Illustrations by Charlotte Shen
It is as plain as day – there is no other place to start a homebody renovation than with improving the state of your health. So this is the first pillar on which to start this project. This crucial pillar is double reinforced by diet and exercise. When you’re in your youth, it seems that you may get by looking like the picture of health just on the merits of exercise alone – at twenty-three I could eat pizza and drink beer three times a week and, as long as I hit the gym regularly, you would’ve mistaken me for a fit, healthy young man. But as we age, we are rudely awakened to the essential part diet plays in how we look and feel.
What a huge morass we dive into, however, when we set out to define what a healthy diet is! There are a thousand different answers to the question, “What is the ideal diet?”, and what we are learning is that there may not be such a thing as an ideal diet, at least not one that would be ideal for everyone:
“There is an over-generalization of health benefits or risks tied to certain diets. Our study showed that the impact of the diet is likely dependent on the genetic composition of the individual eating the diet, meaning that different individuals have different optimal diets.” -Diet, digestion and human evolution: Your ideal healthy diet depends on your genes
Like many, I’m not quite ready to get a full genetic diagnostic done just yet – where I live it is not widely available and still quit expensive. Another concern I listened to from a family member over dinner was over sending your DNA – the ultimate identity key – away in the mail to strangers who will possess this data, thus leaving them able to do whatever nefarious activities we might imagine. When I think about this, I ask, what are companies who come into possession of your genetic data likely to do with it? As a businessperson, I’d want to develop products to help this person improve their health, and offer these options at prices on par with the benefit they promise. As a consumer, it takes a lot of due diligence to decide to trust a company who offers such miraculous effects based on your unique genetic code. So while the possibilities are intriguing, the concerns are valid. So I’m going to focus on the low hanging fruit for now.
The Basics are in our control: 1) Nutrition and 2) Exercise
But How Can I Decide What Nutrition Means For Me?
While to a certain degree our ideal diet depends on our individual genetic makeup and history, that is not to say we can’t draw some fundamental building blocks based on research. According to Chris Kresser, whose article here is worth a read, one valid conclusion to build on, is that, in terms of health benefits alone and leaving ethical questions aside, nutrient density is what we should focus on. This means getting the maximum nutrients with the minimum calories, while cutting out processed foods and those with an overabundance of “empty calories”, is a good place to start any diet makeover. According to studies he cites, the most nutritious foods are:
- Organ meats(754)
- Shellfish (643)
- Fatty fish (622)
- Lean fish (375)
- Vegetables (352)
- Eggs (212)
- Poultry (168)
- Legumes (156)
- Red meats (147)
- Milk (138)
- Fruits (134)
- Nuts (120)
*The numbers to the right of each food represent a composite “nutrition density score” that was assigned to each food type.
Looking at this list, it’s important to note that the 4 highest scoring foods are all animal products – which presents a couple of problems. What if you’ve chosen a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle for ethical or religious reasons, or because you believe it’s healthier?
To Eat, Or Not Eat Meat: That’s a Good Question
With a sister who’s been vegetarian since we were teenagers, I’ve wrestled with whether or not this is the right and good way to go. In addition to having a natural inclination towards meat, fish, eggs and dairy, I’ve also come across seemingly legitimate arguments that being vegetarian usually means participating in factory farming and mono-cropping, which have their own ethical perils similar to those of eating commercially produced meat.
But that is neither here nor there, as I’ve decided that for the purpose of this homebody reno, achieving better health and fitness are the gold rings I’m reaching for. So, sorry vegans, I promise to keep my eyes, ears and mind open, but for now, I’m following the science and what it appears to reveal about diet and health. There is one compromise I have seen recommended to vegans who live their lifestyle on ethical grounds but still want to optimize health.
The Vegan/Meathead Compromise
It’s foods like clams, snails, shellfish, insect protein, which despite being sutainable/farmable and about as sentient as plants by most measures, are extremely nutrient dense and a valuable add to your diet. It’s a compromise I’m considering in the future. But step by step. I wanna keep this as simple as possible for now.
Calories In ≤ Calories Out!
Secondly, we need to consider calories. The foods at the top of the list are definitely higher in fats. Despite recent studies showing that fats, even saturated fats, are not the bogeymen they’ve been made out to be for so many years, the basic fact remains that a gram of fat, any fat, contains 9 calories, compared to 4 for proteins and carbohydrates. So if we want to evenly distribute calories among the food groups on the list, it means I want more than twice the volume of veggies on my plate as I have fattier foods – this includes not only animal products but other “healthy fats” like avocado, olives, coconuts, nuts and their respective oils. So there it is ..the first concrete goal: I’m committing to eat whole, unprocessed, natural foods with the highest nutritional “bang for my buck”. Most of the time.
Cheat Within The Rules
I also know myself, and I’m someone who resists doing anything religiously and without exception. I need a touch of flexibility, release, a “food vacation” here and there. So while it may not be optimal, to increase my chances of long term compliance, I’m gonna give myself a cheat day on the weekend. One day I can look forward to satiating my inner cravings and indulging that desire to just enjoy the good things in life. Cakes, cookies, candy, soft drinks have never held too much power over me, but ask me to live a life completely devoid of my food pets - pizza, pasta, fresh baked French bread, dumplings, a cold beer on a hot day – well that just seems a little bleak! One day a week to get it out of my system, in limited portions, will help me keep my psyche on track.
What is the least nutritious food or drink that you consume regularly? Comment below!
Next Time: Part 5 - Hacks for The Food Glutton
I’ll update later with details of how I’m structuring and executing this plan, with some added twists like time-restricted eating (aka intermittent fasting), and elaborating on specific foods I may feature, such as pre and probiotics, fermented foods, fiber and resistant starch.
Coming Soon: Part 6 – Homebody Fit: Exercises You Can Do in and Around Your Home
Next time let’s explore how a homebody can incorporate life-changing exercise in a time-efficient way that can mesh seamlessly with your daily routines!