Before you begin worrying about portion size and protein/carb/fat requirements I recommend one simple and difficult step: focus first on food quality. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat. Buy frozen vegetables and meat when you must. Only venture down the aisles for a few select things like nuts, beans, canned tuna, olives, etc. The aisles are generally one big, processed, nutritionally worthless carb-fest. If you need more than those 70 words then read on.
Healthy food is perishable. Ponder that for a moment. Real food–organic plants and animals that our bodies are built to consume– spoils. If it doesn’t spoil, then you probably weren’t meant to eat it. Sure, exceptions exist, but for the most part this is a basic litmus test. Food spoilage is essentially the breakdown of organic material in the presence of oxygen once that organic material is no longer alive and able to fight off the process. Therefore, if something doesn’t spoil, like Captain Crunch cereal, what can we surmise? Either little to no organic material still exists in the food, and that means it isn’t very nutritious, or it has been processed and coated with enough chemicals that the spoilage is delayed indefinitely, in which case you should ask, “I wonder what effect those chemicals might have on my body when I ingest them?” You also might be curious what nutritional value could be left in the food if almost all of the organic material has been processed out. Sounds like eating cardboard to me. Guess what, it is! Here are some quick examples:
Chicken, beef, salmon, tilapia, lamb, goat, apples, grapes, pears, strawberries, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, spinach, avocados, olives, cashews, peanuts, and macadamia nuts.
Something Other than Real Food:
Wheat Thins, cereals, bread, pasta, bagels, table sugar, flour, pancakes, Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup, tortillas, corn chips, potato chips, rice, “instant” anything, sweets, cakes, cookies, Ramen noodles, corn meal, and anything from Little Debbie.
Real food that has been corrupted by adding something other than real food:
Fruit juice, yogurt, tuna/hamburger helper, and mixed nuts.
How long did the human body spend developing its energy storage and usage mechanisms prior to the advent of agriculture, refrigeration, and food processing/preservatives? About 2,000,000 years. How long since then have we had to adapt and evolve? Since modern agriculture: 5,000-10,000 years. Since refrigeration: 100 years. Since widespread use of food processing and preservatives: 60 years. This points to the fact that our bodies had millions of years to evolve for processing lean meat, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds, but only a relative instant to evolve since we introduced a 180-degree change in our diet. If you disagree with this premise, then I respect your opinion. However, I still encourage you to heed this nutritional advice, because whether or not you agree with evolution, the facts are that this prescription for eating produces extremely healthy, strong, and efficient human bodies. Why this happens can be disputed. The fact that it does happen is indisputable.
Given all of that information, my interpretation is thus: We were made to eat living plants and animals–well, they were living until we killed them in order to eat them. About 10,000 years ago we figured out that we could survive by mostly growing plants and catching/domesticating some animals on the side. As population grew we found that grains and starches lent themselves to mass production more easily than fruits and vegetables. Eventually we ended up in the 21st century where everyone, including the U.S. government in cahoots with the Department of Agriculture, decided that grain should form the base of our diet. This led to everyone eating a lot of grains, and our bodies just weren’t made to thrive on processed grains. We are unable to extract nutritional value from them, and our bodies have not had sufficient time to evolve coping mechanisms. This lack of nutritional value led to people eating more and more, because their bodies kept seeking nutritional value. They shrewdly consumed more grains, perpetuating the cycle and leading to obesity. Furthermore, because saliva begins digestion in the mouth by turning starch into sugar, everyone became accustomed to a sugary taste for most “foods,” causing real food to taste bland, further perpetuating the preference for eating something other than real food.
By now you can see the problem. We were made to eat real food. Americans are generally not eating real food. I think you should eat real food. Here’s how to make the change: Very simply, shop the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where most of the real food is located. The bakery is also located on the perimeter, and it’s full of that other stuff, so you don’t have carte blanche to eat absolutely anything on the perimeter, but the perimeter is the 90% solution. There are also some good things inside the aisles, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. This nutrition thing is very fuzzy. It’s full of shades of gray, so any blanket statement that doesn’t make sense given the entire context is probably not a blanket statement.
