My guidelines to a healthier lifestyle by eating higher quality foods
I am often asked about what I eat and how I make daily food choices. As a result of all these questions, I wanted to provide some high-level guidelines to friends and fellow athletes. The best summary I can give you - eat real food!
Often we are led to believe we are eating real food when we really aren’t. Even worse, we are led to believe that some of the “fake foods” out there are better for us. Please keep in mind, this is a guideline and not a strict “do’s and don’t” strategy. It is about making better choices, not feeling overwhelmed or confused.
We should all strive to “eat to live” not “live to eat!”
What to drink:
Sodas/Juices/Energy Drinks - Our bodies are not designed to drink our calories. Sodas, juices, sports drinks, etc. are all filled with sugar and/or fake sweeteners. When you drink these products, you are still left feeling thirsty and you have not given your body any real food to sustain itself. Do not believe the commercials - you do not need to fuel on sports drinks, like Gatorade, to be more competitive.
Note that energy drinks like Monster® and Red Bull® are very unhealthy and can be outright dangerous to your health. Avoid these drinks; they have no place in a healthy lifestyle!
What is the best and easiest way to improve your health? Drink water! We do not need to drown ourselves in it, but choosing water is the best option for your health. Feel free to squeeze in a lemon or lime for flavoring, which is a healthy option.
Keep your coffee and tea but don’t overdo it. A few cups a day is ok, but where many people get in trouble is all the flavorings and sweeteners. Tea and coffee should be plain or with a small amount of heavy crème or coconut crème. The fat in the crème will help make the drink more satisfying without the sweet stuff.
Fast Food - If you eat fast food, then you will most likely struggle with your health and weight. Fast food today is essentially a product devoid of most nutritional value. It is a chemically processed food and, for the most part, it does nothing but add empty calories to your diet. Think about this: how can McDonald’s serve a “Big Mac” for the same price it did 20 years ago? The only way they can do this is by using a food that is completely altered and is no longer a real food. Fast food is designed to stay “fresh” for a long time by altering its composition. Please avoid fast food all together!
Other restaurants (non-fast food) – When I eat at most restaurants, I typically do not order meals right off the menu. I go for the veggie plates and salads. I scan the menu to find the healthiest thing on the menu and then order it along with a few other sides. Most places are very accommodating if you ask politely. You should not get any push back, you are the customer!
Keep it simple – just ask for a plate of veggies! When ordering a salad, ask for the dressing on the side. The best dressings are non-creamy ones - oil & vinegar are usually your best options. The best option is to restrict the use of dressings – up to 90% of their ingredients are hidden sugars and other additives.
What about sugar and other sweet stuff?
Sugar is one of the largest contributing factors to obesity today. Sugar and its 40 or so associated friends are hidden in everything - items like ketchup, salad dressing, BBQ sauce, bread, and so much more. It is estimated that almost 80% of foods today contain some form of sugar. Read the labels. Sugar is used to make food taste better, substituted for missing ingredients such as fat, and is commonly used as a preservative.
Sugar creates problems for the body - it raises insulin levels which will increase fat stores. This is also true for sugar substitutes. They can actually be worse for you because of their chemical composition. Some of the newer sweeteners have little known long term studies on side effects so be careful.
Here is a list of many other forms of sugar:
You may find it hard to eliminate all forms of sugar, even if you are reading labels. It can be done, but it takes extra effort to read the food ingredient’s list and know what to look for. Once you break the sugar addiction, your food will actually taste better. Fruit will be sweet again and that milk chocolate candy bar will lose all of its appeal.
What about Low-Fat?
Dietary fat does not always equate to added body fat! Fat in your diet is not a bad thing when you eat the right kinds of fat; our bodies actually need fat to stay healthy. For athletes it’s a great source of dense energy.
How long have we been told to eat low fat foods only to see a huge increase in obesity in America? Eating fat should take place in its natural form: nuts, seeds, avocados, olive and coconut oils, butter, heavy cream etc. When you see products labeled "low fat" or "fat free" - there is usually sugar and/or other chemicals hidden in the food to make up for the taste.
Our bodies do need some fat (10-20%) and athletes tend to need more because of the high density of energy it provides, Do not feel you have to avoid fat, but be careful about how much you eat. Make sure it is good healthy fat.
What about low carb?
There’s a lot of buzz these days about low carb. I think this statement, when made by others, should fall into two categories. Low carb by itself can be dangerous because it leads some people to avoid all the healthy carbs which are found in most plants. No one should be telling you to give up your greens or veggies!
