“How do I start eating healthier?”
I’m asked this question several times a month, and it’s one I’m more than happy to answer. Whether your goal is eliminating processed food, going gluten or grain free, or just making healthier choices a few times a week, I hope my story along with a few tips and tricks can help you too!
Before I start I want to point out that I am not a medical professional nor do I have any nutritional background. I’m just happy to share ideas that worked for me based on my personal experience. If you have legitimate health concerns please talk to your doctor.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get down to business! (cue Mulan soundtrack) There are so many buzzwords flying around the internet: gluten, grain free, paleo, processed food, natural, organic, nonGMO, Whole30; but how do I know what’s right for me? There’s no easy answer or quick fix, but I believe everyone has an ideal diet that’s right for them. Unfortunately finding that diet can take some time and a whole lot of preparation.
During my college years, my dorm was filled with boxes of processed food, I ate out multiple times a week, went through packs of canned soft drinks in days, and ate French Fries like they were going out of style. (Honestly, if they had gone out of style maybe I would have gotten a clue sooner!) I also went from a size 6/8 to a size 18. I didn’t even realize how big I had gotten, and I really didn’t care about my health. I was relatively active with horseback riding and walking around campus and thought that was enough. Years passed, and I halfheartedly tried to get in better shape with little success. I started working on my Masters and moved back in with my parents, while my mom discovered blogs.
Roughly around 2009, my mom stumbled upon a blog entitled 100 Days of Real Food and was instantly intrigued. We picked up Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, she shared them both with me, and I’m almost positive I stayed up late one night pouring through the archives to catch up on past posts chronicling this family’s journey as they eliminated processed foods from their diet determined to only eat ‘real food’. The health benefits they encountered (along with many others’ experiences in the comments) were inspiring and we decided to try it for ourselves.
Now what is ‘processed food’ versus ‘real food’ you might ask?
Lisa Leake defines ‘real food’ as whole food products mostly from nature. Think fruits and vegetables, dairy products like cheese, eggs, milk and unsweetened yogurt, whole grains and whole wheat, seafood (preferably wild caught), locally raised meat products such as beef, pork, and chicken, snacks like unsweeted dried fruit, nuts, popcorn, beverages limited to water, naturally sweetened coffee and tea, milk, and all-natural juices, and all natural sweeteners like honey, 100% maple syrup, and fruit juices in moderation. If processed foods are still necessary try to buy things with 5 ingredients or less on the label.
Over the next year, our family grocery list changed and when we ran out of something processed it was no longer purchased. You can’t eat it if it’s not in the house!
This experiment led to more research and we read books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain and began looking into gluten free diets. Growing up I had always had thyroid problems, hormone imbalances, anxiety and depression and many of the symptoms were linked to becoming exacerbated with gluten and wheat. I contemplated trying the GAPS diet, but felt it was too restrictive at that time of my life, so mom and I decided to go gluten free for two weeks and see if we noticed any changes.
It was like someone flipped a light switch. I never realized how many headaches and stomach problems I had until they were suddenly gone. I felt lighter, my head felt clearer, and so much bloating just seemed to fade away. We were religious about sticking with our two week experiment, and when the time was up I had a donut to celebrate and promptly threw up. I haven’t touched gluten since that day. I hear many people think gluten free diets and sensitivities are made up, and I honestly didn’t really care about the research and nitpicky science behind it. All I know is that if I eat something that contains wheat/gluten I am immediately sick, so why bother knowingly consume something that makes me feel like I have the flu for days?
I’ve been gluten free for over four years now, and I honestly don’t miss it. There are so many good substitutes especially if you have a well-stocked pantry. The trick here is when going gluten free to not jump into all the processed gluten free foods like crackers and pretzels. You may not notice the same level of health benefits or weight loss if you’re still shoveling in boxes of gluten-free crackers. (Believe me, I went through that phase…)
A year ago, I decided I still wasn’t in the kind of shape I wanted to be and I knew it came down to portion sizes and exercise. I’m still the kind of person that reaches for fruits instead of vegetables and will happily load a plate up. Yes, I was eating healthy things, but some processed foods and too many desserts slipped back into my diet. Then, I discovered Melissa Hartwig’s Whole30 Program.
The Whole30 Program is a short term elimination meal plan to help you discover how different food groups personally affect you. For 30 days you don’t consume dairy of any sort, grains (including corn and rice), legumes, alcohol, or any added sugar. (See Program Rules for explicit guidelines, examples, and exceptions) You also ignore the scale for the entire 30 days. When the month is over, you carefully reintroduce a food a few days at a time and see how your body reacts to it.
I personally have a ‘Sugar Dragon’. I know I do, and it’s something I’ve struggled with since I was a kid. I mean, I STILL struggle with it. I seriously just ate a bowl of ice cream before sitting down and typing this intro post. I’m not going to lie- it’s difficult, and takes commitment and a lot of planning but in my opinion it’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve done, and I’ve now completed three Whole30s.
My first Whole30 taught me that I like more vegetables than I realized, and helped me understand that if I stick with it I can severely reduce my sugar and carb cravings. My acne practically disappeared, my skin looked better, and by the end I had so much more energy! Unfortunately, I binged the day after completion and didn’t do the reintroduction like I should have. A few months later, I did another Whole30 and focused on portion sizes as well as stuck with the reintroduction phase. This time I learned that rice makes me bloat, I can tolerate corn well, and dairy makes me break out.
So how do I live with this new knowledge? I save rice for when I want sushi (maybe once or twice a month) knowing that it’ll take at least a week after for the bloating to go down, and I decided I love cheese too much to completely get rid of dairy and decided I could live with a few pimples.
I decided to do my third Whole30 when I realized one day that I was eating grain, cheese, and added sugar every day again. I was gaining weight, my skin was getting worse, and I was feeling tired all the time. Now I’ve learned that if my cravings are out of control, I need to do another Whole30 to ‘reset’ my mind and body. Knowing this (combined with my lack of willpower) means I’ll probably end up doing a Whole30 every 4-5 months, but I’m okay with that! For me, the health benefits outweigh the food limitations, and honestly I still get to eat some pretty delicious meals!
There will be more information about completing your own Whole30 in a later post, but now I hope you understand why I eat the way I do. I hope this may inspire some of you to analyze your own eating habits and give you the confidence to make positive changes in your own life! It’s made a huge difference in my life and I hope it doesn’t take you 10 years to realize it like it took me! Anyways, I’m healthier and happier for it, and that’s all I can ask!