How I Think About Eating Healthy: More of This, Less of That

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Roman Prishenko)

I want to preface this by telling you up front that I’m not a nutritionist. The only special education I have on the subject of eating for health and weight management is years of habitually reading the studies and reports on the topic.

About all those studies: You’ve probably noticed that for every compelling study that proclaims one thing, you’ll find another that’s “proven” the exact opposite. So while I do keep current on nutrition science and use that kind of research in my work as a writer, I don’t rely on it all that much to shape my daily food choices for weight loss.

What I Eat More Of

When I’m trying to lose weight, I think most about what I should eat more of. It’s true there are things I’m avoiding, but the first step for me is focusing on the positive: vegetables. There are so many areas of controversy when it comes to what to eat to lose weight, but if there’s one thing everyone agrees about, it’s that you’re pretty much safe in the produce aisle.

Lucky for me, I happen to love the taste of veggies—raw, roasted, steamed, boiled, sauced, spiced, whatever. This year, I’ve pledged to eat vegetables daily at lunch and dinner. That can be any kind of salad, a tray of roasted vegetables, or even some quickly defrosted and sautéed frozen veggies. The only catch is that corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other starchy options don’t count.

Next on the list of what to eat more of is lean protein. In my own experience, nothing helps me lose weight like getting plenty of protein in as many meals and snacks as possible. Some of my favorite sources of protein are chicken thighs, ground meat, nuts, and strained yogurts (like Greek and skyr). Protein makes you feel fuller for longer on fewer calories—a complete no brainer when you are trying to lose weight.

After vegetables and lean protein, choosing foods for weight loss gets more complicated. Unless you are living under a rock, you’ve probably been exposed to the basics of the Paleo diet and books about the dangers of gluten. Some people don’t think legumes or grains are good for you. After going through elimination diets and phases of not eating these foods, I’ve decided that for me grains and beans are good for my health and useful for weight loss, with a couple caveats.

We’re always urged to choose “whole grains,” but I think the advice should be to choose intact grains. That means a grain that has not been ground into flour like bread and pasta, or had its healthiest bits stripped away, like white rice has. My current favorite intact grains are barley and wild rice, but quinoa, farro, brown rice, millet, and freekeh are all great choices too.

It’s very easy to eat a rather large number of calories in one sitting with beans and grains, so I rarely eat them on their own. I always try to combine no more than ¼ cup legumes and ¼ cup grains with plenty of raw or cooked veggies, meat, herbs, and nuts. Balance is key. Another of my goals for the new year is to cook up a big pot of beans and grains each week so I always have these nourishing, satisfying meal building blocks on hand.

I also make sure I’m eating enough healthy fats: olive oil, coconut oil, grass fed butter and ghee. These make otherwise low-cal veggies more satisfying and delicious.

What I Eat Less Of

When it comes to what I avoid, it’s pretty simple: flour and sugar. I think flour (even whole wheat flour) and added sugar (in all of its natural and unnatural forms) are the sworn enemies of weight loss. Alcohol goes in this category, too, though I more try to moderate it than eliminate it. There are many health benefits associated with a daily glass of wine with dinner, so I try to keep it to that.

Moderation is an essential part of this (or any other) program. My husband and I love making our own pizza from a crust that’s part whole-wheat flour and part white. We’ve been making pizza together for a dozen years; I’m not giving that up just because it’s not an optimal meal for weight loss. But I am limiting it to every other week and serving it with salad. Restaurants are a big part of my work and life, so restaurant meals can’t be eliminated either. I am keeping those to one a week and trying to make vegetable-heavy menu choices that minimize flour and sugar.

Because whatever your framework is for eating for weight loss, it has to be durable and flexible. In the past, I’ve been much more rigid and restrictive about all this, and it’s only gotten me back to where I started, over and over again. I know from years of self-experimentation this is the kind of diet that works best for me. But whatever you discover in your own personal diet lab, the way you eat when you lose weight needs to be the way you eat forever if you hope to maintain the loss.

Loving Food While Losing Weight

Is it possible to talk about the fraught space of food, body, and weight in a healthy, thoughtful way? We think so, and we’re presenting a monthlong column exploring one food-lover and food writer’s journey towards finding her own personal balance. Joy Manning is joining us this month with her own stories, practical tips, recipes, and perspective on the real-life struggle between loving food and loving your body.