Buy enough fruits, vegetables, berries, and greens to last 3-4 days. Choose anything you like, but skip the potatoes. Sweet potatoes are OK on occasion. Don’t go hog wild with bananas, but they’re also fine on occasion. Do the same with deli meat and fresh meat. Turkey, fish, and chicken breast have very low fat content, if you’re keeping track for zoning or otherwise working on body composition. In deli meat I prefer Boar’s Head Cajun Turkey and Blazing Buffalo Chicken. Salmon, Tilapia, and Tuna are good fish choices. Beef and lamb are also good choices. Seafood like shrimp, scallops, crab, lobster, etc. are also good choices, but very expensive. If you do like seafood then make sure to skip the generous servings of garlic butter.
Next, hit the dairy section. Yes, Paleo-Dieters, I recommend eating dairy. While Paleolithic cows may have been vicious and wielded large horns, I assure you that my Paleolithic ancestors were some bad Homo Erectus motherfu*^ers, and they caught the cow. Deal with it. Low-fat cottage cheese is a great protein source. So is natural yogurt, but this isn’t like the sugar-enhanced Yoplait and Dannon yogurt that you probably love. If you can stomach natural yogurt then go for it, but regular sugar-laden yogurt is not a good choice. I use half and half in my coffee, so I know it won’t kill you. [Update: Since first publishing this article I've since eliminated all dairy except cream in my coffee. I can't tell if it's made much difference.]
Finally, buy some eggs. Eating the whole egg is OK. For ultimate results, however, I recommend eating only the egg white and getting adequate fat from other sources. Egg yolk contains arachidonic acid, which is pro-inflammatory. The yolk being fatty is not necessarily a bad thing unto itself (fat is not a dirty word), but if you want to refine your fat sources then you’ll want to skip the yolk. It takes about two egg whites to equal the protein in one complete egg, so this means you’ll use twice as many eggs. You get to decide whether the benefit is worth the cost. Egg yolks do contain a lot of nutrients, so an occasional yolk is a good thing. Many strength and conditioning coaches are adamant that you should eat the yolk. This tends to be a sensitive topic among some folks. Experiment and see what works best for you.
Now we venture down the aisles. Beware, this area is full of processed doo-doo, so watch where you step. First, go to frozen foods and get some frozen vegetables and maybe even some frozen meat, like salmon patties. Frozen vegetables and meat aren’t as good as fresh, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Fritos. I like “steamer bags” of broccoli. I can take it directly from my freezer, put it in the microwave for five minutes, open the bag, and out comes steamed broccoli. Once again, this shouldn’t be your first choice–that should be fresh products–but this is still a very good choice. From the aisles you also may want some canned tuna or salmon, some canned beans (in moderation, beans are a very dense carb), olives, nuts, and seeds. Be very selective. You’re no longer on the perimeter, so traps and snares abound.
Finally, because real, healthy food spoils, this type of shopping will require more frequent trips to the grocery store. However, you’ll be buying fewer groceries on each trip. Furthermore, your number of stops in the grocery store will be greatly reduced. The amount of thinking required to plan meals is also greatly reduced. No more debating on whether you want the “ultra creamy” mashed potatoes or the “homestyle crunchy” version. You don’t want either of them. Just buy some fruits, vegetables, and lean meat from the perimeter instead.
You also don’t have to completely convert to this method all at once, or ever completely convert. Your results will be in line with your conversion. Little change = high comfort factor = little results. Lots of change = low comfort factor = lots of results. This type of grocery shopping is also more expensive than what you may be accustomed to. Fresh flora and fauna that spoil quickly (because they are real food) simply cost more than things that can be stored in sacks and boxes in a non-climate controlled environment and somehow still be edible months after production. If you are on a very tight budget, then start with frozen meats, fruits, and vegetables. These are still very good choices, but less expensive than fresh ingredients. Even by starting with frozen foods, your grocery bill will undoubtedly increase. Everyone has to decide for himself/herself whether eating this way is worth the costs. I have decided that it is unequivocally worth the costs. Sure, crap sandwiches only cost 65% as much as wholesome foods, but I am not willing to eat crap sandwiches when I have better options available. I’ll make cuts in other areas of my budget, but an area that helps determine the quality and duration of my short time on this earth is not a place I choose to skimp.
Overall, this type of shopping and eating may be a drastic change from your current lifestyle. Unfortunately, if you desire to change your health, fitness, and body composition then your lifestyle must change. That should go without saying, but I don’t think many people realize it. If you keep the lifestyle you’ve always had then you’ll keep getting the results you’ve always received. If you’re happy with your current results then that’s great; no change is necessary. However, if you want different results then you need a different lifestyle. Don’t try to fool yourself into thinking you can get drastic changes without undertaking drastic changes.