Many of us struggle with weight. Diet is one of those things that we tend to complicate. We often think to be healthy that we need to restrict ourselves or follow a diet that cuts out whole food groups. And in combination with that, we believe we need to do an intense workout in the gym each day. But do we really?
Earlier this week I helped my 89-year-old German grandfather do his groceries. And afterwards, as we unpacked them he talked to me about what he eats on an average day. Here are a few observations:
Meals are simple
Whilst my grandfather does cook a hearty meal once or twice a week, most days his meals are very simple. Breakfast is always Weet-Bix with milk and fruit. Lunch is homemade rye bread with either tomato and a slice of cheese or pickled herring. Other days he makes a salad with cucumber, tomatoes, onion and either German sausage or cheese, accompanied with a slice of rye bread. For dinner, it might be a pork chop with a salad or potatoes. Or a cup of soup - again with rye, or potatoes with a couple of eggs for an easy night.
Portions are reasonable
Over-consuming isn’t a big thing for him. He knows how much he needs to feel satisfied and sticks to a consistent portion size. If he cooks more than he needs then it always goes into the fridge so he doesn’t have to cook the following night or two. He is very careful with money so rather than over-indulging he sees it as another meal (and money) not wasted.
Fruit and vegetables are grown in the backyard
Having a fruit and vegetable garden in his backyard gives him something to look after. He lost his wife earlier this year which tore him apart, but his garden kept him going. It needed watering and tending to. Quite often I will leave his house with a bag full of fresh tomatoes or mandarins from his garden. He cooks often with his own produce and enjoys the fruit during the day.
Snacks are (mostly) healthy
He doesn’t snack all day long. But will sit down in the afternoon for a cup of tea and a piece of seasonal fruit. Some days it’s a glass of wine. It’s a special moment of the day that he always enjoyed with my grandmother when she was here. He also mentioned that he snacks on cherry tomatoes. And I noticed a round of camembert go into the trolley.
A little indulgence is okay
Despite eating so simply and well, he doesn’t refuse a treat. I was a little surprised to see him putting a box of ice creams into his trolley (since I don’t often see him eat sweets) but he said that some nights he likes to enjoy a little something. The box of ice creams lasts him for a couple of weeks.
There is no microwave
My grandparents aren’t very tech-savvy. Teaching my grandfather how to use a mobile phone was a massive (and very overwhelming) exercise. All of his meals he cooks on the stove or in the oven. He would never even consider using a microwave to cook food. Some meals he won’t cook at all - rye with pickled herring for example. Every now and then he will light up his outdoor BBQ to grill a piece of fish or meat.
There is no cutting out food groups
Whilst he doesn’t eat a lot of red meat (mainly due to cost) he doesn’t restrict it either. He eats a varied diet. Red meat is seen as a bit of a luxury and he will enjoy it once a week or fortnight. He eats dairy, bread, grains, fish, eggs, meat - the lot. He doesn’t believe in restriction. My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t consume milk due to a slight intolerance. But everything else she enjoyed.
Daily (moderate) movement
A builder in his early days, my grandfather has always moved daily. And when he retired the movement continued around the house. Tending to the garden, mowing the lawn, repairing the house himself, doing housework (including washing clothes by hand) kept both my grandparents busy. They also liked to do laps of steady walking around the car in the garage (yes whilst parked) to keep fit. My grandfather would often tell me how my grandmother would pass him with her speedy legs as they walked.
What I have learned above all from observing and talking with my grandfather is that taking care of ourselves needn’t be complicated. When we keep it simple, focus on fresh and seasonal produce, and watch portions then we can mostly keep our health in check. Genetics is another thing which we don’t really have control over. But what goes into our mouth and how much we consume we do.
Where we often struggle is in handling our stress and emotions. Many of us (myself included) comfort eat and snack when we are tired. It’s soothing to do so. For a moment we enjoy ourselves and forget about our problems, until we feel guilty and ashamed for overdoing it, yet again. And then we feel worse. So we diet and restrict and binge. It becomes a vicious cycle.
So the challenge is perhaps to get better at self-care. To find ways to slow ourselves down and stop taking on quite so much. To find other more helpful ways to manage our stress and emotions other than eating poorly. To better the relationship within ourselves so we don’t berate ourselves so much. It’s not easy. But with practise, we can learn.
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A few really helpful books that I’ve read about health and nutrition are: