23 July 2014

The Health Files: Nutrition Basics

Thai Salad // Personal Picture

Today, I'd like to introduce a new post idea: the Health Files. As I chose the path of simplicity, I also started paying more attention to my health, researching various topics, and shifting my daily habits. Although I am not a health professional, and my notes are only the result of personal reads and experiments, I thought it may be interesting to share my findings with you.

First, let me reiterate that I am not a health professional, and these points below are a result of reads, research, my education, and various experiments and habits I have implemented as a regular human being. Also, I selected ideas and tips that I found across different sources and applicable to most diet types, as a basis for healthy eating.

Eat Natural, Whole Foods

If there is one thing my own mother and all my reads from various dietary trends have in common, it is this one: focus on real ingredients and raw foods. As George Carlin would say, "natural" doesn't really have a meaning as everything, including chemicals, comes from nature originally, but the idea is to eat fresh, unprocessed food.

As Mireille Guiliano says in her book French Women Don't Get Fat, you should avoid anything which ingredient list sounds like a chemical weapon. I like this simple and clear recommendation.

Among the reasons developed across various sources, there is the fact that processing food can remove essential nutrients from the final product, chemicals never taste the same as the real thing, and some additives can have unknown, or adverse effects on the body.

You can watch that video as an example, with detailed explanations on why processed fructose, from high fructose corn syrup for example, is much worse for health than the natual fructose consumed in fruits.

In short, fresh ingredients are tastier, provide more nutrients to the body, and, something I've quickly learned in my student years, seasonal fresh products are much cheaper to buy and cook than any prepared food.

On the Idea of a "Balanced" Diet

All health professionals recommend us to eat a "balanced" diet, a bit of all, in short. But from various governments' recommendations to each nutritionist's rules, the idea of balance can be different. Basically, there are three main "macronutrients", sources of energy for our body: protein, fat and carbohydrates.

That's where the various diet trends diverge: from low fat diets to high protein, low carb "paleo" movements, nobody seems to agree on which is good and bad for the body.

A bit of research and a lot of common sense tend to prove that a balanced diet is one that contain all three energy sources. However, within each, not all types are good for health. I believe the important is not to go on a hunt against fat or carbs as a whole (I still haven't found any "low protein" diet), but to choose high quality sources of energy - an idea I can develop in other posts if you are interested.

Although I tend to err on the low carb side, my basic rule is to eat a bit of all - vegetables, meat and fish, legumes, grains, diary, fruit... Apparently, vegetarians and vegans can find the needed proteins from a plant-based diet, but at the condition to consume complementary products, and not always the same ones (for example, rice and legumes seem to be a good combination).

Watch Quantities

As say the health professionals from the French association GROS (Reflexion Group around Obesity and Overweight issues), eating a balanced diet can still be harmful if we eat more than we need. You can eat a very fresh and balanced diet, if you consume 5000 calories per day, you will still gain weight and other adverse health effects.

So, another of my basic nutrition rules is to eat roughly the amount of energy I need to sustain my body and physical activity. There are several calorie intake calculators out there, this one was suggested within a nutrition MOOC I'm taking these days. As a reference, it calculated a daily intake of 2000 calories for my small but quite active self.

Of course, this only gives a rough idea of what your needs may be, the point being to pay attention to the overall quantity of food consumed, no matter how "healthy". In other words, yes, vegetables can make us fat, if we eat too much of it.

Listen to Your Body

Here is my final "nutrition basic": learn to listen and respect you body's needs. One of the first things nutritionists teach to overweight patients is to pay attention to the sensations of hunger and satiety, then learn to wait until they are hungry to eat and stop when they are full.

In our modern society, where we have plenty of food, and a lot of rules (you should eat this, avoid that, make 3 meals a day...), a lot of us are disconnected from our own body sensations. We eat according to our "plan", and not according to our body's needs.

But the truth is, when we have specific cravings, it is sometimes the body saying it is missing a nutrient which is found in this thing. The most well-known example of that is the sudden cravings of pregnant women.

I'm not saying we should be eating whatever we want, whenever we want, but in my own food habits, I've learned to listen to my own sensations of hunger and satiety, and adapt accordingly.  And when I feel like eating a particular type of food for a while, I go for it.

