Pre-diabetic? Starting to get kidney stones? Feeling sluggish or anxious? Have inflammation, digestion or auto-immune issues? It may surprise you that these and many other modern ills are overwhelmingly related to our diets. Food is chemistry and what we eat and drink impacts our bodies – by either giving it what it needs or what it doesn’t. This effects how well we function – or don’t – on all levels and over time the impact only grows. Study after study shows that the American diet – known for high levels of processed foods and intakes of sugar, salt and processed oils – causes anything from diabetes, stroke, cancers, kidney disease, heart disease and so much more.
If you want to take back your health, start with what you’re eating. Most of these illnesses weren’t an issue for the majority of people until the late 1800s when we began eating more sugar, processed oils and refined carbs, then really got going once the processed food market evolved. Since then, our rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, chronic kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, and high blood pressure, among others, have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, a Consumer Reports medical survey found that 55 percent of adults and children regularly take prescription medications. Those who use a prescription drug take four, on average, and many also take over-the-counter drugs. Between 1997 and 2016, the number of prescriptions filled rose 85 percent. If you’re one of the many taking prescriptions, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to cut down or eliminate their use? Healthy eating is one of the best roads to recovery.
Here are 7 steps to take you from take-out, frozen meals, fast-food and highly processed and overly sugary and salty foods to eating real food and actually liking it. After all, eating is one of life’s pleasure and once you start the journey back to real food, you’ll find that eating healthy is as delicious or more so than eating the junk that makes up a majority of the modern American diet.
What is the Standard American Diet?
Before looking at the steps to recovery, let’s look at what makes up the standard American diet. It is a modern dietary pattern that is generally characterized by high intakes of red meat, processed meat, pre-packaged foods, butter, fried foods, high-fat dairy products, eggs, refined grains, potatoes, corn (and High-fructose corn syrup) and high-sugar drinks. The modern standard American diet was brought about by fundamental lifestyle changes. According to Forks Over Knives, the diet is 62% processed foods, 26% meat, and only 12% fruits, vegetables, nut and seeds, and beans. Of this latter 12% though, half are french fries.
But this is only part of the story. Newsweek has reported that more than half of the diet can be bought at 7-Eleven since Americans are overwhelmingly relying on foods of convenience over things that are good like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. “Ultra processed foods” make up over half (58%) of the calories consumed by Americans. Ultra-processed foods include items such as candy, salty snacks, packaged sweets and baked goods like cakes and cookies, chicken and fish nuggets and instant noodle soups. It’s the foods that seem to withstand time and remain edible in a very unnatural way. They’re filled with emulsifiers, additives, chemicals and preservatives, as well as high levels of sugar, salt and fat.
To put things into perspective, 200 years ago we ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year (1). Today the average American consumes 152 pounds a year or roughly 3 pounds (or 6 cups) a WEEK. This added sugar can come from white table sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, brown sugar and the myriad other sugars commonly found in our processed foods today. Adding to our health woes is the increased use of plant oils in cooking and processed foods. You may be surprised to learn that the technology to produce your vegetable oil didn’t actually exist until a hundred years ago (2). For instance, today soybean oil is the most common form of vegetable oil. In the past one hundred years we’ve gone from consuming ZERO pounds to 24 pounds per person a year thanks to its cheapness and common use in processed foods.
The American diet is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the rise of sugar, refined grain and processed oil consumption along with other shifts in our food culture. People haven’t had time to adopt genetically to these changes and we’re seeing the repercussions in rising rates of modern diseases including diabetes, obesity, heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer’s and cancer. It’s past time we changed our food habits to more properly mimic what the body can handle and actually wants.
Back to Health Means Back to Real Food
As you can see, the standard American diet is a diet out of rhythm with our body’s actual nutritional needs. By contrast, a healthy diet has high proportions of unprocessed fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole-grain foods, poultry, and fish. The longest-living populations in the world eat real food, aka whole foods. The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, a primarily vegetarian population, live 10 years longer and in better health than the average American. So do other whole food eating populations like the Sardinians of Italy and the Okinawans of Japan. Known as Blue Zones, these are three of five populations that share common characteristics when it comes to the foods they eat (overwhelmingly whole foods) and their lifestyle traits.
