The 2 Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Eat

In my two decades of practice and thirty years of study, I’ve unearthed a simple yet profound strategy that is going to clear the overwhelm about what to eat. It revolves around two essential questions that have the power to simplify your meals and zoom in on what truly matters for maintaining your health, slashing blood pressure, normalizing weight, and ensuring your blood sugar levels are as steady as your resolve to thrive in your life.

The questions are: “Where is my Protein?” and “Where is my Produce?”

Yes, it’s that straightforward! But don’t let the simplicity fool you. The synergy of protein and produce forms the bedrock of the most effective nutritional foundation I’ve encountered in my career.

From Calories to Hormones: A Nutrition Evolution

When I first began practicing nutrition in 2004, I was using the calories in/out model of nutrition, split into portion sizes dictated by the food guide pyramid. While this worked well for some, it is complicated to implement and tends to leave one feeling hungry or perpetually concerned about ‘overdrawing’ their calorie account. Budgeting caloric intake is a quick way to become at odds with your body and develop food fears.

Fortunately, less than a decade into practice I was introduced to the concept of ‘hormonal fat loss’ as coined by Jade Teta. He was finding great success with focusing on produce and non-starchy veg coupled with a strength-based program to achieve healthy weight in adults and wrote a great book about it called Metabolic Effect. This approach, emphasizing produce and lean proteins, shifted the focus from counting calories to understanding how foods influence our satiety hormones and insulin’s role in weight management. It has stood the test of time in my practice for the last 15 years.

Produce: Your Shield Against Death

The revelation didn’t stop there. A pivotal piece of research during my grad school years—a systematic review and meta-analysis by Dagfinn Aune and team—highlighted the dose-dependent impact of produce on reducing all-cause mortality. Essentially, each serving of fruits and vegetables lowers your relative risk of dying from any cause by about 5%, up to ten servings per day! This was a game-changer, underscoring the unmatched power of produce in our diets. Throughout grad school I saw research demonstrating the importance of maintaining a high produce diet to ward off aging and disease. As I began helping my clients focus on their produce consumption even more, they began reporting back all sorts of improvements, which was backed by the research I was reading.

Mood-Boosting Mustard Greens and Pain-Relieving Parsnips

Observational studies show a dose-response relationship between produce consumption and reduced inflammation, heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. And it’s not just about prevention; those with existing conditions like diabetes who consume ample produce experience better glucose control and reduced disease severity. Implementing what I learned in grad school, I was able to help clients get off blood pressure meds, reverse prediabetes and prevent prescriptions to cholesterol and blood sugar meds by giving them the tools they needed to successfully implement a high produce diet. When people make a commitment to produce and aim to make half their plate from vegetables and a smattering of fruit, they find they ache less, their labs normalize, their energy stabilizes, their cravings plummet and they simply feel better.

We Won’t Find Health in a Pill

When science attempts to pinpoint a single ‘magic’ compound responsible for these benefits, the results often come up short. While we have found some compounds responsible for some of the positive effects of produce consumption, when we run better controlled scientific experiments using this singular compounds, the results are often disappointing. The holistic impact of consuming whole foods, with their complex mix of nutrients working in synergy, can’t be replicated by isolating single compounds. It’s a powerful reminder of the intricate dance between our biology and the natural world. I believe there are many yet-to-be-discovered compounds in foods which work with known compounds to achieve what we observe among high-produce eaters than cannot be reproduced by single supplements or even “concentrated vegetable juice” supplements and powders.

Practical Wisdom: Protein and Produce at Every Meal

So, how can we apply this wisdom practically? Begin each meal by asking where your protein and produce will come from.

How Much Protein is Enough?

Protein is a powerful tool for a healthy weight, as it preserves lean muscle mass which a key influencer of glucose tolerance, protects your metabolism, and is very satiating, so it keeps you fuller longer. Protein also provides a subtle, gentle rise and fall in blood sugar and helps prevent the spikes and crashes that happen with a carb-focused meal where protein is absent.

How much protein you need varies depending upon a whole lot of things like body size, hormone status, stage of life, health goals – but generally speaking getting 1/4 to 1/3 of your plate from a quality proteins source is a good idea.

While there is not any overt signs of change coming in protein requirements from a government standpoint, data is showing nearly all humans across the lifespan do better with more protein than the current RDA; evidence suggests that we will do better with 20-50% more than the current recommendation of 0.8grams per kg for sedentary adults. If you are a young male, an older human or an active human, your needs may be higher still.

Aiming for that 1/4-1/3 of a typical dinner plate will be a good place for you to start, if you are not achieving this already. While research on protein and disease are mixed, there is clearer evidence that elders definitely benefit from a higher protein diet to prevent all cause mortality. However, the exact numbers of what is optimal are still being hashed out.

Protein already shows up as a feature of most meals. When dining out, you may need to ask for an extra portion of it to ensure you get enough, as the standard serving in many ethnic restaurants or fast food places is 100 grams or 3-4 ounces, which is suboptimal for most.

