I Once Was A Calorie Counting Encyclopedia. Dang It, I Think I Was Counting The Wrong Thing…
It’s that time of year – let’s all hit the gym for a few weeks and diet! If your 2018 wellness plan is working and you’re feeling super pumped then:
1) Congrats! You’re crushing it and we’re all a little jelly of you.
2) This post probably isn’t for you.
But if that’s not quite your story, and instead, you’re trying to get healthier by suffering through some fancy diet program counting calories and points but thinking, “THAT’S NOT ENOUGH POINTS TO FEED EVEN AN ANT!…” well then this might be worth a read.
The age-old problem with diets seems to be that they come with sacrifice. Dieting means making tough choices and giving something or a lot of things up. When we diet we tend to think about what we can’t or shouldn’t be eating, rather than thinking about all we could be eating to make our bodies stronger and healthier. We sacrifice taste in the name of nutrition. And those things can’t help but foster a terrible, struggle-filled relationship with food. It might work for some time, but the thing about diets is that they always seem to come to an end. They’re intended to be a phase. After all, who sits down and says, I’m never going to eat a cookie again?
Oh wait, I did that.
And here’s the amazing part. I never want to eat a cookie again. Honestly. Okay, maybe like one cookie a year because my mom makes hands down the best chocolate chip cookies on the planet. But I’m serious, that’s it.
If you’re tired of thinking about all you can’t eat, or fed up from all the calorie, sugar, fat, or carb counting, well then I might just have a radical, but crazy simple idea for you.
What if we all start skipping past the nutrition box entirely, and focus instead on that sadly overlooked line below it: the ingredient list.
And once we get there, we ask ourselves just one simple question…is this food? Yes? Okay eat it! There ya have it. That’s all there is to it. Now go live a healthier, happier life!
Okay, well obviously we have to discuss what counts as “food,” as opposed to the “food-like substances” that many of us are consuming in abundance (as coined by food journalist Michael Pollan). In the standard American diet, we’ve unfortunately accepted the notion that overly processed, artificial, chemical-injected substances are in fact food and in turn, okay for us to eat. We’ve done this for a good reason: it creates shelf stable, easy to cook products that make our hectic lives so much better. But in turn, it seems these food-like substances are wreaking havoc on our hearts, our microbiome, and our waist lines. Does that really make life easier?
So what makes something food? This is a question with a million answers, depending on who you ask, but I will humbly share what I’ve settled on from my book reading, documentary watching, and internet searching on the topic. For me, to count as food, an item’s ingredient list must pass just three simple questions:
Step 1: Do I recognize every ingredient on this label?
Step 2: Are all the ingredients whole or as close to whole as possible?
Step 3: Are all the recognizable, whole ingredients plant-based?
AKA, I eat a whole foods, plant-based diet.
From my own experience and from observation of others, I’ve seen that when you do this, when you start eating real food and rid yourself of all the processed, food-like substances, a really neat thing happens: you really, truly start craving the good stuff that keeps your body healthy. Each meal or snack becomes an opportunity to put something good and helpful into your body, and you stop yearning for the cookies and processed snacks that hurt your arteries and your waistline. And when this happens, it comes with a really unexpected benefit: you can give your body so very much food! While I didn’t start my new plant-based diet for the purposes of weight management, the benefit is undoubtedly beautiful. For the first time, I can finally let go of the stresses of sacrificed eating in the name of losing or maintaining a certain weight and instead, I’ve found that I can eat more than I ever have before. My plates are HUGE and I eat all day long. After years of a tough relationship with food, I’ve finally come to love it and cherish it. I’ve realized that eating less or lowering my calorie count in the name of health isn’t the best thing I can do for my body. I eat foods that are high in fat like nuts. I eat a lot of carbs in the form of whole grains. I eat a lot of sugar in the form of whole fruits. And I feel the most nourished, and food satisfied that I ever have in my adult life.
Of course, as with anything, I’m sure you can overdo it even with plants. And I’d never claim my ways as an answer or solution for everyone. But nonetheless, through this new “diet,” I’ve discovered that for me, not all calories seem to be the same, and what a beautiful realization that has been. I’ve stopped fearing that fat-dense avocado, and learned that instead of slicing off an eighth of it, I can in fact eat an entire avocado, every day, without remorse or dire consequences.
I could be a fluke, but I have a really really strong suspicion that’s just not true. Documentaries like Forks Over Knives, What The Health, and Fed Up all tell the success stories of individuals who choose a whole food, plant-based diet in the name of reversing heart disease and diabetes. Not only were most of the individuals successful in reversing these diseases, but they lost tremendous amounts of weight in the process, while beaming from ear-to-ear about their new-found diet. Outside of the films, in real life, I watched a friend on a plant-based diet quickly transform his body and health all while geeking out with me about how good and flavor-packed plant-based plates can be. And just yesterday, a friend sent me an article from The Atlantic, claiming a similar tale stating, “People lose about as much weight just by eating a lot of fiber as they do on complicated diets, even if they eat slightly more calories in the process.”
Each day, I’m so excited to see that this whole, plant-based food thing is starting to catch on, and examples of improved health are popping up all around us. Want to be one of those examples? Well then let’s get into the nitty gritty on those three steps…
Step 1: I ask myself, do I recognize or understand every ingredient on this label?