Real food is the key to health. Food accounts for 57% of what determines our health, with genetics only playing 12% (read Brain Maker by David Perlmutter, MD). If we’re eating junk, then our bodies will reflect that – so if we’re eating only 30% unprocessed food, we’re setting ourselves up for ill-health. The way to correct that is to eat real food for the majority (i.e. 70%) of our meals like Blue Zone populations do. This means cutting down on convenience foods, eating more fresh foods, eating less sugar and processed foods, and in general, avoiding empty calorie foods that have unfortunately become our mainstays.
Here’s how to make the shift without feeling like you’ve gone to prison but rather have obtained a new lease on life – and health – and even discovered a more delicious way of living.
Step 1 – Look at Your Pantry
We can’t go anywhere if we don’t know where we are. Eating for health begins with looking at what’s currently in your fridge, on your shelves and wherever you store food. Is your freezer full of frozen meals and desserts? Is the fridge empty, signifying that you mostly go out to eat, order pre-made meals or graze on prepackaged foods? How much of your cabinet space is devoted to mixes or box foods? How much to fresh foods? Do you cook with oils or have tons of cheese products? What about snacks and desserts? How much space is devoted to fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, or whole grains? What drinks do you consume? Remember to include what you typically eat at work or school and when out and about or with friends and family.
In Step 1, just look and see what you’re currently eating. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just look. What do you think is adding to your health or actively harming it? What do you think is neutral or do you have foods that you have no idea about? Which ones do you absolutely love or feel so-so about? Think about your typical week or month. How often do you buy your breakfast, lunch, dinner or grab something when you’re out and about? Do you like to go to happy hour or kick back with a beer? Have you ever looked at what the ingredients are in any of the items you consume?
In other words, what are you currently eating and drinking? It may be helpful to keep a food diary for a week or month to track what you’re actually consuming and how much. It can be as simple as taking a picture before you eat or drink it. This is where you are. Start thinking of where you’d like to be and how you might start changing your actions to meet that goal.
Step 2 – See Food as Medicine
As we said before, food is chemistry. Everything you consume will have a chemical impact on you. Virtually nothing will leave your system unchanged. Start looking at food as not something you eat because you’re hungry or have a craving but as ingredients for health. Is what you just picked up going to help or hurt your body overall? How will you know?
Here’s a clue: if it’s not a whole food, it’s probably not doing you any good and is likely to actually cause problems. As a reminder, whole food is basically a fresh, whole ingredient and falls under the category of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and beans. It isn’t processed. Processed foods are refined (like white flour and sugars) or include additives like preservatives, emulsifiers, flavorings and other artificial substances. Most breads, pastas, baked goods and desserts, snacks, boxed foods, canned products and frozen foods are highly processed. In your walk down aisles in the grocery store, you’ll see almost exclusively processed foods. Real food is located in the produce section or where the beans, nuts and seeds, and whole grains are kept.
Whole foods are like medicine for us. They build, repair and heal us because they provide the best source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, live enzymes, probiotics, antioxidants and healthy forms of carbs, fats, and proteins that our bodies need to be healthy. Take these away and we suffer.
Step 2 is about seeing food’s purpose and getting into the mindset of healthy eating. We use food to celebrate, console ourselves, unwind, enjoy time with friends and family and so much more. But the first purpose of food is health, something we’ve forgotten. A mental shift back to appreciating this function of food will get you off on the right foot for eating for nutrition rather than just grabbing what looks good on the shelf. And remember, eating for health doesn’t mean ditching flavor or eating only unappetizing rabbit food. The Sardinians of Italy are one of longest lived and healthy people in the world and no one would claim that Italian food lacks flavor or diversity. Plenty of other long-lived and healthy cultures eat fantastic food so healthy living doesn’t mean punishing yourself.
