sums it up. Is she on a path that leads to clinical anxiety and depression? New research says possibly. But I’m not worried.

I’ve never bothered much with any of my kid’s eating habits. I’ve taken a firm stance to never take a firm stance. Children grow up to be normally eating adults and I have just never understood the “Dammit! I put in on your plate and now you’re going to eat it!” mentality. I’ve always thought that kids will eat when they are hungry and I simply refuse to fight about it. While my feelings are entirely anecdotal, Dr. Nancy Zucker, of Duke University, has recently published research (here) that says that I’m missing an important nuance. While generally upholding my sense that picky eating is normal, she finds that for a small group of children this picky or selective eating (SE) can lead to more serious behavioral concerns.

She defines selective eaters as people who:

  • Restrict eating of certain food
  • Have strong food preferences
  • Are unwilling to try new foods
  • Eat a limited amount

If you think this describes you or your child then you’ve noted one question I have about her findings. The definition is just too broad. But she adds that selective eaters can have difficulty in eating with others. Not because they don’t get along with others but because they eat such a limited menu. In more extreme cases, selective eaters find it difficult to remain at the table with certain foods, so strong is their repulsion.

She begins her assessment with a group of just over 900 children, aged 24-71 months, screened out of a population of about 4,500 who attend the Duke Children’s Pediatric Primary Care Clinics. After initial selection, a questionnaire for each child was completed and then followed by in-home parent interviews. Children were scored according to their level of voluntary selective eating. Children with no restricted intake other than foods like broccoli that almost all children hate, were coded with a “0”. Those who only ate foods ‘within the range of his/her preferred foods’ scored a “1”. And those for whom ‘eating with others was difficult because of the extreme limited range’ [of food preference] were scored a “2”. “0” correlates to normal, “1” to having moderate SE, “2” to severe SE. Truth be told I’ve met about three kids in my life who didn’t care about what they ate. Moderate SE seems much more normal to me. If not normal then certainly more common.

About 20% of the children screened exhibited moderate SE. Only 3% showed severe SE. Parental behaviors were noted as well: mothers of children with moderate SE were more likely to have sought psychiatric treatment for themselves than mothers of children with severe SE. Both moderate and severe SE children had mothers with ‘high maternal anxiety’. Children with moderate SE were more likely to have mothers with a history of drug use and children with severe SE were more likely to be female. Children exhibiting either moderate or severe SE had a higher correlation with depression, anxiety, and ADHD than normal eaters. There is statistical evidence that many kids with moderate or severe SE will grow out of it as part of normal eating and growth patterns.

Parents of these children are often accused by friends and even by health officials of being overly accommodating to their children’s petulant demands but Zucker argues that this isn’t a power play on the part of the child. She writes that while causative links between SE and anxiety disorders are unknown it’s possible that there is a correlation between a heightened food or taste awareness and a heightened awareness of surroundings causing anxiety. This anxiety about surroundings could exhibit in a child’s desire to control the sameness of their environment to the extent possible. Follow-up studies show that children with moderate or severe SE are 1.7 times likely to exhibit anxiety disorders as they age. Zucker suggests that we should drop the dismissive label of a child as a picky eater and recognize that food avoidance can be a true physiological disorder.

I have my normal concerns over this research just as I do about anything from the social sciences¹. The numbers tend to be fuzzy. The results would be difficult to reproduce and generally impossible to falsify. The old research saw that if humans are involved then you’ve got problem is a concern. But Zucker makes a strong case and the statistics show clear significance. She is not investigating causal mechanisms but, per the abstract, is hoping to understand SE enough ‘to guide health care providers to recognize when SE is a problem worthy of intervention’. She argues well that further investigation can be warranted for both child and family when food choices block normal development and normal interactions.

So should you force your kids to eat those tomatoes? No. The number of children who exhibit severe SE is low – three percent of those observed in this study. Most children are food averse to a degree and most do grow out of it as they grow up, hang out with friends, and change physically. But her research argues that for a few children for whom eating is a true challenge then early behavioral intervention might very well be helpful. So if your four year-old can’t even be in the same room as a sliced tomato? Might be time to consider talking to someone.

What do you think? Do you have experience with picky eaters? Do you have hint to help other parents cope?

