Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

My current diet

with 8 comments

I’ve tinkered with my diet over the years, trying this and that, and below you find my approach as of 12 December 2019. This post changes as I learn more and change my diet direction, and in the brief history of how I got here I summarize some major changes.

I should note at the outset that there is not a one-size-fits-all diet. To take an obvious example, I include peanuts in my diet, but some people would find that fatal. Also, I am a type 2 diabetic, so I keep a close eye on carbs (though IMO everyone should avoid refined sugar and sugar-heavy “foods” (cake, candy, orange juice, and the like—here’s why). This post also includes the reasons for my choices to help you evaluate whether the diet would work for you and where you might want to make modifications.

It takes a few weeks to get the hang of a new approach to food when you change your diet, so I would recommend you stick with this approach for two months and then take stock, evaluating it in the light of your own experience. Changing your diet is difficult because it requires revising patterns of eating that you have learned so well you use them unconsciously. Just as you don’t have to think much to get around your own town or neighborhood, the diet you already know is easy because it’s based on established dishes and established routines. And just as moving to a new city requires a lot of work and attention at first just to find your way around, moving to a new way of eating requires thought and attention to figure out a new repertoire of “standard” dishes and meals. But over time, both become easy once again as new patterns are figured out, learned, and become familiar, and easy routines again emerge. (This happens more readily if you adopt the mindset and attitude of a new permanent resident rather than a visitor, because as a permanent resident, you’ll be more motivated to explore and discover what all it has to offer beyond the obvious tourist attractions.) See this post: “Finding pleasure in the learning of new skills.”

Table of contents

Here are the sections of this post, in order of appearance:

• The basic foundations of good health
• Brief history of how I got here
• Reading list
• It’s all about food choices
• And the food choices are about something else
• In addition to good food choices, try intermittent fasting
• Exercise’s role in weight loss and fitness
• My own exercise choice—for fitness, not weight loss
• Refined sugar and other quickly digested carbohydrates are bad
• Resistant starch helps with carbs
• How excess body fat works to destroy you
• More on carbs
• Protein intake remains normal
• A plant-based diet is great for those with diabetes or insulin resistance
• A whole-food plan-based diet is optimal for competitive athletes
• A LCHF diet or a plant-focused diet is NOT a weight-loss diet per se
• Temporary diets = bad diets
• Foods that cause weight loss (and other fairy tales)
• How to be happy with your diet
• Prepare your meals from scratch—it quickly becomes enjoyable
• Useful tools and methods for meal preparation—and some recipes
• Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen
• Glorious one-pot meals
• Stir-fries
• Indian dishes
• Breakfast
• Changes in food choices as a result of WW Freestyle
• Food cravings and your gut microbiome
• Omega-3 and Omega-6
• Plateaus
• If you do eat chicken, some tips on preparing and using chicken breasts
• Umami
• Cooking oils
• Supplement on supplements
• Updates

The basic foundations of good health

Your overall health depends heavily on six things:

  1. your genetic make-up,
  2. the nutrition you get from your diet,
  3. adequate cardio exercise,
  4. adequate sleep and rest,
  5. regular and positive social interaction (and in person, not on-line — increasingly a problem for those born after 1995); and
  6. a positive and optimistic outlook (see this study and also the book Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman).

Your genetic make-up was fixed at conception, but the way those genes are expressed is affected by your environment, including your diet. In the Introduction of How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger writes:

For most of our leading killers, nongenetic factors like diet can account for at least 80 to 90 precent of cases. As I noted before, this is based on the fact that the rates of cardiovascular disease and major cancers differ fivefold to a hundred fold around the world. Migration studies show that this is not just genetics. When people move from low-to high-risk areas, their disease risk nearly always shoots up to match the new setting. As well, dramatic changes in disease rates within a single generation hight the primacy of external factors. Colon cancer mortality in Japan in the 1950s was less than one-fifth that of the United States (including Americans of Japanese ancestry). But now colon cancer rates in Japan are as bad as they are in the United states, a rise that has be attributed in part to the fivefold increase in meat consumption.

He goes on to discuss how identical twins (with the same genetic profile) who are raised separately with different diets have different health outcomes. Worker bees and the queen bee have the same genetics: the difference in lifespan and fertility is due solely to the queen’s diet of royal jelly.

Later, in the chapter “How Not to Die from Brain Diseases,” in his discussion of Alzheimer’s disease, he writes of the gene that predisposes one to have Alzheimer’s, a gene that, if found in both parents, increases by ninefold the odds that their offspring will fall prey to Alzheimer’s. Dr. Greger writes:

The highest frequency of the ApoE4 variant occurs in Nigerians,102 who surprisingly also have some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s.103 Wait a second. The population with the highest rate of the “Alzheimer’s gene” has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease? This contradiction may be explained by Nigerians’ extremely low blood-cholesterol levels, thanks to a diet low in animal fat104 and consisting mainly of grains and vegetables.105 So, it seems, diet can trump genetics.

. . . Too often, doctors and patients have a fatalistic approach to chronic degenerative diseases, and Alzheimer’s is no exception.107 “It’s all in your genes,” they say, “and what will happen will happen.” Research shows that although you might have been dealth some poor genetic cards, you maybe able to reshuffle the deck with diet.

The numbers in the text specify footnotes that identify the studies whose findings support the statements.

One gene’s mutation can have a direct effect on your diet. Scientists now have identified a couple of mutations of a gene, MC4R, with one mutation (which occurs in about 6% of the population) making the person feel always full and never hungry and another mutation (also in about 6% of the population)  making the person feel always hungry and never full. The second mutation means that the fight against obesity will be difficult. See this NY Times article by Gina Kolata.

In this post I include a brief discussion of cardio exercise (and provide some links), but the focus of the post is your diet, as the title implies.

TL;DR – Here’s the core of the argument that follows, but without a lot of detail—e.g., guidance for the novice cook is found below, but it’s not part of the core argument.

Brief history of how I got here

I’ve been nutritionally conscious since college days, when I first read Adelle Davis‘s book Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. Generally speaking, things went well until the low-fat boom hit me in the late 1980s and I ballooned because I got the idea that I could eat as much as I wanted so long as I ate fat-free foods. That led to my eating a lot of refined carbs, and that led to insulin resistance (in part of because of my genetic make-up) and ultimately type 2 diabetes.

That got my attention in a big way, and I started some serious diet modification. Ultimately I discovered the low-carb high-fat approach and that very quickly brought my blood glucose levels under control (note this study), but I didn’t lose weight until I joined WW Freestyle (online, so I didn’t have to attend meetings). That uses a point system as a means of portion control (discussed below). It’s a good system in that it doesn’t require the detail required when you track calories: over 200 foods have zero points (for a normal-sized portion). One result is that you are nudged toward eating those zero-point foods, which include not only many vegetables and fruits but also seafood and skinless chicken breast and eggs, and you find yourself avoiding or eating less red meat (beef, pork, lamb) because it is so point-heavy. (BTW, it’s been established that a low-carb diet can indeed bring blood-glucose levels under control even if you don’t lose weight—that is, it wasn’t unique to me. Blood glucose levels are controlled simply because you’re not eating any carbs to speak of, but there are health costs, discussed below.)

The combination of a low-carb diet with WW Freestyle seemed mostly okay and I lost enough weight so that I was “only” 20 lbs from my target weight (where I stuck), but I wrote an answer on Quora praising the low-carb diet and got a comment from a physician who pointed out that while my blood glucose was under control (because I was basically not eating carbs), I was doing long-term harm to my body.

That gave me pause, and I started doing for reading. As I read more about plant-focused diets that focused on whole foods (in preference to refined and processed foods), I reconsidered my approach and began to modify it. (I was particularly concerned about the effects of eating meat.) Note this video:

I still was cautious about carbs and still followed the WW Freestyle system, but I also switched to a diet of whole plant foods (roots, stalks, leaves, buds (e.g., broccoli, capers), flowers (squash blossoms, banana flowers), fruit, and seeds), though including some fungi—basically, I followed a vegan diet, though “vegan” signifies only that the diet does not include foods derived from animals and really doesn’t specify much beyond that. For example, a diet of soda pop, white-bread sandwiches with jam-and-brown-sugar filling, and is certainly vegan, but it not a diet of whole foods. (See also this terrible diet, which fails to satisfy the basic criteria for a good diet.)

The diet I adopted is typically called a “whole-food plant-based diet.” Despite my diet of plant-based foods, I am not a “vegan” as the word is now used—for example, I am wearing leather house shoes.

The whole-food plant-based diet—eliminating meat (including fish), dairy, and eggs, and also eliminating refined foods including processed foods—strikes some as extreme, but in fact it eliminates only one food group (dairy) of the five commonly recognized food groups: carbohydrates, protein, dairy, fruits+vegetables, and fats+sugars.

I find my version of the WFPB diet differs a lot from what I read in most vegan recipes and cookbooks because I avoid some foods that most vegans eat. I don’t eat the following, part because of my type 2 diabetes. (I found that the foods in the first four bullet points would spike my blood glucose after I ate them—note this post: “How different foods affect blood sugar levels – Compared to teaspoons of sugar.”)

I eat:

  • No potatoes, corn, or rice in any form (no french fries, hash browns, chips, rice cakes, etc.) Those spike my blood glucose.
  • No refined sugar—granulated, cane sugar, brown sugar, agave syrup, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey—and no foods that contain refined sugar. These are not whole foods. Were I to want to use sugar in cooking, I would use date sugar—dried dates ground into powder. I don’t use artificial sweeteners because they are toxic to the gut microbiome. I do use erythritol occasionally, but my sweet tooth is mostly satisfied through eating whole fresh fruit and berries (usually frozen berries that I’ve thawed—and particularly blackberries). Note this personal essay on quitting sugar.
  • No foods made from flour, such as bread, toast, bagels, pasta, muffins, and so on. These are not whole foods. I occasionally eat a sandwich or a wrap for lunch out, but that’s rare.
  • No fruit juices. They are not whole foods. As I wrote above, I do eat fruit, including fruit low in net carbs (e.g., berries)—but natural sugar in fruit does not affect the body as refined sugars do. I do like blending whole cranberries with water, mint, and erythritol to make a refreshing and juice-like drink, but it uses the whole cranberry. I used lemon juice in cooking, but most often I now blend the lemon rather than use just the juice. [Method: Cut off the ends of the lemon, then cut it in half at its equator. Place each half on the large flat side and cut away the lemon’s skin. You can halve each of the halves, cutting parallel to the equator, to remove the seeds from the slabs. Blend the deseeded slabs. I use my immersion blender and the beaker that came with it. This method includes both pulp and juice to get the most nutrients possible. With a thin-skinned Meyer lemon, I think I would blend the entire lemon after cutting off and discarding the ends: skin and all. Even then, though I would cut it into slabs to make blending easier.]
  • Very few processed foods—I buy vegetables and beans and grains to prepare and cook them myself. Thus I don’t eat manufactured “product foods” marketed to vegans (imitation meats and imitation cheeses of various sorts, for example). In general, product foods (branded, manufactured from refined foods using industrial processes and containing a variety of additives and preservatives, packaged, and advertised) tend to have too much sodium, refined sugar (typically high-fructose corn syrup because it’s cheap), bad oils (cottonseed and/or soybean oil because they’re cheap), and little or no dietary fiber. For example, I avoid bottled salad dressings; making my own is easy and quick. I do use extra-virgin olive oil, sparingly, and that is a processed food. I prefer tempeh to tofu because tofu is more processed, but I do eat tofu from time to time.
  • No added salt or foods that contain added salt (one reason I avoid processed foods, which seem inevitably to be high in sodium). I use low-sodium canned tomatoes, canned beans, tomato paste, vegetable broth, soy sauce, and so on. I stopped buying hot sauces (they all seem to be very high in sodium) and make my own.

Unlike my previous low-carb diet, my WFPB diet includes beans and grain, but I eat only intact whole grains (including bran, endosperm, and germ, unaltered by cutting or polishing or mashing or grinding). I eat oat groats, hulled barley, wheat berries, whole rye, kamut (my favorite), spelt, farro, and other grain, as well as the pseudo-grains quinoa, amaranth, chia seed, buckwheat groats.

Intact whole grain is more slowly digested than if the grain’s been cut or crushed or ground into flour, and the whole grain kernel that includes the bran also provides dietary fiber. (See also this post on why intact whole grains are better than whole grains and read the chapter on Whole Grains in Part 2 of How Not to Die.) I also chill beans and grains after they’re cooked and before I eat them, which makes the starch resistant so it is not so quickly digested. And I’m sure that avoiding foods that contain refined sugar and/or are made from flour also helps control my blood glucose levels.

Perhaps because of those food choices, despite my increased intake of net carbs my blood glucose remains under good control. My pre-lunch blood glucose today was 5.7 mmol/L, not bad at all. (Normal range pre-meal is 4.0 to 5.9 mmol/L.) And my fasting blood glucose this morning was 5.4 mmol/L (which corresponds to 98 mg/dL); Mayo Clinic notes “A fasting blood sugar level less than 100 mg/dL (5.6 mmol/L) is normal.” And after three months on this new diet my doctor told me to discontinue my medications for high blood pressure, for cholesterol control, and for blood glucose control because I no longer needed them—medications I had been taking daily for almost twenty years.

Thus my low-carb days are no more, but as I note above I still do not eat refined carbs (which includes processed foods). And since I eat whole foods, I am now get ample amounts of the important carb dietary fiber, the carb mostly removed from refined carbs.  Nowadays 97% of Americans do not get even the recommended daily minimum of dietary fiber. The percentage of men age 18-50 who consume the recommended minimum of dietary fiber is 0%. Zero. Nada.

My progression was gradual. I immediately cut out meat, dairy, eggs, and refined/processed foods (except occasional EVOO and tofu, for example). I spent some time just working out new “standard” meals. It took me a while to get to eating 3 servings of fruit a day, but then I found if I had a selection of fruit on hand, it was easy. Then, after getting that all in order, so that (for example) I could improvise a dish easily and without having to think much about it. That took a few months of experience and practice, but now it’s pretty much automatic.

Then I took another step: restricting my eating to a 4-hour window, as discussed below under “In addition to good food choices, try intermittent fasting.” The point is that I didn’t do everything at once. I took it step by step. But by 7 months after I started, everything had become easy and routine.

That’s where I’m at today, and in the following I’ll offer specific with food suggestions and recipes and cooking methods, and I’ll include quite a few links.

Reading list

These are the books that shaped my current diet.

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease, by Gary Taubes.  Taubes actually tested his view of the causes of obesity and how to shed weight. His ideas failed to pass the test, but his book did influence me for quite a while and it did help in pointing out that calories are not a measure of food quality: if you eat 100 calories, it makes a big difference whether the 100 calories is from refined sugar or beans or olive oil since the effects on your body and the nutritional value of the foods differ greatly among those.

But Taubes’s conjecture that a low-fat/keto approach is best did not hold up when tested. See this video:

How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease, by Michael Greger M.D. This book is basically a curated compendium of nutritional research. It’s both readable and informative, and the footnotes identify the studies whose findings support the statements in the book. It describes many little ways that greatly improve your diet and health.

