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Getting real about food choices

As a nutrition columnist, I'm probably more aware of the need to make healthful food choices than a lot of folks out there. But does that mean I always choose wisely?

Of course not. My food choices are sometimes guided by whim or circumstance or convenience, by what I'm craving or what I happen to have on hand, or sometimes they're simply perverse and random.

But my Me Minus 10 journey -- I'm trying to drop 10 pounds before my 50th birthday -- has taught me that it's best to have some kind of guiding principle in mind to help you sort through the impossible array of foods that surround us and decide which ones to put in your mouth. (Dr. Pam Peeke, one of the wonderful people who has been advising me during my weight-loss campaign, told me at the get-go that my eating was "chaotic.") It doesn't necessarily have to be rigid or detailed: Just a simple tool you can use whenever you're making up your mind about what to eat.

There are many guiding principles to choose from. You can decide to eat vegetarian or vegan foods exclusively, or to do so once a week. You can opt to go all-organic, or choose to buy organic versions of certain foods. You can say you're going to cook and eat at home all the time, or you can say you'll get takeout every Saturday. You can go low-carb, low-fat, sugar-free, or whatever works for you.

With my weight-loss goal in mind, Dr. Peeke suggested I start thinking of food as fuel for my body and its activities, including its production of muscle. To that end, she suggested lots of lean protein paired with fiber-rich foods. Bread and full-fat cheese, former staples of my diet, aren't the most efficient fuels, I've learned, so I rarely choose them any more. Instead, eating small portions of lean protein with huge servings of vegetables and snacking on fresh fruit and high-fiber, low-calorie crisp breads with a little peanut butter or Laughing Cow cheese through the day has helped me lose weight while feeling full, satisfied and never deprived.

And here's how a guiding principle serves me: When I grocery shop and when I'm preparing meals and snacks, I always stop and ask how well the food at hand will fuel my body. If there's not a good reason to buy it or eat it, I don't.

This week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column is about a novel way to organize your eating. The new book "Real Food Has Curves" by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough sets up a distinction between "real" food and processed, packaged stuff that's not "real" at all. Between those two ends of the spectrum are foods that are more or less real, according to the ingredients they contain and how much they've been processed. It's a handy and sensible way to navigate the grocery store. The authors say that when they learned to eat more real food, they lost weight and just plain started feeling healthier.

What about you? Do you have a guiding principle that steers you toward healthful food choices? Please share with me and your fellow readers!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 25, 2010; 8:40 AM ET
Categories:  Me Minus 10 , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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I realize that "Real Food has Curves" is a book for sale and you don't want to deprive the authors of their deserved income. However, it would be nice to know, in general terms, what makes food real and what makes it unreal; by their standards.

Posted by: Bill_Earl | May 25, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I like the "guiding principles" idea. I tend to do better this way -- otherwise, I gravitate toward stuff that isn't so good for me. I've used the Atkins/South Beach approaches this way in the past. More recently, I've been intrigued by Bittman's "vegan until 6 PM" approach; I do tend to like meats and cheeses too much, so while I can't go full-on vegan, focusing on vegetarian options until dinner has me eating a little less of the heavy stuff overall.

Of course, it's not a hard-line rule; heck, this morning, I gave in to temptation and had a couple of sausages for breakfast. But having that basic structure in place changes my thinking around -- now, when I look in the fridge, I only really "see" the stuff that is within my guidelines. And when I deviate from those choices, it is knowing and intentional and planned in advance -- like when we went out to my favorite restaurant to celebrate our anniversary a week ago.

Maybe most important, it gets me out of that "diet" mindset, where one "cheat" means failure, and your brain starts telling you to give it up because you'll never make it. Now it's just How I Eat; when I give myself permission to go "off," I know that I'll just automatically pick it back up again the next morning -- none of the guilt, failure, shame, etc.

Posted by: laura33 | May 25, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

PS -- I totally couldn't do the "real food" approach, because my biggest downfalls are all "real" foods!

Posted by: laura33 | May 25, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I ask myself, above all, is the food vegan? If it isn't I won't eat it. This is for animal rights and I believe that this rule should never be broken. Next, which food is supplying nutrients that I might be low on? If I've already had several fruit servings that day, I will choose something else. Of course, if I am truly craving something unhealthy I will have it, but then I will be sure to make time to enjoy it.

Posted by: VeganRunner | May 25, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad that you are finally covering this in your articles on nutrition. The supposed "healthy" versions (low-fat, low-carb, et al) are just crutches.

I've taken the real food for at least 10 years, but more seriously in the past 4, and have never been healthier. I drink whole milk, and have phenomenal bone density (or at least we figured that out when I had to have teeth pulled). I use as much French grey or Bahamian sea salt as I want, and have low blood pressure. I eat nitrate free bacon, and my cholesterol levels are great. Oh, and I've finally been able to maintain an ideal weight. Something I found hard to do when I was constantly monitoring fat grams. I monitor ingredients, and what ethical standards were adhered to in producing said food.

Posted by: MzFitz | May 25, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

My rule is to try to choose less processed foods over more processed foods. In other words, fresh veggies, fruits and quality meats, used to cook meals from scratch, over prepared foods. For prepared foods, fewer ingredients (and fewer ingredients I cannot pronounce or identify) v. more. The benefit--it tastes better, I enjoy my food more, but I eat less of it because it takes less to feel satisfied. If I'm going to eat something "bad" for me, I eat the real thing--full-fat cheese v. low-fat--and get the highest quality I can afford, because I need less of the real thing to feel satisfied.

Posted by: Katya2 | May 26, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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