Investing in Yourself: Diet

investRecently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks.

Just a week ago, I touted the benefits of investing in yourself via exercise, and it met with a lot of interesting discussion, including the astute point that exercise and diet are two halves of the same coin when it comes to managing your short-term and long-term health.

It’s true: the food you eat every day has a profound effect on your long term health. High-calorie and high-fat foods might be convenient now, but that time you save right now is taken away from you at the end of your life as a result of unhealthy eating. Even more so, bad eating reduces the quality of your daily life even now in your healthy years. It’s easy to witness this effect – try eating very healthy for a few days and you’ll notice a significant change in how you feel. I often notice it after just one meal – a very healthy breakfast (oatmeal and/or fresh fruits) makes a huge difference for me.

I’m not talking about dieting for weight loss here – I’m talking about eating well for a lifetime of good health. Such eating usually results in weight loss, especially as you transition to it from less healthy eating, but the best way to invest in yourself with your diet is to eat naturally nutritious foods in a balanced fashion.

But what is a nutritious diet? This concept has been heavily marketed over the last decade or so, often to the point that it’s hard for the average consumer to separate fact from perception. I’ve read a lot of books related to food over the last several years (and I’ve discussed a few on here, including In Defense of Food and

Volumetrics) and I’ve found that time and time again, a few basic principles are all you really need to cover your bases for a healthy diet.

Prepare more food at home.
At a restaurant of any kind, you’re relying on the food preparers to make selections for you and their primary interest is providing a tasty meal at a fair cost (with different levels of taste and cost depending on the establishment). Most restaurants aren’t really concerned in the least about the long-term health implications of the food you eat – they’re mostly just concerned that it’s tasty and that it pleases you in the short term.

When you prepare food at home, you have more control over the stuff you put into your body. You can make choices that lead towards a healthier lifestyle. When you make pasta, you can substitute in whole wheat – or even make some of your own. You can choose from a wide variety of spaghetti sauces, or else boil up some tomatoes yourself. You can buy a cheap loaf of bread, an artisan loaf, or make one yourself from just a handful of ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, and yeast).

Here are some tips if you’re afraid to make that leap.

how-to-cook-everything.jpgGet a cookbook that focuses on teaching technique with a gentle hand. My favorite cookbook along these lines is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. If there’s something basic that I’m unfamiliar with, this is the book I turn to for tips on getting started. Better yet, Bittman’s recipes tend to lean toward the healthy side (for the most part) and are quite simple to follow.

At first, focus on simple stuff that you’ll find tasty. Don’t try to make something intriguing but nearly impossible right off the bat. Also, don’t decide that the day you’re going to start cooking at home is the day you’re going vegan. Start off making comfort foods, even if they’re not the most healthy dishes you can make, and choose ones that aren’t overly complex. For me, spaghetti with a tomato sauce is the perfect meal for people just starting to cook at home – it’s very simple to prepare in its basic form, most of the stuff you’ll need is easy to acquire, and when you want to start kicking it up in complexity and healthiness (making sauce or pasta or breadsticks from scratch), the basic form is very adaptable.

Eat more vegetables, especially leafy ones.
Our bodies are designed to eat more fruits and vegetables than meat. This harkens back to our hunter-gatherer days, where our diets would consist of mostly gathered fruits, nuts, and vegetables and an occasional large helping of meat when a hunt would be successful. Millions of years of adaptation attuned our biochemistry to this – only in the last few hundred years has our diet changed significantly from that basic structure.

Eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, especially fresh ones. Try everything. You’ll find some you like and some you don’t – that’s okay. Just make sure you’re not eating the same vegetable over and over or it will get boring (and it’s not particularly the most healthy choice, either). You’ll also find some stuff that surprises you – my parents both hated okra and so I never tried it until I was in my mid-twenties, when I discovered that I quite liked it.

