The Ideal Meal:
3 Simple Dietary Principles to Help You Create Lifelong Health and Wellness
BY AUBREY MARCUS
photo: brooke lark
It’s become a cliché for important people to have the same lunch every day, a way to reduce their decision load. What kind of awesome day rings in the halfway point without the spice of variety? No more. It’s called a lunch break, so let’s break with the ordinary. Lunch is an opportunity to reframe and restart your day. It’s the perfect time to eat an ideal meal, not an obligation to cross off the list. It’s also an opportunity to get your body the micronutrients it needs to keep you feeling great. The way to do that isn’t with something ordered off a cart. It’s by experimenting and exploring. It’s by taking my hometown’s motto to heart and keeping it weird.
My favorite lunch as a young man was the Carl’s Jr. Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger. I would order it two, sometimes three times a week, and with that first hot, steaming bite, every time I’d think to myself: What is this creation of the fast food gods? This Zeus Burger that has me slobbering like a pit bull in a butcher shop? Back then I thought the sandwich was a savory flavor explosion designed by super geniuses, proof of man’s inherent dominion over nature. I would gleefully crush it with reckless abandon, then bask in the postcoital euphoria of a multiple flavorgasm… for all of about a minute and a half.
Then I would literally feel sick to my stomach and drag ass the rest of the afternoon. Why? Well, let me tell you what that sandwich really was. It was meat and bacon that had been shot full of hormones and antibiotics and raised on Monsanto corn. It was yellow “cheese” that was somewhere in between milk and Nickelodeon “gak,” engineered not for flavor but for its ability to “melt” over the “all-beef” patty like a coat of high-gloss latex paint. It was sugary BBQ sauce for tang, and breaded onion fried in canola oil for crunch, all of it sandwiched between two fluffy slices of refined blood-sugar-spiking carbohydrates.
How many of you fall prey to similar guilty lunch pleasures, not eating a healthy lunch or worry that you have poor lunch habits? Not sure? Then answer me this: How many of the following things do you do, or have you done, on a regular basis at lunchtime?
1. Decided what to eat based on how many/few calories it has.
2. Bought a sandwich from Subway because it’s “fresh.”
3. Eaten some form of fried starch like chips or fries as your “side.”
4. Eaten a meal whose only colors are different shades of white and brown (yellow cheese doesn’t count).
If you are anything like I was, you’ve done all those things. Many times. You found yourself owned by cravings and convenience, only to be left battling inflammation, brain fog, low energy, and mood dysregulation, all of which prevent you from crushing it during your afternoon work session.
There are a number of reasons for this. With an estimated 75% of the world’s food produced from only twelve plant and five animal species, the lack of biodiversity in our diet is failing to support our gut or “second brain.” Additionally, our culture’s maniacal focus on calories instead of nutrients has left our bodies unbalanced and undernourished. Last, and I think most important, when it comes to the midday meal, the typical lunch is often packed with what I call antinutrients and far too few of the essential micronutrients you get when you eat weird foods in all colors of the rainbow from fertile, mineral-rich soil, which is why developing an ideal meal plan is more than necessary.
Eventually, I got to a point where I was sick and tired—literally and figuratively—of only being productive for the first half of my day and missing the giant opportunities I had to fulfill my mission and achieve the things I dreamed about when I closed my eyes at night. So, I changed my lunch. And that’s what you’re going to do too.
So, what is a healthy lunch? In this article, we’re going to walk you through the right kind of lunch. You’re gonna spice it up. You’re gonna make it interesting, exciting… even weird. It’s not gonna be the same every damn time. It’s gonna take a little effort to prepare before you dive right in and devour it, but it’s gonna be worth it. And you’re gonna be doing your body a solid.
As Orson Welles once said, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
Take a deep breath. Lunch is about to get weird. But before we have some fun with it, we have to get fundamental. We have to address the nutrient profile of your overall diet and how that connects to your lunch. We need a solid foundation of macronutrients that provide the fuel for your body and the building blocks for your growth—all those healthy foods that proteins, fats, fiber, and carbohydrates that come from air, land, and sea. Once we have a handle on those, then we can dive into the weird foods that provide the key micronutrients that take you from functional to optimal. And finally, we can go to war against the antinutrients that are regularly undercutting the benefits of both your macro- and micronutrient consumption.
Universal Nutrition Principle #1: Calories Are Bullshit, Macronutrients Matter
Nutrition coach Mike Dolce has captained thousands of dramatic weight-loss and body transformations in his career, helping people from all across the spectrum: tall, short, white, black, male, female, Team Edward, Team Jacob. If there is one message that Mike has preached most consistently over all those years, it’s that if you are counting calories, you are setting yourself up for failure, because calories aren’t real, and humans don’t actually “burn” them. Hence, if you are formulating an ideal lunch for yourself, you have to think beyond calories.
