Nutrition and cooking

When I write a chapter I immediately read my writing to edit it for tone, and how well the content is delivered. This chapter and the following one on health seemed preachy and judgemental to me, so I tried to tweak it. But the content resisted change. Yeah, it’s preachy and in your face, but it’s all true, and there’s just no good reason to soft pedal life and death stuff.

Learning to cook healthy, nutritious food for yourself helps fulfill several of the most important elements of retirement–keeps your brain working, helps you stay fit, and helps you stay healthy. It also costs much less than eating out, or eating processed crap. I know I can feed myself for about three dollars a day at current prices. That’s a tiny fraction of what I spend, but I know what’s possible. Beans and oatmeal are almost free, even at Whole Foods. I can make a big pan of cornbread for less than a buck, add pinto beans with a little ham hock and you have a fantastic meal. You’d be amazed how much delicious meat is in a salmon head that almost any supermarket will just give you. Yeah, I know, that’s weird, perhaps you’ve never paid $40 for a meal of Salmon cheeks with Risotto. I’m taking an extreme, but it’s for a purpose. You have time. Learn to cook.

  • Cook your own meals. Eating out is one of life’s great pleasures, but if it’s a regular habit or an everyday occurrence, then you’re going to get fat and stay fat. You have little control over what goes on your plate and how it’s prepared, the portions are too big, and nutrition is a long way down the list of concerns of the cook. Cook your own meals and take control. You might initially find it more expensive to eat quality food than fast food or processed pre-cooked junk, but once you take control of your diet you’ll learn to make the foods you like for much less money.
  • Control your portions. At home when you’re cooking, make just enough for a reasonable portion for each person. Making extra for later is fine if you have the discipline to separate the extra immediately and stick it in the freezer. In a restaurant ask for a to-go box when your food is served. Put half the food you are served in the box to take home. Yes, I said half.
  • Substitute healthy for less healthy. Replace animal fats with vegetable fats (olive oil, coconut oil replacing butter)Reduce the amount of meat you use (expensive anyway) and replace it with more vegetables.
  • Avoid the middle of the grocery store. That’s where all the processed junk is. If you’re going to eat cereal in the morning make it oatmeal and add a little fruit if you have to sweeten it.
  • Know what you’re eating. Food manufacturers stuff sugar and salt into processed food, because it’s a cheap way to make food people like. Use that finely honed bullshit detector I know you have. Just because the label says “healthy” doesn’t mean it is. A single can of “healthy” soup has all the sodium you should ingest in a day–salt is cheap and it makes the soup taste good so you’ll buy it again. There’s no concern for health in the food industry.
  • Think about the way a meal is going to make you feel afterward. You know if you stuff yourself, or eat crap, that you’re going to feel like hell. Bloated, sick, tired, weak and pissed off at yourself. Take a good look at that greasy plate of fish and chips or that double bloatburger and anticipate the end result. Then either toss the stuff or take a very small portion. The size of a golf ball is about right. Don’t kid yourself about this stuff. If you get the giant bacon cheesburger with mega fries, cutting the portion in half isn’t going to be enough.
  • Drink water. It’s good for you, most people don’t drink enough, and being dehydrated makes you hungry. Don’t drink soft drinks–no, not diet drinks either. Think of them as they are–poison to your body that you have been conditioned to drink. Don’t have them in your refrigerator. If you need some sparkle, get seltzer (carbonated) water or the more expensive but basically identical mineral water with gas. Add some lime or lemon juice or a little fruit juice–like one part fruit juice to five parts seltzer. Tastes great, and you’ll quickly lose your taste for over-sweetened soft drinks. They taste hideous to me, because they are. Flavored water with high fructose corn syrup?? It’s not even sugar. It’s crap.

You should feel comfortable at the end of a meal, but not stuffed. If you do feel like you overate, decide what you should eliminate next time. Most people find that desserts are really too much, but it’s challenging to eliminate something you enjoy. Either reduce the portions of everything or trim the dessert to just two bites.

  • Nothing is off limits.  If you want bacon, eat bacon. Just not every meal. No one loves good sausage or a plain old hot dog more than I do. Moderation, moderation.  Have as many as you like when you jump off the wagon, but stay on the wagon a long time afterward. The idea that you’ve failed if you eat some “banned” food is self-defeating. Besides, what we call failure is the best indication that you’re trying to improve.
  • Take a break. Stop eating about halfway through your meal. It takes time for your stomach to communicate that you’ve had enough. Put the fork down, sit back, enjoy whatever is around you. Drink a full glass of water. Then look at your plate and decide if you really want what’s on it. Mom’s “clean plate club” was just nuts–the runway to porkville. What were they thinking.
  • Eat on purpose. If you sit down in front of the TV with a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips don’t be too surprised when it’s gone and you feel like you’ve been slimed. Don’t do it. But if you must, put the amount you want in a dish. Make it a small dish. If you want more, drink a glass of water and wait ten minutes.
  • Timing matters. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is marketing. But if you aren’t doing intermittent fasting, then you can treat it as a major meal. Just don’t eat crap. A bowl of Count Chocula is the same as a doughnut–flour, grease, and sugar. A muffin is an excuse to eat cake for breakfast. Seriously–look at the recipe. Muffins and cake are identical. You don’t need a lot of carbs in the morning, but some protein will help maintain your muscle mass. I like scrambled eggs with a little goat cheese mixed in. Lunch keeps you going, though a heavy lunch might make you loggy all afternoon. Eating a big dinner and going to bed does nothing good for you. Consider Linner instead of dinner–have a very light lunch around noon and make your evening meal happen about three or four o’clock. Tough to do with a family, but if it’s just you and your spouse it can work well. That daily mini-fast of 14+ hours until breakfast can make you sleep better and will probably trim weight.
  • Veg out.  Let’s keep it simple–you need to double the amount of vegetables you currently eat (unless you’re already vegetarian). The fiber in vegetables will fill you up and help you cut back on crap. You should eat at least three cups of vegetables and fruit per day, and that should be mostly vegetables.
  • Green doesn’t mean iceberg lettuce swamped with dressing. Salads should NOT be an excuse to eat mayonnaise. If you’re dipping celery sticks in ranch dressing you might as well be eating french fries. Got to be real about this stuff, folks.

