Personal FAQs: How do you choose what to eat?

Where I share my personal four-step framework for making conscious food choices in my daily life, and how it applies in every situation.

An initial disclaimer before I get into any discussion of my own personal diet: I am not a nutritionist, dietician, or in possession of any sort of formal credentials that would give me the authority to tell you what to eat. I believe that food choices are unique to everyone’s individual nutrition needs, mental and physical health, lifestyle, and specific circumstance, and that moralizing food choices (whether type or quantity) only leads to a negative relationship with food. However, I get this question often enough that I wanted to put it together as a written resource, in case you find my own personal decision making framework helpful for creating your own.

I have structured my own dietary choices as an incremental framework that cascades from most to least strict in terms of the foods I am selecting, rather than a completely rigid set of rules. I have found that this framework enables me to quickly and easily make the best decision for any situation, and also enables me to adapt to many different situations. Whether it’s a typical weeknight dinner at home, a brunch with friends, a late night celebration, or a trip to a coffee shop, this framework can apply.

I try to follow the strictest guidelines the most often, and then move outward in the circle when the circumstances require it. This framework can be used with a variety of other nutrition tracking methods (I personally use it in combination with macro and calorie tracking, but that is not for everyone), or it can be used without tracking anything at all.

Often: Pick foods that are primarily Paleo
Sometimes: Eat a protein, fat, and vegetable with each meal
Occasionally: If it fits your macros (IIFYM) for the day
Sparingly: Deliberate decisions over mindless munching

Often: Pick foods that are primarily Paleo

What this means: Though there are many different variants of a paleo or a primal lifestyle, the basic framework is fairly consistent. A paleo diet emphasizes foods that are as close to their “natural” source as possible, including a vide variety of leafy vegetables, fruits, root vegetables, animal proteins, nuts, seeds, herbs, eggs, and healthy oils/fats like coconut, avocado, and olive.

It cautions you to avoid grains (including gluten-free grains and corn), legumes (including all beans and peanuts), dairy products (although some primal guidelines allow for occasional cheese, or lower-lactose forms like ghee), refined oils like canola or vegetable, added sweeteners, and most forms of “processed” food (a vague and problematic term, but often used as shorthand to refer to foods that come out of a box, are cooked in problematic oils, or come with ingredients that aren’t recognizable). It also cautions against too many uses of “approved” sweeteners (like honey or molasses) or too much consumption of “substitute” ingredients like nut butters and flours

This diet tends to be lower in carbohydrates  than  a Standard American Diet due to the lack of common carbohydrate sources like bread, cereal, oatmeal, pasta, beans, and white potatoes. However, it is not meant to be a low-carb diet, as you can get plenty of carbs from fruits and root vegetables.

The quality of what you eat is also often important, and most proponents will encourage you to consume food that is as organic and locally sourced as budgets and resources allow. Though organic food has not been proven to be more nutritious than conventionally grown food, food with an organic label is subject to a more strict set of rules around their environment, such as pesticides, harvest practices, living conditions, or hormones. Learning to read labels around environment and animal welfare, or establishing a relationship with a local farmer or CSA, is often encouraged.

What this looks like: When I go grocery shopping, these foods are my primary grocery list. In my home, I keep as few non-paleo foods as possible. This means that if you come over and look in my fridge and freezer, you will see: fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables (organic if possible), fresh and frozen meats (organic if possible), different sauces and salsas with as few ingredients as possible and a low amount of added sweetener (organic if possible), plenty of eggs (organic if possible), and a small amount of cheese and butter for cooking.

In my pantry, you will see lots and lots of different spices and spice mixes (organic if possible, and preferably without sweeteners), and some natural snack foods (like rxbars or dried meats), canned fruits and vegetables, plus healthy oils like olive, avocado, coconut, and ghee.

I have very few grain-based foods (I have a few bags of corn-based tortilla chips or similar snacks for my partner and guests), sweet foods (I have a small candy dish of chocolates and a small container of diary-free ice cream), and dairy based foods (I have some cheese for topping certain recipes).

Why I do this: Because what I have on hand and what I choose to bring into the house is what I have the most control over. If I want this guideline to be the base of my framework, it needs to be the one that I can follow most often. At home, this means cooking meals using paleo ingredients. My standard “utility meals” all follow these requirements, as they are the meals I will be eating most often.

