Tuesday, June 22, 2010
The word exodus comes from the ancient Greek phrase εκ όδος, meaning “the path out of…” So if my personal genesis began the day I chose to better myself, the exodus was the decade that followed. I too had wandered in the wilderness, and though it was difficult to see in the moment, it nourished me. It gave me not only knowledge, but in due time self-confidence and wisdom. Considering the impetus to this change was my unhealthy lifestyle, I should begin with the changes that I struggled with the longest—the physical.
By the time I moved to Florida in 1998, I was down to about 200 lbs. I felt good about myself and the direction my life was headed. I had moved down here to try college a second time and made working out a priority. Perhaps too much of a priority. After losing all of the weight, I found my cardio disappearing from my routine and being replaced with more weight lifting. By New Year’s 1999, I was back up to 240, but considerably more muscular. I probably ate about 5,000 calories a day on average back then to try and keep my weight up. I was strong as an ox and about as flexible as one too. Once I started training in martial arts again, I lost 20 pounds immediately and then vacillated between 200 and 215 for the better part of a decade.
Even when I viewed myself as being relatively healthy, I still didn’t realize how much what I was eating affected me. Fast food is a great example of this. If I were to go to Taco Bell—which I often did—I would rationalize my decision by telling myself, “Well, at least I’m getting the chicken soft tacos…” Or, I would write it off as no big deal because “I work out.” The truth of the matter is that once I eliminated fast food from my diet, that “stubborn” weight that I could never seemingly shed began to disappear.
But it’s not just fast food!
It’s processed food, all of it. My brother Brad used to get so irate when he’d see me eating certain foods, telling me about GMOs and all sorts of industrial agricultural secrets that America is luckily beginning to wake up to. He was several years ahead of the curve, but he piqued my interest and I began to read up on what he had been telling me. The first book I read—and I would highly recommend to you—is Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. I think it’s safe to say that most people eat fast food out of convenience, then perhaps taste, price, and everything else. I can’t imagine people preferring a fast food meal over something made at home. Be that as it may, what makes fast food so insidious is the propaganda these companies use to sell you the idea that their food is tasty, healthful, or what have you. When you pull back the curtain to look the wizard in the eye, though, it ain’t pretty. I won’t go on forever about fast food, but let’s put it this way. In the last year and a half the only fast food I’ve eaten is Chick-fil-a. It’s probably happened fewer than half a dozen times. And even then it was only the sandwich on a wheat bun.
Another great book that provides perhaps an even greater in-depth look at the types of food chains available to humans is Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan explores the way that Americans eat and how they procure that food. He begins with industrial agriculture, which is essentially what you’d get in almost any regular restaurant, fast food or otherwise, or from the large chain grocery stores. Pollan next tackles organic food, both large and small scale production, and finally does some hunting and gathering to round out the book.
If you don’t have time to read, or if you prefer the visual medium instead, I’d urge you to watch Food, Inc, which is a 2008 documentary that covers much of the material in both of the aforementioned books (both authors are in the film, too). If you’d like a thorough documentary about corn, check out King Corn, a great little film by two young recent college graduates who are curious about why our country grows so much of the stuff. Either of these films is an excellent choice and both provide insight as to why I—and America at large—had struggled with weight…it’s the food.
Since learning about all of this food business, I radically altered my diet. As I mentioned earlier, I do my best not to eat any fast food whatsoever. It’s rather impossible to not eat industrial produced food, but you can still make sound choices when you are at the grocery store. Here are a few absolutes to avoid. It may mean extra label reading on your part, but you’ll find without these few items in your daily diet you’ll discover greater levels of energy and probably feel a lot better in general.
No HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)
HFCS is bad news. This is the form of sugar that is derived from corn (one of the 2 billion uses, I’m sure). People might think it’s not so insidious; after all, it’s corn! But that’s where it gets tricky. It’s also sugar—the worst kind, too. With ordinary sugar (sucrose), our bodies are only able to handle so much at a time. When I was a kid and Coke was still made with regular sugar, if you drank two whole bottles (8 oz. back then) you’d be begging for a stomach ache. That’s the body’s signal telling the brain “STOP IT WITH THE SUGAR ALREADY!” While it is true that HFCS is metabolized the same way as regular sugar (after all, this is what they tell you on those Sweet Surprise commercials on television—the same commercials sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association of America), the single fact that they don’t mention is that HFCS never triggers that signal. So the sugar keeps getting chugged and chugged, creating a diabetes and obesity epidemic that is out of control. It’s no wonder I was so heavy. I used to drink Mountain Dew all the time, at least 60-80 oz per day. There are 52 grams of sugar in one 12 oz can; that’s between 300-400 grams of sugar every day. The suggested total carbohydrate consumption for an average 2,000 calorie day is 300. And on top of the soda was the pizza, the Chinese food, the Taco Bell, the McDonald’s or whatever else. The truth is most of us minimize the detrimental impacts of our eating habits on our health. It only takes a few choices to turn it all around, though.