It’s easy to leap in and get carried away with a diet change – only to revert to form in a month at the latest. Changing food habits actually takes a bit of time. If nothing else, you’re retraining your taste buds to appreciate new flavors, retraining your body to digest better foods, and kicking addictions to things like sugar and refined carb products. None of this happens overnight.
Even if you clean out your fridge today and stock it with only whole foods and maybe some meat and seafood, your body and mind will still have their own preferences. Ever tried to quit coffee or caffeine? It probably wasn’t easy. Possibly you quit trying before you could quit the caffeine. Likely you had withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fatigue, irritability and more. It’s the same for shifting from processed food, especially sugary and refined carb ones, to real foods. Over time your taste buds and digestive system make the switch but it usually takes a few weeks to a few months.
Go at your own pace when changing your diet to real food, though the sooner you make the change, the better for your body and health. Aim to complete the shift within a year, with most changes done within 3-6 months. Spend the first month to three months making small but targeted changes that will help you maintain a long-term change. A helpful way of doing this is downsizing unhealthy habits that are relatively painless to do (Step 3), ratcheting down symptoms of cravings and dependence on unhealthy foods (Step 4), increasing what you already do well (Step 5), and replacing unhealthy foods (Step 6) with healthy ones that you’ll actually love to eat (as opposed to eating something just because you should).
Let’s take a look at these methods for putting health front and center without skimping on flavor and enjoyment.
Step 3 – Downsize
To get into the swing of healthy eating, target the unhealthy food habits you’re willing to change. Downsize the ones that aren’t so onerous for you first.
Downsizing requires looking at your patterns of excess or default habits, which vary from person to person. Maybe you’re drinking 5 sodas a day and could make do with 1 without too much of an issue with the help of tricks found in the steps we’ll go over next. Or maybe you’re going to McDonald’s or Starbucks for breakfast or lunch almost every day and it wouldn’t be difficult for you to make better breakfasts or lunches rather than buy them. If you find yourself eating sugary, salty or fatty snacks or desserts every evening maybe you can switch to fewer nights or reserve them for the weekend.
In Step 3, look at where you tend to overdo something when it comes to processed and ultra processed foods mentioned in the standard American diet. You don’t have to cut it out completely if you don’t want to, just start downsizing its prevalence. In the fast food example, instead of several times a week, switch to once a week as a treat. Like with seeing food as medicine, when you see processed food as junk food, you’ll start re-categorizing it as a treat or poisin- something to be done once in a while or not at all, not every day or several time a week. We’ll be supporting the move with steps 4, 5 and 6 which help minimize and eliminate cravings and withdrawal symptoms which threaten to sabotage our achievements.
What’s easiest for you to limit? Go with that, not what’s hardest unless you savor a challenge. Going for the easy win will build confidence and momentum, which with time will make it easier to tackle more difficult food issues.
Step 4 – Ratchet Down
Cutting down on bad food habits is part of eating healthy. It’s also pretty darn hard to do. After all, sugar is really addictive. So are refined carb foods. Give up cookies? Are you kidding me??? What about pizza? A diet of either is a poor diet but what about in moderation? Can you actually do them in moderation or do you binge or maybe you can give them up for a month and then go right back? Food habits vary and what works for one person might not work for another.
What’s useful though is replacing worst offenders with “near cousins”. This means figuring out what you’re craving and finding something similar that still hits the spot without being as bad for you and which might actually be nutritionally beneficial.
For instance, if you’re addicted to soda, then if you’re doing it for the caffeine, you can try switching to tea or coffee for less calories and sugar (so long as you’re drinking them plain). If you’re addicted to the sugar, you might try drinking chocolate milk, juice, regular milks or dairy substitutes like soy or almond milk, or switching from drinking your sugar in sodas to eating healthier sweet treats that feed your sugar tooth without loading you with all the sugar found in soda. This way you ratchet down your intake levels while still meeting the craving.
