August 25, 2012

Not Rocket Science.

I know – strange name for a blog about nutrition and health, right? Maybe not as strange as you think.

Why “Not Rocket Science”? Well, ‘cuz it’s not! Despite what you might think, you don’t need to be a card-carrying genius to make good choices about food.

See, sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. This is especially true when it comes to food, health, and weight loss. After all, if it were easy, why would bookstores have entire sections dedicated to these subjects? Why would it be so difficult to find answers when we’re practically drowning in a sea of information? Low fat, low carb, low sodium…lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! We read a magazine article about nutrition one day and then a website we trust says the complete opposite the day after. No wonder we think it’s so complicated!

The truth is, it isn’t. There are some simple principles that can guide us to lifelong robust physical and mental health. All it takes is a little knowledge of how foods work inside the body, and how the other inputs—like sleep, movement, and stress management—can influence which foods we eat, and how they help or hinder the way we respond to those foods.

Through this blog, I’ll be sharing just enough science to help things to make sense, but I promise, no PhD required! With a very basic understanding of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry, the foods that are best to eat and best to avoid become obvious. Even the most effective ways to exercise and good strategies for relaxing reveal themselves when we know just a little about our own bodies. Making smart decisions in supermarkets, restaurants, your company picnic—anywhere—doesn’t have to be rocket science.

Notice I said it’s simple. I didn’t say it’s easy. 

What’s the difference? Well, think of running a marathon. Finishing a marathon is simple—all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other. Do that for 26.2 miles and you get to the finish line. But it isn’t easy, right? If it was, more of us would do it. For us mere mortals, it takes months of training. Maybe we have to suffer through soreness from using muscles we didn’t even know we had. Maybe our skin chafes a lot, we get blisters, and maybe—possibly the most difficult part—we have to run when we don’t want to. We have to say no to friends' invitations to do something fun because we have to fit in a long run and this is the only day we can do it. We have to run in the rain, the snow, or the sweltering heat. We have to force ourselves to lace up our shoes (unless you’re one of those brave barefoot runners!) and run when we’d rather do anything but run. So it’s simple, but it sure ain’t easy!

The same goes for eating healthfully in our current food landscape. I’m not gonna lie—it’s a jungle out there! And while we do have access to plenty of foods you might find in a real jungle, like animals, green plants, and exotic fruits, we also have nearly unlimited access to things that look and maybe even taste like food, but aren’t so good for us to eat. They’re what the author Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.” After all, just because something’s edible—meaning we can chew it up and swallow it—doesn’t mean it’s food. And there are lots of things that really are foods, but aren’t quite the best foods we could be eating, and specific foods that are otherwise great to eat but don’t jive with our current goals of losing weight, relieving chronic pain, or whatever other issues we’re looking to support with nutrition.

Simple, but not easy. How else does this translate to food?

To borrow a brilliant line from Sean Croxton of Underground Wellness, it’s this simple:  JUST EAT REAL FOOD. (He calls it “JERF.” Great concept…wish there were a better acronym!)

The thing is, just eating real food is not easy. We’re surrounded by “products” that we’ve been eating for so long we don’t even realize they’re not food. I’ll save the technical details for future posts, but for now, it’s enough to say that if we can’t pronounce it and don’t have the slightest clue what it is, we probably shouldn’t be eating it. Now, granted, I don’t have to understand the ins and outs of electrical circuits to know that when I flip the switch on the wall, the light comes on. But we’re talking about our bodies here. The things we move around in all day, the things we’re supposed to keep in working order for upwards of 80+ years. We probably ought to know at least a little about what makes them work well and what makes them break down, right? We wouldn’t think of putting say, Vasoline, into our gas tanks. Is it petroleum? Yes. Is it gasoline? No. The same goes for so many of the “food products” lining supermarket shelves. Are they edible? Yes. Are they food? No.

One of the problems is that we’ve gotten so far away from what real food looks like, what it tastes like, and how to cook it. But take heart! All hope is not lost. There are a ton of great recipe sites out there to inspire kitchen creations as simple or as complex as you’d want to tackle. (Check here for just a few, and I’ll be sharing some of my own recipes and tips for identifying real food hidden among the posers here soon.)
But the much, much bigger problem, I think, is that we are absolutely surrounded by not real food. We’re inundated with foods that hit all the right emotional buttons but give us next to nothing of nutritional value:  donuts, cookies, cake, candy, and packaged pastries with shelf lives of approximately forever. Gas stations, office supply stores, shoe stores—seems like you can’t go anywhere without finding snack displays. And if you’re a corporate office cubicle-dwelling type, it’s always someone’s birthday, baby shower, or some other special event where our cultural automatic reaction is to fill ourselves with sweets.

But we know those foods aren’t good for us. We eat them once in a while because they’re treats. They only become a problem when we “treat” ourselves all the time and they become a normal part of our diet. So what about foods that we think are good for us or have heard for a long time are good for us, but maybe aren’t? Things like whole grain cereals, crackers, fat-free muffins, bread, and even certain organic foods? In future posts I’ll address the reasons why some of these “staples” of our diet aren’t right for everyone, and what we could be eating instead.

So, before this post gets too long (I’m there already, I know!), let’s get back to why this is Not Rocket Science.

Remember that marathon example? We said running a marathon is simple, but not easy, and neither is just eating real food. Same goes for exercising, relaxing, and feeling joyful. It’s “simple” to get outside and go for a walk, or to pick up a couple of heavy things, but it’s not easy to do that after a long day when you’re wiped out and all you want to do is crash on the couch with some takeout. It’s “simple” to step away from your desk for a few minutes and take a couple deep breaths, but it’s not easy to do when you have deadlines looming, a day jam-packed with meetings, and the phone ringing off the hook. It’s simple to pick up your guitar, curl up with a good book, or do whatever else makes you feel joy, but it’s not easy when you’ve got to make dinner for the family, throw in a laundry, and run that errand you forgot about yesterday.

Do you see it? It’s almost like the modern world doesn’t want us to be healthy. Things conspire against us at every turn. It seems like we have to fight just to hang on to our health and sanity.

But the truth is, we don’t. It doesn’t have to be a struggle. It doesn’t have to be an uphill battle.

The way to help things move from simple à easy is with good ol’ KISS:  keep it simple, stupid. We don’t need to read hundreds of books about diet, exercise, stress relief, and self-improvement. We need to remember what real food is, how good it can taste, how good it feels to move and challenge our bodies, and how peaceful we feel when we make time—even just a little!—for the things we enjoy.

Stay with me, and I’ll show you that even though it’s not easy, it’s not rocket science, either.

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