Hello best health seekers!
In a year I went from falling apart physically to fit and healthy just by changing my diet. If most of your meals come packaged, require only heat and serve out of the microwave or on the stove, and are bought ready to eat, I can guess your health levels and they’re probably not good. Mine were horrible because I lived this way. My health was declining fast and I was only in my 30s. All around me I watched others my age or younger suffer from worsening health – from susceptibility to colds to pre-diabetes and kidney disease to anxiety and interrupted sleep. What did we have in common? Poor eating habits.
If you’ve read my What Happened When I Gave Up Bread article, you know that at my worst, I had:
- High blood pressure
- Inflammation in my elbow joint that caused constant shooting pain for years up my left arm
- Stiffness so severe in my right shoulder I couldn’t turn my arm past my hip
- Chest tightness
- Digestive problems
- Acne issues
- And a host of other ailments
People suggested medication or surgery for these but guess what? Changing my diet to a whole foods diet cured all of these health problems! I repeat, CURED ALL OF THESE HEALTH PROBLEMS. No medication. No surgery. I didn’t even take vitamins.
Over four changing stages of that year I grew accustomed to the new way until by the end of a year I couldn’t imaging eating any other way. That’s how you stick with a diet successfully. If I can do it, you can do it. Here’s how I went from pain to stunning health and vitality in a year.
How I Was Living, aka What Not to Do
It’s helpful to start with how I was living. Maybe you’ll see parallels in your own life. When I was having health problems, I wrongly thought my diet wasn’t so bad. After all, I rarely drank soda, wasn’t one for candy, was in a reasonable weight range (I could lose 5-10 pounds), wasn’t on medications, didn’t take any drugs (recreational or otherwise), moderately drank alcohol (maybe one glass of red wine a few times a week), and wasn’t regularly eating chips or snacks from the snack food aisle or hitting up fast food places weekly. Though I didn’t exercise, I could walk around town for hours without getting tired.
Sounds healthy right?
Not really. Come to find out, my food was pretty low in nutrition but high in sugar and refined carbs. Below are the typical meals I ate. If you eat like this or worse, your diet is high in sugar and bad carbs and you may not realize it. See how your eating compares and remember, this diet was making me sicker and sicker year by year. Only by changing it did my health problems clear up.
Breakfast. My breakfasts weren’t that healthy but I didn’t think they were unhealthy. On any given day I might have one of the following meals:
- A bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with milk
- Sometimes I had a banana or grapes but not often
- McDonald’s sausage biscuits if rushed for time
- Chocolate pop tarts
- Breakfasts from the building’s deli buffet – eggs, hash browns, sausage, biscuits and gravy, bacon (not necessarily all at once)
- Egg, cheese and ham croissant
- Chocolate croissant
Once a month someone brought donuts or bagels to the office that I’d eat. On weekends, I loved brunch with friends. I always had coffee with milk – 2 to 4 a day. Usually I drank a pint of milk daily or occasionally a bottle of orange juice.
Lunch. This meal was all over the place. I regularly ate:
- Microwave meals like Marie Calender’s, Stauffers, Hungry Man
- Heated up leftovers from dinner like pasta
- Food court meals (Mexican, Chinese, Indian or burgers)
- Chipotle taco or burrito bowl meals
- Sandwich platters from the panini shop around the corner
- Went out for larger lunches on Fridays
- If I made lunch, usually it was sandwiches
- A lot of the time I ordered a bunch of Chinese, Indian or pizza, divided them into meals, froze them, and brough them to work for lunch
Mid-day snacks. Our office hosted twenty people in the work space and someone always brought sweets. Some days this meant donuts or cookies or we’d celebrate a birthday with cake. I always had some.
Dinner. Most nights I tried to cook but this meant pasta dishes, stir-fries and stews. At least once or twice a week I’d either heat up a Red Baron’s pizza or order from Dominos. Sometimes I ordered a ton of Indian or Chinese food to make into meals for the week. I constantly did this with pizza, sometimes drinking soda with it. Maybe four nights a week I drank one glass of red wine. Once a week, particularly on weekends, I’d go out with friends to eat.
