Food is fuel, and when I realized that in my early 30s everything changed. I became conscious of food, not health conscious per se but aware of what food could do to me, and for me. Will this salad make me hungry an hour from now? What if I add more chicken to it? Will this second slice of pizza leave me groggy? How about a third? This was my initial experimentation with food: What if I try this and then add that? What if I exclude this other thing entirely?
I didn’t diet then and still don’t. Instead I experiment. After 10 years of experimenting, here are the three things I’ve learned about food. These principles keep my energy up, my weight down, and my waist slim. When I follow these principles I perform better throughout the day, whatever the writing or editing assignment, and sleep better at night, however tasking that day has been.
1. Shop the outer aisles of the grocery store.
That’s where you find the produce, fresh cuts of meat and whole-grain breads. That’s the “real food,” as Michael Pollan called it in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the best book I’ve read on what we eat and how it’s made and what it does to your body. You want to eat this real food — real fruits, real vegetables, real meat, whole grains — far more than you eat everything else. Everything else are the other aisles of the grocery store: Everything that’s boxed, that’s processed, everything that promises an easy no-fuss meal. Basically, if it has a list of ingredients on it, it’s not real food.
I’m no masochist and neither is my wife so we shop the other aisles. We get pasta and tomato sauce and even potato chips and cookies for the kids. But we fill our shopping cart from the outer aisles before we move inward. This keeps us honest. It can do the same for you.
2. Eat at certain hours of the day, and not outside them.
Yep, I’m an intermittent faster. The idea behind this approach is a biological reality: Your body needs 12 hours each day to digest the food you eat. So if you finish dinner at 8 pm, you should have breakfast the next day at 8 am. For every additional hour you refrain from eating, you increase the likelihood of weight loss. Eating across only eight hours a day pretty much guarantees weight loss, according to multiple studies of intermittent fasting. I’m not interested in weight loss so much as consistent energy throughout the day. I’ve found that limiting my food intake to 10 hours a day works really well. I don’t wake up starving or crash in the afternoon and I have the reserves I need to lift weights before returning home for dinner.
Since I got serious about IF, I’ve lost three inches from my waist. Intermittent fasting has put me in better touch, too, with the circadian rhythms that guide my days: when to write, when to read, when to relax, when to sleep.
Intermittent fasting doesn’t require absolute adherence. Do it five days out of seven and you’ll be fine.
3. Divide your plate visually and you’ll never count another calorie.
I learned this tip from Jeff Cavaliere, the certified trainer and YouTube majordomo. Jeff says you should visualize a plate of food as a clock. On that clock you need to remember the positions for the hour and minute hands of two times of day: 9:00 and 9:20.
So here’s how you’re plate of food will look after you visualize the minute and hand positions of 9:00:
And here’s how your plate of food will look after you imagine it being divided by the 9:20 hour and minute positions:
You take the biggest portion of your time-divided plate and you put vegetables on it. (Jeff calls them fibrous carbohydrates in the video because they could also include some fruits.) You take the second biggest portion and you put protein on it. You take the smallest portion and you put starchy carbohydrates on it.
Now your plate looks like this:
Divide your plate this way and don’t go back for seconds and you’ll never need a calorie-counting app.