I got up this morning and felt well rested for the first time in more than a week. Even though I strive for a good night’s sleep every night and believe sleep is one of the cornerstones of health, my routines have been off and quality rest has eluded me. I succumbed to the bright, shiny lights of festival season and my self-care routines took a hit. So, what can I learn from this past week to avoid the feeling of sludge running through my veins, not to mention my guts, and get back to vitality? Let’s rewind the week and take a look. First off, my self-care wasn’t stellar. I did get my exercise in, but my bedtime routine was non-existent, my meditation was cut short or didn’t happen at all, my nutrition was terrible, and I didn’t set boundaries. Consequentially, I was left feeling bloated, tired, crabby, and slightly depressed. Although a lack of attention to self-care was a large part of my problem, my terrible food choices have caused lasting effects, which are still with me. For me, processed foods and alcohol absolutely wreck my dodgy gut, which in turn wrecks…well, everything!
Food affects everything. Every cell in your body is replaced on a continuing basis, and the food we eat is used to make these cells. In about a month’s time our entire body has died off and been replaced cell by cell. So, we literally are what we eat. Do you think what you eat makes a difference in your mood, energy level, the state of your hormones, how much inflammation is present, heart health, brain health…pick a system? You bet it does.
So, what should you eat to become the best version of yourself? A healthy diet looks different for everyone. That’s one reason why nutrition seems so complicated. One expert says this, the next says what the first said will kill you. Food is very personal and each person needs to make educated decisions about what they eat. The same thing doesn’t work for everyone. The diet that works for your best friend won’t necessarily work for you. There is something that will help everyone though, and that is giving up processed foods. Unfortunately, many of us don’t take the time to think about what we eat, we just grab what is quick and easy, or indulge indiscriminately at social occasions and our health suffers. I’m not even talking about weight gain, but a bigger pant size does come with the package. I’ll let you in on what works for me. I (normally) eat real food. To me, real food looks like what it is when it’s growing in the field or on an animal.
It’s that simple, and that difficult. Difficult because even though I know that eating whole food is what is best, too often when I am short on time and hungry, I get a meal passed through my car window. Or, when hanging out with friends, it’s easy to eat what they are eating or indulge in a few cocktails. It’s the same with exercise. It takes effort. Some days it takes a lot of effort. We’re not sure if we’re doing it right. It takes time and we’re already short on time. Sound familiar? Let’s talk about food.
First, you have to acquire the food. You have choices here. There’s the standard stuff that everyone else eats, like macaroni and cheese from a box (just add water), or processed cheese food. Processed food is cheap, shelf stable, and easy to prepare. Perfect for the people selling it. Not so perfect for the people consuming it. Making food cheap involves using substandard ingredients, many of them government subsidized, chemically enhanced, or GMO. Without getting too far into that, these products are, at best sketchy, at worst not fit for human consumption. Making food shelf stable makes it largely indigestible. A shelf stable product has to be safe from degradation by bacteria, among other factors. Chemicals are added for “freshness”. If bacteria on the shelf can’t break the product down, neither can the bacteria in our gut. So we get bloated, uncomfortable, and toxins produced from improperly digested food leads to inflammation. So, generally, we feel like crap. Making food easy to prepare allows it’s sugar to hit the blood stream so fast the body isn’t sure what just happened. Whole grains take the body time to break down, which slows the rate of sugar absorption. The slower that sugar enters the blood stream, the better your body is able to deal with it. So you don’t get the huge highs and lows in your blood glucose. This matters because sugar affects hormones, particularly cortisol which affects your sleep cycle, your mood, and your waist line.
So how do you break the processed food habit? To be frank, quitting processed food is as difficult as quitting any other deeply ingrained habit. Possibly even more so since highly processed food is a main component of the standard diet and widely accepted as the norm in America and many other first world countries. Processed food is largely sugar or such highly processed carbohydrates that your body can’t tell the difference between it and sugar. In one study (PLoS ONE (2(8):e698), rats previously addicted to cocaine were given sugar for a time, then the rats were given a choice: sugar or cocaine? All of the rats chose the sugar. Both sugar and cocaine light up the pleasure and reward centers in our brain. Apparently, sugar does a better job. In another study (Nat Neurosci. 2010 May:13(5):635-641). Even when choosing the sugar meant receiving an electrical shock, the rats still chose sugar. Do you see the problem? Even though we know it is bad for us, we continue to overeat and feel bad about doing so. But, eating whole food doesn’t have to be boring or complicated. You don’t have to eat kale every day or give up anything forever. Simple shifts in your food choices will render big results. After you give up sugar for awhile, your tastes will change and sugary things won’t taste as good.