The calorie, as a unit of measurement, is based on the amount of heat produced when food is burned in a metal oven called a calorimeter. Last time I checked, our bodies are not metal ovens. What the body actually does is break down food in complex metabolic pathways, utilizing amino acids for muscles, shuttling nutrients into cells, and storing energy. When we work out, we don’t “burn the calories” from the last meal we ate like a coal-powered engine. Energy in the body comes from a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that the body generates from a variety of sources, including glycogen, ketones, protein, and fat that our body had previously stored.
That’s a very science-y way of saying that calories are bullshit. Still, this is how most people think about calories: Food has them. If you eat more than you burn when you work out, you get fat. Full stop. If it were only that simple! Does that mean you can eat any amount of food you want? Of course not. But it probably does mean that you can and should eat more of the right macronutrients than you currently consume.
The biggest surprise to many of Mike Dolce’s clients, in fact, is just how much food he tells them to eat. Convinced by years of diet fad brainwashing of the calorie-in, calorie-out hypothesis, his overweight clients are shocked that when they eat more food than they ever have, they start losing weight. These anecdotes are plausible because when it comes to food and owning your health, it ain’t about the calories, it’s about the nutrients, which healthy meals have a lot of.
The body needs good macronutrients to trigger the hormonal signals that help you start losing weight. A 100-calorie pack of crackers is not going to be as good as a small handful of almonds, or a couple pieces of grass-fed jerky, or any of the weird foods we’re going to talk about here. That is a nutritional truism that holds for more than just weight loss as well. Solid macronutrient intake is essential for optimal organ function, musculoskeletal function, and general bodily effectiveness.
PROTEIN: BUILD YOUR HOUSE
Protein is a key building block within our bodies. Technically, proteins are chains of different amino acids that break down and rebuild to help us form our muscles, skin, joints, and even our eyeballs. If the body were a house, it would be in a constant state of renovation, and protein would be the building materials. When the body starts to run out of those materials, it starts to age and degrade until it breaks down rather than building up. Eating enough protein (especially complete amino acid protein) as a regular part of your diet ensures that you supply your body with the building materials it needs to keep those internal load-bearing walls strong and, thanks to its role in promoting stable blood sugar levels, keep those lights on and burning brightly.
That said, the big question with protein as a macronutrient and an essential part of an ideal meal isn’t whether it’s important; it’s what constitutes enough and whether there is such a thing as too much. In a study including both young and elderly subjects, a meal consisting of beef that yielded 30 grams of protein elicited significant increases in muscle protein synthesis after an overnight fasting period. Interestingly, a meal yielding 90 grams of protein did not elicit any greater responses in muscle protein synthesis. What makes those numbers so significant is when you put them in the context of a Western diet and standard American portions. Thirty grams of protein is only 4 to 5 ounces of beef, or about the size of the palm of your hand. An 8-ounce steak is 50 grams of protein by itself, and that’s usually the smallest option on most restaurant menus. Try hitting that 30-gram mark, because more is likely just going to be unnecessary extra work for your organs, and your wallet.
Ideal sources: Grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, pasture-raised eggs, sprouted pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds
FIBER: SLOW AND STEADY
Fiber is another constituent of a healthy lunch. However, if I were Dietary Fat, I would fire my PR agent and hire the one they have working for my friend Dietary Fiber. While fiber is technically a carbohydrate, everyone and their mother—especially their mother—has heard of the importance of fiber. But not many people know exactly why. To understand fiber, you have to understand the different types and how each can be beneficial to your body. We are going to focus on three main types: soluble, insoluble, and fermentable (prebiotic) fiber.
Soluble fibers mix with water and form a gel-like substance. If you’ve ever had chia seed pudding, or a chia slurry, you have a good sense of what this looks like. It almost has the consistency of Jell-O. Soluble fiber, like its unjustly maligned friend Dietary Fat, offers a variety of metabolic benefits when this process happens in the body, including slowing down the uptake of nutrients just long enough to help level out blood sugar spikes.
Ideal sources: Chia, flax, asparagus, guar gum
Insoluble fiber, an important element of an ideal meal, plays an important role in making sure your digestive tract has enough substance to push through the system efficiently and completely. Some of the most common sources of insoluble fiber are plants without much nutrient density but whose cell walls are made of cellulose. Like our friend psyllium, they act as a bulking agent, which helps speed the complete passage of food and waste through your gut.
