(I Won’t Tell You) What You Should Eat – 4 Keys to Living Better

There’s a saying that you should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. To that, I’d like to add “what you should eat.”

Indeed, few other topics in human health can lead to such polarized and tribal viewpoints, expressed so vehemently.

In many ways, what we eat represents both the religion and politics of human health, and try as we might, the moment we scratch too far below the surface, it is virtually impossible to disentangle all three.

But, learning to talk clearly about what we eat is vital to our health and in today’s world — our relationships.

An Abundance of Questions…

Listen in on a group of people coming together over a meal, and there is a good chance, in our modern society, that you will hear a discussion around food, nutrition, and just what we are supposed to be eating, with representations being made for one extreme over another, and all associated with some sort of virtue or vice depending on which camp you align with.

You will hear low-fat versus low-carb, the establishment versus the anti-establishment, the abstainers versus the moderators, the vegans versus the paleos, the convenience of the industrial processed food complex versus the compassion of the organic regenerative grower.

The list goes on, with each extreme serving to signal our virtues and values.

And you thought you were simply eating because you were hungry…

…With Too Many Answers

You can perhaps begin to see, then, the difficulty an individual might have in navigating the nutrition advice landscape, trying to answer the simple question of “what do I eat?” or “what food do I feed my family?” when the source waters of such advice are so murky.

Imagine the information gauntlet people may run by searching an answer to the question should I eat meat?


The Appetite for Interpretation

There have been many noble attempts to simplify food & nutrition advice for the masses.

Unfortunately, for every simplistic statement or heuristic aimed at cutting through complexity, there is an attempt to overthink and over-analyse such statements, regaining the complexity (and then some), leaving everyone once again thoroughly confused.


All The “Helpful” Points of View

Take, for example, food writer Michael Pollan’s well known statement: “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Such a simple, face-valid statement, has been picked over and sliced and diced in all manner of ways in order to fit whatever nutritional worldview someone may hold.

Some see Pollan’s statement as a call to eat a plant-exclusive diet; “mostly plants” becomes “only plants.”

The very same “mostly plants” can be interpreted as “not exclusively plants” for those who want you to eat some meat. Processed food manufacturers have scrambled to “clean label” their products, renaming ingredients with otherwise chemical-sounding names to those which sound a bit more “natural” in order to make such products seem a bit more like real food.

Meanwhile, the everything-in-moderation crowd takes solace from Pollan’s “not too much” statement, seeing it as an endorsement for eating what you like as long as you don’t overdo it.


A Disadvantageous Information Overload

I can tell you, from my own personal experience of the countless posts, seminars, workshops, and two best-selling books dedicated to what to eat, there is always a sort of regression to the mean with any advice aimed at nudging people in a particular direction with their food choices.

The second-generation interpretation of such advice almost invariably becomes a prefix to the status quo, allowing individuals to signal either being on trend or holding some form of virtuosity via an “-approved” label.

See: low-fat cupcakes, low-carb cupcakes, vegan cupcakes, paleo cupcakes, gluten-free cupcakes, sugar-free cupcakes, free-range cupcakes … you get the picture.


So, What Should You Eat?

I’m not going to oversimplify for the sake of sounding good. What you eat is important, and we’re going to explore what works together.

Rather than defaulting to yet another overly simplistic statement devoid of nuance or context, or appealing to a heuristic likely to invite more scrutiny than its original intention could bear, I will seek to explore what we should eat, our connection (or often, our disconnection) to food, how food connects us to each other, and the profound influence what, how, and where we eat has on our health, energy, and outlook.

Readers who know my previous work — Whole9, Whole30, It Starts With Food — will see familiar roots and threads, but hopefully also an evolution (revolution?) in my thinking.

I’ll revisit some of my previous writings and concepts regarding food and eating, and will explore some new concepts and paradigms that have come to light since my original writings, taking a deep ecology approach to how we should eat.


How do I eat? My [updated] nutrition in A 60-second elevator pitch:

I eat naturally-occurring and minimally-processed foods like meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. I choose these intact, nutrient-dense foods over processed and ultra-processed packaged foodstuffs, which are often nutrient poor but calorie dense.  Food quality is important to me – a concept which includes where my food comes from (local), how it was raised or grown (humanely; organic), and the overall environmental impact.

I aim for well-balanced nutrition, so I eat predominantly unprocessed plant-based foods, anchored by appropriate amounts of quality animal foods.  This balanced combination of plants and animals provides me with all the nutrients I need, including all the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats naturally inherent in these food groups.  But the social and cultural aspects of eating are just as important to me as what I eat.

I am not on a “diet.”

 I choose foods which help to naturally regulate my appetite, and I avoid those foodstuffs which require willpower and moderation to not overeat them. I eat to maintain my physical, mental, and emotional energy levels. I eat to build and maintain important tissues such as my brain, muscles, and bones, helping me to stay active and strong, rather than eating (or not eating) to lose weight, which leaves me feeling moody, tired, and weak.

Eating like this is ideal for maintaining a healthy metabolism and reducing inflammation within the body – the root cause of many lifestyle diseases and conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular, and autoimmune disease. It’s good for energy levels, body composition, sleep quality, mental attitude, and quality of life.  It helps eliminate cravings and establishes a healthy relationship with food and my body.

Get my newsletter to learn about the next Key — Move.

P.S. If you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to share in the comments below. I won’t be able to respond to everything but I will answer some questions in the comments, on Facebook, and on Instagram when I can. The clearer your question and the more relevant to a topic I’m exploring, the more likely I’ll answer. Thank you!