Desserts. I was pretty good about not eating after dinner but loved chocolate and if I made cookies or cupcakes, would eat 3-4 cookies or 1-2 cupcakes after dinner. I loved Doritos lime tortilla chips with salsa.
All in all, I ate a variety of foods, most of them heat and serve or already made. Dinner was about the only meal I would cook. Grain was in almost everything and I had sugary snacks daily. Does this sound like you? Does it seem reasonable? After all, I wasn’t downing 5 sodas or 3 alcoholic beverages a day. My go to meal deal wasn’t McDonald’s three times a week. At the time it didn’t seem so unhealthy compared to what I saw others eating. My weight was in the low 130s after all. I didn’t hate vegetables and kept tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms on hand. I loved cooking from scratch when I could, I just rarely had the time.
But when you break it down, there was surprisingly little nutrition in these meals and a lot of foods that actively damaged my body. You’re probably consuming these same or worse health-defeating foods while giving your body little to build upon.
The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.)
The typical American diet is nutritionally poor. 66% of it is processed. Over half of the foods Americans eat can be bought at 7-Eleven. Most of us think “processed” means candy bars and stuff from the snack aisle but it’s actually much more than that. Sugar is a processed food product. So is flour. It’s been refined a great deal. Whole wheat flour isn’t any better. This refined flour goes into our pizza, pastas, breads, and snacks – making them all processed foods stripped of nutrition. Most of these also have additives like preservatives, chemically derived flavors, emulsifiers and thickeners that aren’t healthy.
If it’s in a can, a box, or comes ready to heat and serve, assume it’s been processed and will have a host of added ingredients and substances to maintain or improve its flavor, consistency, texture and color. This includes the vegetables and fruit that might be in it. With all this comes increased levels of salt, sugar and bad fat. None of this is good for your body and will actively harm it.
What I Did to Change My Health
Getting my head in the health game didn’t happen overnight. Actually I was just trying to lose a few pounds after coming back from a year traveling in Asia and Europe. I’d slimmed down overseas but upon returning to American, gained a solid 12-15 pounds and seemed to keep gaining like there was no tomorrow.
Here are the 4 steps I went through that took me from the standard American diet to the whole foods diet and renewed health – and never wanting to go back.
Stage 1 – The Slow-Carb Diet (Months 1-3)
The road to health has a beginning and it requires taking action. Timothy Ferriss’ book The 4 Hour Body had helped me slim down in the past but years of 70+ hours at the law firm meant my eating habits focused on convenience, though I tried to stay away from fast food and burgers, fries and soda. When I got serious about losing the weight and fitting back into my favorite jeans, I brushed the dust off the book and reread it. Ferriss champions what he calls the slow-carb diet and it’s actually pretty healthy since it centers around mostly whole foods.
The tenants of the slow-carb diet are straight-forward:
- Eat lean meats and beans for almost every meal
- No white carbohydrates – cut out dairy, bread, rice, sugar, potatoes and flour
- Drink water, not your calories
- Eat as many vegetables as you like but not fruit
- Eat the same few meals routinely
- Once a week eat whatever and however much you want guilt-free
At the time I started this slow-carb experiment, I didn’t know how profoundly it would change my life or my health. I just outlined my meals for the week, then went out and bought eggs, fish, pork, beef, chicken, beans and lentils, and a few veggies I liked. I cut out the flour, bread, milk and sugar except one day a week when I would binge to my heart’s content on whatever I wanted. In the morning I drank a glass of water and again when I came home, but usually failed to drink more than that during the day. I didn’t exercise other than the hour or so walk home a few times a week but only if the weather was nice.
At the end of the week, eating three meals a day without portion control, I had dropped pounds and was feeling energized rather than tired. I went through horrible withdrawal from sugar and refined carbs (flour products) but my sluggish 3 p.m. days started tapering off, and I felt more mentally alert and had more energy day by day. When I got home, I wasn’t tired.