Sugar Sucks and Salt Does Too

Sugar is an apple’s way of making us spread its seeds. It’s a dirty trick, and it works. If it were only apples, then we’d all be much healthier, but we’ve refined sugars and made it cheap so now it’s hidden in all kinds of things. Besides making you fat it causes spikes of insulin and is hard on your body and mind. People have attempted to use sugar as a defense for murder (the so-called Twinkie defense). Salt is also hidden in all kinds of food, and if you watch the chefs in even fine restaurants you’ll see them using amounts of salt in cooking that will bug your eyes out. You need some salt intake, especially if you drink a lot of water when you are sweating profusely, but normally all you need is about half a teaspoon per day. You shouldn’t have more than a teaspoon per day.

If you’re eating processed food or eating out a lot, you’re getting way more than that. Salt is a little confusing since dietitians talk mostly about sodium. Common salt is Sodium Chloride (NaCl) which would be roughly half sodium, but table salt also has iodine and anti-clumping agents added, so it’s about 40 percent sodium. Suffice it to say that 1 teaspoon of table salt would be 5000 grams, which is about 2000 mg of sodium, which is all you should have.

Food Manufacturers (that title is really all you need to know) make a concerted effort to hide the amount of sugar in food. Even with labeling requirements, elements of the product that are sugars might be distributed and disguised, so even if sugar isn’t prominent there might also be dextrose, cane juice, fructose, maltose, agave nectar, corn syrup, molasses, honey and other ingredients that are actually sugar. Add them all up and that heart-healthy, all natural granola you’re enjoying might have more sugar than Froot Loops. A typical can of soup has more than the daily recommended limit of salt. A box of chicken, beef or vegetable stock has a HUGE amount of salt. It’s basically flavored salt water. One fast food meal blows past the limit and never looks back. Gravy, sauces, canned vegetables all can have lots of salt and sugar. Moderation is called for. Make your own soups, sauces and gravy–they’re better anyway. Your tastes will moderate quickly and the processed crap will taste like what it really is–over salted, over sugared junk.

Get the Nutrients You Need: Real food has all the kinds of nutrients that we have evolved to require. We didn’t have vitamin supplements over the last half-million years, and we don’t need them now if you eat well. There’s nothing really wrong with most of them, though generally, all they mean is that you will have expensive pee. The big three to pay attention to are Fiber, Protein, and Calcium. If you make sure you’re getting enough of those from the foods you eat, then the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other components your body needs will most likely be taken care of. 

Fiber: Processed food is generally low in fiber. Manufacturers may add fiber back into the mix in some form, but what a lousy way to get something that is naturally present. Vegetables all have fiber in varying amounts, as do whole grains, oatmeal, beans, and nuts. Dairy and meat contain no fiber.

Fiber stays in your stomach a relatively long time and gives a feeling of fullness, but once it reaches the rest of your digestive system it moves through quickly, carrying fat along with it. Double benefit. We all know it promotes regularity. All the processed crap drugstores sell you to make you poop is the fiber they took from the processed food you ate that plugged you up. That’s just as stupid as it sounds.

Calcium: Like the dairy council says–calcium builds strong bones and teeth. Quite true, but you don’t have to drink milk to get it. Leafy green vegetables, broccoli, squash, asparagus–almost any green vegetable is rich in calcium and has fiber. So do beans. But dairy products carry calcium in a form that is readily digested and absorbed, so yogurt, cheese, and milk are fine sources. You can and should supplement calcium if you don’t think you are getting enough–you need 1200 mg per day if you’re over 50. If you do choose to supplement make sure it also has magnesium and vitamin D and K, which are nutrients you require to absorb calcium efficiently. Most supplements will provide a full daily requirement of these nutrients.

Protein:  Both an energy source and the prime building blocks for muscle. If you are over fifty you should have 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If you weigh 200 pounds you should have about five ounces of protein per day. But that shouldn’t be a steak–at least not every day. Fish, chicken, beans, nuts and soy are all good sources as is dairy.

Low fat??

I think you are better off eating whole products. The less processing the better. Low-fat milk and dairy products might be fine, but most of the low-fat stuff comes from some flawed research that got turned into a dietary scam. Manufacturers found people would pay a premium for stuff packed with cheap carbs, salt and sugar if the label said low-fat. Certainly you should do as you choose, there are people on both sides of that fence screaming with all the fervor of any evangelist. Any time I see that kind of divided opinion my bullshit detector goes off and I fall back on basic principles. Moderation, portion control, balance, minimal processing.

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The Retirement Trap Copyright © by Bill Babcock and Babcock, William. All Rights Reserved.

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