This is the first part of my "Changing Everything" entries I will be doing. If you missed my introduction post, here it is!
Lets talk food! Who doesn't like that? First off, let me make this clear that I am not an expert, a dietitian, or anything else of that nature. I am still learning, so please add any tips, facts, or even corrections to my posts. This is simply what I did on my journey and continue to do. It's not what will work for everyone nor is it necessary for everyone.
For context this needs to start quite a ways back. When my girlfriend (now wife) and I moved in together, leaving home, it meant tight budgets and a freedom to eat whatever we wanted. Growing up my household was fairly healthy, so when I was on my own if I wanted a Big Mac for dinner that was fine. We could do it. It was also cheap and that's where a lot of the problem was.
Eating cheap and easy typically means eating unhealthy. I've learned now you can eat on a low budget and eat healthy but it takes more time, cooking, and you have to like healthy options. When you're living on a super tight budget though a frozen dinner is a filling option that has leftovers for lunch and costs under ten dollars for two. That sounds hard to beat. The downside is you obviously pay for it in the future.
Needless to say my diet at the time was very American. We ate a lot of processed foods, boxed meals, frozen dinners, fried foods, sugars, etc. Then there's the portion sizes. Those were very American too. I'm not bashing my fellow Americans by any means but I think we can all agree America is king when it comes to massive serving sizes of unhealthy and sometimes intentionally unhealthy meals. Why someone wants to eat a one-pound hamburger loaded with bacon served with a pound of fries is beyond me now, however in my past life I may have been all over that.
So the picture is painted. We're on a budget, we buy cheap filling food, and I actually liked the bad food. So the pounds started piling on. Just for a quick example and this is making my furious looking this up now. There is a fast food chicken spot that's popular in Georgia we loved. When we would go there, I'd easily consume 2,000 calories in one meal. Calories aside, those calories are made up of over 100 grams of fat including 15g of saturated fat and even 2g of trans fat. Then the sodium. Are you sitting down? This one meal has over 4,000mg of sodium. The American Heart Association recommends an ideal intake of no more than 1,500mg of sodium a day. Then there's the cholesterol which is over 100 grams as is the carbohydrates, all of which are pretty much useless carbs.
So with all of this junk food, I wasn't getting much nutrition from it. Keep in mind this was not a daily meal but it was frequent, maybe as much as once or twice a week sometimes. It was cheap, easy, and I only knew how to cook pre-made meals at the time. The cheap pre-made meals were, you guessed it, all bad for you.
Along with this food intake there was also sugar. According to PubMed Central, in 2008, for the average American they found "The average intake was 76.7 grams per day, which equals 19 teaspoons or 306 calories." That's added sugar, not natural sugars like you may find in fruit and vegetables. Let that sink in for a moment.
I knew my sugar intake was too high. I was addicted to energy drinks, sweet tea, and the occasional soda. Those are the obvious ones. Sugar is added to almost everything you find in a grocery store as well unless you search for the healthier options. Anything from bread to ketchup has added sugars, sometimes titled something that sounds like it was made in a lab, usually because it was. Then you have sugar free options which have those artificial sweeteners that are a whole other discussion.
So there it all is. At this point I'm quite large, unhealthy, and still dreaming of racing cars. It's a little comical to think I wanted to do something athletic and physical when I would get out of breath walking a mile. How could that work out? How could I even take myself remotely serious let alone someone looking at me? In this same time frame I learned of my late aunt's breast cancer returning and the thought of cancers freaked me out. I was paranoid of getting cancer and I started reading causes and things that could prevent it. Almost everything I had going on was pretty much a perfect recipe for numerous cancers and of course heart problems. It was time to change and before anything else I needed to change my entire way of food intake.
So my first task was to cut added sugars, cook more meals from scratch, and try to dump processed foods as much as possible. By processed foods I'm talking white bread, boxed snacks, etc. I also added to my new routine reading the label of everything I bought. Even if it's something simple. This awakened me greatly in no time and I absolutely demand you start reading the ingredients and nutritional facts if you don't already. That alone will truly start to change some of your buying habits.
Cutting sugar was hard. I was truly addicted to the caffeine from energy drinks so cutting it all really gave me headaches, mood swings, and just killed my motivation. I slowly cut them out though, switching to tea with honey to still get some caffeine as I came off of it. I also loved sweets so gone went the cookies and other desserts. I trained myself to eventually enjoy a snack like a banana and peanut butter as a sweet treat. It's truly amazing though how quickly the human body can change its mind on sweets. Not long after cutting the sugars, anything with added sugars became unappealing and things that are overly sweetened that I use to enjoy became intolerable as they seemed to almost burn my throat they were so sweet. Things were officially changing including the weight.