The How Not to Die Cookbook: 100+ Recipes to Help Prevent and Reverse Disease, by Michael Greger M.D. I held off on buying these because I find many cookbooks are not very good for practical cooking—their recipes are complicated, fussy, and time-consuming. These recipes are practical and straightforward. The first second has recipes for some basics (spice mix, umami sauce (without salt), vegetable broth, etc.) that are used in later recipes, and those are quite straightforward and easy to make. I highly recommend you get the hardbound edition, as did I, because it lies open when flat. It’s quite a handsome book, with lots of good photos. It’s worth the money.

Cronometer.com is not a book but a very useful tool to support your diet. Cronometer is a free site that provides a nutritional analysis of the foods you enter, including details of the micronutrients you’ve eaten. Enter your daily food intake from time to time and see how you’re doing on important micronutrients. (I in fact use it daily.) It is also available at no cost as a smartphone app, so I have it on my iPhone as well, though it’s easier to use on my latop’s browser, so that’s where I use it most.

Cronometer shows a progress bar for each nutrient. If you hover the mouse over the progress bar, a popup shows a sorted list of the sources of that nutrient. Also, if you highlight (click on) one of the foods you entered, you can see the nutritional analysis just for that food. Holding down the shift key as you click on foods lets you highlight a group of foods and get an analysis of the group. And you can drag and drop the foods you’ve entered to reorder them.

If some nutrient is deficient, search “foods high in” that nutrient and add one or two of those to your diet. This is better than using a supplement, since nutrients are usually better absorbed from food than from a supplement, and indeed some supplements don’t work at all. For example, I found I was short of selenium, so I added 1 brazil nut a day to my diet, and that provides 165% of the RDA for selenium.

I also was light on calcium. I now drink Silk Almond Original Unsweetened, and that is fortified with calcium (and B12, for that matter), and that helps. I also take a calcium supplement. Panthothenic acid (B5) was a little light until I added mushrooms to my daily diet (because they are a good source and I like them). Other micronutrients (iron, zinc, etc.) were not a problem for me, but it’s worth checking.

Note that the important micronutrient iodine is not included in the analysis, probably because the iodine content of foods varies greatly depending on the iodine content of the local soil. I haven’t used iodized salt for decades, but I do take powdered kelp in capsules (and eat seaweed salad from time to time), and that provides sufficient iodine. Iodine is something you do not want to overdo. If you use iodized salt, though, you’re covered. I don’t use iodized salt or much of any salt because I keep my salt intake low: 1200mg/day of sodium is the maximum recommended for my age group.

In the modern diet, people get a lot of sodium from processed food products, from salting their meat, from salami and other cured meats, from chickens injected with salt water, and from cheese (which is quite high in sodium). Those are all foods that are detrimental to health. Maybe we’ve been blaming sodium when we should be blaming the foods that bring in a lot of the sodium we get. Dr. John McDougall makes the case that salt has been a scapegoat since our kidneys easily rid the body of excess salt, and because when people cut back on salt they get better because they have cut back on the real problem, the foods that happen to be high in salt.

Be that as it may, I did discontinue using salt during cooking and I don’t add salt at the table. For 3-4 days I did find that my food tasted flat, but my taste quickly adjusted and now my food tastes fine. I do use some flavor enhancers in place of salt—for example, lemon juice or a vinegar (balsamic, sherry, red-wine, etc.) or citric acid (a white crystalline powder that you can put in the salt shaker for use at the table), since acid brightens the taste. And I make and have on hand Dr. Greger’s Savory Spice Blend. I put the ingredients into a small food processor I and process them to powder the dried herbs. You can also buy salt-free spice-herb blends at the supermarket, but check the label: some such blends do have salt (and even sugar).

If you’re interested in losing weight, Cronometer can help with that. Go to “Settings > Profile” and enter your personal information including activity level, and then go to “Settings > Targets” and enter your target weight and choose the rate at which you wish to lose weight — e.g., 1 lb (or 0.5kg) per week. The program will then compute a calorie budget and display that on the “Diary” page where you enter your foods.
Calories, of course, provide zero information about food quality — 100 calories of refined sugar, which has no nutritional value at all, and 100 calories of cooked lentils, bursting with nutritional value, are identical insofar as calories are concerned. So Cronometer also displays the specific nutrients you are consuming, with a progress bar for each nutrient.

It’s all about food choices

Weight loss is almost totally driven by food choices (which foods and how much). Exercise is essential for endurance fitness (stamina), gained through cardio (sustained, aerobic) exercise like brisk walking (3 mph/5 kph or faster, 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week), running, bicycling, swimming, and the like. Cardio exercise is required for good health. You can also exercise for strength (gained through weight and resistance training and mat exercises) and for flexibility (stretching, yoga, Feldenkrais, and the like), and while strength and flexibility are good, cardiovascular fitness is essential for your health.

In terms of weight loss specifically, exercise is neither necessary nor sufficient to lose weight. In contrast, good food choices are both necessary and sufficient to lose weight. This is borne out from studies discussed in a recent article in the Guardian: people in 1976 were slim, and they ate substantially more calories than do the obese population of today—but they ate different foods.

It’s worth noting that the simple-minded idea “eat less, move more” does not really address the problem. (It’s like thinking you’ve cured poverty by chanting “spend less than you earn” or you’ve cured clinical depression by saying “snap out of it — look on the bright side.”) In fact, “eat less” amounts only to simply control, and that is not nearly so successful as changing the foods you eat, as this brief video explains:

And from this heartbreaking (and infuriating) article by Michael Hobbes:

Since 1980, the obesity rate has doubled in 73 countries and increased in 113 others. And in all that time, no nation has reduced its obesity rate. Not one.

The problem is that in America, like everywhere else, our institutions of public health have become so obsessed with body weight that they have overlooked what is really killing us: our food supply. Diet is the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for more than five times the fatalities of gun violence and car accidents combined. But it’s not how much we’re eating—Americans actually  consume fewer calories now than we did in 2003. It’s what we’re eating.

For more than a decade now, researchers have found that the quality of our food affects disease risk independently of its effect on weight. Fructose, for example, appears to damage insulin sensitivity and liver function more than other sweeteners with the same number of calories. People who eat nuts four times a week have 12 percent lower diabetes incidence and a 13 percent lower mortality rate regardless of their weight. All of our biological systems for regulating energy, hunger and satiety get thrown off by eating foods that are high in sugar, low in fiber and injected with additives. And which now, shockingly, make up 60 percent of the calories we eat.

Bee Wilson’s article in the Guardian, “The Toxic Truth about Modern Food,” is worth reading in full. From that article:

. . . What we eat now is a greater cause of disease and death in the world than either tobacco or alcohol. In 2015 around 7 million people died from tobacco smoke, and 2.75 million from causes related to alcohol, but 12m deaths could be attributed to “dietary risks” such as diets low in vegetables, nuts and seafood or diets high in processed meats and sugary drinks. This is paradoxical and sad, because good food – good in every sense, from flavour to nutrition – used to be the test by which we judged the quality of life. A good life without good food should be a logical impossibility.

Where humans used to live in fear of plague or tuberculosis, now the leading cause of mortality worldwide is diet. Most of our problems with eating come down to the fact that we have not yet adapted to the new realities of plenty, either biologically or psychologically. Many of the old ways of thinking about diet no longer apply, but it isn’t clear yet what it would mean to adapt our appetites and routines to the new rhythms of life. We take our cues about what to eat from the world around us, which becomes a problem when our food supply starts to send us crazy signals about what is normal. “Everything in moderation” doesn’t quite cut it in a world where the “everything” for sale in the average supermarket has become so sugary and so immoderate. . .

Talking about what has gone wrong with modern eating is delicate, because food is a touchy subject. No one likes to feel judged about their food choices, which is one of the reasons why so many healthy eating initiatives fail. The rise of obesity and diet-related disease around the world has happened hand in hand with the marketing of fast food and sugary sodas, of processed meats and branded snack foods. As things stand, our culture is far too critical of the individuals who eat junk foods and not critical enough of the corporations who profit from selling them. A survey of more than 300 international policymakers found that 90% of them still believed that personal motivation – AKA willpower – was a very strong cause of obesity. This is absurd.

It makes no sense to presume that there has been a sudden collapse in willpower across all ages and ethnic groups since the 1960s. What has changed most since the 60s is not our collective willpower but the marketing and availability of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Some of these changes are happening so rapidly it’s almost impossible to keep track. Sales of fast food grew by 30% worldwide from 2011 to 2016 and sales of packaged food grew by 25%. Somewhere in the world, a new branch of Domino’s Pizza opened every seven hours in 2016. . .

Also read “The Death of the Calorie,” an article whose blurb reads:

For more than a century we’ve counted on calories to tell us what will make us fat. Peter Wilson says it’s time to bury the world’s most misleading measure.

Watch the documentary What the Health sometime, but make allowance for the fact that it’s pushing a particular idea and has some overstatements. For example, I don’t agree with Dr. Barnard that refined sugar is so blameless regarding diabetes because the amount of sugar in the food supply corresponds to the rate of diabetes and the link seems strong—but he makes a good case in the interview below (and he points out that high-glycemic index carbs are bad, and refined sugar is the poster child of high-glycemic carbs). Also, the statements in What the Health about the WHO classification of carcinogens are technically accurate but  also are misleading (see this FAQ from the WHO). So watch with a grain of salt. Here’s an interview with Dr. Barnard that has good information:

Looking at foods purely in terms of calories misses an essential point. Suppose you got in your car and the fuel gauge was close to “Empty,” so you want to fill the gas tank, which takes 11 gallons. Would you use whatever liquid is handiest (and cheapest)? Or would you look not just at quantity but also at the nature of the liquid? Using only volume to select fuel makes no more sense than using only calories to select food. Getting adequate calories is not guarantee of health, and cutting calories combined with poor food choices (eating processed foods, for example) can lead to feeling hungry and not to losing weight (because the hunger drives you to eat more).

I strongly recommend you prepare your meals from scratch (and below I list suggestions—tips, tools, techniques, recipes, and attitude—to make that something you will enjoy). The quotations above helps explain why it’s good for your physical health to prepare your meals from scratch. It’s also good for your mental health because with experience you feel competent and self-reliant, with the locus of control within yourself—plus it does give you control over what you eat.

And the food choices are about something else

If you stick with this video to the end, it has some big payoffs in seeing certain dots connect.

However, two cautions: First, you can find single studies to support many odd findings. Having multiple, different studies by different researchers that come to the same conclusion provides more assurance that the findings are reliable. Second, when a study is cited but the date of the study is not mentioned, some caution is appropriate: the findings of early studies are sometimes contradicted by later studies.

And let me point out a very informative PDF, “Managing Overweight and Obesity in Adults: Systematic Evidence Review from the Obesity Expert Panel,” published in Nov 2013. This study indicates that LCHF diets may not be quite the panacea that is commonly claimed. It may well be more important to avoid refined sugar and refined flour and meat, dairy, and eggs and make your meals from scratch, to avoid product foods (branded, packaged, refined, with lots of additives) and instead eat whole foods (vegetables, beans, grain, fruit, nuts, and seeds) that you prepare yourself. As I mentioned above, I am no longer so concerned with minimizing net carbs but now focus more on which carbs I eat and how I prepare them.

One important idea that should be noted is that, because overeating and obesity are strongly correlated, most presume that there is a causal connection—namely, that overeating causes obesity. There is increasing evidence that the causal connection is in the other direction: obesity causes overeating. See this NY Times column by David S. Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Mark I. Friedman,  vice president of research at the Nutrition Science Initiative. See also David Ludwig’s book Always Hungry?: Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells, and Lose Weight Permanently. (Seeing causality in the wrong direction happens more than you might think: it was once thought that forests grew because the climate in the forest region was wetter; we now understand that the climate is wetter in that region because of the forest. The Amazon rainforest, for example, puts more water into the atmosphere (through the leaves of the forest) than flows in the Amazon River.)

In reference to the “always hungry?” title: I was surprised to find myself eating noticeably less when I went on the whole-food plant-based diet. It didn’t happen right away, but about 5-6 weeks after switching over, I became aware that I just got full sooner and wasn’t hungry. The food I once cooked as breakfast was too much. I ate half for breakfast, the other half for lunch. And dinner became smaller. See this post.

In addition to good food choices, try intermittent fasting

I also highly recommend that you consider intermittent fasting (IF) for reasons discussed in this article from Harvard Medical School: “Intermittent Fasting: A Surprising Update.” from that article:

IF as a weight loss approach has been around in various forms for ages, but was highly popularized in 2012 by BBC broadcast journalist Dr. Michael Mosley’s TV documentary Eat Fast, Live Longer and book The Fast Diet, followed by journalist Kate Harrison’s book The 5:2 Diet based on her own experience, and subsequently by Dr. Jason Fung’s 2016 bestseller The Obesity Code. IF generated a steady positive buzz as anecdotes of its effectiveness proliferated.

As a lifestyle-leaning research doctor, I needed to understand the science. The Obesity Code seemed the most evidence-based summary resource, and I loved it. Fung successfully combines plenty of research, his clinical experience, and sensible nutrition advice, and also addresses the socioeconomic forces conspiring to make us fat. He is very clear that we should eat more fruits and veggies, fiber, healthy protein, and fats, and avoid sugar, refined grains, processed foods, and for God’s sake, stop snacking. Check, check, check, I agree. The only part that was still questionable in my mind was the intermittent fasting part.

Intermittent fasting can help weight loss

IF makes intuitive sense. The food we eat is broken down by enzymes in our gut and eventually ends up as molecules in our bloodstream. Carbohydrates, particularly sugars and refined grains (think white flours and rice), are quickly broken down into sugar, which our cells use for energy. If our cells don’t use it all, we store it in our fat cells as, well, fat. But sugar can only enter our cells with insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas. Insulin brings sugar into the fat cells and keeps it there.

Between meals, as long as we don’t snack, our insulin levels will go down and our fat cells can then release their stored sugar, to be used as energy. We lose weight if we let our insulin levels go down. The entire idea of IF is to allow the insulin levels to go down far enough and for long enough that we burn off our fat. . . .

  1. Avoid refined sugars and refined grains. Instead, eat fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats (a sensible, plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet). [NOTE: When I say I eat “whole grains,” I mean I am eating the intact (cooked) kernel of grain, not cut and not crushed and not ground (e.g., I eat oat groats, hulled barley, wheat berries in preference to steel-cut or rolled oats, pearled or pot barley, cracked wheat or wheat flour). In addition to the foods listed as part of the Mediterranean diet, I eat nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices because of their nutritional value. – LG]
  2. Let your body burn fat between meals. Don’t snack. Be active throughout your day. Build muscle tone.
  3. Consider a simple form of intermittent fasting. Limit the hours of the day when you eat, and for best effect, make it earlier in the day (between 7 am to 3 pm, or even 10 am to 6 pm, but definitely not in the evening before bed).
  4. Avoid snacking or eating at nighttime, all the time.

