In the first instalment of this series, I argued that there is no such thing as food. Rather that there are only other living organisms, some of which we choose to label as food, but that these labels are often pretty arbitrary.

In the subsequent posts, I looked at the four major criteria on which an organism can/should be assessed on for its suitability as a potential food source:

  • Energy
  • Raw Materials/Nutrients
  • Toxins/Antinutrients
  • Pleasure/Reward Value

I do not believe that there is one perfect or optimum diet for all people. We all have different genetics, different goals, different needs, different psyches and different tastes, therefore the purpose of this final post in the series, is not to outline or prescribe any kind of diet or eating plan, but rather to put forward a framework, by which one can make one’s own decisions about what to eat.

Mindful Eating

The behaviour that I want to encourage in this post is that of mindful eating. That is, taking the time before you eat to ask yourself:

  • 1) Am I actually hungry?
  • 2) What do I want from this meal, and is this food going to supply it?
  • 3) Is there another food that might be a better alternative?

If you’re not hungry, then don’t eat, simple as that! If you are hungry, then you’ll need to consider the four criteria for assessing a foods suitability, and decide what it is that you require from this meal.

In order to make things simple, I’m proposing a traffic light scheme for each criteria – Red, Yellow, Amber and Green. Now this is clearly very over simplistic, but again I remind you that the real purpose of this whole exercise, is just to encourage more mindfulness and better decision making with regards to food choices.

Image courtesy of Manostphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Energy

If you’re going to spend all day hunting or gathering something, preparing it and then chewing it, it needs to be worth your while. Traditionally, therefore, foods that were calorie dense were held in the highest esteem, and we appear to have evolved to crave, and particularly enjoy eating, easily digestible, energy dense foods.

Times have changed however, and when assessing the suitability of a food, energy density still needs to be considered, but higher is not always better. In fact, for the majority of the population, higher energy density is rarely better!

Body fat is stored energy. If you have excess body fat, this means that you have excess energy stores. If you have excess energy stores, this means that you do not require any more energy from food.

This does not mean that you don’t need to eat – you still need essential nutrients, and there’s nothing wrong with eating for pleasure – it just means that you should focus on foods that have a low to moderate energy-density, whilst being packed with nutrients – think seafood, fresh lean meat, offal and fibrous vegetables.

Referring back to the traffic light system, you’ll generally want to stick towards foods in the green and yellow ranges. Foods highlighted as green for energy (i.e. vegetables) can be eaten in pretty much unlimited quantities. Yellow colour coded foods can be included with every meal if you like, but don’t get carried away with portion size. A lean 6oz steak with veggies for example is a healthy, nutrient dense, sensible option. A 16oz rib-eye on the other hand should be an infrequent indulgence!

At the opposite end of the scale, if you are extremely active, and/or want to gain weight, you will require significantly more calories, but only marginally more essential nutrients. There will therefore be a place in the diet for more energy dense foods, including those that are relatively low in essential nutrients – think rice, potatoes, bananas etc.

While one could create a new traffic light system, “re-branding” higher energy density foods as amber/yellow, or even green, I think it’s probably best to still always have that red warning in mind when consuming high calorie foods, as it is all to easy to over estimate your calorie requirements, even if you’re training hard and looking to gain weight.

Nutrients

Getting sufficient protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals is very important. It is also, however, relatively easy to do.

Unlike calorie intake, your nutrient intake requirements are not going to fluctuate hugely depending upon your goals and activity levels.

Whether you’re dieting or bulking up, highly active or sedentary, healthy or ill, your basic requirements aren’t going to change all that much.

Providing you aim to include some nutrient dense, wild or pasture raised animal foods, several days per week, this should adequately take care of your requirements for essential fatty acids, fat soluble vitamins A,D and K, vitamin B12 and most minerals.

There’s no need to go overboard though – I have been asked on several occasions “is it necessary to eat grass fed beef at every meal?”. The answer of course a resounding NO. It’s not actually necessary to eat grass fed beef at all. Having seafood, oily fish, grass fed dairy or pastured eggs a few days per week will meet all the same needs (NB – Personally I do choose to eat grass fed beef and lamb several days per week, because in Britain I think this is the most ethical and sustainable way to get your essential nutrition).

That said, these foods are tasty, nutritious and filling, so if you want to eat them everyday, or even at every meal go ahead. Just be aware of portion size and calorie density – particularly on fattier products. I’ve come across numerous paleo/low carb dieters eating steaks for breakfast everyday and wondering why they’re not losing weight!