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  • Jan

    Great article. I changed to the same food choices about a year ago, what a difference it has made. I incorporated a daily yoga practice as well and have never felt better.

  • Amanda

    I’m so happy to read this! There are so many “experts” these days with their own reasonable-enough-sounding advice. Just when you think you’re eating “the right things” according to one person, the other person says “that’s cancer on a plate.” Everyone is chasing immortality, and our joy is the cost.

    As someone who counsels people in nutrition, I think it’s important to connect my clients with real food, and then empower them to make choices based on what makes them feel good overall. Maybe corn is a “no no” to one group but it makes them feel just fine – I tell them to go for it. I wish for everyone a happy, simple, healthy life.

  • Laura Ingram

    What is inflammation in the body?

    • Katrina

      Hi Laura – I believe Dallas could write an entire book just on this topic, so that’s probably too vague of a question for him to write a concise response on (sorry!). Start by doing a Google search for ‘gut inflammation’ and I’m certain you will get multiple results. There are several great books out there as well. I rent mine from the library for free, and always want to read more afterwards.

      Good luck with your search. There is so much knowledge to be gained from this topic!

  • Kristi

    Dallas, finding a way to communicate the way I eat has been a struggle! You’re right that people often think of it as a diet, so helping them understand all of what your posted has been hard but so important. Thanks for putting language to that for us!

    One question: how do you communicate to others when you choose to eat a food that you wouldn’t typically? Maybe it’s a special occasion or you decide the consequence of eating that food is worth it for the event, holiday, or just because you really want it that time. I find others often think of it as “a cheat day” or will say things like, “So… you aren’t gluten free then?” It’s so all-or-nothing thinking. I’d like to educate and help them understand rather than get frustrated and feel judged. But I think I’m mostly frustrated because I’m not sure how exactly to explain it. Suggestions?

  • Tom

    Great stuff. Simple but difficult!

  • Richard Swarzentruber

    Whole30 is the best food regiment ever but I fell of the program and am ready to get back on and stay on it this time. I am 80 and eat well during the day but night time I loose it. Get bored and fall off.

    • Joanna

      Mr. Swarzentruber, good for you for working to be healthy! If you’re getting bored in the evenings, one thing I wonder is whether food actually helps with that boredom, or if it’s just something to do to forget that you’re bored. Maybe you need some one to talk to, or an activity, rather than food? Just a thought! And I hope that I am still trying new ways to be healthy when I’m 80!

  • Stephanie Capecchi

    Three cheers for everything you’ve said Mr. Hartwig. I agree wholeheartedly and I think this is holistic and wise. Yet, I struggle with the how. I want to eat this way, I suspect I would feel very well… But even after multiple Whole30s and continual attempts to integrate mindfulness into my eating, I struggle to not fall face first into cookies at the end of the day. The “what” feels so clear, the “how” proves elusive despite multiple years of attempts. I look forward to your perspective!

  • Roland Denzel

    I love you last paragraph, which lists so many things that tend to be problems and play off of each other. It’s more than just a vicious circle, since all those aspects of health affect the others!

    Keep going!


  • Jacqueline

    Great article, I enjoyed it. Looking forward to more from you.

  • Linda Mercer

    Great info! Following Whole30. Got my family going with it! I also follow Donna Schwenk who promotes foods that are cultured, veggies, kefir, kombucha and the like. She’s a firm believer in the health aspect of it all. I feel like you and Melissa, and Donna have introduced me to so many healthy options to food and how it’s processed. I’m better and healthier for it. Please let me know if believe in cultured foods as a good source in pro-biotics/pre-biotics. I’d like to hear your and Melissa’s take on this. Thanks for all your guidance!

  • Elle

    At my late stage of life having read ever so many books on the nutritional subjects by ever so brilliant researchers and medical folk I have come to the conclusion that you are correct in what you are consuming to maintain your vitality.
    I also read the book on the blue zones which was even more enlightening. The series of webinars on Alzheimers moderated by Peggy Sarlin was ever so helpful. So my only problem at this point is emotional eating rather than hunger and meditation tai chi etc has never been of interest, though I have given it a whirl. The encouragement that you provide is needed and keep up the good work.

  • Lynn Musselman

    Your 60-second elevator pitch matches my food philosophy perfectly. I might as well copy and paste to make it my own. I often find myself explaining to people how I eat and why I don’t partake of the mass-produced over-processed garbage most people label as food. Again, your summary is perfect for me.

  • Lindy Lyles

    Have done the Whole 30 three times (and probably need a reset in January.) It has been the most beneficial guidance that I have read and been successful with in a long time. Still struggling with the day-to-day reality and balance though. Thank you for your honesty and thoughtfulness. ALWAYS curious to hear your thoughts.

  • Laura

    So glad I came across this. Two years ago I completed my first whole 30. It was very successful and certainly improved my eating habits. However for the past year, those old habits returned and I quickly became out of control. I was stressed and in the midst of the 40 pound weight gain, I began to try other dietary options. I did try the WFPB with short term success, but it just wasn’t sustainable for myself or my family. After each unsuccessful attempt, I felt like a failure and binged on garbage. Just like running, there is a huge mental component tied to what you eat. I am refocusing on what foods make me feel and perform the best. It is a process and consistency is key.

  • Maddy

    You are one of my favorite voices in wellness and I love this direction you’re going in. It’s important to hear this nonjudgmental and un-diety thinking especially when we’re constantly attacked from all angleS by diet culture.

    • Dallas Hartwig

      Thanks, Maddy.

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