Not too long ago, a whole wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese and a key-lime flavored yogurt was your standard, healthy breakfast. These days, everyone has their favorite flavor of protein powder and being vegan is the new meat and potatoes. I’m not trying to poke fun, because I definitely fall under some of these trendy categories, but just trying to demonstrate the massive shift in what is culturally accepted as ‘healthy.’ While I’m not a dietician, nor am I eating a raw vegan diet, food/nutrition is by far my favorite component of wellness, and I’ve always taken it upon myself to learn about food/nutrition in all aspects. I love everything about food and have been incredibly passionate about it since I can remember. I love how it grows, how different flavors are expressed from growing in different climates, cooking it, eating it, the social aspect it brings, but the most fascinating part of food is its healing powers. But this isn’t new news… in fact, over 2,000 years ago the “Father of Medicine”, Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” While I love this message and try to live by it, it still doesn’t explain much about how food works in our bodies.
From a consumer perspective I understand that food is incredibly complex, and perhaps the most confusing aspect of health. There are endless diets, standards, regulations, and fads and it’s difficult to navigate what or even how much to eat. Not to mention the pleasure aspect of food (pastries, am I right?). While I wish I could say that the answer is simple, it’s not. Nutrition is one of the hardest things (in my opinion) to study and apply because of the complexity and interactions that occur within the body. For example, hormones, activity, medications, sleep, food preparation, and age are all different factors that can influence the way food and its nutrients are metabolized or absorbed in the body. Because of this, it’s tough (that’s an understatement) to do controlled experiments with a specific food or nutrient. A more specific example is how sleep deprivation can reduce one’s glucose (blood sugar) tolerance (An excellent read on the importance of sleep is, Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker. Otherwise, a good scientific review on sleep and metabolic effects is linked here).
While there’s a ton of science on nutrition, you can see how complex it is and how little we truly know (compared to other fields). Media likes to take luke-warm claims from exploratory studies and smear them for the world to see (i.e. study shows drinking wine before bed can help you lose weight- although we all wish that were true). My point is, I’m always cautious and operate under the assumption that we don’t know as much as we think we do. I haven’t always had these thoughts- in fact it’s been a long journey that has changed about as much as the food pyramid. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me start from the beginning.
Growing up I had cereal for breakfast nearly every morning. I couldn’t tell you why, but eating breakfast I would read the box of cereal and usually land on the nutrition label. I started asking questions and learning to understand what it all meant- so yes… I could read a nutrition label since I was about 7 and could even tell you the calorie content in certain milks, cereals, and potato chips. I treated the nutrition labels and recommended daily values (%DV on a nutrition label) as absolute truth and kept a rough mental tally of my calorie, fat, and carbohydrate intake for the day. While I was never obsessive about calorie counting, looking back I’d say that it was definitely abnormal coming from a middle schooler. Needless to say, I’ve always been very health conscious. There have been highs, lows, and everything in-between, but for now I’ll skip those for the relevance of this post. Around high school I started paying more attention to the ingredients in foods, and learning about all of the junk that was really in our food. At this time, I was still operating under the assumption that the old school food pyramid would lead me to the epitome of health … But that’s what the USDA and health classes told us.
If you fast-forward to 2011, I watched a documentary that changed my outlook [and quite frankly my life], towards nutrition and health- “Food Matters.” It can be watched by clicking here. The gist of the documentary is that, “food is medicine” and is often a safer, more effective solution than prescription drugs. It discusses the power of food and its nutrients and touches on the lack of nutritional training that doctors receive. Side note… it’s not one of those abrasive documentaries that shoves a one-sided picture of what ‘health’ should be down your throat. It’s well-rounded and uses health experts and research to support its purpose. I highly recommend this documentary to everyone, as it has shifted my thinking and the way I eat. It made me understand that nutrition labeling should not be a food prescription to all, and made me skeptical of the FDA and USDA, because to them food is a business. While I can’t blame a business for wanting to make money, to me food is more sacred. I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but if there’s one point to take away from this post it is that natural is always better (and I don’t mean “natural flavoring” as an ingredient, I mean something that came from the earth and then to your plate through minimal, or no processing).
So, you might be wondering still… WTF am I supposed to eat!? There are so many hot topics, questions, and diets these days that I’ve broken them up into three categories.
- Nutrition labels, %DV, and calorie counting
- Vegetarian, Pescatarian, Vegan, Gluten-Free, or Carnivore
- Don’t you miss (fill in the blank) foods?!