That's it for the first Health Files post. I hope you liked it. Since I'm no professional, I'm not sure how useful that is, so please don't hesitate to let me know if that's of any interest for you. This first post is an overview, you can read more on my philosophy around food here, and I can develop some of the items in future posts if you are interested.


  1. Completely agree with everything. I don't know if it is the same in France, but in Norway there is a HUGE fitness trend going on, both with bloggers and the general population. Everything is low-carb, high-protein, sugar-free. You don't eat waffles and pancakes and cupcakes, you eat protein-pancakes and chickpea cupcakes with whey-protein frosting. Bloggers that would previously blogged about café dates with their girlfriends are now competing in bikini fitness and publishing daily photos of their six packs, and I've seen girls as young as 12 wear their running tights to the movie theatre. The whole thing is so neurotic and mathematical and sad. What happened to good old moderation and just enjoying food?

    Like you I try to eat things that are good for me, and in moderation. It is a piece of cake with the regular everyday meals, but when there's time for a treat I can seriously eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry's in one sitting. Still working on that one. I often try to think of it in terms of my grandparents - would they have eaten this? Would they have found it ridiculous to buy Starbucks three days a week? Would they eat anything that could sit in a cupboard for a year without going bad? It is hard, because everything is so readily available, but when you have something too often it stops being a "treat" and is no longer special. Keeping more old-fashioned eating habits in mind has been helpful for me in that respect :)

    1. I see what you mean with this whole fitness trend. Sometimes when I research about health and sports I see that kind of community, obsessed with shape - and ultimately their own body and beauty I assume - who don't seem to eat that healthily after all. Also, there seems to be a lot of ideas about what "healthy" is. I've seen virtual fights on blog comments about low fat versus low carb, but it all seems too extreme to me. And, as you say, where is the enjoyment? Food seems to be an enemy in these discussions.

      It's a good trick to wonder if your grand-parents would have eaten it. a lot of processed food is very recent indeed. I wonder if my mother served me that kind of food when I ponder my plate's contents. We used to eat very fresh food with seasonal ingredients, and we still do when we visit my mother. She even has a garden from which we eat the vegetables in spring and summer, that's fantastic. And she eats plenty of cheese and deserts, and she does serve chocolate with tea, so we're covered with enjoyment :)

    2. Fully agree with you both here! Something to add to this fitness-obsession that everyone seems to have:

      I have been on-and-off a diet since I turned 15, I think. I was never really fat, but my mum had–still has, in fact–a bit of an obsession with weight (she was a chubby teenager and she gained a lot of weight after pregnancy, too) and as a young girl unsure of myself I just followed her and the various diets she tried. Now, I am 26. Last year I thought that I'm not as fit as I should be–again, not fat, just not the ideal figure the magazines show us. I thought I needed to go on a diet and I got angry. I started the diet and I was angry–I was angry that I had to limit myself again and angry I had to eat some weird stuff instead of things I actually like. I stopped the diet soon after that, fed up with always having to watch the carbs/fat/eating at a specified hour etc. I decided to never go on a diet again and it left me feeling relieved and calm. I have taught myself to be moderate what I eat and watchful about my weight so that I don't have to be working myself over carbs ever again.

      Thing is, being reasonable about eating really works! Not a grand plan, not a list of meals, just logic. Basically, it's all about figuring out what works best for us and sticking to it in a way that makes us comfortable. I am a walking example that it can be done, and with great effects :)

  2. I agree! I find nutrition is one of those areas where there is sooo much information (often contradictory) available that it is easy to become completely overwhelmed and fall down a rabbit hole, so to speak.

    I found this to be especially true when I became vegan, as I began researching more (which makes sense when you're changing your diet significantly). Obviously it's good to be informed, but I believe anxiety or stress is going to be far worse for your body than eating a cupcake.

    When I feel like I'm heading down this path and maybe reading too much, I try to keep things super simple. Whole foods. Variation. That kind of thing.

    There is actually a low protein diet - the 80 / 10 / 10 diet is low in both protein and fats. It just doesn't make sense to me to demonize any macronutrient. How is that sustainable in the long term?

