Sunday, February 12, 2012
How’ve you been, NIP?
It’s been a while since I last discussed physical health, and I wanted to do so today because of the interest in “The H Diet.” A couple of months ago, our school newspaper did a feature on me in an effort to promote healthy lifestyle choices. Since that time, many co-workers and students who have heard about “The H Diet” (that’s what the student journalist titled her piece) but missed the article have asked me what the diet entails. And while the list is actually quite short, it’s not so much about what I do or don’t eat—although that is a crucial aspect to some degree—it’s more about taking the time to invest in better eating habits in a number of ways. The easiest way for me to describe the secret to the way I eat is simple and can be expressed in two words: slow down.
The first step to making this commitment is realizing that changing one’s diet isn’t about a short-term weight loss goal but rather a long-term health commitment. By and large Americans hear the word diet and think it is a tool to shed those unwanted pounds for aesthetic value. While this certainly affects our self-image, it’s perhaps best to focus primarily on our health instead of our weight. If you’re in for the long haul and want to better your eating habits overall, losing the weight will come naturally. As I mentioned in a much older letter (“Exodus”), the more I learned about agribusiness and our industrialized food system, the more I eliminated certain ingredients from my diet. Therefore, “The H Diet” is simple in the sense that there are three “must avoids”: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Oils, and Enriched Flour. If you want to know why those are so bad for you, NIP, just consult the aforementioned letter. The other items on the list are the “try-to avoids”: artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors…basically anything artificial. So how does slowing down help us? By reading labels. The first step I always suggest to anyone is to begin reading labels. If it has any one of the three “must avoids,” just eliminate it from your diet. Yes, this means you’ll probably never be able to open a bag or a box again and start munching, but most of those foods that are highly processed are only empty calories anyway. The other tip that I have in this regard is that if it has more than 5 ingredients (except for complex carbs like breads or pastas), you probably don’t want to eat it. People often scoff at this idea asking “what does that leave me to eat?” Primarily a whole foods diet, really. You know, stuff that grows out of the ground rather than being made on an assembly line.
The second step to slowing down is taking the time to plan and prepare your meals. Far too many people rely on fast food. Not only is it extremely detrimental to your health, it impacts your wallet too. Most people believe that fast food is cheap and convenient when in actuality it’s neither. I’ve done the math and on an average day Erin and I eat 3 good meals with snacks in between each of those meals for a total of $15 or under. A couple could easily spend that much on two “value” meals at a fast food restaurant—and that’s only one meal! Additionally, preparing meals allows you to have leftovers, which typically translates to an even lower food bill. Many naysayers tell me that they simply “don’t have the time” to which I counter with “if it’s important enough to you, you’ll find the time.” The fiscal part of the equation, though, wins over a lot of people—especially people living on a strict budget. The other refutation I often hear is that eating organic food is too expensive. Again, this is a fallacy for several reasons, not the least of which is conventional food is effectively subsidized by all taxpayers, only rendering the illusion of it costing less. Most Americans eat far too many calories as it is, and if one were to eat the right proportions and eliminate wasteful spending on junk/snack/highly processed foods eating organic foods can fit within most budgets. Plus, as I always tell my students, you can still make better choices with conventionally produced food (e.g. why not have an apple rather than a bag of Cheetos?).
The third step is my favorite: it’s actually slowing down while you eat. Not only will this allow your stomach time to send the “I’m full” signal to your brain, but you’ll end up eating less food overall. But more importantly, if you’re eating mindfully it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Many psychologists and nutritionists agree that the vast majority of eating disorders stem from stress and/or emotions. Americans turn to food for a sense of comfort rather than fuel. But you can have both, to be honest. While I primarily see it as fuel, I take comfort in food too. In fact, I relish just about every bite I eat—especially my peanut butter and honey on whole wheat sandwich. Without fail, I eat this every single day during the workweek for lunch. Not only is it inexpensive (about 85 cents per sandwich, I’ve calculated it), it’s filling and delicious. I usually begin my lunch by taking a few deep breaths and thinking about the sandwich, admiring the texture of the wheat bread, the aroma of the sandwich as a whole, and considering all that made the sandwich possible—from the sun that grew the wheat, the farmers who raised the peanuts, the beekeepers who procured the honey from the hives, to the delivery people who bring it to the store. This entire web of interconnectivity makes me deeply grateful for a simple sandwich and only enhances the experience when I take that first bite. A student caught me looking at my sandwich in this way one day before eating it and he asked me if I was saying grace. I responded with “sort of” and told him about mindful eating and since that time he said he’s been doing it too. Even something as simple as slowing down while we’re eating can make all the difference.
We live in a society that is always scurrying around looking for quick fixes, but the real remedy is to actually take our time. Slowing down is not only crucial for our eating habits, but our overall health as well. Changing one’s diet should be a gradual process because healthy living is a long term goal, not something that can be found in a pill or a frozen Lean Cuisine entrée. Students, co-workers, friends, and family have seen my before and after photos (you can see them on the “Genesis” letter) and cannot believe how different I look. What I wish I could truly share, however, is how I feel physically. Once I gave up eating fast food and highly processed “food” completely, I noticed a tremendous difference in the way I felt. It’s hard to put into words what eating well can do for you, NIP, so I’ll leave you with the same challenge I give to anyone else—try it. Try to slow down for 30 days by eliminating those ingredients, preparing your own meals, and taking the time to appreciate your food while consuming it. The people who have gone on to actually change their diet for a month all told me how much better they felt. See for yourself—what else have you got to lose?
Here’s to your health, NIP!