Few people are aware that ‘our diet is the number-one cause of premature death and the number-one cause of disability’ (Gregor 2016). If our objective is to improve our health and reduce our chances of succumbing to disability and pre-mature death, both highly desirable states to avoid, then the very first thing we should do is improve our dietary habits.
But before we can make the necessary changes we must first know what constitutes a healthy balanced diet. The aim of this article is to provide you with a comprehensive overview of what the contemporary nutritional science consensus is on what we should and shouldn’t be eating.
I have, as a means of motivation, included a lengthy list of benefits that awaits those who adopt healthy eating principals (the list is taken from T. Collin Campbell’s The China Study). Whenever you feel yourself struggling to maintain ‘right eating’ principals reflect back on this list; better still, print it out and stick it to the front of your fridge.
If you eat healthy you can expect to:
look and feel younger
have more energy
lower your blood cholesterol (without pharmacological drugs!)
prevent and reverse heart disease
lower your risk of prostate, breast and other cancers
preserve your eyesight in you later years
prevent and treat diabetes
vastly decrease the need for pharmaceutical drugs
keep your bones strong
prevent kidney stones
lower blood pressure
and beat arthritis
4 Dietary Don’ts
Dietary Don’t #1: Animal Protein
The above list of benefits was taken from the book The China Study, but what is this book about? Well, it’s about Chinese people, cancer and meat consumption. Though, or course, there’s a bit more to it than that.
When he was in the last grips of terminal cancer, the Chinese president, Chou EnLai, initiated a nationwide survey of the disease that would soon take his life. This survey encompassed more ‘than 2,400 Chinese counties and 880 million (98%) of their citizens’ (Campbell 2004). The result was a colour-coded atlas depicting cancer prevalent counties. Amazingly the incidences of cancer in some counties were non-existent whilst others were extremely high. The Chou EnLai Cancer Atlas, as it became known, was finalised in the early 1970s. Ten years later T. Colin Campbell and a team of world-class scientist and epidemiologists went to China to conduct the most comprehensive biomedical research project ever undertaken.
The research team’s mission was to uncover why cancer was so acutely localised in some counties but not others.
After painstakingly collecting vast amounts of dietary and lifestyle-specific data sets, one reoccurring factor continually cropped up. The diets of the people who lived in low-cancer counties were almost entirely plant-based. In those counties where cancer rates were high people tended to consume much more animal protein.
Thus, the findings of The China Study can be summed up as follows: ‘animal-based foods’ are linked to higher rates of cancer and many other degenerative diseases (Campbell, 2004). Those other degenerative diseases include: heart disease; type 2 diabetes; obesity; atherosclerosis; hypertension; and strokes.
The link between meat and physical degeneration was identified long before The China Study went to press. In 1997 the American Institute for Cancer Research, along with the World Cancer Research Fund, published a major report into the effects of lifestyle on health. ‘The report finds that 60 to 70 percent of all cancers can be prevented by staying physically fit, not smoking, and most importantly . . . following one dietary recommendation:
“Choose predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, legumes, and minimally processed starch staple foods.”’
Over the past decade the scientific evidence linking meat to a litany of diseases continues to pour in at an ever increasing rate.
Dietary Don’t #2: Refined Carbohydrates/sugar
A refined food has gone through a synthetic, mechanical process that transforms raw or natural produce into something that will eventually be eaten. However, during this process much of the nutrient value of the food is lost. For example, refining grains ‘removes the bran and germ, which contain important nutrients like B vitamins, iron, and fibre.’
In addition to depleting the nutrient value of food, the refining process also strips grains of ‘roughage’ – otherwise known as insoluble fibre. The diminution of dietary fibre has been linked to increase rates of obesity and incidences of metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and diabetes.
In a study of 40,000 males, researchers made a convincing link between high-fibre consumption and the reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
Refined foods have also been shown to exacerbate weight gain whilst causing the adulteration of healthy eating habits. (And such foods, because they have been stripped of their roughage, do not quell the pangs of hunger like their superior wholegrain counterparts do.) People who regularly consume refined, sugary foods come to crave them – sugar is as addictive as some band psychotropic drugs. Moreover, they lose their taste for healthy foods which become ‘bland’ and ‘tasteless’.
This triggers a kind of negative feedback loop where the addiction and lack of satiation drives consumption and the adulteration leads to the reduction of healthy foods in the diet. Thus it is always best to abstain from eating processed, sugary foods.
Dietary Don’t #3: Processed Foods
To improve health and reduce superfluous body fat all processed foods must be purged from your diet. As well as being over-laden with sugar, salt and saturated fat – all health filching ingredients – processed food is highly refined, nutrient deficient, and, perhaps most concerning of all, they contains chemical additives.
In her book Swallow This Joanna Blythman brings our attention not only to the concerning use of chemical additives in processed foods, but also to the additional chemicals used in the manufacturing process and plastic packaging they are entombed in.
