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Food and Nutrition

The food we eat should be healthy, nourishing, and inexpensive.

Let’s start with a couple of definitions:

  • Food is anything we eat, whether it’s good or bad for us.

  • Nutrition refers to making deliberate choices about what we eat.

An Automobile Example

Taking care of a car is a good example of how nutrition works.

Let's say you have a vintage Mustang that is your pride and joy and your only means of transportation.  Let's also say the owner’s manual is very specific about the kind of oil and gasoline to use: 10W-40 oil and at least 92 octane gas.

If you intended to keep the Mustang in good shape, you would want to make sure its "diet" of oil and gas always met the owner's manual requirements.  Therefore, you would:

  • always use 10W-40 oil, not, for example, single weight 20W oil (not enough lubrication in summer or at high speeds) or 40W oil (hard starting, not enough lubrication in winter)

  • stay completely away from 87 octane gas (to avoid possible ping and major engine damage)

It’s exactly the same way with our bodies.  Our biological "owner’s manual” tells us that we run best and last longest if we follow certain specific eating rules.  And it's completely up to us to follow these rules if we want to keep our own "engine" in proper shape--both now and for the long haul.

The Basic Nutrition Rule

The basic nutrition rule in the human-body owner’s manual is quite simple and straightforward:

We should eat, in moderation, a wide variety of foods from all the major food groups.  Specifically:

  • Most of what we eat should be vegetables, fruit, beans, cereal, rice (preferably brown rice), and different types of potatoes, especially sweet potatoes.  We should eat vegetables and fruit in much bigger amounts than we usually do.

  • Some of what we eat can be cheese, fish, eggs, nuts, and light meats such as pork and chicken.

  • Very little of what we eat should be beef or other red meat.  We should also go very light on butter/margarine, cooking oil, salad oil, and other dressings with a lot of fat.

Exercise:  Take a minute and try to remember and write down exactly what you ate over the last three days, at any time of the night or day.  How much of this was fruit?  How much of this was vegetables?  How much of this was red meat or cheese?  Then read the sections below and do the exercise that follows them.

The Fast-Food Problem

Fast-food restaurants (and also many family restaurants) usually serve food that turns good nutrition rules on their head.

When we go into a fast-food restaurant and order the typical menu items, this is just about the same as filling our car with low-octane gas and getting an oil change with pure 40W oil.

For example, let’s look at a typical Wendy’s or McDonald’s order:

  • Double cheeseburger
  • Large fries
  • Coke

Let’s analyze this “diet”:

  • Except for the burger bun, there is no bread, cereal, rice, pasta, beans, vegetables, or fruit (in other words, none of the things we should be trying to include as part of our daily eating habits).

  • If each of the two burger patties is a “quarter-pounder,” that makes half a pound of red meat, plus the two cheese slices—all of which we are supposed to eat only in moderation.

  • The “fries” technically include potatoes, but these are unfortunately deep fried in the cooking fat we should be eating only sparingly.

  • The Coke has only water, sugar, flavoring, and caffeine.  Fruit juice or even milk would be a much better choice.

When all is said and done, we would be much better off nutritionally if fast food restaurants did not exist.

Nonetheless, even in a fast-food restaurant, we can make better food choices than simply asking for “a Number 3, and Super-Size it.”

For example, at Wendy’s we could order:

  • Chili
  • Sour cream and chive potato
  • Milk

Let’s examine this alternate menu:

  • The chili contains beans and at least a bit of vegetables (onions, tomato).  There is some red meat in the chili, but less than you would get in a large hamburger.

  • The potato is baked, rather than deep fried.

  • The milk provides calcium and other important nutrients, and is a real food rather than sugar water.

We should point out that the healthier chili, baked potato, and milk choice will also cost quite a bit less than the usual “Super-Size Number 3” order.

Family Restaurants

Just like fast-food restaurants, most family restaurants do not pay much attention to proper nutrition.  Their menus continue to be very heavy on the wrong kinds of food.  This is especially true of Denny’s-type restaurants, with their various “Slam” breakfasts and other dishes that put much too much emphasis on meat, eggs, oils, and fatty food in general.

However, the situation is changing slowly.  Some restaurants are beginning to feature “heart healthy” or “health-watchers” items.

Ethnic restaurants are often a good bet for finding healthy food choices.  For example:

  • Chinese (and also Japanese) restaurants usually have vegetarian menus that let you stock up on large quantities of vegetables and rice.  You can choose seafood/rice or chicken/rice combinations that are also very nutritious.

  • Italian restaurants offer a wide variety of pasta dishes.  These are an excellent choice, provided that you choose marinara or other light, low-fat sauces rather than alfredo, carbonara, or other heavy cheese/fat sauces.

Exercise:  In the preceding exercise, you wrote down how much fruit and vegetables you ate over the last three days, compared to how much red meat and cheese. Would it be good to try to change these proportions over the next three days (and beyond)?  What specifically could you do to start this process?

The Do-it-Yourself Advantage 

If you have an apartment or a room with kitchen privileges, this offers an excellent opportunity to make your own breakfasts, carry-out lunches, and dinners.  These can be more nutritious than eating in fast-food or regular restaurants, and can save you quite a bit of money at the same time.

Your homemade breakfast can include such things as whole-wheat cereal or oatmeal, plus fresh fruit and juices. 

Your carry-out lunch could include fruit and/or juices, as well as sandwiches made of turkey, ham, chicken, or other light meats (instead of roast beef, pastrami, or other high-fat red meats).

In addition to other healthy main-course choices (grilled chicken, ham, various kinds of seafood), homemade dinners give you the opportunity to enjoy a number of different kinds of vegetables.  Fresh vegetables are best, but frozen or canned vegetables are also OK.

Once again, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you will save a lot of money by doing your own cooking instead of eating in a restaurant.

Additional Resources

For useful information on smart grocery shopping and on the SNAP program that provides food buying support for low-income individuals, click here.

The Bottom Line 

Only you can decide what kind of oil and fuel to put in your own body’s engine.  If you choose wisely, the result will be improved health and a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other nutrition-related illnesses.

If you choose unwisely, the result will be to run serious health risks and have less day-to-day energy and stamina. 

We will close by saying that we all “fall off the food wagon” occasionally and indulge in the kind of meal or food item that we know is not in our best nutritional interests.  Occasional lapses are OK provided that—on a week-to-week and longer-term basis—we are making serious efforts (and having some real success) in closely following the “owner’s manual” for what we put into our own bodies.

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