Dr. Nancy Zucker. Photo from Duke Medicine
Dr. Nancy Zucker. Photo from Duke Medicine

Note 1: NYT: Many Psychology Findings Not As Strong As Claimed

Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers with Selective Eating, Pediatrics

Nancy Zucker, PhD, webpage at Duke Medicine here. A recommended source for a host of research regarding eating and health.

Selective Eating: The Role of Sensitivity, Gut Feelings, and Disgust. A presentation by N. Zucker, 2014.

Picky Eating in Children Linked to Anxiety, Depression, and A.D.H.D. Nice write up at the NYT from Rachel Rabkin Peachman

The Next Big Thing! Activated Charcoal. Save your money.

Have lemon with your briquette?
Have lemon with your briquette?

I was wrong. In my last post about science-based nutrition, I guessed that fermented mango rind would be the next pseudo-science superfood.  It was just a matter of putting three words together and making something up. That’s basically the same formula supplement sales companies use. But an email from Dave Asprey – Bulletproof salesman extraordinaire – caught me off guard. The Next Big Thing is charcoal. And not just charcoal – you can buy that at Ace Hardware for a few bucks a bag. Nutrition grade activated charcoal. Since getting the email from Bulletproof urging me to act now before the stock runs dry I’ve seen several other purveyors of questionable goods hop on the band wagon.

Activated charcoal is charcoal that has been crushed and heated to expand and create a very large surface area. Sorry but it’s no more exciting than that. Charcoal does have a couple unique qualities. Qualities that have made it the go-to of last resort for poison control centers and radiation health physicists for a century. It is full of holes like a microscopic piece of Swiss cheese and it is ionic which means that it is electrically charged. Being charged means that it acts something like a sweater with static electricity – other things, toxic chemicals putatively, that are charged, will bind to it.

The Bulletproof site has a short paper with references outlining the benefits of charcoal. But the references are old – up to forty years – and are marginally applicable. There is nothing wrong with forty-year-old research as long as it applies and has been vetted with newer or more robust research. But there is very little research regarding ingestion of charcoal as most people never imagined that pill hucksters would sell the stuff as a health supplement. Charcoal is used to lessen the effects of poisoning and ingesting radioactive materials. In those cases, it is taken as a liquid at a rate of five times charcoal to the volume of poison ingested. Common dosages on the pseudo-science nutrition pages are right around 25-100 grams for adults. Keep in mind that a 100 grams equals about a quarter pound of charcoal. That is an amazing – amazingly bad judgment – three to four charcoal briquettes. I see, too, that several sites list dosages for children. Dave Aspery, on his sales page for charcoal provides this nugget:

When my young kids (4 and 6 years old) suddenly drop into uncharacteristic fits of whining or tantrums, especially after snacks at a friend’s house, activated charcoal brings them back to normal within about 10 minutes. It is amazing to watch.

This bothers me on several levels. Asprey claims that he’s neither a scientist nor a nutritionist but just a guy trying things out and reporting on what works for him. He certainly makes a strong argument for the former here. As for his kid’s behavior? If true then my guess is that doping them with chemicals when they act like children scares the crap out of them so they shape up.

How does charcoal work when given for poison ingestion? As stated above you would be administered a drink that contains charcoal at an approximate ratio of 5 parts charcoal to 1 part poison. It will absorb anything as it flows through your stomach and into the intestines. Not just toxins but nutrients as well. It can cause intestinal blockage and is often administered with a laxative so that it doesn’t linger in your intestine. It can cause vomiting which, if used for poison relief, is fine. Doctors just want the poisons out and they’re not concerned about which end it does the expelling. For personal use, I’m not sure which sounds worse: black stools or black vomit. Please note that ingesting charcoal will do nothing for anything outside of your digestive tract. It will not clear ‘brain fog’, will not chelate metals, and will not bind serum cholesterol. Really. Just get healthy, eat healthily and let your body do its work. It’s a wonderful machine.

In reading the scant research my opinion is that, like most shilled non-nutritive stuff people shove down their throat, activated charcoal is harmless and ineffective at anything other than making your stools black.  One study indicates a statistical decrease in key nutrients in apple juice when mixed with activated charcoal but I don’t see that this has any frightening application. The amounts used aren’t enough to cause any nutritive imbalance. Poison centers urge that you contact them first prior to self-medicating with briquettes. And if you really want to improve your life with carbon then invest in diamonds.  You get a much better return on investment. This is what the people selling this stuff are doing.