Welcome to the second in this series of blogs on good health. Recall that my path to good health has been a combination of diet, exercise and stress management. Today’s topic is food. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines food as “material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrates and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair and vital processes and to furnish energy; also: such material together with supplementary substances (minerals, vitamins and condiments).” That’s just the technical definition. To me food is so much more. Food at various times provides more than nourishment for the body; it nourishes the soul as well. I love good food, and I love to share it with family and friends. Food can be an adventure, art, a gift, comfort, celebration, inspiration and just plain fun. The trouble for me was when food became anything but nutrition for my body.
Again, my disclaimer is that I’m not an expert on nutrition, but I am an expert on what has worked for me. Over the years, I tried many different “diets” including low fat, low calorie and low carbohydrate. None of them worked in the long run. On each of them, I lost weight while being miserable only to gain the weight right back. The good news is that I learned something from each type of diet. What I know now is that each of them was a distortion of the balanced diet that my body needed long term. Simply put, none of them met the basic definition of food. They all lacked something essential. Putting those lessons together with the dictionary definition provided my answer. I achieved a long term healthy weight by focusing on the quality and quantity of calories that I put into my body. As it turns out, it’s a whole lot easier long term than I ever would’ve predicted. My diet consists mainly of lean proteins, beans, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts. And, I don’t eat more than what my body needs.
If that sounds complicated, trust me, it’s not. For me it has been as simple as eliminating refined sugar and avoiding processed foods as much as possible. Unlike other diets I’ve tried in the past, I don’t have wild swings in my energy levels and I’m rarely hungry. Food cravings are a thing of the past. I’m convinced that my metabolism is faster because my body has to work harder to process the foods I eat because they weren’t already processed by some machine in a factory. I compare it to the difference between burning pine versus oak in my wood stove. Pine creates an instant blast of fast burning heat. The trouble with it is that it burns itself out very quickly. Oak, on the other hand, burns efficiently and long term. Plus, it doesn’t muck up the works with left over junk like pine does that can cause a chimney fire.
For me, the hard part was getting started. I was a sugar junky addicted to the stuff. If my body didn’t get its regular sugar hit I’d get moody and sluggish. That would lead to a sugar binge followed by an energy crash that left me even more cranky than the one before. But, cranky wasn’t the only thing too much sugar caused. It exacerbated my anxiety and of course caused me to gain weight. Once I finally decided that refined sugar was just plain poison to my body and undermining my health, I went cold turkey off of the stuff. It wasn’t easy. First, sugar in the form of sucrose, fructose and corn syrup is in pretty much all processed foods. Plus, my body wasn’t on the same page as my brain about giving the stuff up. I decided to get rid of everything in our house that contained refined sugar. My spouse was a little concerned to come home one day to find our cabinets pretty much empty. That’s how much sugar was in our food.
Those first few trips to the grocery store after the purge took forever. Every box and bag that I picked up had sugar as an ingredient. Plus, I had unhealthy brain to contend with. It was constantly trying to undermine my efforts to detoxify my body of sugar. I’d hear that little voice inside my head saying, “Hey you, you know you want those cookies. Come on, it’s just one piece of cake. It won’t kill you.” Let’s just say that I wasn’t pretty to be around during the first couple of weeks of sugar detox either. I was frustrated, hungry, desperate, yet determined. I stuck with it and a couple of weeks into it had an epiphany. I felt great, better than ever. My energy level was outstanding, which only fueled my desire to exercise. Plus, unhealthy brain wasn’t quite as loud as before. A perfect storm of energy had come together for me, and I felt so much better physically and emotionally. I even a lost a couple of pounds in that short time.
It was a change that I wanted to make permanent in my life so I read as much as I could about what experts in the field considered healthy eating. The take home message that stuck with me was to have a diet filled with a variety of foods that are processed as little as possible. It made sense. Processing strips away nutrients and makes it easier for our bodies to turn food into energy. Not to mention that it contains all kinds of chemicals that I don’t even want to think about having in my body. Plus, if a factory does all the processing of my food, my body doesn’t have to expend nearly as much energy to do it itself. Unfortunately, I think that translates into a lower metabolism, a body deficient in nutrients, and more weight gain because processed foods are filled with empty calories. I pictured the little food conversion factory inside my body sitting crossed-legged on the couch with the clicker. Not good. Empty calories are defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “calories from food that supply energy but are not nutritionally balanced.”
