So here we are, gaining an understanding that our health, wellness, and longevity are based upon things greater than the number on a scale or the number of calories a food contains. We have introduced the topic of viewing food as a fuel source and gaining an appreciation of how certain types of foods affect our bodies differently at the metabolic level. At the very least, we have identified that not all calories are created equal and that processed foods have not been engineered with our health or waistlines in mind. We know we are in the midst of a global epidemic of chronic disease easily identifiable by its side effects of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. We know we can influence these outcomes as we have obtained an understanding that these outcomes are lifestyle driven. We have the ability to take ourselves out of this epidemic and free ourselves from the system. At a macro level, many like myself, are working on turning the tides against the cascade of misinformation, targeted advertising messaging, and flawed science little by little, but it comes down to each individual that is enlightened and what lands on your plate at each meal. Ultimately, money talks, and as we SLOWLY implement the changes we need to make, our dollars will begin to vote for a healthier, cleaner, and more sustainable future.
Most "diet" protocols are labeled as a cleanse, detox, or reset for our bodies. We become sold on the promises of immediate results and little effort. As I discussed in my transformation story, I too fell victim to the marketing behind diet pills, fad eating styles, and the latest DVD workout routine, all in an effort to achieve cheap, aesthetic results. It took me more than five years to realize that the changes I needed to make were not on my supplementation regimen or workout routine, but on the information, I was providing my body each day through food. I had tried doing this with an elimination mindset, believing that I had totally cut out food groups. First was carbs, then came fats. But looking back on the metabolic effect of food, I now realize how silly that was due to these changes eliminating the fuel sources for my bodies. No wonder I was always tired, foggy, hungry, and irritable. All I really needed to do was change the sources of carbs and the types of fats. Small substitutions allowed me to gain momentum into a consistent, easy to follow food plan. So how can you accomplish the same?
The last thing I want people to do is to take the information provided and clear out their pantry and refrigerator. Chances are there are plenty of items that we can now identify as harmful or unsupportive of our metabolic fitness goals. We may have processed foods or sources of vegetable oils, but that is okay. These items have made their way in, we will accept it, and now it is time to slowly change them out. If you were to clear the fridge and pantry and just start trying to down sardines and an apple for a snack, I would be willing to bet you wouldn't make it too far. We need to re-wire our taste buds, modify our routines, and slowly ween ourselves off the foods that we have grown accustomed to. Take a breath, acknowledge it will take time, and give yourself a break. We are products of the system and now we are going to slowly take ourselves out of it.
Given our new model of viewing food as fuel, we will prioritize by identifying areas where we might be "over-fueling" ourselves. Take a look at your main meals and identify the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, or fat) of each meal item.
One easy example is the typical American breakfast:
Toast with jam or jelly (Carbohydrate topped with carbohydrate)
A glass of orange juice; most likely including added sugar (Carbohydrate)
Cereal or oats (Carbohydrate)
Oh boy, here we go providing our bodies with an extreme amount of fuel in the form of simple carbohydrates! Even if each item is marketed as organic or a great source of vitamin C, all of these foods, alone or in combination, will cause a flood of glucose, harmful insulin spike, and unless utilized, promote fat storage. Not to mention, many are not so satiating, causing hunger shortly after ingestion. This is where we should take the time to identify a simple swap to move us in the right direction. Let's not toss anything out or force ourselves to cook eggs and bacon with an Instagram worthy acai bowl on the side; but instead, we'll spread nut butter (without added sugar), avocado, plain butter, or even cream cheese on the toast rather than jam. Now we have provided a fat source in place of a sugar-rich carbohydrate and kept the structure of our current breakfast in place. This fat source will work to slow the glucose spike, promote satiation, and create a longer-lasting fuel source. Slowly we can work our way to replacing the orange juice with water mixed with freshly squeezed lemon juice. This additional swap will eliminate yet another source of unnecessary, added sugars, harmful added sweeteners, and dyes. We have now made two swaps that will move us in the right direction and have not added any pressure of cooking new foods, clearing out the pantry, or feeling ashamed when our meal doesn't come out like the picture, and we are only on breakfast. Notice that we still have the same comforting breakfast, but just substituted it to make it more metabolically beneficial.
On to the morning snack.