After 3 months, almost all my previous ailments were gone and I was starting to get mobility back in my right shoulder. This was shocking after years of constant shooting elbow joint pain all up and down my left arm and a stiff right shoulder. My weight was almost back to when I was in my teens and 20s.
Here’s how my diet changed meal by meal so you can see the differences from before.
Breakfast. 2 eggs with spinach, white beans in tomato sauce, black coffee. I’d get up 15 minutes or so early to make this, sometimes throwing it into a container to eat at work. This kept me going until lunch. This rarely changed other than me putting bacon or turkey bacon in the omelet or scrambled with the eggs.
Lunch. I started preparing my meals rather than going out or heating up a microwave meal. Instead, I bought lots of canned beans and diced tomatoes, frozen peas, as well as cooked chicken breasts, drums, and thighs from the supermarket rotisserie. My go to meal was beans mixed with diced tomatoes, cabbage and pork – a recipe I learned in Sicily while living with Italians. I also loved a cold bean salad of white beans or garbonzo beans with cucumber, diced tomatoes and anchovies. It was bean salads, bean or lentil soups, and chilli with a lot of chicken, pork and beef thrown in. It got repetitive but the meals were simple, yummy and filling. All that simplicity using whole ingredients meant I was getting tons of nutrition from the beans and veggies and feeling full from all the protein. This cut down my food cravings and random eating.
Dinner. This meal really changed. My dinners became simpler and less heavy. At the end of the day we don’t need a massive load of food. That just leads to increased BMI and poor sleep. Most of my dinners actually wound up being tacos or taco bowls (without the rice). Tacos are quick and easy. You can cook ground beef, pork, or chicken really quickly on the stove top, season them and toss them into a corn tortilla. Fish tacos were my favorite. I would drizzle lemon on the fillet while it cooked and loved a homemade Sriracha sauce of mayo with lime and cayenne. If I wasn’t eating tacos, I ate a bean salad or bean soup, all from canned beans mixed with other ingredients. I stayed away from canned or ready to go soups or meals. Pork and chicken with veggies were also a staple. Everything was simple and I controlled the ingredients.
Dessert. I bought or made my own dark chocolate bars (70% or higher) and would break off 3-4 pieces to sate my sweet tooth.
These were the main foods I ate but the combinations were endless. I started eating more veggies, mostly frozen ones I could add to a dish, though I kept my pantry stocked with fresh tomatoes, onions and mushrooms.
The great thing about this diet was the free pass to binge once a week. I could usually hold off most cravings if I knew I could gorge later. And I did. I had my pizzas, my chocolate croissants, my pastas, cake, cookies, cheese puffs, etc. and all with no guilt. Was I always good? Hell no. But I didn’t beat myself up for mistakes, just resolved to stick with the program and keep trying.
The Mental Shift
During this time I listened to health books on audio nonstop at work. This encouraged my pursuit of health, kept me motivated, and at times scared me so badly that to this day I never look at “food products” on our grocery store shelves the same way. Most importantly, I grew conscious of what I put into my body and began to understand how different types of food impact our health – physical and emotional – not just our weight.
In the first three months of this shift to what is essentially a whole foods diet by another name, my health improved noticeably, with my joint pain easing, my weight dropping quickly, my appetite normalizing, my acne disappearing, and so on. This turned a lightbulb on for me and made me realize that food was medicine and if eaten improperly, it acts like poison.
Stage 2 – Eating for Health (Months 3-6)
The first few months of my diet were about losing pounds and eating with more restraint. Because of my mental shift toward nutrition, the next three months focused on eating for health. I was in my mid-thirties, closing in on 40. I wasn’t running 5ks or 10ks anymore. Those days were long gone so I dreaded the slowed metabolism and weight increases of middle-age. Ugh. Little did I know that the slow-carb diet proposed by Timothy Ferriss was a game changer. It took me into the realm of whole foods and learning about what good nutrition actually means.