Ideal sources: Avocado, sprouted barley, mixed greens, popcorn, psyllium
Fermentable fiber/resistant starch is often called a “prebiotic” because your friendly neighborhood gut bacteria are able to digest (ferment) it to use as food. Whereas probiotics actually contain more friendly bacteria to help populate your gut colony, prebiotics provide the food they need to thrive. The most common fermentable fibers include beans, the “magical fruit,” and as with all forms of fermentation, produce everyone’s favorite bodily byproduct: gas. Not all fermentable fibers are created equal, of course. Some will be more efficient and tolerable for your body than others, and you’ll just have to experiment to find out. Though I suspect you, or whoever you might share a bed with, already know. Personally, my favorite prebiotic fermentable fiber is dandelion greens. My body tolerates them very well. My least favorite are Brussels sprouts, which turn my digestive tract into a fart factory.
Ideal sources: Garbanzo beans (hummus), dandelion greens, chicory root, onions
A lunch composed of food groups with these fibers well represented will promote gut health and aid digestion. A healthy, well-firing digestive tract is key to preventing the kind of heavy bloat and discomfort that can derail what would otherwise have been a smooth, productive afternoon.
CARBOHYDRATE: SPEED KILLS
With the exception of fiber, carbohydrates are basically sugar. But it is not their sugary nature that makes them dangerous, it is the speed at which they are delivered into your system. Your goal when it comes to carb consumption is to slow them down as much as possible.
The speed at which you digest caffeine depends on what else you’ve consumed with it. Chewed-up food—or chyme—will digest at the rate of the slowest-absorbing nutrients within it. Fat and fiber take longer for the body to process than sugar or starch and are therefore two of the best nutrients for slowing down digestion. The best way to eat carbs in an ideal lunch, then, is to eat things that already have the fiber in them—things like yams, sweet potatoes, quinoa, sprouted or fermented grains, and some fruits.
A lot of people who are sensitive to their carb intake look at the composition of fruit, being largely sugar, and they come to the conclusion that fruit is bad. What they fail to realize, though, is that fruit is full of fiber. The fiber is a big part of what gives fruit its solid-state structure. Without it, most fruits would just be juice balloons ready to spill out all over the place. That relationship between the fiber and the sugar in fruit plays out in the body as well. Fruits don’t just flood your bloodstream with sugar; the fiber in them slows down the absorption of sugar in the gut, which basically spreads out the glycogen battery charge over a longer period. Anything over a 100% charge of your glycogen stores converts to fat, so if you can charge your body at a pace similar to the one you drain it at, you’ll be fine on the fruit front.
So, if fiber and fat slow down the absorption of sugar, what do you suppose produces the fastest absorption? Well, something that has neither fiber nor fat. The liquid greased lightning of sugar: soda. If you just do one thing for your nutrition, for your workday, and for your world, stop drinking conventional soda and stop giving soda to your kids. Sugar-sweetened beverages contributed to a staggering 60% increase in childhood obesity. Sugar-sweetened beverages that use fructose, like fruit juice concentrates and high-fructose corn syrup, are the worst of the worst. Fructose cannot be used in any other immediate functions of the body, so it immediately converts to glycogen or fat. When it comes to sugar, and especially fructose, you need to get them out of your diet so you can get their effects out of your day.
Ideal sources: Yams, sweet potatoes, sprouted or fermented grains, certain fruits
FAT: FUEL THE BURN
Aside from proteins, fiber and carbohydrate, healthy fats should also be a part of your breakfast, dinner and midday meal. One way high-fat diets like the ketogenic diet can help you lose weight is by curbing hunger through increasing the signal for satiety, the feeling of being full. This diminishes the desire to overeat, sometimes starting as early as the first bite of hunger-satiating fat. Your liver can convert saturated fat in your diet to cholesterol, but contrary to what you might have been told, cholesterol is not going to kill you. There are studies showing that even in the elderly, high cholesterol can be protective. In these older populations, the higher the cholesterol, the lower your risk of heart disease. Not to mention that cholesterol levels that are too low are actually associated with increased risk of death from other causes, like cancer and suicide. This likely has to do with the fact that saturated fat and cholesterol are the starting point for the production of many important hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. Whether you’re male or female, having robust hormone levels has been linked to most aspects of healthy living: mood, body composition, libido, and energy level. Without good fat in your diet, without enough cholesterol, you will be setting yourself up for some serious problems.