There’s a lot more in the article, including specific advice on how to do intermittent fasting. Do read the whole thing. I realized that I knew much of this from childhood since to a degree “intermittent fasting” is just a term for “no eating between meals.”

Also, take a look at this very recent study: “Clinical study finds eating within 10-hour window may help stave off diabetes, heart disease.” The summary:

Researchers have found that a 10-hour time-restricted eating intervention, when combined with traditional medications, resulted in weight loss, reduced abdominal fat, lower blood pressure and cholesterol for participants. The pilot study could lead to a new treatment option for metabolic syndrome patients who are at risk for developing life-altering and costly medical conditions such as diabetes.

What I’m doing now: I now limit my eating to a 4-hour window between 10:00am and 2:00pm: a breakfast at 10:00 (including an orange), a piece of fruit at 11:00, a lunch at 12:00, a piece of fruit at 1:00, and a final meal just before 2:00. See this post for why I think it works without my getting hungry (or hypoglycemic) and why I like it so much. I quickly noted that, when I stifled an impulse to eat outside the 4-hour window, the impulse was from habit rather than hunger. My fasting blood glucose the second day on this plan was 5.4 mmol/L (97.2 mg/dL), which is “normal.”

Exercise’s role in weight loss and fitness

Exercise is not necessary for weight loss because even someone who is quite sedentary (me, for example, when I lost most of my weight) can easily lose weight by making good food choices (which foods and how much), and exercise is not sufficient for weight loss because even someone who exercises daily can consume enough high-caloric and unhealthful foods so that they will not lose weight—for example—so even if you exercise you must pay attention to what you eat and make good food choices. Thus good food choices are both necessary and sufficient for weight loss.

In How Not to Die, Dr. Greger observes:

Surveys suggest that most people believe controlling diet and getting enough exercise are equally important for weight control.9 It’s a lot easier to eat, however, than to move. To walk off the calories found in a single pat of butter or margarine, you’d have to add about an extra half-mile to your evening stroll. For ever additional sardine [sic] on your Caesar salad, that’s another quarter-mile job. If you eat two chicken legs you’ll need to get up on your own two legs and run three miles just to make up for it—and that’s stewed chicken, skin removed.10

The numbers in the text identify footnotes that specify the studies whose findings support the statements. (And Caesar salads are made with anchovies, not sardines.)

Here’s an example of how exercise without good food choices is insufficient. Consider a person who runs two miles every morning and then celebrates by having a medium glazed doughnut. Running two miles ≈ 200 calories; one medium glazed doughnut ≈ 255 calories. The daily run is a good cardio exercise and does contribute to fitness, but the person (assuming the rest of his/her diet is enough to maintain weight—that is, the rest of the diet represents good food choices) will slowly but surely put on weight from the surplus 55 calories per day. And in fact many who take up exercise do eat more (and make bad food choices) because they are hungrier and/or feel that since they’re exercising they can eat anything and as much as they want.

My own exercise choice—for fitness, not weight loss

I did find that as I neared my target weight, I encountered a lengthy plateau. (More on plateaus below.) I began doing a 20-minute daily walk, and weight loss immediately resumed, so exercise can indeed be helpful as you get closer to your weight goal. Cardio exercise is, as noted above, essential for cardiovascular health—diet alone is insufficient for that—and as my diet produced results and I lost weight, I was moved to improve my overall health—thus my beginning cardio/aerobic exercise. Moreover, exercise fights chronic inflammation—see this article. And, as Dr. Greger points out in How Not to Die:

In a 2010 study published in the Archives of Neurology, researchers took a group of people with mild cognitive impairment—those who are starting to forget things, for example, or regularly repeating themselves—and had them engage in aerobic exercise for forty-five to sixty minutes a day, four days a week, for six months. The control group was instructed to simply stretch for the same time periods.

Memory tests were performed before and after the study. Researchers found that in the control (stretching) group, cognitive function continued to decline. But the exercising group not only didn’t get worse, they got better. The exercisers got more test answers correct after six months, indicating their memory had improved.

Subsequent studies using MRI scans found that aerobic exercise can actually reverse age-related shrinkage in the memory centers of the brain. No such effect was found in the stretching and toning control groups or a nonaerobic strength-training group. Aerobic exercise can help improve cerebral blood flow, improve memory performance, and help preserve brain tissue.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who spent his career studying cardio exercise and its effects, developed a point system to measure the cardio effects of different exercises. He recommends a minimum of 35 points per week for men, 27 points per week for women, exercising at least 4 days a week and at most 6. (He specifically recommends taking at least one day off each week.) In his books, he describes how such exercise benefits your body through the training effect: your heart and diaphragm (being muscles) become stronger and do their work more easily, your capillary network that carries blood to and from your muscles becomes denser, your blood volume increases, your lungs gain capacity to process oxygen.

His point system tells you for each type of exercise the number of points earned for various times and distances, as shown in this table (PDF). The table starts with Walking/Running, but scroll down through the document to see the points for cycling, for swimming, and other cardio exercises, including some sports.

I use a smartphone app, Pedometer++, to track steps (and there are other pedometer apps), and within a few weeks I was doing 8000-10,000 steps a day, with my morning walk (about 7200 of those steps) taking around 66 minutes. In addition to tracking steps, Pedometer++ computes distances, keeps track of the number of consecutive days you achieved your goal, displays total steps and distance since you installed the app, doles out awards, and so on. See also Plotaroute.com for planning a measured route in your neighborhood.

I found that using Nordic walking poles was quite helpful in two ways: first, they make the walk more interesting and enjoyable; and second, they exercise the arms and shoulders, thus burning 20% more calories than regular walking with no discernible increase in effort—indeed, they seem to make the walk easier by distributing the effort among more muscles. The reason my walk grew to an hour is because using Nordic walking poles made the walk so enjoyable. I was pulled to walking an hour rather than pushing myself to do it. (It’s interesting that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, in its guidelines for starting an exercise program, also stresses that your exercise program should be something you enjoy. They write, “Your goal is to establish an exercise routine you enjoy. Make sure your first activity sessions are fun and not tiring.”)

Nordic walking poles are not the same as trekking poles. Trekking poles are for back-country and trail hiking over uneven terrain, whereas Nordic walking poles are for exercise walks in town and parks. The differences (in design, purpose, and technique), once you see example poles in action, are clear.

Current research finds that doing your walk in the woods, a park, or other natural surroundings is ideal in benefiting your mental health as well as your physical health, as can regular visits to the cinema, theater, or museums, which has been shown to dramatically reduce the chances of becoming depressed in older age. See also this article.

Even a plain walk, without Nordic walking poles, can be highly beneficial. I mentioned above Kenneth Cooper’s guidelines. I recently looked at how my Nordic walking fits with Cooper’s point system for cardio exercise. (I highly recommend Cooper’s books on aerobic exercise. Secondhand copies are readily available from Abebooks.com.)

It should be noted that if you are walking a good distance each day, abruptly discontinuing your exercise routine can be risky to your health.

In addition to cardiovascular health, exercise is required to avoid frailty in old age.  A study recently published in the British Journal of Medical Practice concluded “A combination of muscle strength training and protein supplementation was the most effective intervention to delay or reverse frailty and the easiest to implement in primary care.” This was quite a robust study, so the importance of strength training is not to be ignored.

However, the level of strength training need not be extreme: we’re talking at-home exercises, not hitting the gym. Dr. Miriam Nelson’s book Strong Women Stay Young provides a excellent series of simple home exercises that have been proven to reverse frailty and weakness and balance problems associated with aging. The only equipment required is a set of dumbbells. Dumbbells can sometimes be found at garage sales, and they’re also not terribly expensive to buy new. The maximum weight required is pretty low, so a set of adjustable dumbbells (running around $300) would be overkill.

Refined sugar and other quickly digested carbohydrates are bad

Refined sugar (cane sugar, beet sugar, agave syrup, maple syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)) and carbohydrates like white potatoes (hash browns, french fries, potato chips, roasted, etc.), rice (brown or white: they both have a high glycemic index), corn (cornbread, corn chips, popcorn), foods made with flour (e.g., bread, bagels, pasta, muffins, pancakes, boxed cereals), juice (which is terrible), high-sugar dried fruit (raisins, mangoes, et al.)—all those disrupt the metabolism.

The book Anticancer: A New Way of Life has this interesting passage:

When [Loren Cordain, PhD] was told that certain population groups whose way of life is very different from ours had no experience of acne (which is caused by an inflammation of the epidermis, among other mechanisms), he wanted to find out how this could occur… Cordain accompanied a team of dermatologists to examine the skin of 1,200 adolescents cut off from the rest of the world in the Kitavan Islands of New Guinea, and 130 Ache Indians living in isolation in Paraguay. In these two groups they found no trace whatsoever of acne. In their article in Archives of Dermatology, the researchers attributed their amazing discovery to the adolescents’ nutrition. The diets of these contemporary sheltered groups resemble those of our distant ancestors: no refined sugar or white flour, thus no peaks of insulin or IGF in the blood.

In Australia, researchers convinced Western adolescents to try a diet restricting sugar and white flour for three months. In a few weeks, their insulin and IGF levels diminished. So did their acne.

The simple fact is that not all calories are the same: 100 calories from refined sugar or white bread affect the body in a very different way than 100 calories from, say, cooked lentils or fresh avocado. That’s why those who focus only on calories—”just consume fewer calories than you burn”—miss a vital point: the nature of the foods that carry the calories is extremely important, and you cannot (without consequences) ignore the nature of the foods and look only at the calories they contain. Watch this brief video for why knowing the caloric content of a food doesn’t provide enough information for an informed choice:

A recent study found that ultraprocessed foods drive weight gain more than other foods containing the same number of calories. From an NPR report by Maria Godoy:

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, agrees that the findings are striking. He says what was so impressive was that the NIH researchers documented this weight gain even though each meal offered on the two different diets contained the same total amount of calories, fats, protein, sugar, salt, carbohydrates and fiber. Study participants were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted but ended up eating way more of the ultra-processed meals, even though they didn’t rate those meals as being tastier than the unprocessed meals.

“These are landmark findings that the processing of the foods makes a huge difference in how much a person eats,” says Mozaffarian. That’s important, because the majority of foods now sold in the U.S. — and increasingly, around the globe — are ultra-processed.

And ultra-processed foods include more than just the obvious suspects, like chips, candy, packaged desserts and ready-to-eat meals. The category also includes foods that some consumers might find surprising, including Honey Nut Cheerios and other breakfast cereals, packaged white bread, jarred sauces, yogurt with added fruit, and frozen sausages and other reconstituted meat products. Popkin says ultra-processed foods usually contain a long list of ingredients, many of them made in labs. So, for example, instead of seeing “apples” listed on a food label, you might get additives that re-create the scent of that fruit. These are foods designed to be convenient and low cost and require little preparation. [And to be addictive and ultimately unsatiating, so that you’ll buy more, which is the corporation’s goal: you’re just a means to achieve that goal, so manipulating your desires is just good business. – LG][And also: see this – LG]

That passage explains why I emphasize preparing your own meals from scratch, and since that is something you should do, I explain below how to make it actually enjoyable so that you are drawn to doing it because it’s a pleasure. From the food manufacturer’s point of view, the fact that such processed foods are not satiating, so that you consume more and more, is a benefit, since if people eat more, then company profits increase. A food manufacturer is motivated to make food appealing (ease of preparation, appearance, initial taste (the seductive combination of salt+sweet+fat), and so on), and if the food is also not satiating and leaves people wanting more, that’s all to the (manufacturer’s) good—though not so good for the increasingly obese consumer.

Sugar, BTW, is not so simple as you might think, and different sugars have different effects. This article has a good explanation—and note the dangers of fructose. And, interestingly, the quantity of refined sugar in the food supply is strongly linked to the rate of diabetes in the population: see this report. My grandmother commonly used the term “sugar diabetes” instead of just “diabetes,” and in terms of type 2 diabetes, she was onto something. But notice how different sugars are in this table from a video by Dr. Greger:

Sugar comparison

Date sugar consist of ground-up dried dates, so it is a natural sugar and not a refined sugar. That’s important because refined sugar, unlike natural sugar in fruit, is bad. See “The Startling Link Between Sugar and Alzheimer’s” and watch this video:

Simply put, the sugar industry paid scientists to lie, and lie they did. (The article at the link implies that accepting industry money to lie was understood at the time to be perfectly okay, but the article itself is lying at that point.)

One good reason to avoid added sugar: If you don’t eat foods with added sugar, you don’t get cavities:

A longer video by Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, “Sweet Revenge,” has more details on how refined sugar undermines health (and adds pounds). Or watch an earlier talk, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” also by Dr. Lustig. And see the NY Times Magazine article “Is Sugar Toxic?” by Gary Taubes, which discusses (among other things) Dr. Lustig’s research. And recent research shows that “sugar consumption actually lowers people’s alertness within 60 minutes after consumption, and it increases feelings of fatigue within 30 minutes after eating.”

Watch this brief video as well:

Unfortunately, sugar substitutes, especially artificial sweeteners, have their own dangers. In addition, artificial sweeteners destroy your gut microbiome. There is, however, one exception: erythritol seems to be a good sweetener (see this article).

The best approach is to stop wanting foods that have been sweetened with refined sugar. Focus on developing a taste for the savory, rather than the sweet. (You can rather easily reset food preferences, including learning to like a food you currently find distasteful. See “How to Stop Hating Your Least Favorite Food.”)

Try this: after tasting the foods on your plate, construct your “last bite.” That is a bite-size portion of the food(s) in the meal that you want to be the last taste you have of the meal. Cut out and move aside that bite and save it for the end. That bite will be the final taste of the meal.

If you consistently make that last bite savory, you’ll develop your taste to prefer to end a meal with something savory—i.e., not with dessert. It will seem natural to enjoy the savory ending, and you won’t want to spoil the last-bite taste. For example, the last bite may be (depending on the meal), a bite of turkey with a little dressing; or a particularly tasty pairing of vegetables; or a small piece of bacon with a bit of egg; or a bite of steak from the best part of the steak; and so on.

And if you do want a dessert, eat a piece of fresh or frozen (no sugar added) fruit. I buy frozen mixed berries (raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries), and for a dessert I thaw 1/2 cup of the berries. (Berries are particularly valuable nutritionally because of their high antioxidant content.) Don’t drink fruit juices, which are refined to be nothing more than . Eat whole fruit instead. Natural sugar in fruit does not impact your body the way refined sugar does. Watch this brief video:

What helps in this effort is that your gut microbiome drives food cravings, and if you don’t eat refined sugar and don’t eat refined foods but instead eat whole foods, your gut microbiome’s population will quickly change and cravings will dwindle.

Resistant starch helps with carbs

Resistant starch (e.g., cooked dried beans) does not digest quickly in the stomach and a good portion passes on, largely undigested, to the small intestine, where it serves as a prebiotic like dietary fiber—i.e., food for the gut microbiome. Thus resistant starches do not have the immediate effect of raising blood glucose levels (triggering an insulin rush and, over time, insulin resistance) that happens when you’ve eaten a quickly digested starch (e.g., white bread, bagels, muffins, pastry, desserts, white potatoes, rice, corn, and fruit juice).

