You are what you eat...
January 31, 2014 3:21 AM   Subscribe

What is my daily food intake missing? Critiques please!

I've been eating really badly for a year or so due to new found singledom and general lack of motivation to do otherwise. So mainly carbs...sandwiches, pasta, pastry products, chocolate, processed meats and the usual proteins (chicken, beef, pork) etc. barely any fruit, vegetables, whole grains or other good stuff. I look and feel like crap and my digestion is way off kilter (IBS?) so am going to make a serious attempt to get some good stuff in me and try to feel better again. Some weight loss would be good but am hoping the new diet and extra exercise will aid that. Upside is I am a pretty good cook and can turn my hand to most things in the kitchen. So my eating plan is as follows...

Three meals a day, no snacks if possible.

Breakfast: Bircher style muesli. Made myself from rolled oats, bran, dried fruit, nuts. Soaked overnight in milk and grated apple. Served with sliced banana and a little honey.

Lunch: A bowl of some sort of simple salad e.g. Green leaves, tomatoes, olives, slices of grilled chicken a little olive oil/lemon juice dressing.

Dinner: Grilled chicken or steamed fish with green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, asparagus, green beans etc) or other veggie fare.

Once a week I'd like to have some dinner that was a bit unhealthy to keep and temptations and cravings at bay but otherwise I'll try to stick to the above with as many variations on the theme as possible to keep it from getting boring.

I'm trying to keep it fresh, unprocessed and avoid the things that might be bad for me in the long run.

Anything all this is lacking or needs? Is this a balanced diet for a 39 year old man?

Thanks in advance!
posted by Caskeum to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You don't specify how tall you are, but for most people, that would not be nearly enough food. I speak from experience when I say that over-enthusiasm in dieting will prevent you from reaching your goals, not make you reach them faster.

Consider eating some protein with your breakfast (a hard-boiled egg or two?) to help you stay full. Also, look into increasing your fat intake - almost everything you've listed is relatively low-fat, and since healthy fats fill you up, you'll end up hungry a whole lot. (Good sources of healthy fat: nuts, avocado, olive oil, certain fish like salmon, etc.)

You should also aim to get more variety in vegetables into your diet. You only mention green vegetables, but it's actually best to eat as wide a variety of differently-coloured vegetables as possible.

Moreover, you're going to want to be flexible in what you eat: studies have shown that when people eat pretty much the same thing every day, they get sick of it pretty quickly. If you try to tell yourself that these are pretty much the only meals you're allowed for the foreseeable future, your body will get really mad at you. (And you always want your body to be working with you, not against you.) Even switching it up every week, or having mostly the same thing for breakfast & lunch but switching around on dinner, might help here.
posted by littlegreen at 3:45 AM on January 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

Get some nuts and pulses in there. Chicken isn't the only lean meat. Even beef and pork are a healthy source of protein if you remove most of the fat and don't eat them every day. Soups and stews would break up the monotony a bit - and there's nothing unhealthy about including some root vegetables. Brown rice and wholewheat pasta are a perfectly good addition to a balanced diet too, in moderation.

Keep some of the stuff you like, but go for the most wholesome version and eat it sparingly. The kind of diet you're describing is something I'd expect someone who's already eating a super-healthy diet to aspire to. If you enjoy food, don't remove that source of pleasure completely - diet changes fail when you resent them.
posted by pipeski at 4:05 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are widely varying understandings of what a "healthy diet" consists of, but I think one trend we are seeing lately among mainstream scholars and practitioners is a shift away from "low fat" toward emphasizing "healthy fats" as the gold standard in healthy diets.

With that in mind, your meal plan seems very low in fat and would benefit from the addition of more healthy fats: nuts, avocados, fatty fish, etc. Aside from your bowl of muesli in the morning, your diet is both low fat AND low carb and you can't really do both at the same time. With typical portion sizes, I'd estimate you'd only be getting maybe 1200 calories/day on your proposed plan, which is inadequate and unsustainable unless you're the size of a jockey. If you believe the low-carb doctrine, then you've got to add in much more fat and protein. If you believe the healthy-carb/healthy-fat doctrine, then you should add in more whole grains.