Of course, we are told by the food industry that these snacks are required and beneficial to keep our energy and productivity levels up. However, as we discussed above, prior to making our breakfast swaps, the only reason we may have needed this snack in the first place is that we have been left hanging at the bottom of a sugar crash with low energy and hunger from our old carbohydrate-rich breakfast. Pretty convenient for that food industry to swoop in here offering us a "protein bar", chocolate-coated trail mix, or worse, the sugar-packed energy drink! I put "protein" in quotes because although the pictures and advertising on the packaging will boast about the 20 or so grams of protein, it won't mention the 30 or more grams of added sugars and chocolate coatings in the form of syrups, extracts, xylitol, sucralose, or other names that allow the food industry to bury its ingredients (a rant for another day). Further, the protein source isn't from grass-fed beef, pastured chickens, or wild-caught fish. It has most likely been extracted and pulverized from soy or whey which are suboptimal choices for us metabolically, especially after being coated in sugar and chocolate, but I digress. Let's compare this food industry option to another simple, whole food swap we can make. Let's say we did need that mid-morning pick me up. We would be better off reaching for a handful of nuts, beef jerky, cheese, fresh fruit, or nothing at all. The nuts, beef jerky, or cheese all provide a blend of protein and fat that will provide fuel and satiety and take you out of the sugar crash. You will also avoid another sugar spike and crash. A step in the metabolically correct direction.
But wait, why would I suggest nothing at all in place of a snack? Here is a neat little hack that will start getting your body to appreciate real hunger signals and begin to allow it to tap into its stored energy (fat cells). By not eating, and your body requiring energy, it will look within itself for fuel. Remember, our bodies carry around excess energy in our muscles, liver, and fat cells from the stored energy of previous meals. Here is where we can take advantage of this excess and force our bodies to use it. Abstaining from external food will force our metabolic pathways to recognize that no more energy is coming in from external sources so it's time to use what we're carrying around! Boom, now you've satiated yourself with your stored energy and may have shrunk a couple of fat cells in the process. This is the premise behind intermittent fasting, however, we are focusing on food swaps here, not extra fancy techniques.
Shall we talk about lunch?
With our busy lifestyles, lunch has become a meal greatly impacted by marketing and the food industry. They have forced us into accepting that it should be fast and cheap. Here we see the massive issues with fast food. Menu items are highly processed and packed with plenty of sugar, vegetable oil, and additives to make them extremely palatable. Further, they offer convenience and are sure to be quick enough to get us back to our desks in time to lull through the rest of our workday. Another sugar spike and crash... Are we starting to see a pattern? Lunch has become yet another meal comprised of foods that promote blood sugar spike and crash leaving us energy depleted and hungry. Also, they don't mention how fast these foods (pun intended) will get us to have to see a doctor or the number of prescriptions that will be written to undo their harm. We need to identify swaps we can make at this meal time to be sure we're properly nourished and have plenty of energy to finish the day. Of course, a home-cooked and packed meal comprised of 4-6 ounces of well-sourced protein with a cup or so of vegetables and maybe some fruit or complex carbohydrate is ideal, but I know how drastic and intimidating this can be. We all wish we could have the colorful Tupperware packed full of fresh, nutrient-dense foods, but we aren't there yet. Remember, we are starting slow. So, if we are going to rely on fast-food restaurants to provide us with lunch, let's take a look at where we can improve. First, let's identify the easy targets such as the sugar-rich soda or milkshakes that often accompany our meals and make the simple swap for water or unsweetened tea. Don't be fooled by the "healthy labeled" fruit juices or sports drinks either. These are easy sources for harmful sugars and dyes. Not to mention, we are not world-class athletes returning to our second training session for the day. We will be fine without them. When it comes to the sides of the meal, vegetable oil rich fries or onion rings are not going to be our friends here. These cooking oils are extremely harmful and render the items cooked in them a metabolic nightmare. Yes, even sweet potato fries are victims here. It's time to do some research and find fast-food chains that offer alternatives such as sliced fruit or baked options. Remember, we are looking at the composition of our meals and preparation of the foods to identify where we can make a change so let's swap out the typical sides for better choices. Now on to the main course. Buns, wraps, and pieces of bread that hold our proteins at these chains are typically compromised of highly refined grains, added sugars, and yes, even vegetable oils to keep them shelf-stable. Kudos to you if you can find whole wheat options although, I would be wary here too. It's best to leave them off. Try and strip down the meal to its most simple forms and play an ingredient game. The goal is to reduce the meal to one that you can name all the ingredients on the plate. Therefore, a burger, chicken sandwich, turkey wrap, or tuna melt, once freed from their processed bread prison, just become simple sources of protein. A step in the right direction. Putting it all together, we have still gone through the drive-thru but have swapped the soda for water, fries for fruits, and have reduced the burger to the delicious, protein-rich patty that it is. No intimidating, boomerang worthy home-cooked meal needed. We have taken our current habit and implemented what we now know to move us forward.