However, if you cook a starch (intact whole grains, for example, or even potatoes or rice) and chill it before you eat it, the starch reconfigures itself and becomes resistant. See this article for details. Once you’ve chilled rice, for example, you can use it for stir-fry (which in any case works better with left-over rice than with freshly cooked rice). And pasta salads that use chilled cooked pasta will be less quickly digested that freshly cooked pasta. Resistant starch has some benefits similar to dietary fiber. Watch this 5-minute video. And note how resistant starch helps protect against colorectal cancer, the third most common cause of cancer death in the world.

This post describes in detail resistant starch and how to get the benefits—for example, eating raspberries in a meal with starch produces the safe effect as a resistant starch. And see also this definitive guide to resistant starch.

When I learned about resistant starch, I realized that I’d been using the idea without knowing it. Each week I was cooking a batch of oat groats (intact whole-grain oats)—bring 3 cups of water to the boil, add 1 cup oat groats, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook 60-75 minutes, until the oats are thick). I refrigerated this, and for breakfast, heated 1/2 cup in my breakfast mix of sautéed vegetables (recipe given below). Add 1/4 teaspoon cloves to give a big antioxidant boost, and 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts to give a good taste and some omega-3. Cooking the oat groats and then refrigerating them makes their starch resistant. I do the same with hulled barley, wheat berries (kamut, usually), whole rye, and beans.

So one new dietary direction I took was to no longer seek to minimize my intake of net carbs. Instead, I switched to high-fiber carbs (beans, intact whole grains, quinoa, amaranth), and I chill those after cooking to make the starch resistant. (That has the added benefit that when I go to prepare a meal, most of the components are already cooked and ready to go.)

This has worked well. My fasting blood glucose level was 5.4 mmol/L and 5.5 mmol/L on two successive days recently, and 5.5 is the highest “normal” fasting BG level (5.6 being “pre-diabetic). Being within the normal range is quite good, and I did that while eating a daily average of 127g net carbs (total carbs minus dietary fiber—and the amount of dietary fiber I eat averages 55g/day). I get these figures from Cronometer.com, which can display daily averages of nutrients for any date range you specify. (My average daily sodium intake is 1100mg, comfortably below the 1200mg/day maximum recommended for men my age.)

How excess body fat works to destroy you

Excess body fat (adipose tissue) is bad for reasons other than appearance and stamina. Fat, particularly excess fat, acts as a gland, secreting enzymes that affect your body, and those effects include (among other things—search “excess fat body damage” for more) chronic inflammation, which in itself is destructive and may even be linked to depression: see this article on the depression epidemic, which discusses the possibility that depression is caused by inflammation in the brain—and note that the increase in obesity in the US has been accompanied by an increase in the number suffering from depression. Search “depression and inflammation” and you’ll find many hits. 

Diet, it has been found, can also directly affect mood and depression. From the link: “There’s fresh evidence that eating a healthy diet, one that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and limits highly processed foods, can help reduce symptoms of depression.”

And from an article in the Atlantic:

When people eat a plant-heavy diet, the fiber from the plant matter ferments in the gut and creates short-chain fatty acids, which, in turn, regulate the immune system and influence gene expression in the brain and elsewhere. People who eat fiber have more diverse gut bacteria, and these bacteria make various chemicals that influence our mood.

Inflammation worsens many diseases, in fact. For example, read this Scientific American article: “For Alzheimer’s Sufferers, Brain Inflammation Ignites a Neuron-Killing “Forest Fire.” And Harvard Magazine has a recent article on the illnesses that come from chronic inflammation.

Evidence has been mounting that these common chronic conditions—including Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, asthma, gout, psoriasis, anemia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and depression among them—are indeed triggered by low-grade, long-term inflammation. But it took that large-scale human clinical trial to dispel any lingering doubt: the immune system’s inflammatory response is killing people by degrees.

Getting rid of excess body fat is an important health priority: New evidence that fat cells are not just dormant storage depots for calories (and click the link at the beginning of that article for the original research report). See also: Biochemistry of adipose tissue: an endocrine organ. Moreover, fat desensitizes the brain to a hormone that diminishes appetite. And intramuscular fat increases insulin resistance.

Bottom line: just read the report “Health Risks of Being Overweight” from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

More on carbs

Once I changed my diet to a plant-focused diet, my intake of carbs (from beans and intact whole grains) did increase significantly, but since I refrigerate those after they are cooked, the starch becomes resistant. Here’s a typical day’s macronutrient intake.Averages BG readings

I have tracked carefully my blood glucose levels, and the trend is good (see at the right). Intact whole grains and beans are a good source of protein and also a good source of fiber. I believe that what has contributed to this drop in my average blood-glucose levels are weight loss (less intramuscular fat) and a diet with a good amount of dietary fiber from food (rather than supplements). I find it’s pretty easy to lose weight if you never feel hungry, and Cronometer.com is quite helpful: you can set your weight-loss/weight-gain goal in terms of pounds per week, and Cronometer will provide a calorie budget and track how you do against that budget. (It’s still up to you to choose good-quality foods rather than junk foods, of course—and junk foods leave you feeling hungry, as discussed above.)

Harvard Medical School, in this post, notes that some foods cause inflammation—for example, refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pastries; French fries and other fried foods; soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages (soda pop is particularly hard on your health); red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage, bacon); and margarine, shortening, and lard. And they list some foods that reduce inflammation: cooked tomatoes; extra-virgin olive oil; green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, collards, chard, cabbage, and other greens (dandelion, mustard, turnip, etc.); nuts like almonds and walnuts; fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines; and fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges (not orange juice: the fruit itself). With my current diet, I am eating none of the foods that cause inflammation and a lot of foods that reduce it.

When I was on a low-carb high-fat diet, I did eat more fat than I do now. Genetics certainly plays a role, but after I had been on a low-carb high-fat diet for 5 years, including a good amount of animal fat, my blood panel showed these results:

Cholesterol 3.81 mmol/L (should be in the range 2.00-5.19)
HDL Cholesterol 1.78 mmol/L (should be >0.99)
Chol/HDL (Risk Ratio) 2.14 (should be <4.9)
Non HDL Cholesterol 2.03 mmol/L (The optimal non HDL-cholesterol level for intermediate and high risk individuals is ≤ 2.60 mmol/L. See Canadian Journal of Cardiology 2013 vol 29 pgs 151 to 167.)

The key to healthy consumption of fats is to know the essential fatty acids that you must consume in your diet (because your body cannot make them)—omega-6 and omega-3—and the proper ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (small: if you get much more omega-6 than omega-3, that’s bad). Seed oils, for example, in general have way too high a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. See this post from UC Davis Integrative Medicine for a clear explanation. One nice thing Cronometer offers is a display of the ratio of your omega-6 to omega-3 intake. For the past 3 weeks my average of that raio is 1.838—not 1.0, but damn close. The typical American diet has the ratio at 15 to 16.7. See: The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Protein intake remains normal

Do not increase your protein intake. The reason for keeping protein at the normal level is that higher levels of protein intake can be hard on the kidneys (see High-protein diets: potential effects on the kidney in renal health and disease and Dietary protein intake and renal function and on the heart (see High-protein diets are linked to heightened risk for heart disease, even for vegetarians). Unless you’re building new muscle at a good clip (for example, an adolescent or a weight trainer), protein intake should be kept at normal levels—use this calculator to see your macronutrient requirements in general, including protein.

Two common misconceptions about protein. The first misconception is that you should be concerned about getting enough of the “essential” proteins—proteins that you must consume in your diet because your body cannot make them—if you eat a plant-based diet. That’s incorrect. The 9 essential proteins (or 8: there’s a big debate about whether histidine should be included or not) are available in ample amounts just from eating a variety of plant foods: if you get enough calories, you get enough of all the proteins. So don’t worry about the essential proteins or about complementary proteins or about incomplete proteins or the like: your diet will have all the essential proteins you need if you’re eating a good variety of whole (not refined or processed) plant foods. Watch this:

This is an important point. For years I would not consider changing to a plant-focused diet because I thought it would be difficult to get enough protein. This is simply not true: plant foods have plenty of protein, and if you eat a variety (including intact whole grains and beans, along with nuts and seeds, you get all the proteins you need. This article has valuable information on various protein options. (I do like tempeh, too; I often use it in a meal instead of cooked beans. I like to make my own: it’s easy, and you can do your own combinations—black or pinto peans with cumin and crushed red pepper or minced jalapeño; peanuts (raw peanuts, boiled) and kamut; and so on. And because of its mouthfeel, good tempeh works well in chili.

Watch this 5-minute video:

Dr. Greger’s other videos on protein are also worth watching, and this one in particular looks at the protein content of a plant-focused diet:

Over the past 3 weeks I average 66g/day of protein and 55g/day of dietary fiber, and during that time I’ve been restricting my caloric intake to lose some weight, my average intake being 1284 calories/day.

The other thing that worried me was B12, but it turns out that 1 tablespoon of nutritional yeast (which is fortified with B12, just as milk is fortified with Vitamin D) has more than enough B12 to meet the daily requirement, so I just include that much in one of my meals (typically breakfast). Moreover, soy/almond/oat milks are also fortified with B12 (and with calcium). Because we older folks don’t absorb B12 so easily, I take a daily B12 supplement, using this spray (which I think is better absorbed than tablets).

The second misconception is that protein from animal sources is somehow “better” than protein from plant sources. It’s not. Animal protein is inferior to plant protein because animal protein carries significant health risks. From a post at UC Davis Integrative medicine:

To begin with, many argue that protein sources from an animal-based diet are superior in quality because they promote growth more rapidly than plant-derived protein.  However, there is a negative side to this growth because animal protein increases ALL cellular growth.

Studies have confirmed this, showing a clear link between animal-derived protein and cancer cell growth via increase of IGF-1 levels.

To make matters worse, animal protein also increases expression of TOR, the enzyme responsible for aging.

I recommend reading the entire post, and also the post on essential fatty acids. And do watch the documentary (now on Netflix) Forks over Knives, which discusses in vivid detail the drawbacks of consuming animal protein. And a recent post by Dr. Greger further clarifies the risks associated with animal protein. This brief video by Dr. Greger is also worth watching:

And see also:

Plant protein is superior to animal protein because plant protein does not carry the risks that accompany animal sources of protein (meat, dairy, and eggs).

A plant-based diet is great for those with diabetes or insulin resistance

My Type 2 diabetes motivated me switch to a low-carb, high-fat diet. That diet did help control my blood glucose levels, and I have maintained an HbA1C of 5.8% or less for years now, and in recent years my HbA1C has run 5.3%.-5.5%, which lies totally within the “normal” range.

However, I became uneasy about the foods I was eating, and I reconsidered my diet. And in fact, as a doctor pointed out to me on Quora, my blood glucose was under control not because I was addressing the cause of the disease but because I was simply not eating any carbohydrates to speak off, so of course my blood glucose levels were low. But the underlying causes were not being addressed. I was finessing the problem, not solving it.

Now I have moved beyond a low-carb, high-fat diet to a diet focused on plants, without animal-based foods (meat, fish, fowl, eggs, dairy). The documentary Forks over Knives mentioned above also gives reasons why a plant-focused diet helps diabetics. (The movie is currently available on Netflix.) And watch this brief video:

This article in NPR reports how type 2 diabetes is being reversed by a diet and exercise regimen run by two nurses in Tennessee—note: “reversed,” not “cured.” I believe that once a person has type 2 diabetes, s/he must remain vigilant about which carbs they eat and how much, keep their weight down, and exercise. Otherwise, the diabetes will surge back. If I eat a meal with refined carbs (e.g. spaghetti), my fasting blood glucose the next day will be very high.

And, BTW, the remission in diabetes from eating a whole-food plant-based diet is not due to weight loss (which usually happens on such a diet), but due to the diet itself. Watch this brief video:

And this brief video will also be of interest to diabetics:

If you yourself have type 2 diabetes—it is unfortunately not rare—I highly recommend The Other Diabetes, by Elizabeth Hiser.

A whole-food plan-based diet is optimal for competitive athletes

I urge you to watch “The Game Changers” on Netflix or YouTube and other sites. Here are the recipes from the movie. Here’s the trailer:

After the movie was released a few critical articles were published, but the rebuttal to the criticisms seems convincing to me. Certainly the movie is worth watching.

A LCHF diet or a plant-focused diet is NOT a weight-loss diet per se

Weight-loss diets require calorie restriction, aka portion control. When I went on a low-carb high-fat diet, my blood-glucose immediately improved (because I simply was not eating carbs), but I didn’t lose much weight at all. Just to be clear: I do not recommend a low-carb high-fat diet, which is the diet I was eating. It is essentially the keto diet, but without worrying about whether you are in ketosis or not.

A low-carb diet may help with some diseases, but in general it is not a good idea. I highly recommend you watch these brief videos on the drawbacks and failures of the keto/low-carb diet. And here’s a succinct statement from a physician’s personal observations:

To get portion control without a total focus on calories (which, as noted above, do not provide good guidance as to which foods to eat), I went with the online WW Freestyle program. Once I was on that program, the pounds dropped away easily. I did it online (no meetings) and I had to do very little counting because an enormous number of foods are zero points for a normal serving.  (Obviously one should not be a glutton even with zero-point foods.) And the transition from weight loss to weight maintenance is easy: you change the setting on your WW page from “lose” to “maintain,” and points allowances are adjusted accordingly—there is no change at all in the foods you eat. This is important: see the basic criteria for a good diet.

When I started using WW Freestyle, I was still eating meat, but the points system (and the zero-point foods in particular) nudged me away from red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and toward seafood (fish and prawns mostly) and skinless chicken breast because those are zero points. I also greatly increased my intake of vegetables and fruit (also zero points for the most part). The change in my food choices took place unconsciously over some weeks as a by-product of my focus on minimizing points.

Now I’ve cut out animal-derived foods altogether and base my diet only plants (roots, stalks, leaves, buds, flowers, fruit, and seeds) and fungi. Most of those are zero WW points, but there are obvious exceptions: avocados, for example, are high in points, so I generally eat 1/4 of an avocado as a serving, and nuts and seeds are similarly high in points.

I did find that tracking points had the advantage that the point system nudged me toward more healthful foods. But I now use Cronometer.com, which automatically computes calories and has the significant advantage that, unlike the WW system, it tracks and displays information on nutrients. I find that it works much better for me, to the extent that I have discontinued WW (which also saves money: Cronometer is free, WW is not—though I did choose to pay the $35/year fee for Cronometer’s “Gold” level, which includes some additional features). Still, WW gave me the initial push toward making vegetables and fruits a bigger part of my diet, so I started Cronometer with some good inclinations toward which foods to eat.

The important point is that my food choices were the result of looking beyond calories and considering in addition the quality of the food. Eating whole foods from plant sources now seems to me to be the best foundation for my diet.