Ideal sources: Coconut oil, animal fats, avocado, grass-fed butter, egg yolk, olive oil, MCT oil, cacao butter
You Are What What You Eat Ate
As critically important as macronutrients are to your overall health when creating the ideal meal, it’s equally important that they come from as many high-quality sources as possible. We’ve all heard the expression “You are what you eat.” Well, that’s literally true. You didn’t grow from magic, or because that’s just what babies do. You grew because you ate stuff. But that’s only half the story because the stuff you ate grew because it ate (and metabolized) stuff too. You aren’t just what you eat, you’re also what what you eat ate.
Double Western bacon cheeseburgers, technically speaking, have a macronutrient profile you could get away with, especially if you threw one bun off and made it a convertible. But if that is all you ever ate (like I wanted to when I was young), you would literally be made up of reconstituted and metabolized double Western bacon cheeseburgers. You would be a cheeseburger human. Carl’s Jr. Junior. Which might be all right, depending on what what you eat ate. Did the cow who so kindly donated the patty and the cheese eat grass and weeds full of nutrients and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)? Or did it eat genetically modified corn packed with fructose? Did the onion come from nutrient-rich soil, or was it commercially farmed on re-fertilized ground that was regularly doused in Roundup? Was the bread refined wheat—basically cotton candy in the shape of a bun—or was it a sprouted grain, watered from mineral-rich springs or rainwater?
Aside from making it hard for us to answer the “what is a healthy meal” question, multinational food manufacturers have tried to convince us that stuff like this doesn’t matter that much, but a cursory glance at the difference between natural foods and those that have endured even a modest amount of processing is all you need to know that this matters a lot if you want to own your day and own your life. Look at the higher concentrations of healthy fats like CLA in grass-fed beef versus conventional beef. Or just look at the food, period. Often you can actually see the difference in nutritional quality. Wild-caught salmon, with higher natural levels of the colorful antioxidant astaxanthin, have a much deeper pink flesh compared to farm-raised salmon, which would be unrecognizable without the red dye added for coloring. Pasture-raised chickens produce eggs with rich orange yolks, whereas factory-farmed chickens lay eggs with almost sickly yellow yolks. Even corn and berries, when grown organically, can have up to 50% more antioxidants. And veggies, well, they are only as good as the soil and water that made them grow. Anyone who has sampled the merchandise at a good farmer’s market can tell you that it is not to-may-to versus to-mah-to. It’s tomato versus what the hell is that?
All of which is to say, whether it’s macro- or micronutrients you’re after, going conventional with your food isn’t going to get you very far. You’ve gotta get weird and be meticulous about what types of food you choose for the ideal meal.
Universal Nutrition Principle #2: Eat Weird Foods
Jonathan Swift said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Damn right. I wonder if ol’ Curious Jorge was actually hungry or just feeling destructive when he came across his first oyster? I can imagine him finding this sea rock that seemed to have something alive inside it, smashing it open, and giving it a good sniff. It smelled like the ocean, so he poked it with his tongue. It was slimy… yet familiar. Then, he eventually slurped the whole thing down for desperately needed sustenance. What is certain is that he had no idea how just a few oysters could supply 1,000% of his daily vitamin B12 needs, along with hefty supplies of vitamins A and E, copper, selenium, zinc, and essential fatty acids. Add in a bottle of sauv blanc, and he would also have the world’s first afternoon patio brunch, but that’s a whole different discussion.
This is the essence of weird foods. And the more diverse they are, the more diverse the micronutrients you consume, the closer you’ll be to optimized performance following your midday meal, and the farther away you’ll be from the deleterious internal conditions that always seem to throw the brakes on the rest of our day.
Besides taking a supplement to fix our screwed-up guts, the next best thing we can do in preparing the ideal lunch is dramatically increase the type and variety of foods we eat, because with that diversity comes a more robust and more diverse group of microbiota. The more diverse and plentiful your microbiota, the more potential health benefits they can contribute to the body. To get there, you need to hunt down prebiotic foods that feed the good bacteria that already exist, encouraging them to flourish, and probiotic foods that increase the ranks of those friendly bacteria.
Prebiotic foods are those that feed the bacteria already present in the gut. Fueling those little dudes, which outnumber the rest of the body’s cells ten to one, is pretty important and why foods rich in fermentable fiber and resistant starch are so key. They survive the digestive enzymes in the stomach and small intestine and deliver their payload—principally inulin, among others—to the large intestine, where they can feed critical strains of probiotic bacteria like bifidobacteria, which keep things efficient in the bowel system by helping reduce constipation and boosting the immune system.
While lunch is not usually the time for a bunch of starchy carbohydrates like french fries, surprisingly there may be a way to keep potatoes on the lunch menu in a useful, prebiotic fashion: potato salad! When you heat and cool potatoes (or rice), you turn some of the digestible starches into resistant starch via a process called retrogradation. In addition to feeding your friendlies, the retrograded starch will have a diminished effect on elevating blood sugar levels, which will help you ward off the afternoon drowsies.
