Topic: Common Sense Nutrition

The Ten Simple Rules of Common Sense Nutrition

Never before has a society had so much available information on health, fitness, and nutrition, and never before has a society been so unhealthy, out of shape, and obese as ours has become. If you’re confused by the myriad of nutrition advice being provided in books, magazines, and on the airwaves today, and if you are interested in a common sense approach to eating that will help you lose weight, be healthier, and is sustainable for the rest of your life, let me recommend the following ten guidelines.

Eat in moderation
Moderation doesn’t refer to a specific amount of food or certain number of calories daily. Rather, it refers to a general attitude of restraint with regard to eating, an attitude that is content with a sufficient amount of food to support a healthy lifestyle. This amount will vary according to each individual’s circumstances. For instance, a marathoner with no excess body fat and running fifty miles per week will require more food to fuel his daily activities than a sedentary office worker who is fifty pounds overweight. Moderation means being able to stop when you feel full and slowing down long enough to determine when you reach that point. To eat in moderation means being able to resist the urge to get a second piece of cake and to choose extra steamed vegetables instead of additional mashed potatoes.

To eat in moderation, we need to be familiar with portion sizes. Some books and diet plans get very detailed in describing portion sizes, but we’re not interested in going on a diet, we are trying to adjust our eating habits for a lifetime of healthy eating. Most foods that you consume will fall into one of two categories: carbohydrate or protein. Carbohydrates are things like fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta and rice. These last three items are starches, and you will need to particularly control consumption of them if you hope to lose weight. Proteins are meat and eggs. A serving of carbs is roughly the size of your closed fist. A serving of protein is roughly the size of the palm of your hand.

A simple way of applying moderation in your eating habits is to divide your plate into fourths. Two-fourths (or half the plate) should be covered with fruits and vegetables. One-fourth of your plate should be set aside for protein, and the last fourth can be used for starches (e.g. bread, baked potato, or pasta). If you needs seconds because you still aren’t full, try to limit yourself to extra fruits and vegetables. Leave off extra starches. Additional protein is also acceptable, especially if you are in the habit of regular strength training.

Rarely consume empty calories
An empty calorie is any food or drink that serves no practical, nutritional purpose. This would include sodas which contain loads of sugar or sugar substitutes but fail to nourish or adequately hydrate the human body. Other examples of empty calories would be sugary breakfast cereals or candy bars. Many people in the South drink sweet tea throughout the day, but this is basically sugar water and does more harm to the body than good. Empty calories should be saved for cheat days (see rule #9) and special occasions. If you make a habit of regularly consuming these empty calories, they will likely catch up to you in the form of blood sugar problems, weight gain, and poor health.

Limit sweet and/or fatty desserts to one meal per week
This rule isn’t hard to understand. There is no reason to consume sweet, fatty desserts (e.g. cookies, cake, ice cream, etc.) more frequently than once per week.

Consume at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day
My primary complaint about popular low-carb diets is their restriction on raw, unsweetened fruits and vegetables. No one ever became fat eating raw, unsweetened fruits and veggies. Yes, fruits and some vegetables contain natural sugars, but they also consist of wholesome fiber and the nutrients that God created our bodies to run on. There is no reason to restrict carb intake from fruits and vegetables. Only manmade, refined carbs need to be restricted.
Common sense nutrition allows for unlimited daily consumption of raw, unsweetened fruits and vegetables. That doesn’t mean unlimited consumption of a squash and cheese casserole, or broccoli dipped in cheese sauce, or cooked apples sweetened with sugar. Those items need to be consumed in careful moderation, and they may need to be eliminated from your diet for a time until a healthy bodyweight is achieved. But raw, unsweetened fruits and veggies can be eaten whenever your body craves a snack or seconds at a meal. And you can eat these foods guilt-free confident that you are doing something good for your body.

Try to consume five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. For instance, you might eat a banana with breakfast, an apple and a salad of greens at lunch, and at least two servings of other vegetables at dinner. Choose vegetables with a variety of colors too.