Eat at least one salad a day. I really, really enjoy a basic salad (lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, etc.) with a bit of ranch or blue cheese dressing on it. It’s a very healthy thing to eat, very easy to prepare, and not very expensive, either. We eat one as part of our evening meal almost every night and I occasionally eat one as my lunch, too.

Eat a larger portion of vegetables than meat at any given meal. It’s not very fair to give an exact amount for each one because there are so many variables, but you can rarely go wrong with simply making sure there are more vegetables on your plate than there is meat. Keep that as a constant rule of thumb and you’ll be doing fine.

Avoid heavily processed foods.
Again, the logic for this harkens back to the foods that our bodies are biochemically adapted to eat. We’re made to eat the nutrients found in fresh foods, not the ones found in heavily processed foods. Here are a few things to keep your eye out for.

High-fructose corn syrup appears in a lot of foods. It’s a sugar substitute in many industrial foods because it’s cheaper, easy to blend, and leads to a long shelf life. Because of these properties, HFCS appears in abundance in expected foods and even pops up in significant quantities in food you wouldn’t expect. The consequence of this is that it raises your sweetener intake significantly – and increased sugar intake is not a good thing. You’re far better off just sticking with naturally-occurring sugars – if you need a sugar fix, eat an orange or a banana and avoid foods with HFCS.

Startling health claims are usually a sure sign that a food has been significantly altered in an industrial process, quite often with additives of some sort that are very hard to figure out from the label. Don’t buy a processed food because it has plant sterols added to it – just go eat a vegetable instead.

A large number of ingredients that you can’t easily identify is another sign of serious processing. Again, staple foods have all of the nutritional value that a person needs, so why would you consume this stuff, especially if you don’t know what it is? When you buy a food, check the ingredients label and if you start seeing a lot of stuff you don’t know, reconsider putting it into your body unless you’ve done the research on this stuff.

Buy foods from people who care about food quality.
The best way to buy food is to buy it from other people: people you can talk to and can tell you how it was made or grown or produced. Around here, I’m a big fan of the local Picket Fences Creamery. They’re local, give public tours pretty much whenever you want, maintain a blog, have “Sample Sundays” where you can stop by and try lots of the things they make, and generally wear their passion for what they do on their sleeve. They make a quality product out in the open that I can witness and know what goes into the food.

Buy local. Whenever you have a chance, buy your food from a local source, particularly one where you can literally visit the place where the food came from and follow it every step along the way. This way, you know exactly what’s in that food. You can carry that even further and have a garden yourself.

Attend a farmer’s market. I love our local farmers market – I get a lot of produce there during the right season and I’ve even considered selling something there a few times. Here are some tips for newcomers – the best advice I can give is to just go, see what’s there, and talk to people. You might even consider getting involved in a co-op, where you pay for a share of a farm and in exchange they deliver vegetables to you on a regular basis.

Set time aside for meals if at all possible, and avoid eating on the run.
One of the true highlights of my day is dinner with my family. We all sit around the dinner table – even my six month old daughter in her high chair – and we eat together with conversation. My wife and I talk about politics and current events, my son tells us about his day’s adventures at daycare (usually involving a blue truck), and my daughter usually passes around a lot of smiles and gurgles at everyone.

Taking the time to devote to food is not only spiritually fulfilling, but it can be beneficial to your diet as well.

Never eat alone. Dinner conversation is the single best way to keep you from bolting down your food. Get engaged in the conversation and eat the meal slowly – you’ll find yourself enjoying the food more and not eating as much of it.

If you must eat on the road, avoid places where they bring the food directly to your car. It’s a pretty safe rule of thumb that food preparation that is put directly into your car is probably not the healthiest choice to make. If you do have to eat on the run, bring something from home or stop at a grocery store to get something remotely healthy. A drive-thru is a dangerous place for your health, no matter how yummy it is.

In a nutshell, I think Michael Pollan nails it when he says “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Live by that and you’ll be all right.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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