The key with any prebiotic food is to start small and build up. If you eat too much right off the bat, you are going to have serious gas.
Ideal sources: Jerusalem artichokes, blueberries, almonds and pistachios, and especially high quantities in chicory root, dandelion greens, and onions
Probiotic foods add more friendly bacteria into your system, the ones that not only break down food in the stomach but also start breaking down food outside the stomach as well; hence, it comes as no surprise that it is a must-have when preparing a healthy lunch. Their helpful bacteria and yeasts feed on the sugars and resistant starches in the food, converting some of the sugar to organic acids and making the food easier to digest. Eating probiotic food is kind of like hiring new intestinal factory workers who start working before they even reach the factory floor. They work a lifetime, multiply, have children during the fermentation process, and then when you finally consume the food, you add some of their numbers to your own intestinal factory. It’s a win-win.
The best place to find these probiotics is in cultured or fermented foods. Fermentation not only introduces a bunch of healthy probiotics, it also increases nutrient bioavailability and digestibility, making tolerable many foods like dairy, soy, or plants like cabbage that would normally be irritating to the digestive tract. Fermentation is a traditional practice around the world, and commonplace in many of the world’s Blue Zones. If you haven’t heard that term, Blue Zones are areas of the globe whose populations enjoy the highest levels of health, and studying those populations can give great insight into some best practices we can all apply.
Ideal sources: Miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, dark chocolate, Greek yogurt
Moreover, an ideal meal should also have protective foods. There are a lot of different protective foods, to the extent that any nutrient dense food you eat is probably doing something to benefit or bolster one of the systems in your body, but two classes of food stand above the others for their essential protective nature: omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential fatty acids because the body can’t produce them and needs to source them from food. These aren’t normal fats; these compounds play key roles in regulating inflammation and other processes like blood clotting. While both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important, the problem develops when the ratio gets out of line. Research by Dr. Stephan Guyenet suggests that the ratio in healthy nonindustrial populations is somewhere from 1:1 to 1:4 omega-3 to omega-6, respectively. Unfortunately, in our typical diet the ratio is more like 1:16, and we need to correct that, not just with supplements but with diet.
Ideal sources: Chia, flax, and sacha inchi seeds; wild-caught fish like sockeye salmon, sardines, and mackerel; grass-fed beef (as long as it isn’t grain-finished)
Antioxidants have been touted, at one time or another, as a cure for everything from cancer to the common cold. While the hype for antioxidants as a panacea was definitely overblown, what is absolutely true is that they reduce oxidative stress in the body by eliminating free radicals, hungry molecules on the hunt for electrons to quench their unending molecular thirst. When free radicals pull electrons from normal cells, those cells die as part of the inflammation process. Cell death is a healthy function that keeps deranged and damaged cells from wandering around aimlessly, but when there is too much oxidative stress, and there are too many free radicals roaming around like Pac-Man ghosts, you start to get more inflammation than you need or want. That is when it is time to reach for the antioxidants. With electrons to spare, there are several powerful classes of antioxidants that can blast thirsty radicals. So, what is a healthy meal? Well, it should include foods rich in antioxidants and abundant in other protective foods.
Polyphenols help reduce something called C-reactive protein, which is a marker of inflammation. The best sources for polyphenols are chocolate, red wine, and green tea.
Anthocyanins are immune boosters present in dark fruits like blackberries, blueberries, acai, blackcurrant, and cherries, as well as black rice and eggplant.
Curcuminoids have earned a lot of buzz for their ability to reduce inflammation. Found primarily in turmeric—whose yellow root gives curry powder its color—not only do they reduce oxidative stress, they are specifically valuable for the brain and may help reduce the age-related brain conditions. Unfortunately, on their own, curcuminoids are hard for the body to absorb, but when you combine turmeric with black pepper or the extract BioPerine, the absorption can skyrocket up to 2,000%.
Garlic is one of these mysterious foods that has been used therapeutically for millennia. This is another easy win in the ideal lunch meal since it contains multiple antioxidant compounds that, among other things, subdue the common cold like a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt. A large 12-week study found that garlic supplementation reduced the number of colds by 63% versus placebo. That is awesome by itself, but even better when you consider the average length of cold symptoms for those who were sick was also reduced, from five days to just one and a half days in the group taking garlic. Another study backed up those results and found that a high dose of garlic extract can reduce the number of days someone feels sick with the cold or flu by 61%. To get the maximum benefit, load up on garlic in the winter or if anyone in your house is getting the sniffles.