Bonus points! Many of our fast food meals are accompanied by secret sauces with mystery ingredients, colorings, and additives. Of course, they taste delicious, they are engineered to do so! Odds are the manufacturers are using high fructose corn syrup, seed oils, and dyes to accomplish their addictive goals. Here we can apply the ingredient game we talked about above. Can we make a swap to plain mustard, olive oil, vinegar, or even bring the meal home to enjoy with our favorite sauces free from these harmful, inflammatory ingredients? It would be disappointing if we were able to make all the changes discussed above to lose our progress to the hidden dangers of these packaged dips. Fun fact, ketchup does not contain enough real tomatoes to be able to be labeled as a tomato sauce. Let that sink in.
Again, of course, our goal is to free ourselves from the food industry altogether, but trying to make this leap in one step is extremely intimidating and will not work. How many times have you cleaned out your pantry, started a food subscription service, or have been clueless after purchasing a bunch of meat and produce? Further, dismissing these restaurants as a food source is impossible given the majority of our country's population's socio-economic status. Our goal with these first steps is to identify and modify. Once we lay the foundation, the home-cooked meals will become less of a burden.
So now that lunch is out of the way, we have an afternoon snack, although, as stated before, as we make the swaps necessary at lunchtime to eliminate the blood sugar variability, this "meal" will become more and more obsolete. I offer the same guidance here that I did with the morning snack. Real, whole foods should be the focus of this nosh.
If there is one meal I am extremely protective of, personally, it is dinner. This is the one meal that a majority of the time brings the family together at the same table to discuss our days, entertain and learn about each other, and to enjoy a nourishing meal together. Without discussing the content of the meal, this time should be enjoyed free of screens, distractions, and other things that work to pull our attention from our loved ones. This is an opportunity to be present, wind down, and take in each day. If we are in this mindset, providing nutrient-dense food items that benefit the health and wellbeing of your family each dinner will be a source of pride and further appreciation for this time together. So how do we do it?
Odds are dinner becomes stressful because we are short on time, short on energy, or have not yet built a system to ensure that we have the items on hand to prepare a five-star yelp review experience. The good news is that we can work towards that goal! Also, as we make the swaps discussed above and get our blood sugar under control, our energy levels will be plenty enough to make ourselves home chefs! Again, in these first implementation steps, the goal is to keep it simple. At dinner, we need a protein, some vegetables, and potentially a starch. Here is where the frozen food aisle becomes your best friend. No, not in the form of a "hungry man box" or microwavable dinner product, but through frozen proteins and vegetables. Frozen fish, chicken, or meat defrosts in minutes and can quickly be cooked on a stovetop, grill, or oven. Vegetables can be steamed in the microwave, cooked on a stove, or even thrown into the oven with the protein. All we have to do is add our favorite seasonings. No chopping, prepping, brining, or figuring out what the heck sous vide is. I've even leaned on canned fish and chicken while in a pinch! We have lost touch with our kitchen thanks to delivery services and frozen meals. We currently spend more time watching cooking shows than actually cooking! We must reconnect with the preparation of our food if we are going to be the champions of our households to ensure the health and wellness of all. If we are going to continue to order in, follow the guidance of the lunch swaps. Focus on the items of the meal ensuring a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Eliminate hidden sources of added sugars and vegetable oils used in beverages, sauces, and cooking methods (i.e. frying). A great way to slowly transition to the home-cooked meal is to limit takeout to 1-2 times a week and when you do cook, try and recreate the dishes you would enjoy from your favorite restaurants. You'll quickly notice that not only will you be saving money, but you will also be able to recreate these dishes with better metabolic outcomes. You might soon realize you're energized after a dinner meal and have the will to take the dog for a walk, play with the kids, or even break out the old guitar for some practice rather than succumbing to yet another sugar crash and television binge on the couch.
The momentum is contagious! Once we have breakfast on the right track, snack time takes care of itself. A solid lunch makes us feel energized and productive through dinner. At dinner time, you'll enjoy becoming your own food tv show host with your family as you prepare, enjoy, and eat together around a meal focused on better metabolic outcomes and you'll have no urge to go back to your old habits. Who would want to ruin a streak of boundless energy, mental clarity, and positive moods? Oh, I forgot to mention the side effects. Reduction in inflammation, smaller fat cells, and best of all, acknowledgment from those around you about how you've changed! Soon, they'll be coming to you for the secret. Remember, this implementation guidance has only asked for small, slow changes to our current routines. It asks that you take a step back and analyze to identify where the most impactful changes can be made. After this, the foundation will be laid from where we can build in more modifications and nuanced approaches. For now, the key is simplicity and focus on metabolic health.
Please leave your favorite swaps and modifications in the comments and thank you for reading!