More legumes and berry fruits would also be good.
posted by drlith at 4:36 AM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

So I'm doing something similar at the moment, mostly in an effort to break some bad habits and loose about 5 kg. It's been 3 weeks, I've lost about 3 kg. The bad habits (booze, and a bread-heavy diet) are still to be tested. My policy has been: no wheat, no dairy, no alcohol, no refined sugar. The main point has been to try to get myself out of the habit of just lazily reaching for a sandwich / pizza / pasta meal / beer, wine and whiskey, instead of dealing with things more 'mindfully'.

A direct consequence is that I'm spending a lot more time cooking: in batches at the weekends, and every morning and evening. That's good; like you, I like cooking. I find myself trying to be inventive as a result, and to work within these guidelines. And I'm also never hungry – I eat a lot, it's just that I cut those things above out. I bought a pressure cooker for cooking pulses quickly, so I'm getting more proteins that way than before (houmous, black bean stews, adding interesting new beans and peas to all sorts of things). I have a rice cooker, and I'm getting more and more ideas about cooking in it (justbento is great). I alternate breakfasts between a fruit porridge (not too dissimilar from yours, only no milk; lots of dried fruits like apricot and prune and raisins, and grated apple, mashed banana + cinnamon means I really don't need honey) and something egg-based (e.g. poached with spinach, served on griddled slices of aubergine instead of toast). Batch stuff: I've done a shredded pork joint and a shredded beef, both using crock-pop recipes found on here, and they contribute proteins to tacos (corn tortillas), salads, soups etc. I made a load of Bolognese with added red beans, which I've served on steamed white cabbage (instead of spaghetti – it works).

But the main thing I think you're neglecting is the kind of non-meal based eating, which is worth being prepared for, since these are the points where we're most tempted to just take what's on offer wherever we are. Carry fruit, or mixed nuts & dried fruit etc around with you. I bake a batch of oat & fruit cookies (sugar & wheat free) fairly frequently; they're a kind of go-to energy bar when I'm out on a ride, in a long monotonous meeting, in need of a boost between the end of work and going to another thing before heading home. My recipe:
1 grated apple
1 mashed banana
pinch cinnamon
handful each of raisins, dried apricot (chopped), chopped dates, dried cranberries
orange or lemon zest
vanilla essence (optional)
loads of sunflower seed, pumpkin seeds, linseeds
2 tablespoons of sugar-free peanut butter
pinch of bicarbonate of soda / baking powder
pinch of salt
150g porridge oats

Stir it all up, it should form a big sticky bulk, but if it's dry and flaky add a splash of orange juice. Place cookie-sized lumps, the size of the palm of your hand, on a baking tray, bake in the oven at around 175ºC for 20-25 minutes.
posted by Joeruckus at 4:40 AM on January 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

Here's a thought: not only have you been eating poorly for a while, but you've been eating mostly prepared food. What if you focused on dealing with ONE of these things at a time? ie, start cooking more, but with a primary emphasis on cooking food that you like, with a secondary emphasis on health.

There are two reasons to do this. One, if you go full-bore with a really bare-bones meal plan like the one you've described here, you're unlikely to stick with it. It might even send you running back to the fast food, if the alternative is an eternity of chicken breast salads.

Two, the food you cook is very likely to be much healthier than takeout. For instance, let's say you're craving a cheeseburger. If you make it yourself, it'll be healthier than anything from McDonald's. You can use lean-ish meat, top it with veggies and a good cheese, and maybe eat it with some roasted potatoes. Delicious!
posted by lunasol at 4:49 AM on January 31, 2014 [9 favorites]

I ate a diet very much like what you describe when I was 35 and overweight. I hate muesli so instead I had a fruit and greens smoothie for breakfast. I also had a cappuccino every day. It works well for weight loss. When I combined this diet with a 5 mile walk every day and weightlifting 3-4x per week, I lost 40 lbs in 4 months. My bloodwork was good and I didn't have high blood pressure anymore.

