Eat to Learn, Learn to Eat: 7 Simple Rules for Eating Better

Little girl eating yogurt

If there is one thing I have realized through writing Mission to Learn – and blogging in general – it’s that I already know quite a lot that I don’t tend to act on all that well. So, I am starting to focus more on knowledge I have accumulated – particularly knowledge related to everyday life – and trying to put it to better use.

Eating certainly is one of the top items on this list – all the more so because diet can have such an impact on how well the brain functions.

There are countless books out there about how to eat better, what not to eat, and how our whole approach to eating is destroying us (and the world), but it seems to me that I already know the things that are likely to have the biggest impact on my day-to-day habits – i.e., the 20 percent that will make 80 percent of the difference.

I just need to act more consistently on what I already know – whether from past reading and research or simply from having observed what works in my own life.

Here’s what I have been able to simplify my knowledge of food down to so far. Let me know if you have suggestions about how to make this simpler (or any glaring omissions or errors you think I have made):

1. Eat less, but eat – and at more frequent intervals

Don’t load up on huge meals that suck away all your energy for digestion and cause you to store calories you don’t need. And don’t go for hours on end without eating anything. (I have tendency to do this when I am holed up in my office.) Lighten up on the traditional three meals and fill the in-betweens with some small, nutritious snacks like nuts and or fruit.

2. Avoid Things Are Pretty Certainly Bad

Every time we turn around there is something else that is supposedly bad or good for us. It can be dizzying to try to keep up. But it seems to me there is a pretty clear list of “greatest hits” in the bad camp that we should mostly consume in moderation, or in some cases, avoid altogether. These include:

In moderation:

  • Saturated Fat
  • Cholesterol
  • Sugar
  • Salt/Sodium
  • Alcohol

Avoid altogether:

The last one, plastic, is a perhaps not as well-established as some of the others, but I have read enough about it at this point to feel that avoiding anything that has BPA in it is a good “better safe than sorry” move.

To get your recommended dietary intakes (DRIs) on those in the “moderation” group, you can check out the USDA’s dietary guidance Web page. Like so many government efforts around diet (the “Food Pyramid” comes to mind) it is not the most user friendly of resources, but you can find what you need with a little effort.

3. Avoid Processed Foods

There are any number of benefits to being able to grab something out of the freezer and pop it in the microwave, or to cook up something our of a can or jar. It’s easy, in a lot of cases it is (or at least seems) relatively cheap, and it can make it possible to juggle a busy schedule while still managing to eat decent meals. The down side, though, is that processed foods tend to be full of a lot of the items in the bullets above. They also are not very eco-friendly to produce and distribute. It’s better to avoid them to the greatest extent possible, and maybe enjoy the many benefits of preparing more of your own food.

4. Eat More Fruits, Vegetables, and Whole Grains

This is a natural counterpart to avoiding processed food and I don’t think I have ever encountered legitimate research on healthy eating that didn’t highly recommend a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Make an effort to include a larger percentage of your daily intake.

5. Go Local As Much As You Can

Food sourced locally is generally fresher than food brought in from far away, and the energy costs and related environmental impact of getting it to market is just bound to be lower in most cases.  Consider joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) provider in your area. And don’t just stop at supporting your local farmers, bakers, and other food producers, try growing a small garden of your own – maybe even a guerilla gardenbaking something, or figuring out other ways you can produce your own food. I guarantee you will learn a lot in the process!

6. Drink Water

The whole bottled water, super-hydration craze makes me cringe. There’s no telling how much plastic we have churned through unnecessarily as result of this fabricated market “need.” Nonetheless, I know I generally feel better when I drink several glasses of water a day. It’s kind of like the oil that keeps the body engine running smoothly. Chances are your existing tap water is just fine for this purpose. If you have doubts, have it tested and/or get a Brita filter pitcher.

7. Play First, Then Eat

You can substitute “aerobic exercise” or whatever you like for “play,” but I took the idea for this subtitle from a recent New York Times article that pointed out the highly positive impact of scheduling recess for school children before lunch rather than after.  I think this makes sense at any age. Physical activity is a natural and necessary complement to food, and in general, it seems better for the exercise to come first.  (And of course, whatever you do, don’t go swimming until at least 30 minutes after eating! 😉

So that’s it. No rocket science here, but that’s the beauty of everyday knowledge – you can get so much out of identifying and sticking to a fairly small and simple set of guidelines. The magic is in the “identifying and sticking to” part.

What are some simple lessons that guide your approach to eating? Please comment and share.


P.S. – If you want to dive deeper, you may want to check out Nutrition Made Clear, a great course from the Teaching Company.

3 thoughts on “Eat to Learn, Learn to Eat: 7 Simple Rules for Eating Better”

  1. Madeleine – Thanks for sharing that input on diabetes in relation to #7. I always hate to get too “legal” in my blog posts, but I should probably put the usual disclaimer on this one that people should consult with a doctor or other appropriately trained practitioner before changing their eating habits significantly – particularly if they have any special circumstance. And thanks for the “Substitute, Don’t Sacrifice” addition. Do you happen to have any favorite sources for finding substitutes easily?

    Melissa – Yes, I think moderation is definitely key (in just about everything!). I had that in mind in #1, though in re-reading, didn’t really make that clear enough. Thanks so much for this contribution.


  2. I don’t know how i exactly was able to discipline myself to eating better, but I must admit that reading numerous articles on eating healthy helped a lot in making my choices. Though I do not have time to exercise, I make sure I stay active by doing chores around the house. I guess one thing I should add in the list is eating in moderation. At least with this, we can still eat anything without the guilt. 🙂

  3. Hi Jeff, What I really like about this post is that we have heard these things before, but we need reminders to actually do them. All the suggestions make sense, and I’m already doing them except for #7. Play First, Then Eat.

    The reason is that I have Type 2 diabetes and my blood glucose tends to go to0 low unless I’m careful about eating first, waiting a bit, measuring my blood glucose, and then going for a nice long walk after lunch. And thanks to eating healthy and exercising, I don’t need to take any medication for diabetes.

    My only addition to your list would be Substitute, Don’t Sacrifice. There are so many great products, such as low-fat buttermilk instead of cream and plain (or low-fat) yogurt instead of sour cream. Both these are so tasty that I never miss the fat.

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