Nuts and seeds do require careful measuring since they are so high in calories. (They’re also high in protein and omega-3 fats, so I do eat them.) For example, a snack of 4 pecan halves, 3/4 ounce, is 150 calories. That’s substantial, since on my weight-loss calorie budge Cronometer allows 1170 calories per day: the pecans would be more than 10% of my day’s calories. Of course I get most of my daily food as nutritious low-calorie vegetables, and most the fruit I choose is also relatively low-calorie—not avocados, for sure, but berries or a mandarin orange or an apple. (BTW, the nutritious part of nuts is the pellicle, so get almonds with the pellicle intact rather than blanched almonds and peanuts with the reddish-brown pellicle still on them rather than removed.)

Temporary diets = bad diets

Some people go on odd diets—the celery and water diet, for example—to lose weight fast. They cannot stay on these diets permanently (since such diets are invariably nutritionally incomplete), so they know from the outset that the diet is temporary. However, the appeal is that they will have to eat it for only a short while (fast weight loss being the goal), and then once they reach their target weight, they can return (with relief) to their regular diet. And so, of course, they regain the weight they lost, since it was their regular diet that resulted in that weight in the first place. What they need is a comfortable and satisfying and nutritionally complete way of eating that can be their permanent diet. That’s what I describe. Your diet should satisfy the basic criteria for a good diet.

Foods that cause weight loss (and other fairy tales)

I fairly frequently read on Quora questions from people who believe that adding some special food(s) to their regular diet will result in weight loss. Typical of these “magic” foods are cinnamon, honey, ginger, garlic, turmeric, green tea, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, guava leaves, and hot water, alone or in some combination. Obviously, adding more foods to your regular diet will not cause you to lose weight. The quick fix (without fundamental change) is always appealing because it is easy. (Stephen Covey talks about this in another context in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Peopleread this (very incomplete) outline (PDF) to get an idea of the book, which is definitely worth purchasing, reading, and applying. It has you create a weekly plan that includes scheduling specific tasks toward achieving goals that are important to you but are not urgent. One of these planners will help.)

How to be happy with your diet

Look at the variety of whole plant-based foods and the meals you can make with them. If you focus your attention on what you can/should eat and not dwell on what you can’t (or shouldn’t) eat, you’ll feel much more satisfied with your lot. If you constantly obsess about foods you should avoid, you’ll make yourself unhappy and undermine your will to eat well. I mention this because it seems that people have a tendency to focus on what they lack and not on what they have. (“We look before and after, And pine for what is not; Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught; Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” – from To a Skylark.)

This beginner’s guide to a whole-food plant-based diet has good tips and useful links.

Prepare your meals from scratch—it quickly becomes enjoyable

If you don’t prepare your own meals already, I highly recommend that you start. For one thing, processed foods make you fat and if you’re going to eat foods that are not processed, you’re going to have to prepare them: they do not come ready-to-eat (except fruit and nuts, both excellent foods).

Preparing your own meals gives you complete control of what you eat, and it’s satisfying (in part because it is one of the few situations in which you do exercise complete control), and it imparts a useful skill (and exercising a skill you’ve acquired is another source of pleasure). And if you improvise your recipes (as I typically do), it makes you pay focused attention to what you’re doing—an exercise in mindfulness meditation: becoming absorbed in the experience of an activity. You become mindful both in the prep and cooking (e.g., deciding what foods to include and then preparing them) and in the eating (e.g., figuring out what worked and what didn’t and how to make it better next time).

For a good discussion of this, see Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a fascinating book for those who like being happy. Flow is exactly the state of being totally absorbed in what you’re doing to the extent that you lose track of time and of self. The thing you’re doing must not be too easy (or you get bored and distracted) or too hard (or you become anxious)—a task that requires about 85% of what you can do is about right. Also important is immediate feedback, as when drawing (you move the pencil, and the line immediately appear) or chopping food (you move the knife, the food separates). The whole book is worth reading.

Do not become impatient with yourself, a problem that particularly afflicts adults learning new skills and ideas. Adults have a clear vision of where they want to be, and they can also see clearly when they fall short, and some become frustrated and step outside their mindful experience of the moment to start berating themselves, summoning despair and a desire to quit. That, as you can easily see when you observe it in others, is counter-productive. Please read Mindset, by Carol Dweck, a Stanford research psychologist, for a new way to view and experience the process of learning. Specifically, in the early stages of learning focus on your progress and not on the results you obtain and view your efforts as practice. In the early stages of learning something new, progress is quite good although the results may not be what you want. Later, as the results become more satisfying, switch your attention to that, since progress will become somewhat slower.

As I note in this post, you can adjust your attitude so that the discomfort you experience in the initial stages of learning a new skill becomes a source of pleasure and delight, the discomfort being seen as a sign that you’re onto something that will pay off—like a prospector working a new claim and seeing color (cf. the prospector story in the Joel and Ethan Coen movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).

If you commit to the diet described in this post, then you should approach it in the right spirit: a spirit of exploration, enjoyment, and creativity. My mantra is “If you must do something, then make it enjoyable.” To make it enjoyable, look for enjoyment. You can actually find pleasure in, or derive pleasure from, each step along the way:

  • making up recipes that use the foods (vegetables, grains, beans, fruit, nuts, herbs, spices) you like
  • shopping for groceries (selecting produce, changing your menu ideas based on what looks especially good, etc.)
  • preparing the food (mindful of—paying attention to—what you’re doing and why)
  • cooking the food (in the same way)
  • eating the food (in the same way)
  • cleaning up afterward (easily done if you clean as you cook, so at the end you might have just a bowl and spoon to wash—and there is pleasure in leaving the kitchen just as you found it: clean and shipshape)

When you do it right—with the right mindset, the right attitude, the right spirit—you will feel pleasure, a sign that your spirit is being nourished. This spiritual nourishment is lost for those who subsist on foods they’ve not themselves prepared. Obviously, they can derive spiritual nourishment in other ways to get their minimum daily requirement—spiritual nourishment, it seems, is as essential as vitamins. Dystopias are universally depicted as low in, if not devoid of, spiritual nourishment, generally in addition to other privations—but spiritual starvation alone is enough to make a dystopia. Indeed, most of us know of persons, both fictional and real, who have material wealth but are spiritually starved—and I am not speaking of religion, but of a psychological need, a need that can be satisfied for some through religion and for others through other means.

Recognize that you lose something of value if you do not prepare your own meals. The process of meal preparation is, in a sense, an important aspect of your overall diet because it, like the food, provides a kind of nourishment. That does not mean that you must prepare your own meals, just that you be clear-eyed about what you lose if you don’t.

Don’t do things by rote, but use your head. Think about what you’re doing and why, and you will often see a better way of doing it. For example, many are strapped for time—some even going so far as to say that prevents them from cooking. But follow Tom Gilb’s injunction in his excellent Principles of Software Engineering Management: “Early!”

“Early!” might, for example, involve preparing your mise en place for the coming week on the weekend—Sunday morning, perhaps. You just did grocery shopping Friday night or Saturday, so you have on hand the vegetables that looked especially good. So get that ready for the week: chop what needs to be chopped, dice what needs to be diced, cook what you can cook (beans and grains, for example), and in general get everything ready for assembly or for the pot or pan. Don’t overlook that you can buy some frozen foods that are already chopped and ready to be cooked: frozen chopped kale, chopped collards, chopped turnip greens, chopped spinach, chopped broccoli, and so on. Frozen chopped onions work in stews and soups, though they don’t sauté so well as fresh chopped onion. (Try a comparison of fresh vs. frozen to see which you prefer.)

I store my food in glass containers rather than plastic, and I particularly like Glasslock storage containers, which you can buy at Bed Bath & Beyond, Amazon, hardware stores, and direct from the maker (at the link). Label the container with the food and the date it was cooked, using masking tape and an extra-fine Sharpie (“fine” is too thick). (If you don’t label the containers, you’ll find yourself constantly picking up each container and peering inside and trying to remember how long it’s been there.)

Put each vegetable—once cleaned and chopped and sliced, so that it’s ready to use—into a storage container and refrigerate. Cook what can be cooked ahead of time—for example, beans, grain or quinoa, leafy greens, and vegetables like beets (roast or steam) and carrots (roast) and butternut squash (roast) and zucchini (sauté) or summer squash (sauté) and store those in the fridge as well.

Update: I’m finding now that I prefer to dice (small dice) beets and carrots and daikon radish (high in potassium) and squash (summer squash and winter squash like delicata, acorn, and carnival squash) and refrigerate them raw, then use a handful of each to sauté with other refrigerated chopped vegetables: scallions, garlic, ginger, green beans, and so on. I also mix chopped foods in the container — for example, “Garlic” container has minced garlic and also minced ginger; “Tomato” container has sliced cherry tomatoes and also cut up dried tomatoes (dry pack, not oil pack); “Jalapeños” container has finely chopped jalapeños and also cut-up ancho chiles. See this post for details and an example meal. /update

So on a given weekend you might chop, say, carrots, scallions, onion, celery, green bell pepper, red bell pepper, and red cabbage, and while you’re doing that cook a pot of navy beans and also a pot of kamut and drain those when they’re done. Everything goes into storage containers and into the refrigerator. (I did find, especially after I switched to a plant-focused diet, that I needed to increase my collection of storage containers. I also learned not to prepare too much: as noted, it’s a filling diet and initially I prepared more food than I could eat.)

By refrigerating the cooked grain and beans, the starch becomes resistant and digests more slowly, thus extending the period of satiation. (See this fascinating 5-minute video: resistant starch serves somewhat the same role as dietary fiber.)

Nowadays when I think about preparing a meal, I start by thinking of the beans (1/2 cup) and grain (1/4-1/3 cup) and then think of what vegetables to include and whether the dish will be hot (a stew of sorts (with low-sodium vegetable broth), a stir-fry (with a little extra-virgin olive oil), or a salad (with fresh arugula and/or shredded red cabbage).

For a stir-fry, heat a little olive oil in a cast-iron or carbon-steel skillet, and stir-fry the combination of the chopped vegetables you have in the fridge. That takes about 10 minutes, plus you can add any sauce you happen to want that night (and do consider making your own sauces rather than buying prepared: you’ll use better ingredients than do profit-focused corporations (for example, make your own mayo and ketchup). Stir-fry sauces are easy to make in the skillet.

The cooked vegetables in the fridge might include diced steamed beets, roasted butternut squash, steamed broccoli, chopped squash or zucchini sautéed with onion, cooked kale or chard—basically, the vegetables that looked good at the store. I generally use 1/2 cup each of two different vegetables.

A salad idea: grind a tablespoon or two of flaxseed and put it into a bowl with 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1/3 cup cooked grain, a few vegetables (chopped scallions, chopped bell pepper, coarsely grated carrot), perhaps 1/2 cup cooked broccoli, 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast, and 1 cup shredded red cabbage or arugula.

Toss that with a salad dressing you make: Put into a small jar 1 tablespoon olive oil, juice of a lemon, 1 teaspoon dried marjoram, 1-2 teaspoons dried mint, 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon horseradish, salt, and pepper. Shake the jar well, pour the dressing over the food in the bowl, and toss. That’s a fine summer dinner. The 1 tablespoon of horseradish counts as one serving of a cruciferous vegetable.

Because you’re picking the vegetables that look best, you’ll get variation in your diet, so it won’t get boring. One interesting idea is to make sure you eat vegetables of a variety of colors—see this post (which includes a link to a checklist). And since you’re picking those that appeal to you, the dish ends up tasting good. In fact, that’s the point of a couple of recipes I’ve blogged: The Cook-Together-Things-You-Like-And-It’ll-Taste-Good Recipe and Another example of cooking together veggies you like, to make a dish you like.

(You can browse the recipes on this blog to see what looks of interest and to get ideas. That will also show how my diet has changed over time.)

Just now I stumbled across a video that describes this “Prep Early, Cook Later” approach. This describes an approach just like what I was describing.

Another make-ahead idea is to make and have on hand snack foods like hummus—and fresh fruit also makes a good snack.

Naturally, you must always experiment, because you want to extend your food horizons to gain the benefit of more choices of things you like. This means trying new things routinely. On each trip to the supermarket, get one (1) fruit or one (1) vegetable that you have never eaten. Use the internet to find recipes and learn about it, and then prepare and eat it. Your taste for foods is not static; it develops and grows as you broaden the range of things you try.

I do understand that some people cannot cook. In fact, all people cannot cook, not until they learn how. And at first, like any new skill, it feels awkward and difficult. I already recommended Carol Dweck’s book Mindset to help you through this awkward period. And as I said above: at the outset, focus on progress, not on results. Think “This meal was sort of a flop, but it’s a lot better than last night.”

A side benefit of looking for progress in your meal preparation is that you start paying attention to the taste and mouthfeel of what you’re eating—i.e., you’re eating mindfully. You also shopped for groceries mindfully (buying the best look and most appealing), you prepared the food mindfully (nothing like handling a razor-sharp knife to focus your attention), and your cooking was mindful (picking what to eat, thinking about what goes together, and cooking it to the right degree of doneness). So make your eating mindful as well.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn and enjoy cooking. Try this experiment: When you first start to teach yourself how to cook, get a composition book from the drugstore. At the top of a page, write the date and then record your feelings and thoughts about your cooking efforts. Then at least once each month thereafter—enter it as a repeating reminder in your calendar—repeat the exercise. Look back at what you’ve done and what you need to do, record you feelings and what you’ve learned, judge your progress. In effect, write an in-process self-evaluation.

This exercise helps you step back and look at your overall experience, and often it’s when you record what you’ve done that you realize you can do it differently and better. That’s the self-teaching part. Later on, you will find this journal, devoted solely to food and cooking, interesting to read, particularly as you note patterns and record your developing knowledge of what works well and what to avoid.

Excluding junk food and processed food will help your food budget, as will preparing your own meals rather than buying prepared food, but how much should you expect to spend on food? In the US, the USDA publishes each month a set of “typical” food budgets. As an example, here’s what it shows for December 2018:

Screen Shot 2018-12-22 at 5.45.51 AM

The site Plant-based on a Budget has many good tips on how to eat a healthful diet at low cost. The site includes links to meal plans for 1, 2, and 4 persons, and the total cost is well below the USDA guidelines. For example, if you follow their free Week 1 meal plan for 2 you will spend less than $50. (They also have free meal plans for 1 person and for 4 persons.) The plans do require that you do your own meal preparation, but the tips given above should make that feasible, and efficiency improves with practice (i.e., don’t just try and give up, but persist for a couple of months: see this post).

I buy both both organic vegetables (for the “dirty dozen“) and conventional vegetables (from the “clean fifteen“).  I avoid organic extra-virgin olive oil because it is contaminated with high levels of the pesticide rotenone. (“Organic” does not mean “no pesticides,”a surprise to me.) Organically grown leafy greens (kale, spinach, et al.) are prone to bacterial contamination (look at the list of FDA recalls) and so I buy conventionally grown greens and rinse well, using a salad spinner. I fill the spinner with water, rinse the greens in that water, then dump the water and spin the greens dry. If you are particularly wary of pesticides, add salt to the water and rinse the fruit or vegetables with salt water, then rinse with tap water. Commercial vegetable and fruit rinses are a waste of money. Watch this video:

An inexpensive way to store food is to use canning jars. I use 1-pint/500ml jars, but a family of 4 might want to use 1-qt/1-liter jars. A box of a dozen jars cost $9 from a local hardware store. Also buy a canning funnel, which fits exactly the mouth of the jar and makes transferring bulk foods from the store’s plastic bags into your jars much easier, minimizing the risk of a spill.