‘A ready-made pizza, for instance, often sits on a polystyrene disc, swathed in clingy plastic wrapping, inside a plasticised cardboard sleeve or box. When we pull off the wrapper, some of the pizza topping usually comes away with it, evidence of contact. In factory food, a number of polymer plastics hold pre-cooked ingredients in their sticky, clammy embrace, all the while exchanging body fluids. The film on ready meals that turns brittle once cooked according to manufacturer’s instructions is dotted with steamy brown liquid that drips onto the food contents in the shallow plastic tray, a humid haze of reheated industrial ingredients and now plastic. Prawn mayonnaise sandwiches and Peking duck wraps sit in the supermarket and takeaway shop chiller for 48 hours, oozing their sweet, oily innards onto the plastic and cardboard carton, a carton that has absorbed printing ink, and is more likely laminated with an ultra-fine plastic film.’
Task: stop reading! Go and make a list of all the foods in your cupboards and fridge that are processed.
But, you may well ask, what are processed foods? Examples of common processed foods include:
Savoury snacks such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies and pasties
Meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, salami and paté
Microwave meals and/or ready meals
Drinks such as milk and/or soft drinks
So now that you know what foods constitute as processed go and make your list – ensure to come back as soon as you have fulfilled this task.
(Assuming the task has been completed)
It stands to reason that, like most people living in the Western Hemisphere, your cupboards and fridge are packed to bursting with processed foods and as a consequence the list you’ve just made is a lengthy one.
This surfeit of processed foods (amongst a number of other reasons) accounts for why obesity, certain cancers, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a plethora of other nasty, yet preventable, diseases are plaguing the west.
But you do not have to succumb to the miserable statistics that head this course. For you can, right of this very moment, take immediate action to cleanse your kitchen of those foods that increase your chances of disease and ill-health.
Simple! Bin all the foods on your list.
But I don’t like wasting food, you proclaim, in an obvious act of procrastination.
Fine, bag all those foods up and donate them to a foodbank. There, problem solved.
Listen, if you are serious about losing weight and improving your health you must be prepared to take decisive and serious action: no pussyfooting around! And one of the most important strategies to achieving those desirable ends – that of weight-loss and improved health – is by engineering an environment conducive to those ends.
It should be obvious that your chances of achieving weight-loss success diminish dramatically when temptation beckons behind every cupboard door. It’s for this reason why they must be eradicated. You know what to do.
Dietary Don’t #4: Snacking
Uncontrolled snacking can significantly increase the number of calories that a person consumes throughout the day. Females are advised to consume between 1500 and 2000 calories a day, males 2000 to 2500 (NHS - 2021). These calories can easily be got from three healthy daily squares. But throw a few snacks into the mix and those figures could balloon 50% or more.
Moreover, snacking is the Scarlet Pimpernel of food. Most people know in their heart of hearts that they snack, but they can never quite remember when and where they committed the sin. Having worked for many years in the health and fitness industry, both as a personal trainer and health and lifestyle coach, I’ve found snacking to be one of the hardest lifestyle habits to combat. It’s as though snacking induces a sort of amnesia.
Snacking is also recognised as an enemy of health – of course that is dependent on the type of snack foods being consumed. If snacks are processed, from a packet, laden with fat and/or sugar, they will – over time – exert a deleterious effect on health and contribute to the accumulation of unwanted body fat.
Ultimately, irrespective of what foods are being snacked on, it is always best to keep this behaviour to a minimum. The body needs far fewer calories than we realise. Two to three healthy meals a day will provide us with all the nutrients and energy we need to sustain daily activity.
4 Dietary Dos
Dietary Do #1: Start as You Mean to Go On
I’m of the belief that if you start the day off on a healthy footing, you’re more inclined to maintain this ethos – that is, select healthier lifestyle choices throughout the day.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. It’s not escaped my notice that, when I’m self-disciplined and observe my long-standing morning routine, I tend to have a much healthier day: I’m less likely to deviate from healthy dietary practices and I’m more active and less stressed.
My morning routine is as follows
30min slow jog
Healthy breakfast: porridge (made with water NEVER milk!) topped with berries, nuts and seeds
Now begin the day . . .
Whenever I follow this routine – and I currently boast a 95% success rate – I can’t help but adhere to healthy lifestyle principals. Such as:
Clean eating – i.e. no processed food, animal protein, cake or confectionaries
Plenty of movement and activity
Maintaining high cognitive/productive output
More positive outlook
I get that my morning routine might be a bit militant for some (I must be honest, I have dedicated considerable effort to establishing it). However, you can quite easily begin forging and crafting your own morning routine. If you’re not sure how to do this, maybe consider implementing the example above but, if time permits, start a little later – 5:30 or 6am. Of course, there is always the option of chopping and changing the activities to suit your personal preferences.
One other infallible method of kick-starting a day of health is by blending up a vegetable and fruit smoothie. Whenever I embark on the journey of a new day with a belly full of flora I can’t help but walk a healthy path.