When I lost pounds on this mostly whole foods diet, that was great but reversing almost all my health ailments was a wake up call. I got super into understanding nutrition and how food was raised. I read about every diet under the sun before settling on adopting a less limiting whole foods diet than the slow-carb diet with its monotonous repetition of meals. After reading dozens of books and research studies, the whole foods diet seemed the proven cure or preventative for most of what ails us.
But what are whole foods?
Whole foods are plant foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, and are free from additives or other artificial substances like emulsifiers, preservatives or conditioners before being consumed.
Examples of whole foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, tubers, and whole grains. For the carnivores out there, I would add that fresh meat in the butcher and seafood sections of grocery stores fit the bill even though it’s not a plant. Same with eggs and milk. The healthiest and most long-lived populations in the world – known as blue zones – eat meat or seafood. The only vegetarians who rank among this select group are Seventh Day Adventists. Even they usually eat eggs and dairy.
Everything else is not a whole food. See my article What are Whole Foods? to get a good understanding of whole foods.
You might be surprised to learn that flour is a highly refined carb and isn’t a whole food. Anything made from a processed ingredient like flour or sugar as its main ingredient quickly becomes a processed food such as pasta and bread products. Frozen foods excluding frozen vegetables, frozen meats, and frozen fruit are highly processed. Their ingredient lists run row upon row.
Moral or religious reasons aside, going vegan or vegetarian might be wise simply because of the degraded quality of once healthier and nutritious meats. Seafood with mercury or farm-raised fish with low nutrition isn’t good for anyone. The same could be said about any animal who isn’t eating its natural diet, and let’s face it, your store-bought beef, pork and poultry aren’t grazing like they did back in the 1800s. They’re eating dubious grain of dubious quality, loaded with antibiotics, and the quality has declined so much that the meat is laced with flavoring so that it tastes like its supposed to.
When I started researching food and how it gets to our table, it was quite the education. Then I learned the chemistry behind food and understood how certain foods and their molecules interact with our various systems – neural, cardiovascular, renal, etc. – to either build and maintain us or actively attack and erode our bodies.
With this knowledge and understanding I began to eat for health and love the beauty of whole, well-grown foods and how delicious they can taste. At this point the monotony of only a handful of the same meals every week gave way to more inclusive foods, adding back in fruits or more fatty foods like avocados and nuts. Mostly I kept away from white foods like potatoes and rice or grains except sparingly. If it was processed though, it rarely went into my cart as I started seeing these products as junk that might hurt me, not food that would increase or maintain my health.
Stage 3 – Pescatarian Adventures (Months 6-9)
During months 6 to 9, I brought in different whole foods and learned to cook with them. Diet shifts can stumble if not supported by yummy foods we actually want to eat and I was discovering tons of options. Browsing the grocery store became a favorite way to relax. My eating habits took an even healthier step by both design and circumstance when I accidentally discovered weird ingredients in otherwise wholesome-seeming foods. Let me explain.
I love to cook but working 55+ hours on a project meant little time for cooking. That and I lack patience and a sophisticated palate. My favorite meals take 15 minutes to make in a pan on the stove top. If it takes more than 30 minutes in a pan or isn’t in my rice cooker, I’m not making it very often. If it requires a lot of prepping or skill, it’s also not getting cooked until my days off. This is why I love fish and began cooking it more than the other meats recommended on the slow-carb diet.
Becoming almost exclusively pescatarian was something that happened after about six months of me starting my new diet. I love that fish is cheap, tasty and easy to cook. I love that it can come in cans or in tins for easy use, unlike beef, pork, or chicken (I’m not a canned chicken fan). I’d buy tins of smoked mussels or clams or oysters, sardines, and anchovies all the time and eat them as cheap snacks (and still do).