Your Path to Increased Produce Intake

Our vegetables supply the most nutrients needed to maintain health per calorie, are voluminous and fill the stomach without exceeding our carbohydrate or caloric needs, and have loads of fiber which contribute to a healthy microbiome. Emerging research in gut health indicate that the composition of our microbiome can impact glucose tolerance and the ability to regulate weight, so veggies play a multifactorial role in keeping us vital into our elder years.

Getting produce in can be more difficult, especially if you do not do a lot of cooking. However, when dining out, you can look for produce-focused side dishes, and choose mains that come with produce. Ask for an extra serving of veg with your main meal or sub out the starch side for an additional vegetable. If you are having a starch-based meal like pasta, include a salad with protein as a starter, such as shrimp Caesar and add extra veggies and/or protein to that pasta meal as well.

Breakfast on the run? If you can’t get fruit or veg at that morning meal, make it a non-negotiable to include a vegetable and/or fruit for your snack midday. Raw veggies and dip such as hummus or a homemade ranch dip made from blended cottage cheese and ranch mix, an apple and almonds, greek yogurt and berries all are pretty easy to take with you to work and fit the bill.

What is a serving of produce?

In the Aune paper, 800 grams of produce a day was the most impactful (2). This amounts to about 4-5 cups of cooked veg. A serving of produce generally falls between 80-90 grams and amounts to 1/2 cooked veg or fruit, 1 cup berries, 2 cups greens, and 1 cup of any other raw veg.

I like to simplify this further by using something we carry with us everywhere: our hands. For most adults, their hand is about the size of 1 cup if a small female, to 2 cups for larger males. If you are like most adults, you will be somewhere between 1.25 to 1.5 cups per fist.

Make your veg portions to be 1 fist, and aim to get 5 fists per day. That will put you in the upper echelon of produce consumers and blow your peers straight out of the water, as most westerns diets contain 1-3 servings a day, depending upon the nation. Finding specific stats is pretty challenging, as data is stronger on what we’ve purchased, but what we buy is not necessarily what gets eaten! Australians and British estimates are upwards of 3-4 servings of fruit and veg per day but national reports from Canada, Australia, and the UK report falling produce consumption of the last 5-10 years, and less than 1/3 of Brits reportedly get the recommended 5 a Day, so it is in the best interest of these nations to reverse that trend!

Incorporating more vegetables and fruits into your diet can be a joyful exploration of flavors and textures. From adding spinach or frozen cauliflower to your morning smoothie to opting for veggie-rich side dishes when dining out, there are endless ways to enrich your meals with the life-giving goodness of produce. If you find it hard to come up with ideas, my guide to 5 a Day in 15 minutes or less will get you there easily! You can download that here:

Which Fruits and Veggies are Best?

The Aune paper found the following fruits and vegetables that may be most impactful to prevent heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and early death:

  • apples and pears
  • citrus fruits
  • salads and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and chicory
  • and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower.

They also found green vegetables, such as spinach or green beans, yellow vegetables, such as peppers and carrots, and cruciferous vegetables to potentially reduce cancer risk. One way of making it easy to think about how to choose your veg is to make sure you have 1-3 servings of green veg daily and ensure the yellows and oranges show up as well.

What if Broccoli Gives Me Gas?

If you find you have digestive issues that make increasing your protein or produce difficult, please reach out to me to address this. It should not be ignored, as the impact on your longevity is significant. Digestive issues are a common reason why people visit their doctor, and over the counter medications such as antacids actually reduce your ability to absorb important vitamins and minerals and can lead to anemia and osteoporosis over time.

Bloating and pain from veggies is often a sign of an imbalanced microbiome and there are multiple ways to ease that imbalance so that you can return to a produce rich diet, even if you cannot tolerate most probiotics. If protein foods sit heavily in the stomach, your digestive capacity is compromised and the solution to this may not be complicated, but it is definitely worth exploring.

A Call to Action: Keep It Simple to Make It Effective!

Focusing on protein and produce is a powerful yet simple way to cultivating a lifestyle that supports your health and vitality for years to come. In the last decade in which I have simplified nutrition education by asking most of my clients to think of these two ingredients for each meal, they find they are better able to adhere to healthy eating and discover that ‘looking for’ what they want to increase makes it easier to find it! Imagine that!

If you would like more information on how the power of produce, this short talk I gave dives into more of the research and offers suggestions on how to get started:


Book Recommendation: Metabolic Effect by Jade Teta

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Elango, Rajavel et al. “Evidence that protein requirements have been significantly underestimated.” Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care vol. 13,1 (2010): 52-7. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e328332f9b7

Kurata, Hideaki et al. “Dietary protein intake and all-cause mortality: results from The Kawasaki Aging and Wellbeing Project.” BMC geriatrics vol. 23,1 479. 9 Aug. 2023, doi:10.1186/s12877-023-04173-w

Aune, Dagfinn et al. “Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality-a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies.” International journal of epidemiology vol. 46,3 (2017): 1029-1056. doi:10.1093/ije/dyw319

Breakdown of the Aune paper with most protective produce options:

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