Dietary Do #2: Cut Down the Portion Sizes
The human organism is a fabulously energy efficient machine (metaphorically speaking). Here’s what I mean: you could, if you were stupid enough, pop down to McDonalds and order a Big Mac meal. In the 5-odd minutes it’d take to consume that disgusting salty, chemically, saturated fat-laden toxic ‘food’ you’d ingest about 1500 to 2000 calories.
To expend the same number of calories – if you’re stupid enough to believe in the calorie in calorie-out theory of fat loss – to burn those 1500-plus calories you’d have to run a marathon; which takes the average (trained) runner around 4hrs.
The truth of the matter is, we really don’t need to eat as much as we do. As a population (I’m talking statistically here, I just want you do bear that in mind) . . . as a population we’re collectively consuming far too many calories. Some nutritional scientists suggest that the average person in the West could well be consuming as many as 500 calories a day more than they should.
Calculated over a week this would equate to 3500 superfluous calories! Which is roughly 1.5 additional days of unnecessary eating every week, 6 days every month and a staggering 72 days every year! Is it any wonder that obesity is at epidemic proportions?
But the great thing with this tip is that it’s super easy to rectify. By cutting down our portion sizes we will inevitably cut down the number of calories we are consuming. The simplest method of achieving this is to serve meals prior to placing them on the table. No buffet-style help-your-self set-ups. Also, consider reducing the size of you plates – a psychological trick: well-stocked small plates present the appearance of a big meal.
Dietary Do #3: Choose Fresh or Frozen Over Canned
Who eats canned fruit and veg anyway? What when there’s an abundance of the infinitely superior fresh produce on the shelves. And why would someone select, say, tinned peaches, swimming in sugar water and god only knows what else, over a succulent whole peach?
Anyway, we’re not here to debate the mercurial mysteries of the human psyche. Instead, we’re considering health hacks. And this is a very easy one to adopt. If you are currently getting your five a day from a can consider transitioning to the far healthier fresh option.
Well, besides the fact that whatever is in the can comes to imbibe the pollutants that is the product of its manufacture (see quote below), and that the liquid solution that surrounds the contents contains sugars, stabilisers and other disgusting chemical additives, when fresh fruit and veg is cut the nutrient quality diminishes precipitously. Thus, with fresh fruit and veg you’re getting far more bang for each buck. I read somewhere that an apple, once cut, loses half its nutrient value after an hour. How long, I wonder, have those peaches been festering in that tin? A week? A month? A year! By that point they’re probably in nutrient debt.
In her highly disconcerting book, Swallow This, Joanna Blythman brings our attention to the shocking free use of chemicals in foods and the packaging. Apparently
‘Over 6,000 chemicals are used to make food packaging, be it plastic, cardboard, paper, glass or metal, so whether it’s the supermarket sushi, the sandwich, the salad bowl, the smoothie, the sponge cake, the salami, or the soup, the factory made, processed food that passes through our mouths to our stomachs cohabits intimately with packaging chemicals for most of its life,’ (Swallow This – p242).
Dietary Do #4: Replace Processed/sugary/fattening Deserts with Fruit and Plain Nuts
Though both fruit and nuts contain sugar and fat, respectively, they also provide the body with essential nutrients: vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, fruit, and to a lesser extent nuts, is an excellent source of insoluble fibre: an essential ingredient for good gastrointestinal health.
Also, the sugar in fruit is not refined, as it is in most processed deserts, and the fat in nuts is essential for body health and doesn’t coagulate in the blood like trans/processed fats. So, as well as providing us with a healthy alternative to those nasty, plastic wrapped chemically laden factory produced deserts, fruit and nuts are the perfect tag-team for quelling the sweet tooth and quieting the hunger prang.
Dietary and Lifestyle Action Plan
Firstly, aim, over a one-month period, to cultivate a food environment conducive to weight-loss and health. Do this by reducing, removing or eradicating all processed foods, refined carbohydrates and animal protein.
Ensure that all meals are cooked from fresh.
Transition to a plant based diet.
Establish three meal-times – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and stick to them.
Cease snacking – certainly on undesirables.
Drink clean liquids: herbal teas, fresh ground coffee, water. . .
Recommended further reading
The China Study (author Collin. T. Campbell, PhD)
The science is clear. The results are unmistakable. You can dramatically reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes just by changing your diet. More than thirty years ago, nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell and his team at Cornell, in partnership with teams in China and England, embarked upon the China Study, the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.
How Not To Die (Michael Greger MD)
How Not To Die gives effective, scientifically-proven nutritional advice to prevent our biggest killers - including heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes - and reveals the astounding health benefits that simple dietary choices can provide.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Campbell, T. Ph.D. Campbell II, M. M.D. (2005) The China Study. BenBella Books. United States.
Greger, M. Stone, G (2017) How Not to Die. Macmillan. USA.
Robbins, J. (2001) The Food Revolution. Conari Press. USA.