I want to take this time to repeat that this is my perspective from years and years of researching and determining what is best for me. I also don’t believe that there’s one diet for everyone, but I’ll get into that a bit more later. Let’s start with……
Nutrition labels, %DV, and calorie counting
To be blunt… I don’t abide by the recommended daily values, I don’t count calories, and while nutrition labels are educational, I always put more weight into reading the ingredient list.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been able to read a nutrition label for a long, long time. Once upon a time, yes… I used that to keep a rough estimate of my calories and the nutrients I was getting-mentally, it was exhausting and taxing. Once I started looking more at the ingredients in food, the numbers (calories, grams of fat, grams of carbs) were no longer important. Through reading and documentaries, I just felt that the quality of food going into my body was more important than a number. ALSO, the recommended daily value is just that… a recommendation. Your age, activity level, weight, sleep (again), and sex are allllll factors that determine how many calories you need each day.
Exhibit A– my resting metabolic rate (how many calories I burn in a day just to keep my body at equilibrium) is roughly 1,650 calories. I know this number because I did this testing in my Master’s program. Now add on any exercise or physical activity, caffeine, and calories burned from digestion, and that number goes up. Like I said, I don’t count calories and that includes when I exercise, but I definitely need more than 2,000 calories in a day.
Getting back on track…nutrition labels or calorie counting might provide different things to different people. While I believe it has a place if you’re trying to lose weight, learn about the food you’re eating, or track nutrients to maintain a disease (i.e. diabetes), tracking calories just doesn’t work for me. The last point I’ll make with this one is that the best foods for you don’t have nutrition labels (Yes, I went there). I try to cook from scratch 80% of the time, and that means I have no. idea. how many calories, carbohydrates, or fats are in my food. However, having a vague idea is never a bad thing. i.e we probably shouldn’t eat potatoes as a main food group because they are a starchier vegetable, but I will absolutely eat potatoes or squash 2-4 times a week with dinner.
My rule of thumb is this: include a veggie with every meal.
Vegetarian, Pescatarian, Vegan, Gluten-Free, or Carnivore
I can feel the massive eye roll coming from all directions with this topic, but it’s important to discuss these days. There’s no doubt that with documentaries has come a wave of vegetarianism, veganism, and gluten-free diets. The purpose of this segment is not to get you to become one of these, but to merely explain why I eat the way I do and be a little blunt about the charade that surrounds this topic.
I am a pescatarian (no “land” meat, fish only) of 3.5 years and very recently am gluten-free. But first thing’s first… I have fairly loose rules when it comes to my “diet” because let’s be honest- rules are meant to be broken. I don’t eat meat because of the environmental impact that farming has on our planet as well as the questionable farming practices of the animals that become our food. Once upon a time a cow was just a cow and it grazed on grass, and had a happy life until the circle of life came around and it became dinner for a community (over-simplified, but you get it). Now, that’s so far from the truth and its unsettling to think about what antibiotics or hormones went into that cow and how far it traveled to get to a plate. I’m not going into too many dirty details, but if you want to read the book “Food Inc.” (far more detailed and informational than the documentary) it gives the full run-down. Even fish I eat very sparingly and try to make sure that it is wild-caught rather than farm-raised. Quite frankly, fish is a little expensive for me, and it’s more of a treat than anything. I also love, love, LOVE sushi and maybe someday fish will leave my diet but for now… it stays. Regarding dairy, I eat cheese very sparingly and don’t typically keep it in the house, I don’t cook with butter, and I occasionally put a bit of half and half in my morning coffee. I keep dairy to a minimum because it’s considered an inflammatory food and my body is incredibly sensitive to chronic low-grade inflammation. Which brings me to my next point… gluten-free *sighhhhhhhhh* I have to be honest… I despise most of what comes along with the gluten-free movement and don’t even like to call myself “gluten-free,” but for the purpose of this blog… yea. I am now gluten-free, but it’s more than that and here’s why: I previously mentioned that I’m susceptible to chronic, low-grade inflammation because of my family health history. A couple of years ago I had a basic blood panel done as part of my annual physical to find that I was pre-diabetic. I was shocked, but thought it was maybe a fluke. Over the course of two years and three blood panels later, my blood sugar was creeping higher despite the fact that I was 15 pounds lighter, exercised more than ever (I literally ran a marathon during this time -_-), and ate better than ever. When we moved to Philadelphia I decided to tackle this thing head on and eliminate inflammatory foods such as gluten and dairy. It feels miraculous and almost too good to be true, but when I went to see an endocrinologist three months after a pre-diabetic reading, my blood sugar was completely normal. Although the scientist in me doesn’t know for sure that going gluten/dairy-free was the solution, why fix something that is no longer broken? BIG CAVEAT! Gluten-free for me doesn’t mean gluten-free pasta, gluten-free cookies, blah blah blah, because fact: gluten-free doesn’t = healthy. For me and my situation, it’s about minimizing carbohydrate intake and inflammation. I don’t eat as many beans, dairy, rice, or potatoes as I used to and while it’s a little sad (I love beans… ), it works and I still eat those foods sparingly! I’d like to circle back to my “rules are meant to be broken” statement to close out this segment. Food is truly sacred to me, and because my dietary reasons are primarily health-related, I will splurge and break my own rules. For example, when we go to Italy next year I will most-likely treat myself to meat because of the TLC put into farming and raising the animals. Another example is ice cream. I refuse to deprive myself of ice cream… However, it wrecks my stomach so I only eat ice cream once or twice a month #worthit.