What turned me off cooking with pork, chicken and beef and into the arms of seafood were the quality problems. Getting wild caught cod or tilapia was easy and inexpensive. Grass fed beef, though, was way too pricy. Most organic meats were. I also got really annoyed by the quality of the meat. If I didn’t season it properly it tasted like cardboard. Or it was too tough. If overcooked, it was pretty much inedible. With fish, it’s quick and I could just throw on a dash of lemon, pepper and salt and it came out fine every time.
The other issue with quality were the surprise ingredients in meat. I loved sausage when I lived in Italy. The quality is soooo good and cheaply priced there. Every time I checked the ingredients on sausage at the grocery store back in America, I saw high fructose corn syrup or nitrates and sulphites. Most times I never saw sausage without these or a host of other dubious ingredients. Sausage is just ground up pork. Unless you’re adding in herbs, you don’t need any other ingredients. I started buying ground pork figuring it was close enough. Then one day I saw the ingredients on the pack I’d picked up: pork, natural flavors.
Now, if you’ve looked into the chemistry of food, you know like me that natural flavors mean chemical ingredients, not a squeeze of lemon or something “natural”. Chemists actually create these flavors using a host of chemicals that would startle you. Seeing “natural flavors” on a pack of ground pork upset me because it’s a good indication that the quality is so poor that the food company has to add in a chemically created flavor to make the meat taste like it should. Any time you see “natural flavor” as an ingredient, it’s a huge red flag on quality.
I put down the packaged meat and basically went pescatarian right then.
You see, walking through the meat aisle had become an ordeal. Prices were expensive for very low quality. This low quality came at the expense of flavor and nutrition. I also worried about the antibiotics and the nutrition of food given to the animals, the processing that meant my food was likely packaged in unsanitary conditions after gassing and other food tampering. Finding natural flavors on the ingredient list for what should have just read “beef” or “pork” or “chicken” was the last straw in my search for real food that would contribute to my health.
Fish can be farmed and can have mercury issues but it’s not got the same problems as the other industries, at least not yet. Anchovies for instance, are one of the healthiest foods and highly sustainable. So is tilapia and other white fish which I enjoy. I love mussels and clams, oysters and scallops. If it comes from the sea, I probably like it. In Japan, one of the healthiest and longest-living cultures out there, they eat tons of seafood and they got me addicted to it while I lived there. The Spanish and Italians love their seafood – two other cultures I’ve spent time living among. Guess what? They’re a whole lot healthier than us Americans.
So I became pescatarian.
Do I never eat other meats? Sometimes but rarely. I don’t shop from the butcher section anymore. If I’m visiting friends or relatives though I don’t turn my nose up at their foods. Now and again if I’m out socializing and we go to a restaurant, I’ll have meat but 90% of the time, I’m only eating seafood and eggs in addition to my fruits, vegetables, legumes, pulses, nuts and seeds. Even my dairy consumption is virtually non-existent.
My health and vitality? Never better.
Stage 4 – Falling in Love with Whole Foods (Months 9-12)
Somewhere around month nine I reached a tipping point. This was a place where my addiction to sugar, cheese and flour stopped tormenting me with their loss, as did so many other dishes that I’d pout over or covet until then. Instead I started craving the good stuff and lost the urge to even peek down old aisles. That transition takes time to develop. Now, after a year, my default is fruits and vegetables, beans and seafood. I crave curries and bean salads and love a dollop of coconut milk in my coffee over dairy. A year in, I’m less worried about falling off the wagon. In fact, it seems actually impossible to ever go back to eating the way I did over a year ago.
That is diet victory. When you reach a point when the past is impossible and even repugnant to return to, you know you’ve changed direction forever.
On top of this, when you love food and cooking, you realize more and more that a wide world of dishes exist. Healthy eating need not consist of salads and celery. If you look at the cooking habits of Sardinians (the only culture where men live as long as women) or Okinawans, you see a plethora of delicious food on their tables. These people know how to eat! Many other places have long-living populations that enjoy a superb quality of life. Just pop down to the Mediterranean and you’ll see living and eating like it should be done.