With those on hand I have a good supply of storage containers, so I now routinely buy food from the bulk bins. The nice thing about the jars (beyond being cheap) is that they are transparent (so you can see what they hold) and they are glass (not plastic). I have a small label maker, so I do label the jars even though you can see the content. (Grains are much alike.) Foods are much cheaper from the bulk bins than when sold in boxes.

Useful tools and methods for meal preparation—and some recipes 

Preparing vegetables usually involves slicing and chopping. That works best—and is most enjoyable—if you have a good, sharp chef’s knife. These four knives are modestly priced but quite good. (Full disclosure: for myself I splurged on a Bulat chef’s knife and paring knife, and I like them a lot. Plus I have a weakness for knives, and I did get some others.)

Mercer Millennia 8″ Chef’s Knife – less than $20
Winco KFP-80 8″ Chef’s Knife – less than $20
Victorinox Fibrox Pro 8″ Chef’s Knife – less than $40
Mercer Renaissance 8″ Chef’s Knife – less than $40

Watch this excellent (and free) 4-lesson series: Complete Knife Skills Cooking Class. You will eventually have to sharpen the knife, but if you get a good steel you can touch up the edge for quite a while. (The knife’s fine cutting edge curls over a bit in use, and the steel straightens it back to sharpness.) Also, this review of chef’s knives is helpful and interesting.

A good cutting board/prep surface helps a lot, and end-grain hardwood works best in providing a good surface and treating kindly the knife’s edge. Some plastic boards are easy on the knife’s edge, but they lack heft and I found they did not make the experience enjoyable.  I have had a variety of cutting boards, and I found that a board roughly 20″ x 14″ x 1.25″ is a comfortable size: a large enough cutting surface to give me room to work, and not so heavy that it’s hard to put away. I got the Ironwood Gourmet 28217 14″x20″ acacia end-grain prep station and I like it a lot. (There are better ones, of course, but this one does the job.) It’s stable (with plastic feet) and it’s large enough that I can prep a few different vegetables without clearing the board. (It has a few negative reviews about a glue problem, but those are from some years back, and it seems as though the manufacturer paid attention: no problem at all with my board).

I also have tried a variety of board treatments to preserve the wood, and I like John Boos Butcher Block Board Cream best. (John Boos makes a great variety of cutting boards, but again I recommend an end-grain board around the size mentioned.)

Another tool that is frequently quite useful is an immersion blender. The one at the link is good, but there are many others. It turns out that (for me, at any rate) an immersion blender is much handier than a regular blender. It does not take so much room and can be stored in a drawer; it’s much easier to clean; it obviates the need to transfer liquids (often hot) from pot to blender—for example, if you’re making a broccoli soup and want it smooth, you just blend in the pot. With the beaker that comes with it, you can easily make your own mayonnaise.

Also, I’ve discovered that Dr. Greger’s idea for blended lemon is tastier and easier than squeezing a lemon for its juice, and blended lemon also has more nutrients than the juice alone. He has you cut the skin off the lemon, then put the whole lemon, perhaps sliced into sections, into the beaker and blend it. Pour the result into a jar (I wash and save a variety of small food jars for things like this), refrigerate, and you have instant blended lemon when you need it without the need to cut a lemon, squeeze it, and clean the lemon squeezer.

For a thin-skinned Meyer lemon, I will just cut off the ends and blend the entire lemon, peel and all—indeed, even with regular lemons, I often dice the whole lemon, peel included, to use in cooking. And note Mark Bittman “preserved” lemon: Wash 1 lemon, cut off the ends and discard, then slice into slabs and across the slabs to dice the lemon. Put it in a small bowl, add 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1.5 teaspoon sugar (or, better, erythritol), stir, and let sit 20 minutes. Use that in cooking a stew or fish or the like.

The immersion blender also works extremely well to make Healthy (i.e., sodium-free) Hot Sauce (which is excellent). I cook the peppers and use the immersion blender right in the pot in which they were cooked. And you can make this very healthful drink, using the beaker:

One additional appliance that turns out to be quite handy is this KitchenAid KFC3516HT 3.5 Cup Food Chopper, available in a variety of colors. (I actually have an earlier model, but the one at the link looks improved.) It’s small, but I find it extremely useful—for example, in processing up a batch of smooth hummus (the processor is just the right size for that recipe) or in making a batch of an excellent parmesan-like topping (with no sodium) from almonds, brazil nuts, nutritional yeast, and Savory Spice Blend (itself very tasty).

Once the food is prepped (sliced, chopped, minced, whatever), this little rimmed food scoop makes it easy to move food from the prep board to bowl or pot. I find I use it constantly.

Important tip: Complete chopping and weighing and measuring ingredients before you begin cooking, so that everything to be used is ready for the pan or pot. I use various prep bowls to hold the ingredients. (Ingredients added at the same time can go into the same prep bowl.) If everything’s ready, cooking then consists of simply dumping the contents from the prep bowls into the pot in the proper sequence and at the proper time. Rinse each bowl as you empty it, and put it into a rack to dry. Cleaning as you go means that when you finish cooking, the kitchen is clean. (Bowls and measuring utensils that were used with oil will require a little detergent, but for other ingredients a rinse is sufficient.)

By doing all prep work ahead of time, you avoid being rushed and frantic when you start cooking. (It took me way too long to learn this.) “Measuring” includes weighing (particularly calorie-dense things like meat, cheese, nuts, and seeds), so a digital kitchen scale (about US$10) is a good investment. I have this one and I like it a lot: the flat surface makes cleaning a snap.

When you cook, you spend a certain amount time waiting—a few minutes for greens to wilt in a hot pan, or onions to soften as you sweat them over low heat. Rather than simply stand and stare at the pan, I use the time to clean up around my work area—wiping off counter tops, rinsing and drying my knife and returning it to the rack, cleaning off the prep board and putting it away. This keeps the kitchen close to clean during the entire cooking process, and any small remnants of disorder are easily put right when I’m done. Or I do things that don’t take a lot of time, like dumping ice cubes from the tray into the storage bin and refilling the trays. Time passes much more quickly if you’re engaged in doing something than if you’re just waiting.

You will want a good skillet, and fortunately the best (in many ways) is a carbon-steel skillet, and those are not expensive. See this post for details, why you would want one, and which brand is rated best (Matfer Bourgeat). I have two: 8 5/8″  and 11 7/8″. The video at the link shows how to season carbon steel and lets you see how nonstick they are once they’re seasoned. Getting that degree of nonstickness requires seasoning and some patience since seasoning improves with use over time.

I also recommend that you get (and use regularly) a cast-iron skillet, an excellent cooking tool if you get a good one. Based on my experience with several brands, I would say your best bet is Field cast-iron (No. 10 if you get just one) or the Stargazer 12″ skillet. (If you have the appropriate tools you can grind smooth the cooking surface of a Lodge skillet. Lodge does not polish their sand-cast iron, so the cooking surface is somewhat bumpy and rough. The Field and the Stargazer have a totally smooth cooking surface.) You also can often find a good cast-iron skillet at a yard sale or in a thrift store. (Inspect it carefully for cracks and flaws; you may have to clean it— best way is to put it through the cleaning cycle of a self-cleaning oven—and then reseason it.) Generally speaking, a larger diameter works better for cooking things: more cooking surface.

For most cooked dishes, a 1-cup serving works well: enough for a meal. I have found a 1/2-cup ladle (the 62172 Vollrath, with a gray handle) to be extremely useful: dish up two scoops, and you have your dinner or lunch. Highly recommended. (Two 1/2-cup scoops works better than one 1-cup scoop in terms of spillage and effort.)

See also “How to make cooking easier.”

Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen

Michael Greger MD has a list of foods that he recommends you eat daily. He discusses these foods in detail, including the reasons for his recommendations and recipe ideas, in part 2 of his book How Not to Die, which I highly recommend. I find his list useful for menu planning as a general guide. Here is his list of foods to eat daily:

1. Beans: 3 servings a day—for example, 1/4 cup hummus or bean dip; or 1/2 cup cooked beans, split peas, lentils, edamame, tofu, or tempeh; or 1 cup fresh peas or sprouted lentils. As I noted above, I cook dried beans, drain, and refrigerate them to have on hand. I include a serving of beans with every meal; when I plan a meal, I start with beans and grain.

2. Berries: 1/2 cup fresh or frozen or 1/4 cup dried. I generally buy frozen mixed berries and thaw them; they are an excellent low-calorie dessert. To up the antioxidant benefits even more, I can sprinkle some cinnamon on them.

3. Other fruit: 3 servings a day. I like apples, persimmons, navel oranges, mandarin oranges, apricots, peaches, plums (large and small), nectarines, and others. Note that the natural sugar in fruit does not impact your body the way refined sugar does—see this post. For some reason this was initially challenging for me, but I discovered that if I simply bought a good variety of fruit—4 yellow peaches (more nutritious than white), 3 yellow nectarines (ditto), 4 large plums, 6 small plums, a dozen small mandarin oranges, say—then it became easy. I’d pick one and eat it, 3 or 4 times a day.

I did discover that with fruit on hand, fruit flies soon arrive, but a simple fruit fly trap is extremely effective. Take a small jar (I washed out a jar that had held horseradish and stripped the label), put a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in it, add a drop or two of dishwashing liquid (not much: the apple cider smell is what draws them in), cover with plastic wrap held with a rubber band, and poke some holes in the cover. Place that near the fruit, and soon the tribe of fruit flies have sunk to the bottom of the vinegar.

Fresh fruit and vegetables offer a special benefit: they are terrific probiotics (and also prebiotics because of their dietary fiber). You could take commercial probiotic capsules, but those are not so good as fresh fruit and vegetables. Read James Hamblin’s article about some new research:

For all of human history, the gut microbiome has gone without ingesting bacterial pills. Fermented foods have been part of many cuisines around the world, but our ancestors didn’t live on kombucha. There had to be another source.

And, it turns out, there is: fresh produce.

In a study from July in Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers found that the average apple contains around 100 million bacteria. Most are inside, not on the skin.

4. Cruciferous vegetables: 1 serving. 1/2 cup cooked broccoli (I keep a container of cooked broccoli florets in the fridge for use in stir-fries, salads, and as a snack), cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, collards, etc. Horseradish is a cruciferous vegetable and 1 tablespoon is a serving, so I generally use 1 tablespoon horseradish in my salad dressing (recipe below). When I cook my breakfast, I use 2 tablespoons of horseradish. Buy horseradish from the refrigerated section, not off the shelf. This one is easy to check off because of the horseradish, but I still have cabbage (often red cabbage shredded as a salad), collard greens, kale, steam broccoli, and roasted brussels sprouts.

5. Greens: 2 servings: 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked. Kale, red kale, collards, Swiss chard, red chard, mustard, dandelion, chicory, and so on. I generally sauté in a little olive oil  or low-sodium vegetable broth, perhaps with chopped scallions or leeks or shallots or onion, cover, and simmer. (If I use olive oil, I’ll add some water or lemon juice.) Sometimes I include a diced lemon (cut off ends and discard, but don’t peel). Romaine, leaf lettuce, arugula (aka rocket), and radicchio I eat raw in salads.

6. Other vegetables: 2 servings (1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked). Eggplant, carrots, squash (winter squash or summer squash), zucchini, etc. Mushrooms, though not a plant, are counted as a vegetable and are an excellent source of pantothenic acid (B5). I eat 4-5 ounces of mushrooms a day. I use garlic frequently, and note that you should allow it to rest 15 minutes after mincing it (see this post). Take a look at this squash -and-eggplant recipe. I like it a lot, and it makes enough for several meals.

7. Flaxseeds: 1 tablespoon. These must be ground since the whole seed passes through undigested (which seeds evolved to do). Grind just before using since they oxidize quickly. Good source of omega-3. I usually use 2 tablespoons and mix with my breakfast, along with 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes and 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric.

8. Nuts and seeds: 1/4 cup, but high calorie, so be careful. 4 pecan halves (0.7 oz.) is 150 calories, and other nuts are similarly high. Pepitas are excellent added to salads (I usually use only 2 tablespoons). Peanuts are good but make sure to buy those with the pellicle (reddish-brown skin) since the pellicle has most of the nutritional benefit of nuts., so those are the ones to get. Similarly, buy almonds with the skin rather than blanched almonds. (Dr. Greger discusses this in How Not to Die. Brazil nuts are quite a good source of selenium, and I normally eat one each day. Again, I prefer unprocessed nuts and seeds to processed (for example, I prefer nuts to nut butters).

9. Spices and herbs: 1 or more servings, including at least 1/4 teaspoon turmeric a day—I generally take 1/2 teaspoon per day. In his book, Dr. Greger notes:

The food category that averages the most antioxidants is herbs and spices. Let’s say you prepare a nice healthy bowl of whole-wheat pasta with marinara sauce. Together, they may achieve a score of about 80 units of antioxidant power (approximately 20 units from the pasta and 60 from the sauce). Add in a handful of steamed broccoli florets, and you may end up with a delicious 150-unit meal. Not bad. Now sprinkle on a single teaspoonful of dried oregano or marjoram, oregano’s sweeter and milder twin. That alone could double your meal’s antioxidant power, up to more than 300 units.

How about a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast? By adding just a half-teaspoon of cinnamon, you could bring the antioxidant power of your meal from 20 units to 120 units. And if you can stand the punch, adding even a pinch of cloves could bring your unassuming breakfast up to an antioxidant score of 160 units.

Plant-based meals tend to be rich in antioxidants on their own, but taking a moment to spice up your life may make your meal even healthier. Antioxidant-rich diets appear to protect against stroke by preventing the circulation of oxidized fats in the bloodstream that can damage the sensitive walls of small blood vessels in the brain. They can also help decrease artery stiffness, prevent blood clots from forming, and lower blood pressure and inflammation. Free radicals can disfigure proteins in our bodies to the extent they become unrecognizable by our immune systems. The inflammatory response this triggers can be prevented by saturating our bodies with sufficient antioxidants. Whereas all whole plant foods may have anti-inflammatory effects, some plants are better than others. High-antioxidant fruits and vegetables, such as berries and greens, have been found to douse systemic inflammation significantly better than the same number of servings of more common low-antioxidant fruits and veggies, such as bananas and lettuce.

(In the book, he includes footnotes that identify the studies that support his recommendations.)

I now routinely include in my salad dressing 1-3 teaspoon of marjoram and 1-3 dried mint, and I put ground cloves (just a little) not only on my oatmeal but also on my bowl of berries I have each evening. And I use herbs and spices more often in cooking.