If you’re a snacker, ratcheting down might mean skipping the cakes, pastries, candy, cookies, chips and donuts for Honey Nut Cheerios or sweetened granola with chocolate chips or something else that tastes good to you but contains less sugar or refined carbs. You might still be eating a refined, sugared product but at a much lower amounts than what you’re replacing. This is helpful when coming down from high sugar levels and resetting your palette which is probably tuned to overly sugary, salty foods.
With time, you can actually eliminate your worst offenders by ratcheting down over a series of weeks or months so that your cravings subside, then swapping to something healthy (Step 6). This is how I beat my refined carb and sugar addictions after suffering from a number of ailments and became pain-free (read my articles How I Went from the Standard American Diet to a Whole Foods Diet in a Year and Reclaimed My Health and What Happened When I Gave Up Bread).
You don’t have to give up sweet tasting foods either. I make chocolate chip cookies using almond flour and buckwheat and a smidge of honey. I’ve even made them with almond and coconut flour for a nicely satisfying treat. All sorts of recipes exists for “sweets” that are actually down right good for you and taste good too. The Internet is a wonderful place for recipes. To find these, it’s useful to search for vegan, sugar-free or gluten-free recipes simply because these communities have had more time developing satisfying treats to meet their sugar or carb cravings.
Step 5 – Upsize the Good
What are you already doing that nurtures your health and body? Do you have favorite foods that do this or meals that you’re already preparing and enjoy? Start here and make them more regular parts of your food rotation. Maybe you love eggs – whether scrambled, poached, as omelets, quiches or any other variety. Eat them more often and that chocolate morning pastry only once a week. Do you make a mean curry? Make that a staple rather than your usual pizza or pasta. Maybe you’re a fan of guacamole or salsa. Eat that as your snack rather than cookies and ice cream. Save those as less frequent treats. Is there a fruit you love? Make it part of your breakfast or find ways of incorporating it into other dishes.
Take a look again at your pantry. What’s fresh that you like to eat or cook? What’s your favorite fruit or nut? Do you like seeds like pumpkin or sunflower? Increase them into your rotation. The point is to find the whole foods you already enjoy and eat and make them more frequent customers to your belly. Remember, whole foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and beans. What are you already enjoying that contain these? Can you get them fresher rather than processed or eat them in healthier ways that you’ll still enjoy? What recipes are out there for you to try with your favorite foods or dishes?
Focus on eating more of what you like that’s healthy rather than getting upset by cutting out less healthy favorites. You’ll feel better emotionally since you won’t think you’re depriving yourself of something. Better, your favorite healthy foods will begin to crowd out the less healthy foods, make you feel fuller and more energetic so you’re not on the refined carb and sugar roller-coaster that make you reach again and again for the processed no-nos. That way you’re relying less on willpower and putting your body’s natural hunger and craving cessation mechanisms to work. That’s a mental and physical win. It’s also sustainable.
Step 6 – Replace
We need to flip the typical American food eating pyramid on its head to reclaim our health. That means about 70% of our food should be whole foods. Eating healthy foods is the twin side of the coin of giving up unhealthy ways. We started doing this earlier in Step 4 by replacing the unhealthy foods with foods that fill a similar need or niche in our diet. For true health, now we want to start systematically replacing the foods that harm us.
Rather than ditch your current pantry and buy unfamiliar foods and learn a whole set of new recipes, you can start small by targeting a meal or ingredient. For instance, maybe your breakfasts are high in sugar or refined carbs or contain too many fried items. Rather than changing every meal of the day right off the bat, you could start by replacing your breakfast first, leaving other meals for another week or month. Check out my article This Isn’t Food: 7 Common Breakfast “Foods” You’re Probably Eating and Their Better Whole Food Replacements.
Here’s another example. Maybe you’re eating a lot of refined carbs via pizza, pasta, breads, cakes, crackers and other snacks. To cut down on your consumption, you could focus on eating more rice dishes like stir fries and curries or upping your amount of beans via bean salads or soups. As a culture we’re really addicted to eating refined carbs in the form of sugar and refined wheat but so many healthier carbs exist that are amazingly tasty.