Sulforaphane is an antioxidant compound produced when raw cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are chopped or chewed. Evidence suggests that sulforaphane may help inactivate and eliminate carcinogens as well as help decrease DNA damage by reducing inflammation, the underlying cause of many diseases. The highest concentration of sulforaphane is actually in broccoli sprouts rather than broccoli itself. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon for sprouts to be more nutritious than their more mature form.
Ideal sources: Dark chocolate, red wine, green tea, berries, black rice, turmeric and black pepper, garlic, broccoli sprouts
VITAMIN- AND MINERAL-RICH (MICRONUTRIENT) FOODS
Here’s the deal: pretty much every vegetable or well-sourced protein contains good vitamins and minerals. But if you’re going to get all the trace micronutrients you need to really get your body and your brain humming on a regular basis, you need to vary your dietary intake and pull from the WTF-is-that? part of the salad bar. Here are a couple of winners:
Cauliflower is so hot right now. Go to any modern food joint and you’ll likely see some kind of unique preparation: cauliflower rice, cauliflower flan, cauliflower pizza crust, General Tso’s cauliflower. It’s become the grain of vegetables, with the added benefit of 900% fewer carbs than rice, and it contains all the usual vitamin and mineral suspects, along with brain-healthy nutrients like choline.
Seaweed/sea veggies contain high levels of ocean minerals, including iodine, magnesium, manganese, iron, and other trace minerals. One great way to add in seaweed besides eating sushi or miso soup at your favorite Japanese restaurant is to purchase kelp or dulse flakes. I have a great seasoning that includes sesame seeds and seaweed flakes that I sprinkle on all my stir-fry meals and even put in my bone broth. The seaweed snack game has really found its groove with sea crackers and dried nori as well.
Organ meat (liver, heart, kidneys) sourced from pasture-raised animals is one of the world’s most nutrient dense superfoods. While the taste and texture can be a challenge to overcome, the benefits make it worthwhile; it’s packed with the most bioavailable forms of both vitamins and minerals. Don’t be shy about doing your best Hannibal Lecter impression and eating some liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Universal Nutrition Principle #3: Go to War with Antinutrients
Now, in order to truly answer the question of what is a healthy lunch, there’s even more to talk about. You know that old saying, “Two steps forward, one step back.” When it comes to diet and health, antinutrients are the one step back, and they are just as important to avoid as the two steps forward we need to make with macro- and micronutrients. These toxic compounds generally lead to oxidative stress and inflammation, which, as we’ve discussed at length already, is one of the most harmful conditions our bodies deal with on the regular. And since most of us are too chronically stressed out to be able to count on simply shutting off inflammation, limiting the inputs that trigger inflammation is the next best thing.
Sugar, of course, is the biggest antinutrient of them all, and an ideal meal should never include sugar. Here, however, we are going to cover the other dietary supervillains so that you might avoid limiting or reversing your progress.
TRANS FATS AND VEGETABLE OILS
What is a healthy lunch? A meal sans artificial trans fats. Artificial trans fats (vegetable oils bonded with hydrogen) were created by food manufacturers to extend the shelf life of packaged and processed foods, so they could sell more food more cheaply and farther away. The strategy worked, ballooning their bottom lines. Unfortunately it also started killing us in the process, causing massive systemic inflammation that was the precursor to all sorts of chronic health conditions. In 2015, in recognition of this fact, the FDA took the remarkable step of removing trans fats from GRAS status (generally regarded as safe) despite the explicit trans fat labeling requirements already in place.
The biggest problem with most vegetable oils like canola and safflower is that they are so high in omega-6 fatty acids, skewing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio so disproportionately that the only way your body doesn’t slip into a pro-inflammatory state when you consume them regularly is if you start every morning with a salmon-sized suppository full of fish oil. These oils are in all kinds of foods, including baked goods, fried goods, spreads, and sauces. The most offensive, though, are the fake butters and margarines; these are so packed with pro-inflammatory, cardiovascular-disease-inducing vegetable oils that people who replace their butter with margarine are more likely to die from heart disease.
So here’s the move: Anytime you can’t believe it’s not butter, or you see something with trans fats, throw that shit in the trash. Even if it says “0g trans fats” on the packaging, double-check that the ingredients don’t include anything listed as “partially hydrogenated ____ oil” because that is trans fat. Companies get to claim zero grams because the FDA allows them to round down for anything that contains less than 0.5 grams per serving. Spare yourself the fraction math and just throw it all out. Simple, done. No further discussion necessary. And as for canola and safflower oil, just do your best to limit your intake and vote with your dollars for products that don’t contain them.
