You might think the author of a book called SALT SUGAR FAT: How the Food Giants Hooked Us wouldn’t be tempted to pig out on the sweet, salty, fatty food that surrounds him, but then you’d be wrong. Although I’ve written a fair bit about the processed food industry (and know a lot of their secrets), there are plenty of times when I find it difficult to resist the siren song of salty, crispy French fries hot out of the deep fryer, glistening with greasy goodness. In fact, just hanging out with food scientists who engineer allures like “mouthfeel” and “flavor burst” into their products can give me cravings. I’m a sucker for salt and I like snacky foods, especially when I’m tired, hungry, busy, grouchy, happy, bored, distracted, writing, or just plain awake, and it’s so easy to rip open a bag and inhale the calories.
In my investigative reporting, a common theme surfaces in the success of the fast food giants: how smart marketing campaigns hook the American consumer, knowing full well how our brains are wired to want the junk. So what’s my secret to staying healthy? Below are 7 simple guidelines I use in my daily life that have helped me avoid (for the most part) the pitfalls of processed food, even when I’m craving French fries. Hopefully they can help you, too.
1. PROTEIN FOR BREAKFAST. There seems to be some good science showing that 20 grams of protein within half an hour of long hard exercise will help your muscles recover, and I work out first thing most days. So mornings I kill off a quarter of a tub of plain Greek yogurt, or scramble some eggs, or revert to my Middle East traveling days with some hummus and feta and that left-over hunk of fish from last night’s tacos.
2. NO LIQUID CALORIES. My brain doesn’t seem to register calories when I drink them rather than chew them. It’s something about my jaw being connected to my brain, I’m convinced. So I eat yogurt instead of milk, apples instead of apple juice, cake instead of soda. My two exceptions to this rule: red wine and beer. Everyone knows they’re not caloric. Or make that three exceptions: my friend Tess Masters does such knock out healthy smoothies that my brain keeps track of her recipes just fine.
3. LOAD UP ON VEG. I make a beeline for the produce section when I shop. Maybe because I feel sorry for Brussels sprouts and their pals, they get so little attention from grocers and advertisers. But also because every nutritionist I know says we should be eating twice as much vegetable fare as we currently are. And when the produce goes limp in the fridge because I bought too much, I throw it into casseroles or soups and no one can tell. Here my story on two smart scientists fiddling with the grocery cart to nudge produce.
4. SKIP THE PASTA SAUCE. The jarred kind, that is. Heavily sugared and salted, who needs it. It’s also incredibly easy to make yourself. Here is the recipe I use: 1. Dump one can whole tomatoes into a bowl and mush them with your bare hands 2. Splash olive oil and garlic cloves into a skillet, with whatever herbs you got laying around, heat not too high, for a minute. 3. Add mushed tomatoes and simmer 4 minutes more while listening to All Things Considered. Oh, and when no one is looking I add a pinch – just a pinch, mind you -- of sugar because that’s what my mom always did. For the real deal in simple sauce, here is the fabulous NYTimes' Julia Moskin.
5. “CHEW YOUR FOOD 20 TIMES." She wasn’t sneaky at all about this rule. If mom said this once, she said it a thousand times at our dinner table, and she probably got it from her mom.It wasn’t just to keep us from choking on the roast beef. She knew that it takes a while for the gut to catch up with the mouth, and that it’s the gut that tells the brain to knock it off already with all that reward signaling stuff it does to get you to overeat.
6. ASK WHERE IT CAME FROM. The more I learn about meat production, the harder it is for me to eat meat, because I think farm animals should be treated with the best possible care. So if the menu doesn’t say, I’ve started asking servers where the meat comes from. An answer like “Bob’s Farm” doesn’t guarantee animal welfare, but I think it increases the odds when the supplier is proud enough to be linked to the meat, and even some big producers are overhauling their welfare rules. I did this "where is it from" thing eating burgers once with a meat industry lobbyist, and seeing him blanche at the waiter’s response was priceless. I don’t badger, just nicely ask, and it gets everyone thinking a bit.
7. GO AHEAD, BREAK THESE RULES. Or your own. You can drive yourself crazy counting grams of saturated fat or worrying too much about anything. Food and eating should be fun, full of love and pleasure, not calculation and dread. And the thing is, a funny thing happens the more time you spend on better eating habits. The junk is still alluring, but seems to have a much weaker grip.