How to Eat Healthier Painlessly
We all know that certain foods are healthier than others and that our diet affects our overall health. But eating healthier is a daunting task for most, as evidenced by the number of obese and unhealthy people in this world. I, too, have struggled with the task of changing my diet for the better. I am happy to report, however, that there is a painless way to change the way you eat. It worked for me and I know it can work for you.
First, let me shed some light on what my average diet used to look like. Bacon, barbecued ribs, and steak were my favorites. In fact, I have been known to consume a pound of bacon in one sitting. Ribeye steaks were a staple and I would accompany that with french fries or a baked potato loaded with sour cream, cheese and, yes, more bacon. French fries and a Big Mac were my menu choices every time I visited McDonald’s. Kentucky Fried Chicken successfully enticed me with their extra crispy fried chicken and biscuits. When I was in college, Domino’s pizza and late night runs to Jack in the Box were all too common. Sure, I did eat salads, but they were doused in thousand island dressing, my favorite. Even when I ate fish or shrimp, it was almost always battered and fried. My take out orders from my local Chinese restaurant consisted of food that left a conspicuous layer of oil at the bottom of the container. In short, my eating habits were nothing short of artery-clogging.
I knew deep down that I needed to change the way I ate if I wanted to be healthier, but it seemed like such an uphill task. My taste buds were so used to meat, fat, processed and fried foods that I was not sure how successful I would be in changing my diet. I even went so far as to rationalize why my unhealthy diet was perfectly OK. All that has changed now. Let me explain how I did it.
Rather than making drastic changes, I decided to make smaller, sustainable modifications to my diet. I saw no point in developing eating habits that would be short-lived. In fact, I realized that deeming the new way I was going to eat a ‘diet’ had a temporary connotation. Instead, I started to view it as a lifestyle change. I decided that I was going to view food in a different light and focus on the obvious benefits associated with eating healthier rather than what I was sacrificing. And because the changes I made were small and incorporated gradually, it was painless for me.
I love coffee and grew up drinking it every day. I used to drink it with Coffee-Mate creamer and at least 2 teaspoons of sugar, making it cloyingly sweet and extremely unhealthy. I cut back on the sugar gradually by half a teaspoon less per week until I no longer missed it at all. I now drink coffee with no sugar, milk or creamer whatsoever (good coffee tastes great on its own!). Tea was something that I never drank with any regularity. I now have learned to appreciate green, white and ‘pu-er’ tea,all of which are replete with catechin antioxidants.
I used to indulge in a few cans of Coke every day and simply loved it, especially on a warm day. But after reading about the aspartame and 10 teaspoons of sugar contained in every can, I decided to stop drinking soda altogether. I do not stock it at home and have not bought a soda in years. I now drink filtered water dispensed from a Brita pitcher. I know a few people who do the same but also add fresh fruit to their water to jazz it up.
Tropicana orange and apple juice were staples I always had on hand in my refrigerator. They contained a ton of sugar and little to no fiber. I bought a masticating juicer and now make my own juice daily using kale, spinach, celery and apples for sweetness, If I feel like orange juice, I eat the fruit instead or juice organic oranges and include the pulp.
The carbohydrate I grew up eating most frequently was white rice. It was served at almost every meal. White rice is processed, contains less fiber and is high on the glycemic index. That means that it causes a quick spike in blood sugar levels, a factor that affects diabetes. I still eat it sometimes but substitute it often with brown rice or quinoa, both of which I have learned to enjoy by slowly incorporating them into my meals. I cook them in vegetable or chicken stock and add aromatic herbs and vegetables to make them really tasty. Couscous and bulgur wheat are also grains that I cook to add variety.
Like many others, I grew up eating processed white bread which does not have much nutritional value. I now have switched to 100% whole wheat, flax seed, sprouted grains, and ezekiel breads and muffins. I also choose 100% whole wheat pita bread to accompany hummus. White bread now tastes extremely bland to me and it lacks texture.
While I have always eaten vegetables, 3 things have changed: 1. I now eat more of it. 2. I now eat a wider variety of vegetables. 3. I now pay attention to the way the vegetables were cooked and prepared. Instead of only eating a few of my favorite vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, I now consume less popular varieties such as radishes, sweet potato leaves, snap beans, beets, bok choy, etc. And they are delicious! And rather than over-cooking vegetables until they are void of most nutrients, I lightly steam or stir-fry them. And I stay away from vegetables dishes that are cooked with a lot of fat like spinach dip with mayo or cheese.