FRIED OR BURNED FOODS
When you’re cooking for your health, even if you’re indulging in some delicious pan-fried foods, you want to make sure you don’t heat your fats—olive oil, butter, coconut oil—to what is called their “smoke point.” This is where healthy fats start to turn unhealthy, because once they burn, they start to produce toxic compounds called aldehydes, which, interestingly, are also in the class of compounds that accumulate when we drink too much alcohol, making us feel hungover.
This chemical conversion process, which turns the healthy fats into something perilous, is why I tell you to keep your bacon bendy. When you burn it or fry it on high heat, the sodium nitrite, as well as the nitrates that are often added for preservation, can turn into a nasty carcinogen called nitrosamines. Not only is this bad for your system, but it also ruins one of nature’s tastiest, porkiest gifts.
I know that dark crust on burned ends and bone-in ribeye steaks is mouth-wateringly good, but for the sake of optimizing your lunch and reducing the carcinogenic effects on your body over the long term, let’s go ahead and dial all that back for a little while.
Pro Tip: Fry with Avocado Oil
Avocado oil has the highest smoke point of all cooking oils. With a nice mild flavor, it’s great for any kind of sauté or stir-fry. And with a smoke point upward of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll be hard-pressed to scorch it unless you crank the burner to 11 and then forget about it.
While major players in the agricultural-industrial complex like Monsanto will defend their use of pesticides on crops by telling you that it’s fine to spray Roundup in your face on a hot day to cool off, you would do well to proceed with caution when you consider that numerous studies over the years have demonstrated disturbing links between pesticides and a host of gnarly shit.
One study found pesticide residues were four times more likely on non-organic crops, while organic produce saw a 48% lower presence of cadmium, a toxic metal, than their non-organic counterparts. In a study of 1,139 children, researchers found a 50% to 90% increased risk of ADHD in children with the highest levels of pesticides in their urine, compared to those with the lowest levels. Another study noted a correlation between those gardening with the pesticide rotenone and the development of Parkinson’s later in life. Hence, when preparing the ideal meal, it really pays to know the sources of your food.
Does all this mean you need to run screaming from the conventional produce section at your local supermarket? No, just understand that pesticides are not good for you and that eating organic as much as possible will be the surest way to avoid the antinutrients conventional produce contains.
There are all kinds of chemicals found in food, but perhaps the most ubiquitous are food dyes. An analysis of over fifteen clinical trials, compiled well over a decade ago, showed that artificial food dyes increased hyperactivity in children. And yet they still remain in food.
Tartrazine, also known as FD&C Yellow #5, found in many of those tasty mac-and-cheese boxes and Kraft singles marketed to kids, is particularly ugly, having been correlated with behavioral changes including irritability, restlessness, depression, and difficulty sleeping. So Velveeta doesn’t make it better after all.
It’s not just food dyes, though. A huge study looking at 1,873 children showed that food dye in conjunction with sodium benzoate, a common preservative, also increased hyperactivity. Is it any wonder we are handing out ADD medication to our kids like candy? Blame it on culture all you want, but it might just be what’s in your pantry that’s the problem.
We’re not talking about Metallica. We’re talking about death metal. Namely, your own death from metal. Remember Tony Robbins? Well, his favorite thing to eat was tuna and swordfish steaks, and it almost killed him. The reason? Mercury poisoning. Like most larger and longer-living predatory fish, tuna and swordfish are extremely high in mercury, and over time those metals can build up in the tissue and wreak havoc. In a study of 129 Brazilians, for example, higher levels of mercury were associated with a decrease in fine motor skills, dexterity, memory, and attention. Further evidence suggests that low levels of mercury toxicity are linked to diseases like depression, anxiety, and even Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Interestingly, canned tuna has a much more reasonable level of mercury than a bigeye tuna steak, so if the preservatives and additives are not off the charts, and you need your chicken of the sea, snagging some cans off the grocery store shelf may be your best option.
If you are concerned about heavy metals, whether because you live in a polluted environment, you had a bunch of dental work 30 years ago, or you are a sushi addict who is 25% spicy tuna roll by weight, definitely get your blood levels tested. In addition, consider adding a daily dose (about 1/4 cup) of cilantro to your diet. Packed with vitamins and minerals, cilantro (or coriander leaves, if you’re not from North America) in moderation has been shown in several studies to have the unique ability to help the body chelate (a fancy word for “eliminate”) heavy metal accumulation, making it a good addition to your options when preparing the ideal meal. In the animal model, it has even been shown to prevent the accumulation of metals. Either way, it is important not to overdo it with cilantro chelation because the metals can become mobilized during the elimination process and enter even more sensitive tissues. To prevent that from happening, you want to open up all the channels of detoxification. In other words, make sure you are drinking plenty of water to flush urine, having regular bowel movements, and sweating to release the toxins. Sauna and hot yoga are great ways to ensure you are moving enough sweat.