    1. Ooh I didn't know there was a low protein diet, they really come up with anything and everything these days. I agree that nutritional information is overwhelming when you start to research these subjects. Contradictory even, which means you don't really know what to believe in the end.

      That's why I believe in eating natural and balanced food. Even when some foods can be harmful in large quantity (most, probably), I think eating diverse food in moderation is the best way to get all the nutrients we need with limited risk. It's also a way to enjoy richer food: it tastes better when it's a rare treat, doesn't it?

  3. How refreshing to see a post about this that's so level-headed. This is actually one area that I work in, and it's frustrating to see all the incorrect, and sometimes harmful, "facts" about nutrition so many people believe. Eating a healthy diet is really just as simple as making a habit out of the practices you're suggesting. There are certainly no harmful macronutrients, as popular as that concept is - in fact, there's very little you can eat that is actually harmful, provided you eat it in moderation. (The only thing I can think of is trans fats, and even that occurs naturally in some animal products.)

    Just a note, not a criticism, but as far as I know from current research, the idea that processed fructose/high fructose corn syrup is *so* awful for you is actually false: while your body does react differently to it than table sugar, it's only so slightly that it's essentially insignificant. It's really the prevalence of sugar (of all kinds) in the modern diet that's what's so unhealthy.

    1. Thanks! I have to admit this kind of post is the result of my own habits and research and I always wonder what health professionals would think about it. When regular people like myself want to know how they should eat for their health, it is a bit daunting to see just how much literature there is on the subject, and how different the recommendations are. I thought I'd use my common sense on this one.

      Regarding the high fructose syrup, my remark comes from this video from the Dr Ludwig, who is in charge of an obesity center and explained how the processing of fructose in the liver is very different from the processing of glucose, and generates a number of side effects, including weight gain, a sensation of satiety that is not triggered and, basically, poisons the liver like alcohol does. I imagine that's the effects of too much high fructose corn syrup, but if you work in that field I'd love to hear what you think of Dr Ludwig's explanation (the video is linked in the article above, it's long though)

  4. Variety in moderation. Life is a celebration and food is one of its gifts.

  5. It's only during this past year that I have started to truly enjoy food. That's a bit sad considering I'm closer to 30 than 20... But I've been so wrapped up in this 'you can't eat this and that' / 'this will make you fat' blaa blaa that I've been eating pretty bland foods for most part. And when I have eaten something one is 'not supposed to eat' I always felt really guilty. But now I've finally learnt to enjoy good, delicious foods. I bake and cook more now than I ever did and I truly truly enjoy the foods I get to eat now. I think that's why I used to eat so much candy and other unhealthy treats, because I didn't get the enjoyment and great flavours from my regular meals. Though it's a bit odd that I could stuff my face with unhealthy treats but I couldn't eat pasta with a yummy creamy sauce because "oh no, I will get fat!"...

    It's a slow learning process, but I feel I'm going towards the right direction. What I still need to learn is to stop eating when I'm full. I often eat something though I'm not hungry, because I know it will taste so very good. But maybe I need to realise, that I can have it later, like the next day or next week and it's not the end of the world if I don't get that awesome flavour in my mouth this very second.

    I also agree with the thought that things don't taste so good and special if you have it too often. That's why I'm also practicing a seasonal approach to eating. So when I bake I try to make things that fit the season, so using lots of fresh berries now in the summer and f.e. apples and richer flavours, like caramel, during the winter.

    1. I'm very happy to hear that you're enjoying food now! It's true that the demoization of certain types of food, added to this cult of very thin bodies in our society today, can lead to cutting ourselves from our body's need and enjoyment, and inflict ourselves a sort of perpetual diet. I personally found that enjoying food actually leads to eat less and better in the end - as you say yourself. When you enjoy your regular meal you are less tempted to eat junk food outside of meals. At least I noticed that for myself as well.

      I also found that variety is a great way to both ensure we get all the nutrients we need, and not get bored with food (I think eating always the same things also leads to unhealthy habits because you are less satissfied when you are bored with food). Eating seasonal food is the best way for that - after all, every season has different treats, and in season fruit and vegetables taste so different than out of season stuff that's been on a boat for weeks...