Shopping for food is a whole lot easier now. Instead of having to walk all of the isles to get what I need, most of my shopping happens in the produce, meat and dairy isles. I stay away from processed foods, including deli meats. As for grains, we stick to those that are minimally processed such as whole wheat flour, brown rice and whole grain breads. We’ve also discovered some amazing whole grains such as quinoa. I love the stuff. It makes the best hearty salads and side dishes. It pretty much goes with anything and is very satisfying.
For baking and the like, I use stevia, splenda or fruit such as cooked mashed apple or dates. Instead of having a cookie or cake when I’m in the mood for something sweet, I eat fruit and especially like figs. Yes, fruit contains sugar. But, it also contains lots of nutrients and fiber. Plus, my body does the processing of that sugar instead of a machine in a factory. I also occasionally use raw honey. The way I figure it is that anything made by Mother Nature can’t be all that bad for me in moderation. I also like raw honey because it hasn’t been pasteurized which means the nutrients left behind by the bees are still there when I consume it.
Giving up refined sugar and processed foods was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my health. I feel great and definitely not deprived. Good healthy food fuels my body and is still all those wonderful things such as adventure, comfort, fun, sharing, art etc. The difference now is that I don’t have a problem with seesawing weight and I’ve never felt better.
Finally, even though I’ve discovered the benefits of quality calories, quantity still matters. But, by increasing my metabolism and getting plenty of exercise, I’m able to consume more calories than before and still maintain a healthy weight. I eat small portions of healthy balanced foods every two to three hours. This keeps my energy levels up, and because of it I don’t get hungry.
This has without question worked for me. My advice remains the same as before though. Each person needs to be responsible for her own health, and with the help of her health care provider, do the research necessary to understand her body’s nutritional requirements. It really is something that can mean life or death. Our bodies are sophisticated machines that need to keep running in tip top shape if we hope to be around for our loved ones for the long term.
In addition to seeing your health care provider or nutritionist about diet, I recommend looking for books about whole foods diets and healthy eating. The change was drastic for me and unlike any kind of diet that I’d been on before. Because of that, I needed a plan in order to succeed. I familiarized myself with what such a diet would look like in my every day. I also planned for what we called our “cheat” days. We still occasionally indulge in things like pasta and bacon, but on a healthy basis and with moderation. My spouse and I love grilled hamburgers in the summer. Instead of using bread or a bun, we put our burgers between pieces of iceberg lettuce. That way we still get to enjoy a big bite with all the accoutrements, but not the bread. Be careful of those accoutrements though. Ketchup is loaded with sugar. Heinz however, sells ketchup sweetened with splenda instead of sugar. I’ve even made my own in the past when I’ve had the time. This is what I mean by making a plan. I looked for ways to substitute the processed foods that we had enjoyed with healthy options that are equally enjoyable. In fact, our food repertoire is a million times greater that it was before. There are some amazing fruits, vegetables and grains that we had never tried before such as kohlrabi which is an excellent substitute for mashed potatoes. We also eat things like chia which makes a great tapioca like pudding. Course ground flaxseed adds texture and crunch to salads and whole grain cereals. These are just a few examples.
The truth is that Mother Nature’s options for healthy food options are nearly limitless. I’m sticking with Mother Nature any day over factory made food that has been processed into nothing more than addictive unhealthy empty calories. Please feel free to share your experiences with healthy whole food recipes on this blog. I’m always on the lookout for something new and happy to share mine. In fact, given all of the hot weather around the country this summer, here’s a recipe that I’ll leave you with for awesome iced tea. Start with fruit enhanced tea of your choice. Add fresh frozen berries such as blueberries or red raspberries instead of ice cubes. The frozen berries will chill the tea. Once they’ve thawed, mash them slightly and enjoy. Peace.