Seek out whole grains
For centuries, bread has been one of the staples of human diets. Unfortunately, modern man has become accustomed to highly refined breads and starches that raise blood sugar levels and offer very little nutritive value. Whenever you plan to eat starches, seek out whole grain sources which provide better nutrition than their highly refined counterparts. For example, next time you make spaghetti, try whole-wheat pasta instead of regular. You might mix both whole-wheat and regular pasta in your dishes until you adjust to the heartier flavor. Once you adjust, I think you will find the whole-wheat spaghetti far more flavorful and satisfying. When purchasing bread, buy a whole-grain variety instead of the white bread you normally buy, even if your white bread is “fortified with vitamins and minerals.” Be careful, because not all products advertised as wheat are much better than white. Look for whole-wheat or whole-grain as the first ingredient on the label, and seek out products with 2-2.5 grams or more of fiber per serving.

Choose lean meats
You don’t have to become a vegetarian in order to become a healthy eater; vegetarianism is not necessarily the healthiest approach to eating anyway. You can practice good nutritional habits and still consume animal meat on a regular basis. What is important is selecting leaner meats that offer a good source of protein with limited saturated fats and cholesterol. Fish, chicken, venison, turkey, and lean beef (e.g. ground chuck or ground round). You might limit red meat to two to four meals per week. Fattier meats like pork should be consumed on a less frequent basis. The way meat is prepared also affects its nutritional value. Avoid fried foods as much as possible. Don’t console yourself with the thought that fried chicken is a healthier meal than a lean hamburger. It would be better to eat the hamburger. Processed meats like sausage and hot dogs are full of fat and chemicals and are high in sodium. Processed meats should be a rare indulgence. If you are a heart patient, you need to eliminate fatty and processed meats from your diet.

Whenever possible, choose the healthier alternative
Learn to read food labels. Not all reduced fat or fat-free foods are good for you. Some contain extra sodium, sugar, or other chemicals that can be harmful in the long run. Many others, however, are preferable alternatives to high fat foods. Whenever possible, choose the healthier food option. For example, iceburg lettuce offers little in the way of nutrition, but green leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, and spinach leaves are a great alternative for salads and side dishes, and they are more flavorful. Many low-fat or fat free salad dressings are good alternatives to high fat versions. If you can, order grilled chicken instead of fried, wholegrain bread instead of white, and a yogurt parfait instead of French fries. Choosing the healthier alternative is a general principle to remember whenever you’re about to eat a meal or snack. By applying this simple rule, you can make good choices about your food and drink and enjoy it guilt-free knowing that your decision was consistent with a healthier lifestyle.

Drink lots of water
Most people consume far too little water, especially during the heat of summer. Soda, tea and coffee cannot substitute for the hydrating goodness of water. Basic tap water is a perfectly acceptable source of drinking water in most places in the U.S., or you can buy a filtered water pitcher or water purifying system. Most humans need at least two quarts of water per day, and that daily amount should be increased if you spend time in the heat or engage in vigorous exercise. Two quarts of water is not as much as you may think. Get two one-quart water bottles, and fill each of them at the beginning of the day. Keep a bottle with you throughout the day, and sip from it regularly. Many people live in a constant state of mild to moderate dehydration. But adequate water consumption has so many benefits and is so easy to obtain, there is no reason not to get enough water during most days. Drink water with every meal. If you need to lose weight, drink a glass of water before to sit down to eat each meal. Increasing daily water intake is a simple but powerful tool to increase fat loss.

Give yourself one (reasonable) cheat day per week
Nobody enjoys a restrictive diet that makes them feel miserable when they follow it and guilty when they don’t. This is a major reason why most people are unsuccessful at losing weight long-term on a highly restrictive diet plan. But we’re talking about common sense nutrition, and common sense dictates periodic, reasonable indulgences in what we eat. After all, common sense nutrition is about an approach to healthy eating that will last a lifetime. Most of us don’t want to forgo ice cream sundaes or brownies forever.

