I received quite a few notes after a recent newsletter article about feeling overwhelmed by the many “rules” about staying healthy, especially healthy eating rules. There are many rules, and there seem to be more each day. It can certainly feel daunting.

If you review the “rules” carefully, they don’t actually change that much. And even better, they tend to be similar, or even the same, from one disease-prevention recommendation to the next.

For example, a recent article in Dr. Mirkin’s newsletter gives a list of lifestyle steps you can take to reduce the risk for a heart attack and dementia:
• exercising and growing muscles
• losing weight if overweight
• eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and other seeds
• restricting red meat, fried foods, sugared drinks, sugar-added foods, refined carbohydrates and alcohol
• avoiding smoking
• avoiding vitamin D deficiency.

None of these are new ideas. And yet, a piece I read in the New York Times by Dean Ornish, clinical professor of medicine U.C.S.F., and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, reports, “Although people have been told for decades to eat less meat and fat, Americans actually consumed 67 percent more added fat, 39 percent more sugar, and 41 percent more meat in 2000 than they had in 1950 and 24.5 percent more calories than they had in 1970, according to the Agriculture Department. Not surprisingly, we are fatter and unhealthier.” (I’m happy to report a more recent report showed a bit of a reversal of calorie intake, so something is starting to finally take.)

Ornish’s point is high-protein diets are not a good idea as people flock to the latest cure-all: running away from sugar. “Sugar isn’t the only villain,” he goes on to say. “The hazards of meat are understated.”

A recent piece I read (actually, a letter to the editor in the Times by Dr. Meir Stampfer, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the school), reported on a study showing “that the Mediterranean diet, emphasizing nuts, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and legumes, and discouraging red meat and sugary foods, dramatically cut cardiovascular disease.”

They agree with Ornish, going on to make important distinctions: between harmful fats (trans and saturated, such as those found in high-animal-protein diets) and helpful ones (for example those found in nuts and olive oil), and between harmful carbs (sugar) and helpful ones (whole grains).

The Way I Eat

I have friends who think the way I eat is boring. To me, keeping things limited is easier. And I love every food I eat. Here is how I eat most days:

  • For breakfast: Whole grain cereals with no-sugar-added almond milk, or with fat free plain Greek yogurt, usually with walnuts or berries added.
  • For lunch and dinner: Fish or chicken or turkey, along with salad and veggies.
  • An apple, almonds, and dark chocolate as snacks.
  • Water, seltzer, or unsweetened decaf iced-tea.

I am sure I’m not super close to an ideal diet. But I try. What I’m eating are lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. I avoid red meat and sugary drinks.

At times I eat ice cream, cake, and other indulgences. I drink wine or beer. And I often eat more than the recommended amount of the dark chocolate I mentioned above.

One reader wrote the following to me:

I can’t help but notice your list of foods is very similar to Weight Watchers “Simply Filling” plan.

They don’t like to call it a diet and that is why I chose to work with Weight Watchers to lose weight—I want it to be more of a lifestyle change that I can continue following.

The foods on your list, aside from the nuts and chocolate are allowed on the Simply Filling plan and you do not have to count points or watch portions as carefully. That is why I like it – it is simple. If you eat other foods, you simply count those points as your extra points for the day and you also receive weekly points to be used as you wish. It is not restrictive at all, and I feel like I am eating healthy foods most of the time and never hungry.

I still like to snack a lot—and like crunchy foods. I choose low fat, whole- or multi-grain snacks and eat healthy grains such as couscous. I also eat potatoes (white and sweet) which I love and indulge in foods like pizza just because it tastes so good—but I eat less of it, and eat it with salad. 

I noticed if I do eat fried food or anything high in fat I don’t feel great, so it is more of an incentive to not eat those foods anymore. I don’t think I can ever be as disciplined as you, but it makes you feel better and it does become easier.

The Way I Exercise

How I eat is only one of the two major pieces of my health habits. I try to go to sleep reasonably early in order to be able to wake up early to work out. I stretch, do some light weights work, and ride my stationary bike or walk fast on my treadmill. I ride my bike outdoors when the weather permits. I also try to get to at least two yoga classes each week (mostly on the weekends, sometimes on a weeknight).

One New Habit at a Time

Most importantly, everything I do reflects small changes I have made over the past 25+ years: incremental improvements as I’ve developed my exercise routine and my eating habits. And I keep making changes because I want to live a long life, but more importantly, I want a long healthspan—the longest healthy life I possibly can. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, but working on them one at a time makes it doable.

Are you overwhelmed by the seemingly countless health recommendations? How do you work on your healthspan? How do you make progress on your eating and exercise habits? Join the conversation with your comments…

Best regards,