Raw vs Cooked
When food is cooked, the heat eradicates a lot of the healthy enzymes and nutrients. That is why I try to eat raw vegetables and fruit every day. I will make a crudite platter with an olive oil dip, a fruit platter, or healthy salads with a light dressing. This is augmented by the raw juice I make and drink each morning.
I need to make this clear: I love eating meat! Meat used to be a huge part of my diet and I still consume it, although the quality and quantity of the meat I eat now has changed. Instead of eating a huge steak, I cut back on the portions and eat much less of it. For example, I will cook a beef and vegetable stir fry rather than a whole ribeye steak. Or I will will prepare a chicken stew with as much vegetables as there is meat. I also consume leaner meats such as sirloin, chicken breast and turkey. In lieu of meat, I also have learned to cook some delicious meals that use tofu as the protein, especially Asian dishes.The gradual changes I made ensured that I did not really miss the fat.
One of the most significant changes I have made is consuming more seafood. Salmon, tilapia, kingfish, snapper, pompano, tuna and mackerel are varieties of fish that I consume a lot more often in place of meat. Many of these can simply be broiled or steamed for a healthy meal. I also eat shrimp, prawns, and mussels which have very little fat.
Organic vs Non-organic
The main reason I now try to eat organic food, especially vegetables, is because of the pesticides used in cultivation. I do not want to eat kale that has been doused with Roundup pesticide. In fact, I am very skeptical when I visit the grocery store and notice that the non-organic vegetables are twice the size of the organic ones, much like the hulk in the gym who is on steroids. When it comes to meat, I always try to buy organically raised animals that eat a natural diet. While organic foods are more expensive than those that are non-organic, the price disparity is not as wide as it used to be, especially if you look for items on sale. Organically-marked foods are also GMO free, and who wants to consume food that has been artificially modified when nature has perfectly provided us with everything we need.
We all need a little sweetness in our lives, but not all sweeteners are the same. If I want to sweeten my food, I try to avoid refined white sugar and, instead, use unrefined brown sugar, honey and agave syrup. They also have more flavor!
Let it be known: I love chocolate! I used to eat an entire bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate in 1 sitting. I slowly modified this by eating more dark chocolate filled with almonds and walnuts, and there are so many tasty options out there. Dark chocolate is healthy and contains less sugar. While I have never been a big dessert person, I will still occasionally indulge in a homemade blueberry or apple pie using organic fruit sweetened with raw brown sugar or honey. The trick I have learned is to indulge moderately.
Another gradual but significant change I have made is paying attention to how food is cooked. Rather than frying or cooking food doused in butter, I broil, sear and steam it instead. If I have to use fat, I will elect to use olive, walnut or avocado oil rather than butter or cream. Not only is the food healthier, but I am better able to taste the nuances of the food.
Quantity and Frequency
I have gradually altered the quantity of food I eat and the number of meals I consume each day. Instead of 3 huge meals, I eat 5-6 smaller meals. Each meal generally includes some form of protein and fiber. The reason I elected to make these changes is because eating smaller meals more frequently actually raises your metabolism, allowing you to lose weight painlessly. I also feel more full and never go hungry.
A significant change I have made is avoiding almost all foods that come packed in a can or box. Almost all these foods contain an excessive amount of salt and preservatives which are really bad for you. That is why they have a long shelf life. If I want to eat tuna salad, I buy fresh tuna rather than buy a can. If I want to eat green beans, I buy them fresh rather than the ones that sit on the grocery store shelf in a can.
One of the best moves I have ever made is joining a local organic farm. I generally visit the farm once a week and am still pleasantly surprised by how economical and fresh the produce is compared to my local grocery store. And eating fruits, eggs and vegetables that were harvested the same day affords me food that tastes so much better than the alternatives.
Fast Food Restaurants
Having grown up eating fast food from Burger King, McDonalds, Jack in the Box and Kentucky Fried Chicken, I still occasionally get a craving for a juicy burger or fried chicken. If I really want to satisfy this craving, I will make my own burger using ingredients that I can identify. I know that if I buy a Big Mac, I will feel lousy the whole day. I won’t even attempt to go into how unhealthy fast food is because it already is well-publicized. But If I absolutely HAVE to order food from a fast food restaurant, I now choose Chipotle or Firehouse Subs instead, and I pay attention to the ingredients.
Keep in mind that I made all these changes gradually so it really was quite painless. I still occasionally eat BBQ ribs or a steak, but I do it sparingly. I believe that because I generally eat much healthier than I did before, I can enjoy ‘cheat meals’ when I want to. The goal was to improve the quality of food I consumed, not to be perfect. I know that if I can do it, you can, too. Here’s to your health!