When it comes to nutrition… we know a lot.
Yet, despite what we know, we’re getting fatter, weaker, and sicker.
With all of the information right at our fingertips — books, blogs, podcasts, etc. — why are we still struggling so much with nutrition?
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve asked yourself a version of that same question…
Why do I feel unhealthy?
Why don’t I have the energy I want?
Why can’t I maintain my ideal body weight?
The answer is not about knowing enough, but rather doing enough. All that knowledge — and the endless information making you think you need to learn more — ends up becoming a distraction from the doing.
When all you really need to follow is a few simple rules.
What You Could Know vs. What You Need to Know
A large part of my focus is helping people discover the difference between what they could know versus what they need to know.
Because in pretty much every instance, what you need to know about healthy eating to actually start eating healthily (in a lasting, long-term way) is way less than what you could know.
For example, as a speaker, author, and plant-based nutritionist I know a bunch. It’s my job to know.
But at the same time… as a 49-year-old father, husband, ultramarathoner, what I need to know is only a very small fraction of that information.
This is what led me to boil all of it down to four simple rules. Rules that streamline all the major could-knows into four easy to follow and understand need-to-knows.
Follow only these (and apply some common sense), and you’ll get the results you want. Not because you have all the knowledge, but because you’re actually taking action on what matters.
RULE 1: Eat whole plants.
Given that you’re reading a site called No Meat Athlete, you’ve probably heard that plants — in their whole, unrefined form — are nutrient-dense. And that therein lies the major reason to build your diet around them, from a health perspective.
But what does this really mean?
To explain this first and most fundamental rule, I’ll explain the basics of healthy eating by using one of my favorite analogies: a gift box.
Think back to when you were a kid. On Christmas, or your birthday, or whatever other gift-giving holiday you celebrated, which wrapped present did you get most excited about opening?
Was it the biggest box?
The one with the shiniest, fanciest wrapping paper?
Maybe it was at first, but as you got older and wiser, you probably came to realize that in fact, the best gift wasn’t in the biggest or shiniest box.
No, the best gift was always in the heaviest box — regardless of what the box looked like.
Now, let’s put this back into nutrition terms.
Most people make the mistake of thinking that the health of a food is determined by its macronutrient content — carbohydrates, protein, and fat, the calories in the food that provide us with energy to survive.
But macronutrients are like the box that contains the gift. They might be good, but only if what’s inside packs a nutritional punch (i.e., if the box is heavy).
When most of us are handed a gift, we don’t dwell too long on the wrapping paper or the size of the box. Instead, we toss it aside because we want to get to the goods — the actual gift.
And in our food-gift analogy, what’s inside the box — the good stuff — is the micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals. What determines the health of a food is not its calories (the box, or the wrapping paper). It’s what comes with its calories (inside the box) that’s crucial.
So, here’s the deal: the heavier the box, the healthier the food. Just like with presents.
Light-box foods have calories, but not much micronutrition comes with them — a soda, for example, which does have some energy in the form of sugar, but provides almost no micronutrient value.
Heavy box foods have calories too, but even better, they have a ton of awesomeness inside — an orange, for instance, which has energy from sugar just like a soda, but provides it along with a ton of vitamins.
So which foods can we think of as light boxes, and which are heavy boxes?
The lightest: vegan junk food. Refined plants like added sugar, oil, refined flour, white rice, protein powders. Basically, plants that used to be whole but aren’t any longer — olive oil used to be an olive, soy protein isolate used to be a soybean, white rice used to be brown rice, and so on.
Still pretty light: animal products like dairy, eggs, flesh. Lots of calories, not a whole lot of micronutrition.
Getting heavy: nuts and seeds. And, as a non-micronutrient bonus, now we’ve got fiber appearing for the first time our light-to-heavy box spectrum (see rule 2 to find out why fiber is awesome).
Heavier still: whole grains and beans, which provide a good amount of micronutrients in relatively few calories, by comparison to the foods earlier in our list.
Finally, the heaviest boxes: fruits and vegetables. Tons of micronutrition, there are not a lot of calories, relatively speaking.
What this means is that whole plants (nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, fruit, veggies) are the healthiest foods to put in your body. Not too complicated, right?
No big surprise then, that lighter box food (such as refined, vegan junk food and animal foods) are best minimized. They might be enjoyable, but consume them regularly and too often, they stress the body out and can lead to an unhealthy weight, inflammation, sickness, digestive issues, and more.
Whole plants, on the other hand, are jam-packed with nutrients, are easy to digest, and can help lower overall stress.
RULE 2: Choose plants high in fiber and water.
There’s a reason whole plants are so beneficial.
Yes, they’ve got the carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, but…
While those nutrients are certainly glamorous, we can’t forget the two unsung heroes that bind everything together and keep things moving along smoothly.
Fiber and water.
Most of us have a general idea of why fiber is healthy.
(Fine, I’ll come out and say what you’re already thinking: fiber helps us poop.)
But it does so much more than that.