The first step is making a conscious decision to change the way you eat. You don’t have to start any special diet, just start slow and vow to avoid eating anything with more than five ingredients, or give up fast food. I like the advice to avoid anything you can’t pronounce, but that tactic doesn’t work as well if you’ve taken a few chemistry classes. How creepy is it that college level chemistry is required to read the label of something we eat? That’s step one. Bonus points if you can avoid anything with a nutrition label. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed proteins don’t come with nutrition labels. Ever notice that? You will now. Be prepared to spend a little extra at the grocery store if you are accustomed to buying standard processed food. One of the major contributors to obesity and common health problems today is that unhealthy food is cheap. It can be difficult if you are on a tight budget. What a disservice the American government does by deciding to subsidize the most unhealthy foods and not things like organic vegetables. If you only have five dollars and you walk into McDonald’s, you can have five hamburgers or one small salad. What’s up with that? It comes back to priorities and feelings of worthiness. This is the body you have to live in for the rest of your life. Isn’t taking care of it worth a few extra bucks? I love the saying, “You can’t expect to feel like a million bucks if you eat from the dollar menu.”
Real food takes time to prepare. It’s very easy to microwave a box of macaroni and cheese or grab a bag of chips. You’ve seen the crazy people that spend Sunday chopping, cooking, and boxing up portion size containers of food for the week. This way they can reach for an easy to prepare weeknight meal just as fast as they could order take-out or make a package of Hamburger Helper. Crazy smart, right? I take this a step further on the easy scale and make a big roast or whole chicken and turn it into several different meals throughout the week. I put the protein in the crock pot, sometimes overnight so it’s extra easy. I usually shred the meat, or roughly chop it and stick it in a glass container. Then it’s ready to be turned into tacos, stir-fry, pasta, or whatever you like and you don’t get the feeling that you’re eating leftovers all week. Chop your veggies ahead of time and place them in containers as you will use them. For example, slice all of the veggies for fajitas the night before and put them all in a container together. Then, when you are ready to use them, heat up the pan and dump them in. You can also do this with plant protein, just choose organic soy products, whole grain rice or quinoa, or quality vegan protein powder. See the recipe for clean crock pot roast and roasted mixed vegetables at the end of this post. Prepping takes effort, but isn’t your health worth a little extra effort?
Of course, there’s the matter of portion control, which is the most difficult part for me. Even if the food you are eating is healthy, you can’t eat something the size of your head and expect to be good for you. Even if your goal isn’t to lose weight, too much of a good thing is still too much. I have been using the Cronometer App to track my food lately. I have also used the My Fitness Pal App which is similar. Both have free options, you can decide which one you like, or keep a journal on your own. Using Cronometer, I have been shocked at how little protein I am supposed to have in a day. You might be aware that a serving of protein is the size of your palm. Tiny by American standards. As I type this, it is 2:00 pm, and I have already exceeded my protein limit for the day. So far, I have had two Bulletproof Coffees with collagen added, two medium eggs scrambled with 1/2 an avocado mixed in and berries on the side, and a green salad with chicken breast. I keep thinking I have a setting wrong on the Cronometer that makes it max out on protein so quickly. I’ve reset the thing three times to be sure it’s in Paleo mode. No dice, it still thinks I eat too much protein.
A note on protein: eating Paleo or Ketogenic doesn’t mean excessive amounts of protein. In fact, these diets include moderate amounts of protein, larger than usual amounts of healthy fat, and mostly vegetables. Too much protein can be hard on your kidneys, and too much at one time can lead to protein left undigested in the gut which can lead to the formation of an alcohol-like chemical which can lead to inflammation, which can lead to leaky gut among other things (sore joints, cardiovascular disease, IBS, eczema, etc.).
