Over the years I’ve done my fair share of counting when it comes to food. Not calories, but servings within food groups (and one time, fiber – per the advice of my doctor). It seems a little bit silly, now that I’m actually writing about it – but all this counting has all been part of my never-ending effort to understand what it means to eat healthy.
Why Understanding Healthy Eating is so Challenging for Me
I used to think I was the only one who didn’t understand healthy eating, but in some of my reading about the subject, it seems that it is confusing for a lot of people. I think this is because we are so far removed from the process of growing and harvesting our food. It seems to me that when communities are more self-sufficient, they are pretty much limited to what they can grow and harvest in their area. They eat and create recipes based on what they have available. We, on the other hand, can pretty much choose to eat whatever we want. Foods are imported from around the world, and because of factories and technology, we have an abundance of products that are in boxes, cans, and other packages. We also have an abundance of businesses who are more than willing to prepare our meals for us (a.k.a. restaurants). These are not necessarily bad things; there are some very real benefits to the way our society functions right now, but all of these factors, in my opinion, work together to make choosing the healthiest options each day a real challenge.
It also doesn’t help that the “experts” on the subject don’t all agree with each other. And the fact that human beings don’t always like the foods that are good for us – while we love and crave the ones that are not-so-good for us. It’s confusing!!
Once I tried simply eating “real food” (as many people are talking about now!). One reason this food philosophy appealed to me was that there would be no counting involved. It was said that if you just make sure everything is “real,” then the proportions will fall into place. But I didn’t feel like that really happened for me, and there were other factors that made adopting that as a permanent eating philosophy extremely difficult, if not impossible. So I’ve mostly approached my “healthy eating education” by counting food groups (and if some of the items within each food group are a bit over-processed, so be it). It just seems to make the most sense to me. But, like I’ve said before, I’m still working on the implementation part of things.
What this has to do with protein
With that said, one group that I have not spent much time counting has been the protein group (I’ve mostly focused on counting grain and fruit/vegetable servings). But recently, I went to the USDA’s SuperTracker site to create a “near perfect” meal plan just to see what it would look like. Since I like to eat nuts on most days, and I often eat an egg or two for breakfast, I entered these items into my plan. I was amazed to see the bar (indicating the percentage of the protein group eaten) grow very quickly, leaving little room for any meat at dinner (and my husband really does want to eat meat with dinner!). This gave me reason to start thinking about my portion sizes in relation to the protein group.
After I wrote this post, in which I copied Mayoclinic’s healthy weight pyramid model, I decided to go back to their site and review their other pyramid models to see how they were different and similar to each other. I could see that the three cultural models (Asian, Latin, and Mediterranean) did not have food groups the way I am used to seeing them. Instead, they all have plant foods at their base (grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices). Then on the top portion, they have the various animal foods listed, but they were kept separate from each other – with fish and seafood being closer to the bottom, meat closer to the top, and poultry & eggs somewhere in the middle.
According to the Food Tracker, for my daily requirements, I need to eat 5 to 5.5oz of the protein group. So, what I decided that I would like to do is have one egg for breakfast (1 oz), since I usually feel better in the morning if I do. Then during the day, either with lunch or as a snack have 2 Tbsp of nuts (1/2 oz of nuts = 1 oz protein group). That leaves me with 3 to 3.5oz of fish, poultry, or meat to have in the evening with dinner (which we usually do). But if I want to replace some or all of that with beans and peas, then I can do that. And, of course, if I want to replace the nuts during the day with some deli meat for a sandwich, I can do that.
Why this matters to me
I have thought more than once that I’m a little crazy in all of my detailed thinking regarding healthy eating. A lot of it really is common sense, but, for whatever reason, the concreteness of numbers motivates me. I can say to myself, “eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat,” but somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ll feel like something is not quite right unless I’m clear on the numbers.
Another reason is that my family needs to eat healthier too. I can tell my kids, “you should eat more vegetables” or “I really don’t think 3 hot dogs is a good idea” (yes, I’ve had to say that before many times). But if I have numbers that I can use to explain myself, my older kids seem to understand better (and argue less).
So, I hope you don’t think I’m “nuts” (ha! ha! get it? – sorry, couldn’t resist) for writing this post, but I have to say that I feel a lot more clarity about the protein group now!
What are your thoughts about this?