But, if we dig just a little deeper, we start to learn about fibers’ incredible effect on the good bacteria in our gut.
You know, that same good bacteria that is a crucial player in maintaining a robust immune system, getting a good night’s sleep, decreasing inflammation, being in a good mood, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Yeah, we know about good bacteria — but do you know what that good bacteria eats…
Wait for it…
When we eat fiber-containing food, our good gut bacteria get to eat too, and then thanks us for feeding it by helping keep us happy and healthy.
Now, what about water?
In some ways, fiber and water go hand in hand to keep things moving efficiently through our digestive systems.
Water is also integral to healthy joints and skin and helps regulate body temperature.
Most people think of food and water as separate, but some of the healthiest foods contain a substantial amount of water. And eating them will obviously produce a more healthy, energetic you than just guzzling water on top of a less-than-healthy diet.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with water and are a fantastic way to get and stay hydrated. I call this Food-dration (cuz, I’m clever).
Focusing on eating these types of fiber and water-filled foods will help keep you hydrated without having to keep filling up your glass. And I mean, come on, doesn’t a handful of berries sound so much better than another glass of water?
RULE 3: To gain energy and maintain weight, focus on caloric density.
Remember how earlier, we said whole plants are heavy-box (nutrient dense)? Well, they happen to NOT be very calorically dense, meaning they take up a lot of space in your stomach without providing a lot of calories. So you feel full, but eat less, which is why many people end up losing weight when they switch to a plant-based diet.
But it turns out this lack of caloric density also leads to a common mistake that people make when they make the move to whole plants: not eating enough.
Here’s what I mean:
One tablespoon of olive oil is 120 calories.
One large head of Romaine lettuce is also about 120 calories.
Think about the size difference between a single tablespoon of olive oil and an entire head of Romaine. Big difference, no?
Practically speaking, this means you’ll need to eat a bigger volume of whole plants to get the same calories as you would from refined plants.
(Like an entire large head Romaine to get the same calories as a tablespoon of olive oil.)
Which is why a lot of people new to the whole-food plant-based diet end up feeling low on energy.
They feel just as full as they used to at the end of meal-time, but they’re not consuming enough energy (calories).
Does this mean you should add in a bunch of high-calorie (light-box) processed crap?
No, of course not. You’ll absolutely be healthier by replacing added sugar, refined flour, protein powders, oils, and animal products with whole plants.
Just be aware that when eating whole plants, the physical size of your meals may need to be much bigger in order to keep your overall caloric intake consistent. My Big Frickin’ Salad is a perfect example (Spoiler: It’s about the size most people make for an entire family).
One last point here: As I alluded to at the beginning of this section, caloric density is also related to maintaining a certain bodyweight.
If you’re trying to lose weight, then filling yourself up on the lower caloric density foods will do the trick! In general, that’ll mean a strong base of fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, and then fewer nuts and seeds overall.
Along those same lines, if you’re trying to add weight, simply increase the amount of those high calorie, high fat (but still whole) plant-based foods.
RULE 4: Eat this way MOTT (Most Of The Time)
Just because you know what healthy foods are, doesn’t mean you must eat them 100% of the time, and I’d argue that you probably shouldn’t. Here’s why:
For most of us who live in the modern world, there will be times and places where we simply don’t have access to healthy foods.
Sure, we could skip parties and never leave our homes to ensure we never, never, ever have a less-than-perfectly-healthy meal, but the stress of this way of life will not serve us well long-term.
If your goal is to live a happy, vibrant life, then understand being healthy is about what you do Most Of The Time.
It’s about your MOTT.
Try to pull off an AOTT (All Of The Time) and not only will you get stuck with an unattractive acronym, but, beware — you may quickly become militant, rigid, and unhappy.
Yes, your diet will be “perfect,” but ask yourself, to what end?
A little convenience food now and then will not break the bank.
How much is too much? That’s up to you, your current level of health, and your life goals. Learn how to adapt, change, and edit in lieu of militantly following someone else’s plan. You’ll be stronger and healthier for it.
There’s No Pill for Long-Term Health
Most people won’t make these rules work, because these aren’t instant quick fixes. This is why diet books will never go out of style, and many people will continue to treat their aches and pains with one pill or another.
In the modern world, discomfort is temporary and quickly solvable.
Healthy eating is a different story. We eat healthily for a number of reasons: maintaining a healthy weight, decreasing inflammation, increasing energy, among many others.
The hitch is that healthy eating will not deliver these results as quickly as Tylenol will make a headache disappear.
Most results that healthy eating delivers are not immediate. To be healthy we need to actually become healthy people, not just pretend to be healthy people for a short and fixed period of time on some new diet, 30-day meal plan, or other quick fixes.
It’s about playing the long game.
That’s why these rules are so simple — eat whole plants, high in fiber and water and enough of it to ensure you get the energy you need.
Oh, and do that most of the time.
Do it, and you’ll start seeing the healthy results you’re craving… not just until vacation is over, not just for this month or even this year, but for the long term.