  • Utility breakfast: egg, spinach, diced ham, and spices
  • Utility lunch: mixed green salad with chicken, guac, and various compliant toppings
  • Utility dinner: skillet mix of protein and fresh or frozen vegetables in a compliant sauce, or with healthy oils and spices

When I am out, it means looking for meals that meet these requirements most often. Though I don’t have control over the source of the food, or the oils they’re cooked in, I can choose or substitute main dishes and sides that follow the paleo ingredient framework for the majority of ingredients. If you ever ask me what I want at a restaurant, I’ll usually jokingly tell you “meats and vegetables.”

Sometimes: Eat a protein, fat, and vegetable with each meal

What this means: If I am in a situation where I can’t have a strictly paleo meal, or if I am choosing to have a meal that incorporates non-paleo ingredients (I am certainly not going my whole life without eating bread or pizza again), I try to make sure that my meal has a protein, fat, and vegetable involved. One, this makes sure I am accounting for each of the major macronutrients (Proteins, Fats, Carbohydrates) so that feel full and satisfied at the end of the meal without feeling hangry or overstuffed later. Two, this makes sure I am continuing to get a variety of micronutrients at each meal, to promote overall health.

What this looks like: Ordering a burger? Maybe the burger has interesting toppings like guac, or caramelized onions and mushrooms, and I get a side vegetable or salad instead of fries, and I may choose to only have a couple bites with the bun before eating it open-face with a fork and knife. Ordering a pizza? Maybe the pizza has a ton of vegetable toppings and I have some protein to go with it, or some less-processed meat toppings (like chicken or natural sausage) and a side salad to go with it. Or maybe it’s a typical meat-and-vegetables meal, but I really wanted a soft buttery crescent roll to go with it, or to slather it in cheese.

Why I do this: Because not every meal has to earn a “perfect gold star” in order to be nutritionally dense and healthy. Sometimes you really want that corn salsa on your salad, or a noodle soup with lunch, or a bean chili with dinner. Plus, pizza is my favorite food, and fresh bread is wonderful.

Occasionally: If it fits your macros (IIFYM) for the day

What this means: Sometimes, not every meal is going to fit an ideal macronutrient ratio. Some meals just don’t make sense with all three macronutrients well-represented, or sometimes there are limited resources available. In that case, I look at the bigger picture for the entire day. If I want to eat a really high-carb meal that doesn’t have a whole lot of protein, can I eat a more protein-dense, lower-carb meal at a different time of the day so my overall daily macros stay consistent? Even if you are not tracking your macros, you can choose to balance your representation or macronutrients throughout the day.

What this looks like: Really want those decadent pancakes with chocolate chips and whipped cream and syrup at brunch? Split the stack with a friend, order a side of ham, and eat a leafy salad for dinner. Going to have some of that famous seven layer cake or homemade pie after dinner? Opt out of starches for breakfast and stick with a protein/fat balance for satiety. Ate some fries with lunch? Swap the sweet potatoes planned as your dinner side for broccoli or zucchini. Decided to get a slice of cheese pizza for lunch? Order vegetable soup instead of cheddar or cream soup with dinner.

Important note: this is NOT the same thing as skipping meals in order to “indulge” later, or  restricting the morning after a large dinner or late night snack. It is up to each individual person to determine the amount of food they need to feel full from a calorie consumption perspective, but it is never a good idea to force yourself to be hungry in order to “punish” yourself or “make up” for eating “too much.”

Why I do this: Because variety is the spice of life. I want the opportunity to share foods with my friends that are special to them, to try something amazing that a chef has prepared at a tasting, or to be able to occasionally just eat what’s available without a lot of anxiety or pre-planning.

Sparingly: Deliberate decisions over mindless munching

What this means: There are some special days, some special meals, where even the most careful planning won’t leave you “balanced” that day… and that’s ok. As the least-often-used, most-lenient rule suggests, the only consideration here is to be deliberate with your choice rather than mindless. Ordering the absurd boozy tiki cocktail on your birthday, sampling one of each kind of your family’s homemade Christmas cookies at the yearly holiday party, having a slice of pecan pie at Thanksgiving, trying the decadent meal that a destination city is famous for… these are special and amazing occasions, and food is just as much a celebration as it is a fuel.

What this looks like: Choose indulgences with purpose. Do it because it is a specific celebration, a specific holiday, a specific experience to be shared, rather than mindlessly because it is in front of you. If and when you do indulge, commit fully to that sensory experience. Savor the meal or drink or dessert without guilt, and feel all the joy and delight it provides. Pay attention to how you feel afterwards as well (how is your body? how is your mind?)

Why I do this: Because life is short, and joy is valid. I don’t need to indulge every day, or even every week, but when I do, I want to be fully present in that experience with no regrets.

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