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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Eat Real

Too many diets are about hype, not health.

Is it just my friends, or is nearly everyone on an absurd diet these days?

One friend says she’s on a “primal” diet. She’s trying to eat like cavemen and will devour wild game when she can get it. Another goes on a month-long “detox” fast each year. Somehow, he survives on nothing but lemonade spiked with maple syrup and cayenne pepper.

And I wish I could convince another buddy that he doesn’t have to eat high-fiber cereal that appears to be made from heavily sweetened sawdust.

Paleo, raw food (even raw meat), Eat Clean, juice diets: The list goes on. One regimen even dictates what you should eat according to your blood type. I’m surprised I haven’t met anyone yet who swears by dining on nothing but seaweed or live bugs.

Each system promises great results, as long as eaters adhere to radical and difficult rules. It hurts to watch your friends deprive themselves, knowing that — all too often — their diets aren’t good for their health.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any diets that make much sense. As nutrition expert Marion Nestle puts it, “Stay away from weird dietary practices. If they sound weird, they are.” Here are a few simple guidelines.

Eat whole, minimally processed foods. An apple? Good. A slice of homemade apple pie? A little less good. A packaged apple-pie-flavored product “made with real apples”? Don’t eat that. And don’t get in a rut. Eat a big variety of whole foods.

When it comes to animal products, look for milk, meat, and eggs from animals raised on pasture. They’ve been fed grass instead of corn or other grains. You might need to visit a farmers’ market to find it. High-quality animal products cost more, so you might need to compensate by eating them less often. And that’s probably good for your health too.

Don’t drink your calories. Soft drinks aren’t health food. Did you know that juice isn’t all that good for you either? Unsweetened kale juice might be, but you’re probably not gulping that down with your breakfast. Most juice is full of sugar. Yes, it’s natural, but it’s still sugar. Eat your fruit, don’t gulp it.

Keep added sugars to a minimum. Period. Sugars naturally found in a ripe, juicy peach are fine, but any sugar that is added to your food — cane sugar, honey, maple syrup — should be curbed. Not cut out entirely, but limited. And no, it’s not easy. If you’re already avoiding processed food (see my first tip), then at least you’ve got control over how much sugar goes into your food in the first place.

Avoid foods made to taste like other foods. Fat-free fat, or sugar-free sugar? Fake meat? Just eat the real thing, enjoy it, and don’t go overboard.

Cut back on omega-6 fatty acids. Haven’t heard of them? They’re an essential fatty acid, but we eat five to ten times too much of them. You find them mostly in vegetable oils: soybean, peanut, sesame, sunflower, safflower, and corn. (Soybean oil is often labeled “vegetable oil.”) For a healthier fat, try olive oil, coconut oil, or even good, old-fashioned butter. Yum.

Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full. Overeating to clean your plate won’t help a starving child in Africa.

Be skeptical about any diet promoted by personalities selling books, DVDs, custom meal plans, and even specially formulated food. Ask yourself if there’s a chance that it just might possibly be a money-making racket. Does a diet tell you to cut out entire food groups that most people eat in the course of a normal day? That’s another red flag.

Maybe if a celebrity told you this, you’d start following these guidelines. It sure beats eating sawdust for breakfast.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.