Feeding the Beast Properly

Just what everyone wants to read about…someone else’s diet history. There’s a point to this, really. Read on if you’re interested in doing things to improve your health and (maybe) your body mass.

On the way to becoming Homer Simpson

For most of my life I have not been a “health food” nut. Or an exercise fanatic. In fact, until my 30s, I was pretty much an eat-what-I-want-don’t-exercise kind of guy. Okay, sure, I rode my bike or took walks around my neighborhood, but it wasn’t with any sort of health plan in mind. Then my 30s hit. That super-duper young-guy metabolism started wearing down a bit.

So I tried a few things–cutting back on this, eating more of that, and really things just weren’t improving. By 2012, I was a Homer Simpson weight, and that wasn’t good. I started doing serious reading on the subject, which for me was the only proper way to learn anything. I started getting more strategic–being conscious about my eating and exercising choices.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to help a friend write a class for Florida Hospital patients about to enter the baryatric surgery program there. That was an eye opener because while I was writing for people in much worse shape than I was, I could see what direction I was heading. And I also saw that advice meant for the seriously obese also could work for someone not-quite-as-fat as I was. I spent the money on a YMCA membership and talked to one of the coaches about reducing my personal level of “marbling.” Exercise is one part of the calorie-reduction equation (about 25%); a major part, however (65% or so), is the food I’m using to fuel my body. That needed to be fixed.

Unfeeding the beast

One of the most important things I learned in the process of writing that class was how to fix my diet. Not go full-Vegan or Mediterranean or Atkins or Pick-Your-Fad Diet of the Week. The goal of the Florida Hospital program (and, as a result, my own personal program) was simply to establish better, permanent eating habits. This focused on several things: what I ate, how much I ate, and when I ate.

Fixing what I was eating was surprisingly simple. A lot of it boiled down to eliminating processed foods from my diet. What’s a processed food? Pretty much anything that isn’t a direct plant or animal part. If it’s on the shelves instead of in a refrigerator, that means it’s got preservatives in it, and preservatives are bad. More to the point, the process of extending the shelf life of a food also means that you’re sucking out nutrients. Oh yeah, and all that great Chicago food–heavy fats, extra beef, deep frying–that had to be cut back severely. To like once a week. Or once a month. Or once a quarter. Or once a year.

Just to make things more complicated, while I was approaching horrific size, I was also having acid reflux (though that would take a couple years to diagnose) and sleep apnea, both of which can be brought on by poor diet. Just to make things worse, the combination of poor diet, minimal exercise, acid reflux, and sleep apnea were all reinforcing each other.

Controlling how much I eat has been an ongoing challenge, but a lot of it boils down to portion size–does the whole mess on your plate equate to a mass larger than the size of your whole fist? If so, it’s probably time to cut back. Also, most American restaurant portions are at least twice what you really need. I needed to go into a place looking to eat appetizers for dinner or expecting to bring home leftovers.

As to when I ate…that probably wasn’t as big a deal at home, but at the office, well-meaning coworkers had a tendency to bring stuff into the office, or my employer would graciously stock up on snacks. Most of it was usually bad for me, so those snacks had to go. And one of the biggest things I did? Quit sodas and juices. The acid reflux made it more or less a necessity. I could drink that stuff and feel like my throat was being clenched by Darth Vader or I could drink water and not feel that way. No contest. Oh, and as a result of quitting the soda, 20 pounds disappeared and pretty much stayed off after that. I could quit alcohol as well, but good grief, why take all the enjoyment out of life?

Specific shopping advice

What I really wanted to share in this post was some constructive advice on what to buy at the grocery store. It’s done me some good. Hopefully it will help you as well.

  • As noted above, try to eat natural foods. By that I mean actual plants or animal products, not things that have been processed in some way. A “process” can be defined as anything that extends the shelf life of an otherwise-plant or -animal product and take it out of the refrigerated section. Most of these foods can be found on the perimeter of your typical American grocery store.
  • Avoid the foods in the aisles. Again, anything “dry” or with a long shelf life has a lot of preservatives and a lot of nutrients taken out.
  • Eat only the serving size at one sitting. That helps you better gauge how many calories you’re actually consuming and it helps your food last longer. Most packages (again, if it’s in a package, that’s usually a sign that it’s been processed somehow) contain more than one serving size.
  • Reduce the amount of sugar and salt you’re consuming. This includes variations on sugar, like high fructose corn syrup, or sugar substitutes–and anything that contains them. You know what I’m talking about: cookies, cakes, desserts, anything with a nutritional information label that includes “additional sugars,” and any other thing that’s probably also going to rot your teeth.
  • Focus on fish or chicken as a source of protein or, if you’re more plant-friendly, beans or other things that contain protein but don’t come from an animal. Beef is bad for a couple reasons: it’s high in saturated fat, which is bad for your weight and also can affect anyone with acid reflux (ahem).
  • Choose whole-grain breads instead of plain white bread. The flour used to make white bread is processed like nobody’s business and so has little to no nutritional value.
  • If you find yourself craving snacks, buy things that are also direct plant or animal products like fruits, nuts, or cheese.

Is that all?

Actually, despite all this sage advice I’ve just dispensed, I’m now taking a specific class on maintaining a healthy diet through A Whole New Life because while these rules seem pretty straightforward, they also struck me as boring.  I’ve been in an ongoing struggle for the last 3-4 years with trying to find foods that are:

  • Delicious
  • Filling
  • Good for me

Usually I get two out of three. (I remain overweight in part because I haven’t been able to find foods that work for me.) I’m hoping the new diet coach has some recipes or things I can try that fit all three criteria. My goal, after all, is to eat well and happily into my 90s. I sort of have my mother’s philosophy on eating: “I could live into my 90s by eating only the right foods, but good grief, why would I want to?” With that mindset in mind, my goal as I reach beyond mid-life is to eat foods that won’t kill me while also eating foods that won’t make me wish I were dead. Is that too much to ask?