10. Whole grains: 3 servings. As I noted, I eat intact grain (see this post on the benefits of intact grain), which I cook and refrigerate, then use in a salad, in cooked dishes (stews and stir-fries), and so on. I regularly cook kamut (a type of wheat), hulled barley, oat groats, whole rye, spelt, farro, and others, and also pseudo-grains like quinoa, buckwheat groats, and amaranth. If you have them already cooked and in the refrigerator, they’re easy to include in each meal and I do eat grain at each meal—as I noted above, when I think about a meal I start with beans and grain.

11. Beverages: 5 12-ounce servings of water, tea, or coffee. I have my hot tea in the morning and during the afternoon and evening I drink iced white tea, my main source being Teasenz.com. (Teacakes are very nice, and this inspection tray is extremely useful if get teacakes.) White tea is particularly healthful, and the longer you steep it, the better. (Since I drink it iced, I let it steep until the pot has cooled.) Watch this 2-minute video:

12. Exercise: Dr. Greger suggests 90 minutes of moderate exercise or 40 minutes of vigorous exercise, but it’s not an all-or-nothing thing: any exercise is better than no exercise. Just find an exercise that is enjoyable and you’re on your way.

I certainly don’t get every serving every day, but I get most of the recommended foods in the recommended amounts. Let me again recommend using Cronometer.com from time to time just to check on whether your intake of micronutrients is adequate.

After a while, you internalize the checklist and can improvise meals that work well in the context of the Daily Dozen. Here’s a very easy dish I made which has four servings and was totally improvised after some experience in following this diet.

Glorious one-pot meals

One very easy way to prepare meals is the technique Elizabeth Yarnell developed under the name “Glorious One-Pot Meals” with the food put in layers in a cast-iron dutch oven. She recommends using an enamelled cast-iron dutch oven, but plain cast iron also works. If you do use plain cast iron, I highly recommend Larbee or Crisbee cast-iron conditioner (see FAQ page and instructions). Larbee is made of leaf lard and beeswax, so Jews and Muslims will want Crisbee, made of palm and vegetable oils and beeswax. (The beeswax makes both products off-limits to orthodox vegans.) I recommend the puck over the stick, and unscented (which smells faintly of beeswax) over the scented versions. I also use these conditioners for my carbon-steel and cast-iron pans. They work extremely well.

A 2-qt dutch over is an ample size for 2 meals for active adults (e.g., triathletes) or 4 meals for more sedentary adults like my wife and I. The food is cooked for just 45 minutes in a hot oven (450ºF/232ºC), then removed from the oven and allowed to rest for 15 minutes. The food is thus steamed inside the closed pot. This means that if you use a meat, it is not browned, but it is tender. Very fatty meats don’t work well in this method of cooking. The best thing about the meals, beyond nutrition and taste, is that they make improvisation easy. Check out these links for:

GOPM: Explanation and template
First Glorious One-Pot Meal in quite a while
Lamb sausage one-pot meal
Time for more Glorious One-Pot Meals  

Those offer general guidance and advice, and you can see various recipes here: GOPM | Later On. Once you’ve made a couple, you’ll get the idea and then you can freely improvise. In this method of cooking you don’t need prep bowls since you add to the pot each ingredient in its layer as you prep it. The pot itself acts as one big prep bowl, then you cook the meal in it.

Stir-fries

Another good way to improvise is to make a stir-fry. This video walks through an excellent explanation for the novice cook and describes several good practices.

Assuming that you use 1 Tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil, this entire dish totals 4 WW points since everything but the oil is zero points. If you use the dish for two meals, it’s 2 points per meal.

Indian dishes

I quickly discovered that an amazing number of restaurants don’t seem to recognize that vegetarians/vegans might be customers. It’s not unusual for an extensive restaurant menu to have one (1) vegan entree and zero (0) vegan appetizers. But Indian restaurants? They’re wonderful!—at least, the good ones are—and Indian restaurants offer a lengthy list of vegetarian options at every course, from appetizers on. Another video from the guy above:

Start trying it, be patient with yourself, and with experience it becomes easy. You can substitute extra-virgin olive oil for ghee. If you like this guy’s work, watch the videos in his series “Live Like a Vegan King on $50 a Week.” Note, however, that these vegan meal plans come in at about half that cost.

Breakfast

I routinely enjoy a pint of hot tea shortly after I get up, using this mug, which cools the tea immediately to drinking temperature and then keeps it there for hours.  My standard breakfast has evolved over time and does not resemble the standard American breakfast, which draws on a severely limited palette. In fact, breakfast can consist of any foods you want. This section describes my breakfast as it is today; in time it will surely change.

I have for quite a while cooked my breakfast in my 2-qt All Clad Stainless sauté pan because it has vertical sides (food doesn’t slide out) and a lid. Once the breakfast I made was vegetables topped with a couple of eggs, and now it’s grain and beans with vegetables (in planning a meal, my starting point now is grain and beans).

In the egg days, the foods I cooked I ate for breakfast; nowadays, the foods I cook lasts for two meals: I eat half for breakfast and half for lunch. (“Cook once, eat twice” is a well-loved maxim.) I’ve found (to my surprise) that my whole-food plant-based diet is very satiating. That surprised me because I had thought satiation came from the fat and protein in the meal since fat and protein generally take longer to digest than carbs. Based on my own experience, I now realize that dietary fiber, which is not digested at all, is even more satiating, though the meals also includes plenty of protein. This recipe has about 30g dietary fiber, more than double what most Americans eat (though still not the minimum daily recommended amount—but dinner will of course provide more dietary fiber).

Perhaps the major reason for not feeling hungry between meals is that my meals now always include 1/2 cup beans. Watch this 5-minute video, particularly starting right after the 3-minute mark:

The breakfast I describe below is still the overall pattern I follow, but now I cook a large amount of vegetables (similar to those listed below, but without the grain and now usually with my homemade tempeh rather than beans. I describe in detail the dish I now prepare — one cooking for multiple meals. I call it a “melange” because it is not exactly a stir-fry, not exactly a stew — it doesn’t fit the usual categories.

Before I came up the melange, I approached breakfast like by cooking the following, usually in a 2-quart sauté pan:

1 large jalapeño, chopped small, including ribs and seeds (capsaicin helps diabetics)
1 bunch scallions (or spring onions when I can get them), chopped (including leaves)
4-5 ounces mushrooms, cut thickly (mushrooms turn out to be high in B5)
3/4 cup sliced mini San Marzano tomatoes
1/4 or 1/3 cup cooked grain, depending on my mood and how hungry I am
1/2 cup cooked beans
2 tablespoons horseradish (from the refrigerated section)
1 tablespoon dried mint (spearmint, specifically: adds a very nice taste plus lots of antioxidants)
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper (helps with the turmeric)

The above is the core: that’s what I always do. (The horseradish, BTW, more than takes care of my daily serving of a cruciferous vegetable.) I then add 1 or 2 other vegetables. Today:

1/2 cup raw or cooked beets, diced
1/2 cup cooked chopped collards

But it might also be any of:

1/2 cup cooked kale or other greens (tong ho, for example)
1/2 cup raw asparagus, cut into short lengths
3/4 cup oyster mushrooms instead of plain (source of an excellent antioxidant)
1/2 cup diced raw carrots or roasted carrots
1/2 cup diced butternut squash, either raw or roasted after sprinkling with cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and lots of black pepper
1/2 bell pepper (red, yellow orange), chopped
1/2 cup chopped zucchini or summer squash (e.g., yellow crookneck), often sautéed in advance with some onion and stored in the fridge (see this recipe)
1 cup chopped baby bok choy or baby Shanghai bok choy or baby kale or other greens

I add vegetable broth (about 1/2 cup) or water and sauté the food in that for a while, stirring it, then cover and let it cook. (While it cooks and between stirrings, I wipe off and put away the chopping board and rinse, dry, and put away the knife and the rimmed food scoop.)

When it’s done, I stir in:

2 tablespoons flaxseed, ground (I used this grinder)
2 tablespoons Red Star Savory Nutritional Yeast Flakes
1 teaspoon amla powder (extremely good antioxidant)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric (or I cook fresh turmeric with the vegetables)
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

The breakfast includes more than my RDA of various micronutrients: iron, folate, and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12.

I once used 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil instead of the vegetable broth, but I’ve decided to cut back on the extra-virgin olive oil from my diet. I still get plenty of fats (I just had a snack of walnuts), but refined oils? I’m avoiding processed/refined foods because I’m going for a whole-food plant-based diet, and olive oil is definitely a refined food. Olives are good, but I limit them because they cured in salt so they’re high in sodium.

For a snack later in the day, I might have 1/4 cup pepitas or 1/4 cup hummus  or an orange or apple or other fruit in season.

Another recipe that makes a good breakfast (or lunch or dinner), particularly in the summertime: Mexican Magic Beans, Corn, & Peppers.

Quite recently, I’ve started exploring smoothies, especially since it’s easy to cover quite of few items in the Daily Dozen checklist with a good smoothie. Here’s one example that was especially tasty — and filling.

Changes in food choices as a result of WW Freestyle

After being on WW Freestyle for a few months, I noticed that our food choices changed. (I do all the cooking in our family.) Red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) became rare, with my animal proteins being almost entirely eggs, fish, shellfish, and boneless skinless chicken breasts, and we found ourselves eating a lot more vegetables (because they are zero points). We also found ourselves eating much less cheese and butter. The change was healthful and surprisingly easy since we were not pushed to it (by stern admonitions) but rather drawn to it (by making our own choices on how to minimize the WW points of our food intake). The change was beneficial, in the light of this study.

Economists will see another example of how just a slight increase in the cost of something (in this case, cost = WW points) results in one seeking lower-cost alternatives (i.e., alternatives that have fewer WW points). Example: 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil is 4 points, 1 tablespoon of butter is 5 points. That small difference is enough that I switched almost completely to olive oil instead of butter. That sort of gentle nudge on all our food choices gradually shifted our diet in a more healthful direction.

As noted above, I have switched to a whole-food plant-based diet (no meat, dairy, or eggs), so meat is no longer an issue. And I have found that Cronometer.com works better for me than WW.

Food cravings and your gut microbiome

Food cravings, as mentioned above, can be driven by the makeup of your gut microbiome. See “How Gut Bacteria Tell Their Hosts What to Eat.” Another article: “How the Bacteria in Our Gut Affect Our Cravings for Food.” If you eat lots sugar and starches such as bread, potatoes, corn, and the like, your gut microbiome tilts strongly toward microbes that thrive on such foods. The result is that you then find yourself craving such foods when the microbes’ supply runs low—see Why you’re still hungry: 6 obstacles to healthy eatingBy cutting out such foods, your gut microbiome will change in favor of other microbes (and that change occurs rapidly), and carb cravings will dwindle. Read this article on the care and feeding of your gut microbiome. From that article:

Your microbiome can also lay the groundwork for weight gain or loss. “People who eat lots of saturated fat tend to have more bacteria called Firmicutes, among others, which are more efficient at absorbing calories from food,” Dr. Rakel explains. (Not the kind of efficiency most of us are hoping for.) “When they switch to a Mediterranean diet, with lots of colourful produce, whole grains, beans, and little meat, their level of Firmicutes goes down and their microbiome shifts toward one that is less efficient at storing energy, making it easier to stay lean.” Indeed, a 2017 International Journal of Obesity study found that the presence of a diverse array of gut bacteria protected against weight gain.

This article also discusses how your gut microbiome can drive weight gain—and why modern gut microbiomes are more apt to do that.

The health of your gut microbiome to a surprising extent determines your own overall health, and a plant-based diet nourishes a good gut microbiome. (See also “How to Increase Gut Bacterial Richness.”) And since your overall health includes your mental health, it’s worth noting that the make-up of your gut microbiome affects your level of happiness or depression — and in fact your brain function in general:

Indeed, the gut microbiome plays a role in autism, in heart disease, and in other processes that seem unrelated to the gut. Search on “gut microbiome and X,” where X is the condition of interest, and see what current research says.

Dietary fiber is an important food source for gut microbes, so pay attention to it. And fresh fruit and vegetables don’t just provide fiber, they also are excellent probiotics. And probiotics and prebiotics team up in your gut. (And see also “Dietary Fiber Protects Against Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome.”) My whole-food plant-based diet provides a lot of fiber just in the course of normal meals—I average 55g-60g per day of dietary fiber without even trying. For example, the ground flaxseed I include in my breakfast is high in fiber. Flaxseed has benefits beyond fiber, of course. See also this post.

Meat, fish, dairy, and eggs have no dietary fiber at all, since dietary fiber comes strictly from plant foods, and refined foods generally have little or no fiber, since “refining” usually refers to removing dietary fiber. The percentage of American men age 18-50 who consume at least the minimum recommended daily amount of dietary fiber is zero. 0%. Less than 1/2 of 1% (which rounds to 0%). I would guess that the low intake of dietary fiber is linked to the epidemic of obesity (and type 2 diabetes).

You can also take chia seed, another good source of both omega-3 and fiber. Chia seed does not require grinding, so just stir 2 tablespoons chia seed into a glass of water. Chia seed is also quite good mixed with yogurt: 2 tbsp chia seed, 3/4 c yogurt, and 1/2 cup frozen berries makes an excellent breakfast, snack, or dessert. Mix well, let it sit for a while for the chia seed to soften, and enjoy. To avoid the dairy product, use coconut milk, and that tilts it toward a dessert.

Dietary fiber is not just for weight loss: it has been considered vital to our health. (See Fiber Is Good for You. Now Scientists May Know Why.) The recommended fiber intake is 38g per day for men, 25g per day for women between 18 and 50 years old, and 21g per day for women 51 and older. Most people get much less fiber—in the US, typically 15g per day or less. Indeed, 97% of people in the US do not achieve the recommended amount of fiber intake. Fiber-rich foods are in general inexpensive. See also this recent article in Lancet, which affirms the importance of fiber in your diet; from that article:

Observational data suggest a 15–30% decrease in all-cause and cardiovascular related mortality, and incidence of coronary heart disease, stroke incidence and mortality, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer when comparing the highest dietary fibre consumers with the lowest consumers Clinical trials show significantly lower bodyweight, systolic blood pressure, and total cholesterol when comparing higher with lower intakes of dietary fibre. Risk reduction associated with a range of critical outcomes was greatest when daily intake of dietary fibre was between 25 g and 29 g. Dose-response curves suggested that higher intakes of dietary fibre could confer even greater benefit to protect against cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal and breast cancer. Similar findings for whole grain intake were observed.

See also Dietary Fiber Linked to Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer. And here’s why: a plant-based diet (lots of dietary fiber) changes the make-up of your gut microbiome so that colon cancer (and, presumably, heart disease) are less likely. Watch this brief video:

If you must regularly take antibiotics, which annihilates the gut microbiome, you might try Floristor, a yeast-based probiotic unaffected by antibiotics.

One excellent source of probiotics is found in eating fresh fruit. Note this post (which also supports various recommendations made above and points out that the mercury hazard from seafood has not fallen and is likely to worsen).