I don't believe this diet is lacking any vitamins, minerals or fiber. However, if you do any sort of serious endurance exercise, or even do activities like day long hikes or snowboard trips, you will find that it is not enough calories. It is also not a very social diet. I did not make any friends during the time I was on it.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 5:24 AM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is the best and most comprehensive book I have ever read about nutrition.

It lists every vitamin, mineral, their function in the body, the RDA, and which foods have that particular item in what quantities. It even talks about carbohydrates, the different fats and proteins and amino acids. It is a fabulous book!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:51 AM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing I would think about is adding some healthy fat to your dinner. A lot of the vitamins in those wonderful veggies you're eating are fat-soluble and you need fat with them to really absorb them. Some grass-fed butter on your veggies, or even your fish, would go a long way to that end and would also taste delicious.

Turns out our grandparents putting butter on their vegetables was wiser than we thought!
posted by at 6:59 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also I would add nuts (the best are raw almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts and pumpkin seeds) and whole grains (lentils, chick peas and brown rice) to your diet.

The items that are typically hardest to get in a diet are: Calcium, Iron, B-vitamins (B6, B12 especially) and magnesium.

It sounds like you're going for an 'overnight' type change which may be hard for the body. Just slowly switch things up over the course of a month or so. Also I agree with the other poster who said to mix it up. If you have 10-15 recipes you can make quickly & easily then you're good.

You can also eat your treats, just make them healthier. These mocha date brownies are sweetened with orange juice and dates and are very easy to make.

Finally Alive Magazine has great recipes and of course there's Cook Yourself Thin out of the UK which has fabulous tasty recipes too (scroll down). Some of them are like chicken nuggets made from chicken breast or healthy cheese cake (greek yogurt) or fizzy water + home made syrup with agave.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I MeMailed you a PDF of a book that might be helpful, it's my go to for these things. One of the important take-aways from that book, and other nutrition studies I've looked at, is that caffeine and other stimulants can be a major problem.

You're probably seeking quick energy from all the bread, pasta, and such. But it's nutritionally deficient. So no matter how much you eat, you're just still hungry. And if you add caffeine in the wrong ways, you end up squeezing your body for extra energy, creating a deficit which you then try to make up by eating more simple sugars in the form of bad carbs like bread, pasta, etc.

Instead, you need to think of food as fuel for the machine that is your body. The best fuel, optimized for digestion and nutrition will give you the most energy with the least cost. This also means eating a lot, and regularly - six times a day, not three times - you can have three larger meals, but between those you need to be snacking on veggies, nuts, seeds, etc. Think of your metabolism as an engine on a train, you need to keep shoveling coal into it all day long in regular intervals to keep it at a constant high temperature - this is how eating more will actually burn fat.

It is true that our digestive system is evolved for a primarily plant based diet - but unlike, say Gorillas, we're not meant to eat grass, and we can technically eat meat (though personally I don't think we should or need to, but that' s just me). Our digestive system is really good at using a wide range of plants, fruits, nuts, seeds, and such. We have basically the same digestive system as Chimpanzees. They eat some meat - but rarely, and usually they're eating insects instead. If you're going to eat meat, eat the leanest thing you can get.

Get your fats instead from chia seeds, hemp seeds, nuts, avocados, etc. Or fish oil if that's your thing (but increasingly, like much meat, fish isn't either sustainable or actually good for you).

We have access to a wide range of foods easily, and as such it's much easier for us to get an optimized diet that it was for our ancestors. We don't have to scavenge bone marrow from Hyena kills, we can go to grocery stores.

Next time you shop, look at the people in the store - literally look at their carts and baskets and look at their bodies. This is a practice that a personal trainer and yoga guy suggested that I tried and he was right - you'll see that the food people are buying literally corresponds to how healthy they look, and how fit their bodies are. The fittest people are buying veggies, fruits, nuts, and lean proteins. The others are buying pasta, bread, etc.