Taking charge of your diet is full of pitfalls, but it all comes down to your sense of self-worth. If you believe you are worth the effort you will succeed. Remember when we talked about self-compassion? That happened a few months ago in Positive Self-Talk: The Reverse Golden Rule. It helps to have support along the way. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who inspire you will more than double your chances of success. Getting a coach or a mentor can help, too. You can do it on your own, but long-term changes are much more likely if you have a support system in place. A coach or mentor will give you tips and steps to take to reach your goals as well as focused support along the way. Do you have a friend who won’t let you quit on yourself? You know, the kind who will give you those tough-love talks and bring out the best version of you? A coach is that kind of friend. Plus, you’re paying her, so you have that extra motivation to stay the course. Having friends who share your new lifestyle will ensure you will stick with it long-term. Your body can heal itself, you just need to give it a good chance to do so.
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Are you addicted to food? Take the Yale Food Addiction Questionaire. Seriously, I answered yes to several of these.
- Consume certain foods even if you are not hungry because of cravings?
- Worry about cutting down on certain foods?
- Feel sluggish or fatigued from overeating?
- Have health or social problems (affecting school or work) because of food issues and yet keep eating the way you do?
- Spend time dealing with negative feelings from overeating certain foods?
- Have withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and anxiety when you cut down on certain foods?
- Behavior around food and eating causes you significant distress
- Food issues decrease your availability to function effectively
- Need more and more of the foods you crave to experience any pleasure or to reduce negative emotions?
See the results of the Yale study here.
Crock-pot Beef or Pork
- 4 lb roast
- 1 medium onion
- 3-5 garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup Worcestershire Sauce (soy-free if possible)
- 1/4 cup olive, coconut, or avocado oil
- 1 Tbsp Mustard Powder
- Himalayan Salt to taste, but at least several turns on the mill
- Pepper to taste (around 1/2 a tsp)
Roughly slice onion and place in the bottom of the crock-pot. Peel and smash garlic cloves and add to crock-pot. Place the roast on top of the vegetables. Pour Worcestershire sauce and oil on top of the roast. Evenly coat the roast with mustard powder, salt, and pepper. No, you don’t need more liquid. Turn the crock-pot on low and let cook for 12 hours. I like to let it cook over night. That way you can have shredded meat with your breakfast and save the rest for later.
- Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots (you can pick and choose a mix, or do them individually) enough to cover the bottom of a rimmed cookie sheet.
- Olive or avocado oil
- Salt and pepper
Pre-heat your oven to 375°. Roughly chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces. If using Brussels Sprouts trim the ends off and cut in half. Line the cookie sheet with parchment paper or a non-stick liner. Toss the vegetables in enough oil to coat them well, then spread them evenly on the cookie sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. You can also choose to add oregano, thyme, rosemary, orange or lemon peel, turmeric, cumin, or any other herbs and spices you like. These are very versatile, so experiment freely! If using fresh garlic add at the end, as garlic will burn quickly. Roast in the oven for around 20 minutes. Start checking them half way through. They may need to be stirred or flipped depending on what veggies you are using. Carrots will take longer, broccoli won’t take as long. Bake until broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts are a little burnt on the very edges and carrots are soft in the middle.
Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH. “Politics of the Plate.” Food politics and the importance of personal responsibility. Lecture given for the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. Available online, but only to IIN students. Similar information is available at www.foodpolitics.com
Dr. Libby Weaver. Interview by James Colquhoun. “Women, Hormones, and Stress.” Access on FMTV.com. This interview can be accessed with a subscription to Food Matters TV here.
Mark Hyman, M.D. “The Biology of Food Addiction.” Exploring the idea that some foods are biologically addictive, which drives the obesity epidemic. Lecture given for the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. Available online, but only to IIN students. Similar information is available at drhyman.com.
“Combat Cancer, Boost Brain Power & Increase Your Energy with Dr. Joseph Mercola” The Melissa Ambrosini Show. May 24, 2017, https://melissaambrosini.com/podcast/combat-cancer-boost-brain-power-and-increase-your-energy-with-dr-joseph-mercola/