Eating well means finding the foods you enjoy that also happen to be nutritious. I look up recipes like crazy and find so many that I can never cook them all. After a while of doing this, I developed such a knowledge bank and repertoire that I spontaneously began making my own delicious creations.
Being a born-again health nut led me to experiment with being vegan and even try going raw vegan, which worked really well during the summer months when there were so many amazing fresh fruits and vegetables available at great prices. Making fruit smoothies or fruit bowls in the heat of summer is a real treat. The health benefits were impressive too. When I checked my blood pressure after a few weeks of eating mostly raw fruits and veggies, my blood pressure clocked in at 93/63 (and no, that’s not in the dangerous realm of low blood pressure. It’s actually very healthy).
While it’s easy to get obsessed with a new lifestyle and push its boundaries and limits, the important thing is learning what works for us. It’s a balance of delicious recipes and optimum nutrition – and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Do I still have chocolate cake, burgers and pizza? Yes, but not weekly. More like monthly or less and usually reserved for when I know I’ll be with family and friends for special events.
Is it difficult to stick with things? Sometimes but it’s easier every month. The hardest transition is learning how to be polite but firm with friends and family. I’ve had conversations with them about my health problems and how the diet works at keeping me cured. If they keep trying to shove waffles, pancakes, pastas and breads down me, I politely remind them (yet again) of my gluten issues and how I will start feeling extreme pain if I eat any. People, even well-meaning ones, will push me on this or forget. If I slip and take a cookie or fresh bread, it only encourages them. Most now know I’m strict and have a points system for “treats” that are sparingly dished out. Usually I take my snacks and some preferred foods with me just in case so I’m not tempted. This keeps me from backsliding.
If people think I’m not enjoying life or am missing out, they are very wrong. I am simply enjoying my health. I’ve eaten a lifetime’s worth of ice cream and pizza. So many wonderful foods exist that I haven’t tried – the number of curries, for example, are endless – and I’d prefer to eat those. I enjoy not being on medications or having shooting pains up my left arm every three seconds, being able to fully utilize my right shoulder, getting great sleep and not having digestive issues. My skin is more beautiful than ever. As I watch those same pushy or well-meaning friends and family members succumb to diabetes and chronic kidney disease and can’t play with their children, I have to wonder who is really missing out.
At the end of my first year of whole foods, I not only fell in love with the taste of nutritious food but I loved how food could keep me healthy and vital. This is a great place to be.
A Year to Good Health
When I look back at the beginning of my food journey, I see a person addicted to sugar and refined foods like bread and flour and with a body starting to fall apart from their intake. Changing my diet from mostly processed (something I hadn’t realized) to whole foods cured my declining health. It took a year though to go from sugar and refined-carb addicted to eating mostly fruits and vegetables and wondering how I could ever go back to my food habits prior to the diet shift.
It takes time for your body to adjust to the new foods. Our microbiome and digestive systems have to relearn how to process the food. Our taste buds require reprogramming to lose their preferences and develop new ones. Addictions take time to break. Sugar and refined carbs – the staples of our food culture – are some of the most addicting things out there. In a famous study, cocaine-addicted rats would forgo hits of cocaine for sugar-water. That’s how addictive this stuff is.
Food is also culture, so learning new behaviors took time as well, such as how to politely turn down office snacks or resist invites to pasta dinners. We grow up on certain foods and we must unlearn our cravings for the foods we find comforting but which destroy our health. Unfortunately, our culture loves all the worst offenders and none of the winners. Mac n’ cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, burgers, fries and soda are our national loves. Throw in apple pie and ice cream for dessert. These foods are American comfort foods but none of them provide any nutrition or maybe just a whiff at most. Maybe.
Take up the whole foods diet. You can only improve your health by doing so. It’s an adventure and I highly encourage you to go on it and start eating for health. Try it for a year and I guarantee you won’t be the same person by the end of month twelve. You’ll be a thousand times healthier and energetic.
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