No Hydrogenated Oils (Partially or Otherwise)
To me, hydrogenated oils complete the one-two punch of processed foods. So many of the products we buy at the grocery store contain either this or HFCS or both in combination. Essentially, these are standard oils that are bombarded with additional molecules that transform the oil to a semi-solid state. Peanut butter is a classic example. If you eat all-natural peanut butter like I do, you’re used to seeing it as a suspension. The peanut oil separates from the ground peanut paste and you have to mix it back together. Jif, Peter Pan, and other types of “standard” peanut butter are made with hydrogenated oils to give it that processed, er, I mean, perfect texture. What makes these so bad is that they are extremely difficult for the body to break down due to their synthetic nature. Additionally, hydrogenated oils are specifically responsible for those “Trans Fats” that are now so common in all foods. And don’t be fooled by the labels, either. Many people will stop and point to the label and say, “See! These don’t have trans fats.” The truth is many of those same products do in fact have trans fats, but our toothless regulatory agencies such as the USDA and FDA allowed food processors to only list trans fats if the product has more than ½ gram per serving. Here’s a great example: many store-bought cookies state that they have no trans fats. In reality, many of them have slightly less than the half gram per serving—but the serving is one or sometimes two cookies. If you eat six, you may have consumed several grams of this stuff. Trans fats are being used less in many processed foods, but there are still enough of them out there to make sure you double check the label for hydrogenated oils. If it’s in the product at all, that means there is trans fat no matter what the label says.
No Enriched Flour
Enriched flour is your basic flour. This is what you’ll find in most white breads, some imposter wheat breads, cake mixes, cookies, and just about everything else requiring flour to create. Enriched flour may sound like it’s good for you, but it’s not. It is whole wheat flour that is good for you; enriched flour was once upon a time whole wheat flour, but it had the unfortunate circumstance to be bleached and have every other healthful benefit stripped from it. The real issue with consuming enriched flour, then, is what happens after it hits your digestive tract. It has a high glycemic index, which is a fancy way of saying that it taxes your system because it is converted to sugar. Most processed snack foods have high scores on the glycemic index, which makes them dangerous because the body can’t burn off all of that excess sugar. So what does the body do? Convert it to fat for future storage. The only unfortunate thing about this evolutionary trick is that we are no longer hunter/gatherers who go days without eating. It’s not feast or famine in America; it’s feast any time you want.
What all of this means taken together is that if you want permanent change that will affect every aspect of your life, it means no more junk/processed/fast food. At least 50% (probably much, much more) of what lines the shelves at the local grocery store is nothing but empty calories. I’ve discussed the following phenomenon with my students a great deal over the past school year: Why is that in America people will pay top dollar to have that bigger house, or that latest sports car, or the designer clothing, but will subject their bodies to the cheapest, crappiest food they can find? Food is what sustains us. Food is the fuel that drives the engine of our lives, and yet we take our food for granted. Again, it’s tempting to minimize the detrimental impacts of our food consumption on our overall health, but we can’t afford to live like this any longer. 1 out of 3 children born in the United States after the year 2000 will have children’s onset diabetes. For minorities that rate will be 1 in 2. This is all part of a systemic problem that some Americans are beginning to realize, but if you’re reading this you can start today.
Ever since I significantly reduced my consumption of the three devils, I dropped that last 20 pounds that I could never shake. My weight now fluctuates between 180 and 185, just depending on how much good food I ate the day before. Though I don’t eat completely organic, my wife and I try to purchase as much as we can. Yes, it is more expensive, but this is a topic to which I will return in the near future. I can guarantee this, however, if you do completely cut out the HFCS, hydrogenated oils, and the enriched flour, you’ll probably find yourself having a lot more energy. I laugh when I see those 5-Hour Energy commercials about that “2:30 in the afternoon feeling.” I don’t ever have that now that I eat small meals frequently that aren’t loaded down with excess sugar or that will be converted to sugar. Whether your goal is simply to lose weight or eat more healthfully, with a little research and label reading you’ll be feeling better about yourself in every way. I am fully convinced that there is a synergistic effect between a healthy body and a healthy mind. Because the more in shape I became physically, the more I could feel myself being altered for the better mentally.
Though it took me more than ten years to make these changes permanent, I can tell you honestly I will never go back to eating the way I once did.
Happy healthful eating!