Omega-3 and Omega-6

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential (the body cannot make them). Omega-9 fatty acids are also important, but the body can make those. This article provides essential information on the omega-3 and omega-6 families, and this article discusses fats in general and explains the reasons for the focus on omega-3 in particular. This article discusses how much of which types you should take.

See also this NIH study, which notes:

Several sources of information suggest that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1 whereas in Western diets the ratio is 15/1-16.7/1. Western diets are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, and have excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared with the diet on which human beings evolved and their genetic patterns were established. Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects

On my diet now, my average ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 1.792 (using Cronometer’s display of averages: “Trends” > “Nutrition Report.” You can specify whatever date range you want. I used the last 3 weeks.

Omega-3 fatty acids come in three forms: ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA comes from plants, and flaxseed is an excellent source; EPA and DHA typically come from animal sources (notably cold-water fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring, and others—and unfortunately seafood now is suspect due to pollution by PCBs, dioxin, and endocrine disruptors from plastics) but can also be made by the body from ALA. You don’t need much EPA and DHA—the article states the the recommended amounts to get are “2.22 grams of ALA; and 0.65 grams of DHA/EPA combined.” This post from UC Davis Integrative Medicine has some very good information on omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, including best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. This article has specific warnings about using fish-oil supplements and about eating too much fish.

I highly recommend watching this informative set of brief videos on omega-3 (ALA, DHA, and EPA). They are solidly based on research findings and they provide good information for deciding what to do.

I do take an omega-3 supplement, but I buy a vegan version, in which the omega-3 comes from algae. It has been found that it is important for a person on a plant-based diet to take a supplement for omega-3. Although it has been shown that omega-3 supplements don’t help with heart disease, this is not about heart disease but about brain health. For that, the supplements are important. (But what about the Inuit? Isn’t there immunity to heart disease even though they eat a high-fat diet because of the omega-3 they eat? Well, no. Inuit immunity to heart disease is a total myth.)

I should add that herring, mackerel, and sardines are very high in purines, which can trigger the formation of uric acid crystals in the joints, a (very) painful condition known as gout. I suggest you pace the eating of such fish to avoid creating the condition. A while back, before starting my whole-food plant-based diet, I was eating a can of sardines or herring or mackerel daily and sometimes twice a day, since they seemed healthful and also 0 WW points—and then I had a gout attack, which certainly got my attention. I never eat them now, of course, and my gout is in remission. (I also started drinking more water, and each day I drank one glass of water with the juice of a lemon, which I read is helpful is dissipating the uric acid crystals.) More info on gout at this site, and this information on how diet can affect gout is also good to know.

Plateaus

Plateaus are important in weight loss. They are a time when the body makes changes: shrinking the skin, rearranging things internally, etc. Those who get bariatric surgery achieve rapid and significant weight loss without plateaus, but if substantial weight is lost cosmetic surgery may be required to remove the floppy skin that results. My daughter knows a woman who did have bariatric surgery and then had to have cosmetic surgery to remove excess skin on thighs, tummy, and arms.

Knowing that plateaus serve a purpose makes them easier to endure. In general, each plateau seems to last twice as long as the previous one. When I was losing weight, I hit my first plateau at Day 47, when for 11 days my weight didn’t change before resuming a steady loss. I expected my next plateau will last around 22 days, and it did. Plateaus are our friends. Just stick with your Cronometer calorie budget and weight-loss will resume.

If you do eat chicken, some tips on preparing and using chicken breasts

I don’t eat chicken (for reasons explained in How Not to Die), but if you do, an excellent way to cook chicken breasts so they are moist and tender rather than dry and tough is included in this recipe: Ratatouille with chicken. (You can browse recipes on my blog to get ideas: Recipes | Later On) Because bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts cost a little less than boneless skinless chicken breasts, I occasionally get those. Those I don’t poach, but I do cook them slowly (at a low temperature) to allow time for the thicker part to cook through without overcooking the thinner part: see recipe.

Even easier than (and as tasty as) the Ratatouille with Chicken recipe is this recipe: you simply cut up a variety of spring vegetables (see what looks good at the market) and sauté them in a little olive oil, then add chicken breast (or shrimp or cod or haddock) cut into chunks, along with a little liquid (stock, wine, sherry, lemon juice, or water), bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20-25 minutes—tasty, healthful, easy, and quick.

Umami

An important recent finding: savory foods (high in umami) may promote healthy eating through changes in the brain. I regularly use a pinch of Aji-no-moto (MSG) in my cooking, MSG being an easy way to boost umami. (MSG’s supposed harmful effects have been totally debunked (and see also this article on the relationship of xenophobia and MSGphobia).) The suggestion at the link, to begin a meal by drinking an umami-rich broth, is definitely worth trying. I often have a cup of mugi miso, also a probiotic, as a snack. you can also (or instead) simply use umami-rich ingredients in your recipes (more listed here). And Dr. Greger has a recipe for a salt-free umami booster.

Cooking oils

I suggest you avoid seed oils (oils like grapeseed, corn, peanut, soybean, cottonseed, safflower—they tend to have bad (high) omega-6 to omega-3 ratios). Canola (rapeseed) oil is an exception: it has very good omega-6 to omega-3 ratios: 2:1 for expeller pressed,. Soybean oil and cottonseed oil are mostly found in processed foods (e.g., store-bought mayonnaise and salad dressings) because those oils are cheap—so read ingredients labels. (It’s easy to make your own mayo. It takes about 5 minutes including cleanup if you have an immersion blender.

Use avocado oil for high-temperature sautéing (it has a smoke point of 271ºC / 520ºF, higher than any other cooking oil), and use extra-virgin olive oil for low-temperature cooking (as in roasting foods or sweating onions) and in salad dressings and to drizzle over steamed vegetables, hummus, and the like. More info here: Healthiest Cooking Oil Comparison Chart with Smoke Points and Omega 3 Fatty Acid Ratios. For an excellent discussion of avocado oil and its health benefits, read this article. And I’ve previously linked to this excellent post from UC Davis Integrative Medicine on the essential fatty acids.

Regarding olive oil, I highly recommend this fascinating and informative book: Extra-virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. After reading that book, I became much more careful about the olive oil I bought. I now almost always buy California olive oils bottled by the grower. If you find an amazingly inexpensive imported olive oil, it almost certainly is not pure extra-virgin olive oil but is adulterated with some cheap oil. Note this very useful list: Which Olive Oil to Buy. And note this very recent article in Olive Oil Times on how the counterfeits spread: greed is powerful. I certainly was making a point of buying high-quality California EVOO, though after reading “Which Olive Oil to Buy,” I have purchased one of the other oils recommended, a Sicilian olive oil, and it seems excellent.

Supplement on supplements

Someone asked what supplements I take. I formerly took quite a few but then I started entering what I ate in a good food log that provided an analysis of micronutrients (like Cronometer.com). I found that my regular diet satisfied almost all my essential requirements, so I discontinued most supplements. I also learned that, lacking FDA regulation, the ingredients in supplements are not always to be trusted. I do continue to take some supplements, and I thought that full disclosure required me to list them:

Daily: Calcium Citrate + Magnesium tablet, CoQ10 100mg, Vitamin D 1000IU, potassium+iodine (225 mcg—don’t take more than that: too much iodine is as bad as too little), two 1000mg capsules of omega-3 supplements (Kirkland concentrated formulation), Turmeric (which needs good amount of black pepper to be absorbed—pepperine helps absorption—so I’m generous with black pepper in my cooking, and I also use fresh tumeric in cooking (I mince rather than grate it): turmeric is a powerful anti-oxidant — but note that for about 5% of people taking a turmeric supplement can cause liver problems).

Because I’m not eating meat, dairy, or eggs, I take a B12 supplement. I like this spray because I think it helps in absorption. Also, nutritional yeast flakes and soy/almond/oat milks are fortified with B12. Elderly people don’t always absorb it well, and there’s no danger of an overdose (B12 is water-soluble), so I take a B12 tablet as well.

I use Cronometer as I describe above, and I noticed that my zinc intake was consistently borderline, so I now take a zinc citrate supplement 4 days a week (Sun-Tue-Thur-Sat).

I also took prescribed medications, but three months after moving to a whole-food plant-based diet, my doctor told me to discontinue enalapril (for high blood pressure), simvastatin (for cholesterol), and metformin (for blood glucose control) because I no longer needed them. I’m sure that shedding the last vestiges of excess fat helped, but that also is due to my WFPB diet. I have continued to check my fasting blood glucose levels just to be sure that dropping the metformin caused no problems, and they are fine (but I do avoid some foods: foods containing refined sugar, potatoes, foods made of flour). If I eat potatoes, for example, my fasting blood glucose goes up noticeably the next morning.

My latest HbA1c, done after 5 months of no metformin, was 5.4%. This is well within the normal range (i.e., not “pre-diabetic”).

After reading this article, when I was doing 396 minutes a week (22.8 miles) of brisk Nordic walking, I added to my supplements:  200IU Vitamin E. I take one Vitamin E capsule 4 days a week (Sun-Tue-Thur-Sat), so effectively just over 100IU per day, which seems plenty to me.

UPDATE: Julia Belluz wrote an interesting account of her experience of using a metabolic chamber to measure her metabolism. Long, but worth reading.

UPDATE: This method of chopping onions is useful knowledge. I don’t use this technique exactly, but I do avoid parallel cuts. What I do is cut off both top and bottom and the cut the onion in half vertically. I peel each half, and the dice the onion by cutting across the onion (not lengthwise as shown in the video) for the entire onion, using my left hand over the onion to hold it together. Once the onion has been sliced completely across the grain, I then cut it aiming toward the center, as shown in this video:

Here’s another view of a similar technique:

Written by LeisureGuy

15 April 2018 at 9:18 am

8 Responses

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  1. “Excess fat acts like a gland and secretes hormones”….by what means has this been established? I don’t see how fat cells can generate hormones and act like glands; it sounds like something profoundly stated but without scientific backing.

    Steve

    28 April 2018 at 11:41 am

  2. See: “Biochemistry of adipose tissue: an endocrine organ” – Arch Med Sci. 2013 Apr 20; 9(2): 191–200.

    I’ll update the post to include that link, since others might also be skeptical. FWIW, the above was the first hit when I did a Google search on “secretions from fat.” To find other references, you also can Google the phrase.

    Also, in a link already in the post (“New evidence that fat cells are not just dormant storage depots for calories“), there’s a link to:
    “Identification of Novel Human Adipocyte Secreted Proteins by Using SGBS Cells
    ” from the Journal of Proteome Research.

    I thought that would have shown that there is scientific support for the statement. I don’t know how much more substantiation of the statement you need. Let me know.

    LeisureGuy

    28 April 2018 at 12:22 pm

  3. Don’t smoke. Get mild exercise. Learn how to count calories. Exercise has no real impact on weight. Only how much you eat really matters. Google “the Twinkie diet” to discover it’s not what you eat, it’s how much you eat that matters.

    James Heath

    17 July 2018 at 1:03 pm

  4. James, if you read the post, you’ll discover that what you eat is indeed very important. Read, example, Good Calories, Bad Calories. You’ll be surprised at how differently 200 calories of sugar or white bread affect the body and its metabolism compared to 200 calories of extra-virgin olive oil or scrambled eggs.

    However, the misconception that you voice—that calories are what matter not the food itself—is pretty common. That it is wrong is evident from (among other things) the existence of deficiency diseases. British seamen in the Napoleonic era got plenty of calories but still they fell prey to scurvy. Also, as noted in this article:

    We ate more in 1976 [when obesity was rare]. According to government figures, we currently consume an average of 2,130 kilocalories a day, a figure that appears to include sweets and alcohol. But in 1976, we consumed 2,280 kcal excluding alcohol and sweets, or 2,590 kcal when they’re included.

    The difference is that, though in 1976 people consumed more calories, they ate different food, and that makes all the difference.

    Read the post again, and more carefully. And the Twinkie diet is not sustainable: not only does it lack essential nutrients, it’s also monotonous and unsatisfying.

    LeisureGuy

    17 July 2018 at 1:16 pm

  5. We ate more and weighed less in 1976 because as a society we were younger than we are now. I was 15 then and believe me, there was plenty of sugary junk food back then. In fact, that was the height of the “Low Fat” mania, when fats were taken out of our diet and replaced with simple carbs.

    But when you’re young you burn more calories…. America today is a lot older and greyer. Between then and now the government also redefined “obesity” to mean BMI > 30 instead of BMI > 40. (Granted, this was based on research showing the lower # indicated serious health danger, but it still skews comparisons between then and now)

    Rev. Les Crowley

    3 November 2018 at 8:37 pm

  6. It seems to have escaped your notice that young people are nowadays more obese than young people then, and obesity in childhood is now a problem—and what was called “adult-onset diabetes” back then is called “type 2 diabetes” now because so many juveniles started being type 2 diabetic that calling it “adult-onset” was misleadin). I think you might find these posts enlightening:

    https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319710.php

    https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

    http://childhoodobesityfoundation.ca/what-is-childhood-obesity/statistics/

    https://stateofobesity.org/childhood-obesity-trends/

    LeisureGuy

    4 November 2018 at 5:15 am

  7. Michael, I think you’d find the work of Gabor Erdosi interesting. He is a food industry consultant and his “hobby” is research on metabolism and the effects of processing on food and its impact on metabolism. He has a FB group called Lower Insulin. If you haven’t read about k cells and l cells they are at the heart of why processed foods have differential effects.

    As to cardio, I am not a believer that it is healthful, or even possible to increase cardio function/capacity without adding muscle. In fact, things like running, to extreme, have the OPPOSITE effect. The book that persuaded me is Body by Science by Dr. Doug McGuff, it has plenty of citations on the science. I do believe physical activity is proven beneficial by research AND that strength training is beneficial to the body, particularly as we age. I also agree that exercise is nearly irrelevant for fat loss.

    Overall, great information and well written! We do share many/most views on diet and exercise and I do love the science as I see you do as well.

    Joseph Cirafesi

    5 April 2019 at 8:14 am

  8. @Joseph: I am sure that regular cardio exercise does increase muscle mass to a degree—not to the degree that, say, bodybuilding does, but certainly my arms and legs have become strengthened from my Nordic walking. My gut feeling is that exercising muscles improves strength and density and to some degree volume, thus cardio, which exercises the heart and diaphragm muscles would strengthen those, along with the body muscles involved in the exercise (legs for running; legs, back, and arms for rowing; and so on). And certainly strength training is good in terms of muscular strength and probably balance, but Dr. Cooper convincingly demonstrated to me that strength training by itself doesn’t do much for stamina and endurance, which cardio exercise helps in significant and obvious ways—something I know from personal experience as well.

    I eat very little in the way of processed foods, since I enjoy cooking. Update: In reading some of Gabor Erdosi’s ideas, I see that he refers to digestion as the “processing” of food, rather than the industrial processes that create packaged/prepared foods.

    I’ll look at Dr. McGuff’s work and also Gabor Erdosi’s. Thanks for pointing them out.

    LeisureGuy

    5 April 2019 at 9:02 am


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