PHYTIC ACID AND OXALATE
Phytic acid and oxalate (or oxalic acid) are natural chemicals found exclusively in plant species that protect and assist the plants in which they’re found but inhibit mineral absorption when consumed by humans.
Phytic acid, found in all edible seeds, grains, and legumes, helps protect the seed and stores phosphorus that young plants use to grow. When ingested by a human, it prevents full absorption of key minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium. While vegetables and fruits are essential elements that comprise a healthy lunch, food items loaded with phytic acid and oxalate are also dangerous to your health.
Oxalate is found in particularly high concentration in leafy greens like kale. It is part of the plants’ natural anti-pest defense mechanisms, but binds with minerals, particularly calcium, when consumed and makes them less available for use in key cellular processes.
Fortunately, there are strategies for mitigating the antinutrient properties of both these sneaky little devils. Sprouting or fermentation disable and degrade phytic acid in plant seeds so that the grain can burst through in the process, increasing vitamins like folate, vitamin C, and vitamin E, along with nutrients like lysine, a crucial amino acid for immune health. The tastiest version of this process is probably sourdough bread. The fermentation of the dough promotes phytate breakdown to a much greater degree than typical yeast fermentation in normal bread, resulting in a delicious delivery mechanism for a slab of real butter and mineral-rich sea salt.
The best way to handle the oxalate in your leafy greens is simply to boil or cook them, which significantly reduces the amount of oxalate, in some cases by up to 90%. Adding calcium to your dietary regimen can compensate for the calcium lost to the oxalates as well.
Now Do It
Humans are funny creatures. Having lost our instinctual guidance, we have to make choices with our minds constantly. Some of these choices require willpower, and when life gets rocky, that’s when our willpower turns to Rocky Road. The decision to delay or restrict immediate pleasure for future gain or the greater good is controlled by a part of the brain called the frontal cortex. This part of the brain continues to develop even through our twenties, reaching maturity well beyond the time we have a car and a credit card.
With an immature frontal cortex, and the means to acquire a double Western bacon cheeseburger on the regular, even if we know it isn’t good for us, we still might do it. But it’s not just those wild teens and troubled twenty-somethings who may not have a powerful frontal cortex; like any part of the brain (or entire body for that matter), it gets stronger largely through exercise. Every time we make a choice for our future good, our frontal cortex is strengthened. Every time we fail, the groove that slides us into post-food-orgy shame is also deepened.
This is why lunch is important not only for the body but also for the mind. Preparing the ideal lunch doesn’t have to be a wrestling match with yourself. Make eating weird foods a game, take some of the pressure off. The world is full of awesome food, so stop thinking about what you can’t have and get excited about what you can. Expand that list by seeking out restaurants and foods you’ve never tried and giving them a go. I’m not talking about a new toaster strudel flavor or a new gastropub either (it’ll have the same crudo and Brussels sprouts appetizers as all the other pubs), I’m talking about a new concept or a new type of nut, or fruit, or vegetable. Something like rutabaga, or macambo, or pili nuts.
What is a healthy meal? Three Pointers:
+ Rather than counting your calories, focus on the nutrients you are putting into your body. You want to ingest plenty of macronutrients like proteins, fats, and fiber. Remember, you are what what you eat ate, so source your macros well.
+ Micronutrients are abundant in a diverse diet. Seek out these “weird” foods and benefit from a host of protective and performance-enhancing nutrients.
+ Equally important as what you put into your body is what you keep out of it. To achieve the ideal meal, avoid antinutrients that come from sugar and highly processed, refined, burned, fried, or artificial foods and colorings. These are the succubi of the food world and are to be resisted.
Excerpted with permission from Own the Day, Own Your Life: Optimized Practices for Waking, Working, Learning, Eating, Training, Playing, Sleeping, and Sex by Aubrey Marcus.
About The Author
Aubrey Marcus is the founder and CEO of Onnit, a lifestyle brand based on a holistic health philosophy he calls Total Human Optimization. Aubrey currently hosts The Aubrey Marcus Podcast, a motivational destination for conversations with the brightest minds in athletics, business, science, relationships, and spirituality. Aubrey regularly provides commentary to outlets like Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Doctors, and The Joe Rogan Experience. He has been featured on the cover of Men’s Health, and his newest book, Own The Day, Own Your Life is available now from HarperCollins. Learn more at aubreymarcus.com
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