The overall trend matters more than individual moments. Eat that huge lasagne every once in a while (a long while) - but when you do, see how you feel afterwards. You'll be not only tired, bloated and miserable, but the next day all you'll want to eat are more simple sugar carbs - it's a cycle, an addiction - and if you can't use simple sugars responsibly you might want to consider cutting them out of your diet all together.
posted by jardinier at 7:12 AM on January 31, 2014

I agree with the others who have said this diet appears to be very low in calories and fats. Add in some avocados, nuts, some butter from grass-fed cows, and toss those veggies in some macadamia oil. Get in some other sources of protein - you can eat pork and eggs and stuff and still be healthy, just try to choose pastured animals from small farms that don't use antibiotics and hormones. And make sure you have some healthy snacks around (see the aforementioned nuts) so that if you get hungry, you are not reaching for the processed junk.
posted by bedhead at 7:18 AM on January 31, 2014

Nothing wrong with snacks either! I eat a healthy diet, but the stretches from breakfast to lunch and lunch to dinner can be long. An apple and a handful of almonds, a pot of yogurt, a couple hard boiled eggs and some carrots, some hummus and raw veggies... All help bridge the gap between meals and keep me out of cranky town.
posted by cecic at 8:34 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think maybe it sounds a little boring. Looking to doing soups, stews, curries, and casseroles that involve roasted vegetables, root vegetables like sweet potatoes, maybe squashes like butternut and acorn, delicious veggie or lean-meat tacos with lots of vegetable accompaniments...
posted by Miko at 10:01 AM on January 31, 2014

Don't hobble yourself before you've even gotten out of the gate .Just add veggies and fruit to your regular diet. Cook most of your meals. No reason to limit yourself to specific dishes/categories of dishes, just do most of the cooking and add more veggies than you think you need. Making pasta? Make pasta with tons of sauteed veggies. Eggs? Make it a veggie scramble. Eating a sandwich? Pile it with veggies! Hell, making pancakes? Fruit all over the pancakes!

I promise you, carbs aren't actually evil. Neither is lasagna. Fill your regular diet with veggies and I guarantee that eating that lasagna once every couple of weeks (or more often, to be honest) is not going to hurt anything.

Also, anecdotally, I am a thin, not very active woman in my late twenties and I would be STARVING on that diet. Starving.
posted by lydhre at 2:04 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is software where you can type in how much you ate of various things and get a summary of your macronutrient and micronutrient totals for the day. Cronometer is a desktop application. Some good online versions are fitday or

Note that quantities are really important---the dose makes the poison! You should at least measure your foods. Better still would be to buy a kitchen scale.

If you type in your diet, you'll realize that unless you're planning to eat implausibly large quantities of this stuff or to use some unusual proportions (e.g., "a little lemon juice/olive oil dressing" means, a quarter cup of oil), this diet does not have enough fat or protein.

Your breakfast is basically cold oatmeal with extra fiber from the bran, so fine. I would add more protein and fat. Protein ideas: substitute yogurt or kefir for some or all of the milk, sprinkle on a few tablespoons of wheat germ or nutritional yeast. Fat ideas: full-fat yogurt or kefir, or just a few tablespoons of half-and-half, a few spoonfuls of peanut or other nut butter, a handful of nuts.

For lunch, try adding a cup of tuna salad, chicken salad, hummus (with lots of tahini!), falafel, boiled beans, or fish. If you're concerned about mercury in tuna, you can eat salmon, tilapia, or catfish. Falafel, beans, tilapia, and catfish are low-fat, so you can add some olive oil or cheese.

For dinner, you hardly have any carbs at all. Try lentils, beans, potatoes, bread, pasta. I often boil rice and lentils together in water---you can look online for the proportions.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:54 PM on January 31, 2014

Thanks so much all! On first review I think I'll add in alternative breakfasts like scrambled eggs and smoked salmon for extra protein. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna should be easy to add to the lunchtime salads. Nuts as snacks sounds like a good idea and some good carbs like brown rice, pulses or wholemeal pasta should help bulk up the dinner ideas. I'll check out the linked books and PDFs ASAP and tweak things some more. Good stuff!
posted by Caskeum at 5:39 AM on February 1, 2014

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