Don’t you miss (fill in the blank) foods?!
Ok, that was a long-winded segue into the third, and final section. A lot of people ask me,
“WTF do you eat?!”
“How do you get your protein?!”
“Don’t you miss _________?!”
And I try to be patient and minimize my eye-rolling, but just like no one likes to be preached to about veganism, I don’t like to be preached to about eating “a damn cheeseburger” or getting enough protein, eating pasta, etc. I feel like I could wrap up this whole segment by saying that changing your diet will change your cravings, but I know that would leave a lot of people unsatisfied. I would just like to preface the next paragraph by saying that all of these changes have been gradual and I didn’t make this dietary switch over night. It probably wouldn’t have stuck, and I would’ve been a hangry lady had I made these changes cold turkey.
“WTF do you eat?!”– I’ll be blunt- plenty of eggs, the occasional oatmeal, fruits, loads of vegetables, smoothies filled with superfoods, veggie tacos with corn tortillas, big old salads, lots of nuts, homemade soups, and some of my favorite treats include: smoked salmon, red wine, and dark chocolate.
“How do you get your protein?!” -I would just like to say, that my red blood cell and iron levels are fabulous and a non-issue. I would also like to say that most people eat far more protein than they need. SO! without further delay, I get my protein through chick peas, black beans, plant-based protein powder (I use Orgain vanilla protein), eggs, almond milk, broccoli, hemp seeds, spinach, peanut butter, other nuts, the occasional fish, and any other plant-based protein I may have missed.
“Don’t you miss____________?!”– Honestly… sometimes, yes! But most of the time, no. We’ve all heard that sugar and simple carbohydrates (i.e. bread) can be addictive, right? So just like other addictive substances, eliminating these foods eventually eliminates the cravings. I remember an old softball coach making the team give up soda for a summer to help us all be better athletes. I couldn’t have been older than 12 at that time, but after that summer I never cared for soda again. The same has applied for all the dietary changes I’ve made over the course of my life. Don’t get me wrong… I wish I could crush some pizza every now and again… But usually when a craving like that hits, I like to let it marinade and think if its something I really want. If I really want it (and hell yes, that happens) I’ll eat a cauliflower crust pizza, because lets be real… the sauce is the most important/best part. If you read my other blogs you might know that sweets, specifically pastries, are my demise. While I try to make healthier versions, sometimes a girl just needs a regular scone! And once in a blue moon, I’ll treat myself to a scone! No gluten-free this, no vegan-that… just a buttery, delicious scone. It’s truly a rare occasion, but it makes each scone that much sweeter and more delectable.
To sum this all up, I wish I had a quick answer for how I’ve gotten to this point in my relationship with food (or “self-control” as some people may call it), but it’s not simple. It’s taken years of practice, self-reflection, and de-railed “diets.” But I think my best advice I can give is to learn your way around the kitchen, go back to basics, and determine what works for you. Be patient, because trial and error may be your only way to discover your healthiest self. Be curious about where your food comes from and what’s truly in it. Knowledge is power. And be kind to yourself, because you will not be perfect. You will likely over-cook the broccoli, binge on pizza, or burn the homemade kale chips. I’ve done all of those things… The most important take away I can give is this: Whatever diet or lifestyle is being advertised today, real and whole foods will never go out of style and listen to the oldest quote in the book, “let food be thy medicine.”