You want to shift toward more and more real food as opposed to the convenience foods of modern life. That means upping your intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. My recommendation is to start with foods that are higher in protein since this will help curb hunger pangs and start evening out your blood sugar which will help ease you off the sugar and refined roller-coaster of spiking sugar, crashes, and cravings that then make you seek out the next hit to your detriment.
Willpower alone won’t win this war so don’t beat yourself up over it. Insertion of other, better foods, particularly protein (which promotes a sense of fullness and doesn’t spike your blood sugar), into your meal rotation early on will help cut the cravings and dependence fastest. Choose plant proteins over meat since protein-heavy foods like beans and lentils provide the dietary fiber needed to help promote good digestion and healthy gut biota. This will rapidly do more for your health than anything else. But if you need to eat more pork chops to help you quit sugar and refined carbs, I say go for it for now.
Check out these articles on how to increase your consumption of real food. You want to up these whole food categories until they are the majority of your food.
- 7 Easy and Delicious Ways to Put More Fruit in Your Diet
- 7 Easy Ways To Sneak More Beans Into Your Diet to Boost Your Longevity and Health
- 7 Simple & Delicious Ways to Get More Nuts & Seeds Into Your Diet
- 7 Easy and Delicious Ways to Put More Whole Grains in Your Diet
Step 7 – Return to Step 1
Eating healthy is a way of life, not a three-week diet fad. Our habits have formed over years and aren’t easy to change. Think of it as a refinement process. You go through your cabinets and fridge, your eating out habits, and one by one start changing them until your taste buds, cravings and digestive systems have changed and you’re eating primarily what is good for you. This takes time, especially as you learn new recipes or discover new health information.
Return again and again to Step 1 and go through the other steps as well. While you can replace your foods overnight, more realistically it can take a few months or a year to implement most of the changes you need in order to eat healthy, i.e. give your body all the ingredients it needs to function and repair itself over those that are either not providing it any nutrition or are actively destroying it.
Your body takes time to adjust to new foods and ways of eating. Your gut biome is geared to your current food routine so you’ll probably disrupt it by switching to healthier foods. That’s natural – like when you quit coffee and have withdrawal symptoms. In a few days or weeks your body will adjust and feel fine, if not better for the changes. Going slow but with continuous movement forward makes it easier on your body but also on your psyche.
Additionally, your taste buds are on one setting, probably one geared to overly sweet and salty flavors. Over time, with continual changes to your menu, this starts to evolve but it isn’t overnight. You’ll see the change more dramatically over months or even years as you start replacing your foods. Maybe you hate broccoli now but in a year you might actually crave it, strange as that might sound. Trust me. It happened to me and I was shocked.
Consider these 7 steps as a method for assessing your eating patterns and making changes again and again until you’re optimizing your food for health without skimping on the taste. After holidays you may also need to revisit the7 steps. It’s smart to check in on your eating habit regularly to see if you’re backsliding by accident.
Food is part of our culture and way of life. To not enjoy what you’re eating is to just set yourself up for failure, which is why so many diets fail. However, with a whole foods diet, there are endless varieties of delicious and nutritious food. The trick is finding recipes but there are literally millions out there. If you approach the journey to health with an open mind and curiosity, finding ingredients you like and experimenting with them to create new dishes and meals becomes amazingly fun. Make it a hobby and interest, not a chore and you’ll go farther and love the process.
Follow these 7 Steps for success:
- Assess your current eating habits
- Change your mental framework to appreciate healthy eating
- Downsize foods and behaviors that are easiest to tackle first
- Ratchet down your cravings and dependencies by finding “near cousins” of worst offenders
- Do more of what you’re already good at and eat more of what you already like that’s healthy
- Replace your processed and unhealthy foods systematically with whole foods you’ll enjoy eating
- Repeat this process on a weekly or monthly basis so that you’re eating a whole foods based diet more and more
Still not sure how to get started or want to jump right in? Take my 7 Day Whole Foods Challenge and start taking back your health.
Like this article? Share it so that others will learn these health secrets and start living their best lives now.