Sorry maltodextrin, I just don’t know what you are. If I can’t understand it, as a general rule, it means it’s probably not simple enough for my body to understand either. There are of course some exceptions, but I’ve found them to be rare.
In most cases, I also find this to mean that ingredient lists will be very short (less than 5 ingredients). When it gets long, I can almost guarantee there will be something I don’t recognize.
Step 2: If I recognize the ingredients, are they all whole or as close to whole as possible?
This means, for example, that I choose to eat whole wheat flour instead of enriched flour or even wheat flour (an ingredient trick to watch out for!). We all constantly hear that whole wheat is better for you, but it’s usually higher in calories, so I never really understood why. Well, here’s what’s happening with enriched flour:
To get that nice white color and fluffiness, manufacturers remove what’s called the bran and germ from whole wheat grain. Problem is, the majority of the nutritional value is in fact in that bran and germ, and in the olden day, this led to malnourishment, so manufacturers realized they had to pump vitamins back in – which they still do to this day – resulting in the enriched part of enriched flour. Fancy.
Hmmm, idea! We could just eat the original nutrients that nature provided to us in the form of whole wheat instead. And that is the foundational theory for a whole foods diet – everything we eat should be as close to how nature intended it as possible.
At the extreme, this means we’d eat everything from a tree, raw. But that’s just not always feasible or enjoyable. A little heat can undoubtedly transform an ingredient, and keep your jaw from exhaustion, so you have to find a level that you find reasonable.
What this means for me, is that I choose to avoid ingredients that have been extracted or overly processed from a whole food. Quite possibly the most abundant of all the non-whole ingredient examples I can think of is a really tough one – sugar. Ugh, I know. It tastes so good. But here’s the problem. Sugar has been extracted from how it was originally intended to be consumed. Have you ever tried a sugar cane? It’s just barely sweet and really juicy, which is a far cry from the extracted dry, super sweet sugar crystals that we’re all addicted to. If you look at sugar in its most natural form, it’s typically encased in fiber, like the way you find it in fruit. When it has this fibrous encasing, the body knows how to handle and break it down properly, without spiking your blood sugar and storing it in the form of fat. But when you remove critical parts of food, and turn it into a food-like extract, the body then has to take extremes to properly digest and store it.
Okay, so no added or refined sugar. But I thought this diet didn’t come with sacrifices?! Real quick, do me a favor and take a look at my Instagram feed – does it look like I’m sacrificing? It’s basically a shrine to smoothies and no sugar added yet super sweet desserts. Desserts that all come from whole fruits and never leave me feeling bad or in a sugar coma. My sweet tooth is always satisfied. I promise it is possible to live a happy sugar-free life! And when you do so, your taste buds open up to so many intense flavors from unlikely sources. It’s such a cool experience!
Other examples of non-whole foods: any other refined grains (like white rice…eat brown rice!), artificial flavors or ingredients, pastes, syrups, juices (they’re just sugar!), etc. Chemicals, artificial ingredients, and extracts are found in the most unlikely of sources. Check your salt bottle for example and you might find both anti-caking agents and sugar (dextrose)!
Step 3: The final question I ask myself is, “Are these ingredients plant-based?”
As a general philosophy, I personally believe that humans were meant to eat mostly plants. Not only plants, but mostly plants. The facts about the negative impacts animal products seem to have on our heart and microbiome are convincing, we’ve created carcinogenic properties by processing meat, and we’ve degraded our meat quality so very much through the terrible living conditions, diets, and medications we provide to the animals we eat. So, for me, this means all animal products (meat, eggs, dairy) are consumed in extreme moderation, if at all. I think of meat as a topping or a flavor additive. Never a main dish. In turn, I learned to get creative with plants!
Ready for the gigantic irony of it all?
With these three steps in mind, you’ll likely find that not only can you forget about nutritional labels, but you’ll actually rarely find yourself reading even ingredient labels because they won’t exist on the products you’re eating. It turns out, the things that are best for us, don’t come with nutritional labels at all: fruit, vegetables, bulk nuts, beans, etc. are all label free. It’s like some blatantly obvious joke we all seemed to overlook. Real food is so good for us that it doesn’t require labels. Yet we’re all walking around obsessed with labels and stats. Am I going crazy or is that crazy?!
As with any new challenge, this eating philosophy (notice I didn’t say “diet”) might seem tedious at first. At a surface level, it might look like you’re sacrificing by removing many food/food-like substance groups. But in reality, you’re opening yourself up to a whole new world of plant-based foods, many of which you may have never tried before. If you stick with it, your taste buds will radically start to shift. If you stick with it, you’ll start to develop a new connection with food. If you stick with it, you’ll get excited. And if you stick with it, I think you’ll find a new healthier, happier, and fully food satisfied you. Plus you can go change the world in all that extra calorie counting time that’s now free.
In the meantime, while you’re figuring it out, I’m here to help! If you’re in need of ideas for recipes or food brands that check each box, message me any time or keep coming back to my blog. After all, that’s the whole point of this thing…
Now go eat plants! 🙂