I started cooking healthier meals such as baked or boiled chicken, veggies, and cut out sides such as bread, french fries, etc. We would still occasionally eat out but I started changing to the better options. Nothing was healthy but there are smarter options for you anywhere you eat. For example where I would get a hamburger I switched to a grilled chicken salad with light vinaigrette dressing and looked up the ingredients of the dressing!
The biggest downside to cooking was I hated to cook meat, it just grossed me out. There was the threat of cross contamination even though you'd think I was about to perform open heart surgery with how clean and organized I was. Plus the frequent meat recalls and other stories of food poisoning just freaked me out. I started getting recipes from health websites that more and more became vegetarian or vegan sites. It wasn't long before I realized I wasn't cooking meat anymore and eventually decided to truly become a vegetarian. It was only after that when I really learned the health and environmental impacts it can have.
With meat out of the picture, the number one question I get is where do I get protein. Protein is extremely important to our overall health, however, we generally think we need more protein than we actually do. Unless you're a body builder, a well balanced diet should be giving you the essential proteins you need.
Protein is more than just a single thing. Protein is made up of amino acids and these are primarily used by our bodies for building muscle mass. There are twenty building blocks of protein and nine of those we cannot produce ourselves so we rely on our food intake to supply them. These are referred to essential amino acids and this is where some misconception comes in regards to a vegetarian and vegan diet.
Many have heard you can only get complete proteins from meat sources. So here's the deal with complete proteins and not eating meat. As long as you get the essential proteins throughout the day, you are good, it doesn't have to be in a single meal from a single source. There are plant based foods that do have these complete proteins. Three examples are quinoa, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. I eat a lot of black beans. These have a small amount of protein however it's not a complete protein. So while I may have black bean chili for dinner, for breakfast I may eat some type of oatmeal with hemp seeds to get one source of complete protein for the day. The other benefit of some of these seeds that offer complete proteins? They're also a fantastic plant based source of Omega-3 fatty acids.
With my food changes came portion size changes. It took a little while to not still feel hungry after a meal but I knew I was getting what was needed and not under-eating. One issue was my wife and I would eat at the couch and watch a series or something. As stupid as it sounds I found myself feeling the need to eat for almost the entirety of the show or I would feel unfulfilled. The easiest way to fix this was to change the size of my plate or bowl. In this case I at least tricked my mind into thinking I had a full plate when in reality it was probably a good twenty-five percent less. I would eat a little slower but also just got into the habit of not allowing myself to get seconds for every meal.
Today I drink water, a lot of sparkling water, black coffee, and unsweetened teas. I don't even like sweet tea anymore! Sparkling water such as La Croix is also an amazing thing as it gave me the bubbly soda taste I sometimes craved without the guilt. We always have sparkling water in the house now. Our food now is primarily organic non-GMO whole foods. Dairy is rarely used in the home anymore. I just found an absolutely amazing recipe for vegan lasagna using cashew cheese and I swear anyone would appreciate it.
When exercising or at a race weekend I do have to work harder to balance my diet and I use Honey Stinger products for energy and carbs to get a boost. They're a fantastic organic choice for athletes and use honey instead of some of the artificial sweeteners other brands use so at least it's a natural sweetener.
I frequently get asked if I counted calories and the answer is sort of. I used and still use the popular app My Fitness Pal and enter all of my intakes. In the beginning I looked at calories but I quickly learned it was more what those calories were from. Obviously 150 calories from veggies was better than 150 calories from a handful of chips. It's the whole picture that matters, fats, protein, carbs, and the ingredients that put all that together.
There was no magic trick to any of this. It was just cutting out the bad and replacing it with good. It sounds easy but the struggle was real. I'd get cravings and many times gave in as some say you should. Even now I believe everything is OK in moderation. As you change though so will your ideas of "cheating" when it comes to foods and drinks.
The weight in the early days started falling off pretty quickly. Even without much exercise (I'll talk about that next week) the weight was dropping. It's really just about making the changes, developing a habit, and sticking with it. I found myself almost feeling guilty if I ate something bad. I kid you not I had nightmares that I gave in and ate the chicken example I gave at the beginning of this post!
In Part 2 of this I will cover the fitness side of things, what I do today, and how I continue to improve my fitness program to try and reach new highs. While your diet is a key aspect to overall health and weight loss, adding exercise was what started to slaughter the weight and also build confidence.
To be honest I'd eat my entire wedding cake today and not feel guilty. It was that good.