One day per week, indulge yourself with a reasonable allotment of some of the foods you have avoided the other six days. Reasonable does not mean eating an entire large, deep dish pizza. Nor does reasonable include eating the entire half-gallon of ice cream in a twenty-four hour period. But if you want a burger and fries with a milkshake, okay. If you want to order pizza with your movie, go ahead. Remember not to entirely abandon the concept of moderation, but enjoy the food that you eat without feeling guilty. Once your body has adjusted to a healthy eating plan, you may find that these cheat days leave you feeling a bit run down. The additional energy and health that you will feel while adhering to sound, nutritional principles will make you even more motivated to eat healthy, and your cheat days will sometimes serve as a reminder of how bad you used to feel. Even so, enjoy your cheat days. They are important for long-term success.

Exercise four to six days per week
No, exercise is not a nutritional guideline, but it is a critical component in achieving and maintaining good health. To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. The best plan for long-term weight loss combines healthy eating with increased physical activity. But exercise isn’t just for people who need to lose weight; a habit of exercise is for everyone. You don’t have to join a gym, lift weights, or run marathons to get the exercise you need. Go for a brisk walk of thirty to sixty minutes; perform calisthenics at home; or purchase an exercise video that you might enjoy doing three or four days per week. Exercise doesn’t have to be strictly formal sessions either. You can increase your daily physical activity level by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking your car at the back of the parking lot instead of finding a spot close to the front, performing small sets of push-ups every hour or two throughout your day, or taking your kids to a local park and running and playing along with them. Find a way to make exercise fun, and you will be more likely to stick with it long-term.

Occasionally we all fall back into bad habits, we sneak a brownie or have an extra helping of those creamy mashed potatoes or over-indulge on pizza night. When that happens, do not despair. Everyone has setbacks; we are pursuing a pattern of healthy eating for life. Your weakness will not be life-threatening, unless it becomes habitual. You may have fallen into bad habits because you kept the wrong kinds of foods in your house. Get rid of them. Don’t tempt yourself by keeping ice cream in the freezer and cookies and chips in the pantry. Maybe you have been skipping your cheat days. Don’t, they are important for long-term success. Perhaps you simply haven’t been enjoying your daily meals because you haven’t explored a sufficient variety of food options. The possibilities are endless. Don’t be afraid to try new dishes and use new foods. Good nutrition isn’t rocket science. With a little education, a modest amount of self-discipline, and consistent practice, healthy eating is as simple as common sense. -JME


Neil said...

Great article. Unfortunately, most of this information is becoming "uncommon" sense, as people continue to slide back into poor habits. Everything in this list is reasonable, easy to remember, and even easier to practise. So what's the problem?

JME said...

I think the problem is two-fold: 1) Genuine ignorance among many people (e.g. those who really believe diet soda is a good alternative, those who think pigging out on fatty meats and cheeses is a long-term nutritional solution, or those who actually believe that ordering salads makes up for the Little Debbie cakes and fried chips they consume in copious amounts between meals); and 2) Willful self-indulgence (Many of us struggle to tell ourselves, "No." This lack of self-discipline inevitably creates serious problems in one's family, finances, religion, and health.).

I'm glad you liked the article. We plan to post other topical articles from time to time. Several that are currently in pre-production: A Simple But Effective BodyBuilding Technique; A Common Sense Fat-Loss Plan; How To Get More Exercise Without Exercising More.

The bald guy said...

..."Genuine ignorance among many people (e.g. those who really believe diet soda)"....ouch! ;-)

flashes79 said...

Easy to understand, sound advice. I'm a middle school PE teacher and we just finished a unit on nutrition, this article sums up what we taught beautifully!

JME said...


I'm glad you liked the article. As Neil noted above, a common sense approach to food has become frighteningly uncommon. I hope the information you shared with your middle schoolers will remain with them and serve them well later in life. Unfortunately, too many parents fail to teach and reinforce good health habits at home.

Baveshree said...

Thanks for the article....really appreciate it, recently realised that a change in lifestyle is the only maintainable way to be health.

Maya Ada said...

Healthy eating is not about strict nutrition philosophies, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love.