If your goal is fat loss, the bulk of your diet (in terms of volume) should come from fibrous vegetables. They are nutrient dense, and low in energy. You can literally eat as much of them as you can stomach. Although there are a myriad of factors that can cause you to over consume calories, both physiological and psychological, it becomes considerably harder to do so if you’re stuffed to the hilt with veggies!

Toxins

This is going to be the most variable category out of the four, for which there can be no hard and fast guidelines.

The paleo movement correctly recognises that there are potentially harmful toxins in a wide range of everyday foods.

Paleo’s blanket ban on all grains, legumes, dairy, and in some cases even nightshades is rather excessive for the majority of the population however.

Taking into account people with celiac disease (and estimates for undiagnosed), gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy, around 1 in 6 people have some pretty seriously adverse reactions to wheat and gluten containing grains.

Add in the FODMAP factor, and the number of people that will feel better from cutting out bread and pasta will rise further.

That’s a lot of people that will see an instant benefit from cutting out the daemon grain from their diets – but it’s still a minority. Do the maths and there are still going to be at least 4 out of 6 people who can probably eat wheat with no issues.

If you you’re constantly feeling tired, run down, struggling to lose weight, just generally less than amazing, my advise would be to cut out all foods that contain high levels of potential toxins for at least 30 days, or even better, until you start to look and feel great again. Stick to the foods that are in the “green” range for toxins.

Even if you’re not aware of any overt symptoms, what’s the harm in switching up your diet a little and trying some variation? Eating cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner has become a pretty typical scenario for many people – swapping some of these cereals for more nutrient dense, lower toxin fruits and veggies would take little effort, and might just make you feel that bit better.

Pleasure

I’m all for eating for pleasure, but with a few caveats.

1) Only Eat When You’re Hungry

I know I said this at the beginning of this article, but it’s worth reiterating again.

2) If you are eating for pleasure, make sure you take the time to actually savour and enjoy the food.

Don’t just wolf food down so fast it doesn’t touch the sides, while watching the TV and checking your Facebook account.

3) Delayed Gratification?

Take the time to weigh up the pleasure you’ll derive from the instant gratification you’ll receive now, compared to the pleasure you may get in the future from better maintained health, reaching your physique goals or improved physical performance.

Pleasure of course is highly subjective and individual. I have colour coded the attached spreadsheets according to my own personal preferences, but they may be very different for you.

Other Factors

The four factors which I have addressed in this series, and included in the reference tables, are those which humans have been using since our hunter-gatherer days.

While these are still the most important factors at a basic physiological level, in modern society there are of course other factors which affect our choices as to what to eat.

Price, availability, ethics, environmental impact, and sustainability for example are all factors one may choose to consider, but which will be individual to your own personal circumstances, location and beliefs, and so impractical for me to even attempt to include a generic guide.

Using the Tables

The tables I have created are intended as a rough guide to help assess foods for potential suitability.

It can be used to look at a food or food group in isolation, and decide whether to eat it or not, full stop.

For example, I choose not to eat legumes. They are relatively calorie dense, contain only moderate amounts of nutrients, and I don’t derive any great pleasure from eating them. I can only consume so many calories per day, so I’d rather those calories come from something that’s either more nourishing, has less toxins, is more pleasurable, or preferably all three!

Grass Fed Beef on the other hand is only moderately energy dense, high in nutrients, low in toxins and gives me lots of pleasure. I therefore choose to eat it on a fairly regular basis.

The tables can also be used to compare and contrast different food alternatives. If you’re craving chips, a serving of steamed broccoli is unlikely to satisfy. But how about switching chips deep fried in vegetable oil, to chips cooked in beef dripping>to potato wedges>to roast potatoes>to roasted parsnips>to steamed parsnips.

Each rung on the ladder reduces the calories and potential toxins, without compromising too much on pleasure (actually rung one brings with it an increase in pleasure IMHO)

Perhaps you don’t want to give up bread, but by swapping a bleached, chemical filled white loaf from the supermarket, to an artisan sourdough rye, and swapping doughnuts for home baked cakes made from milk, butter, cream and eggs, you’ll not only reduce incoming toxins and calories, but increase your nutrient intake and pleasure.

One thing to note is don’t cross compare from one table to another – i.e. don’t compare “tubers” in vegetables to “yoghurt” in dairy – the values I’ve attributed are relative to the other food stuffs within each mini table, not absolute. Instead, start with the table at the top, to find the general area you want to be in, then further refine within that category to fine tune your choice.

Here you go!

Food Traffic Lights Guide

Please post any questions, queries, or suggestions of how the table could be improved or modified in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading, I hope you found this post of interest. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below, or feel free to tweet me at @Simon_Whyatt

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