The other side of low carb is bread, pasta, crackers, beer, and many other packaged foods. These “carbs” should be avoided. They are typically highly-processed foods devoid of real nutritional value. Why do you think the food companies have to fortify the food they make? The raw ingredients are not in their original state when used to make these products.
What about meat?
I am plant powered so I do not consume any meat, which also includes fish and chicken. I am an ultra runner who has been plant-based for over two years. I have found that eliminating meat from my diet has given me a tremendous boost in energy and I don’t have any digestion problems (indigestion, diarrhea, etc.).
If you are going to consume meat then keep it “clean” and only eat small portions. By clean I am referring to buy locally-grown and organic if possible. Our meat sources today are very polluted – they’re saturated with hormones, antibiotics and other unhealthy chemicals so they can “keep it safe” for human consumption.
Be aware that chicken is not necessary better than beef - meat is meat. Industrialized chicken farms have as many, if not more, issues with product quality and safety as beef. It’s not necessarily any better for you.
What about protein?
So where do you get protein especially being plant-based? I get my protein from plants, especially green leafy ones! Our bodies only need 8-10% protein in our foods. Guess how much protein is in a variety of plants? You guessed it - it varies from 9-10%. Raw nuts, beans and other legumes are also a good source of protein.
What about dairy?
Our bodies are not designed to drink milk or consume any other dairy products. We are the only mammal that drinks the milk from another species and we are also the only species that drinks milk after we are weaned from our mother. Some people are lactose intolerant and can’t have it. Those who are not lactose intolerant need to be careful because dairy can cause problems with excess mucus and may create other digestion problems. As with meat, if you are going to eat dairy, then make it the best, cleanest version you can. Skip the low-fat and just eat the real stuff. Over-processed dairy is actually worse for you than the real thing.
What about fruit – it’s a sugar right?
Fruit is a great source of nutrition. Fruit is naturally sweet, but can cause issues for some people - especially the high-glycemic fruits like bananas, grapes and melons. Overall, fruit, like all other whole foods, are good for you and very healthy in moderation. Do not feel like you have to avoid fruit because people call it bad or call it sugar. If you are plant-powered it is a great anytime snack. I recommend that you experiment with fruit. Some find it easiest to digest on an empty stomach instead of being used like a desert. Others may need a fat source with the fructose sugar that comes with fruit. Ultimately, one’s insulin sensitivity will most likely determine how well your body utilities the nutrients from fruit.
Packaged and canned food should be viewed with great scrutiny. Read the labels, avoid packages with more than 7-8 ingredients. Food with unfamiliar ingredients should be avoided, know what you are putting in your body!
Breads, Pasta, Crackers and Cookies:
These foods should be avoided or limited. Typically, commercially-available versions of these foods are made with highly-processed ingredients. There are some homemade versions that are good, but if you are buying them in a store, then limit these foods.
The challenge, for example, is enriched white flour. It has little nutritional value and there is usually a high concentration of chemicals, sugar, and salt in these foods.
Foods and Ingredients To Avoid:
Hydrogenated Oil / Trans Fats: This oil is very difficult for the body to digest, raises LDL (the bad cholesterol), and lowers HDL (the good cholesterol). They are also active agents of heart disease, diabetes, nutritional deficiencies, and cellular deterioration.
· Common foods include: vegetable shortening, crackers, cookies, baked goods, salad dressings, breads, and chips
Red Dyes #40 & #3, Yellow Dyes #5 & #6: these have all shown significant links to cancer and thyroid issues.
· Common foods include: candy, cereals, and frosting
Margarine – there is nothing healthy about margarine! It’s made from highly-refined oils and even hydrogenated oils. Your best bet is real butter or alternatives such as almond butter.
Hot Dogs and any other meats high in nitrates – these foods are highly processed and when these nitrates are broken down in the stomach they can have a very adverse effect on the body such as headaches, nausea, and vomiting.
Artificial Sweetener & HFC (high fructose corn syrup) – Splenda® (sucralose), Sweet ’N Low® (saccharin), Equal® (Aspartame), and Sweet One® (Acesulfame) are all linked to increases in cancer. They still have the same effect on the body as sugar by raising the insulin levels in the blood stream. HFC is a highly-processed form of corn syrup and most commonly made from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) which also have strong links to cancer. If you want something sweet, stick with sugar. It’s the least evil of all of these. In the end, you will still gain weight using these sweeteners.
Microwave Popcorn – this product is very popular; however, the chemicals used to make microwave popcorn are very dangerous to our health.
MSG (monosodium glutamate) – this chemical has been shown to be a neurotoxin and has very negative effects on the body, including migraines, cancers, type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Sodium Benzoate And Potassium Benzoate – commonly found in bread, it is an endocrine disruptor and has been shown to increase rates of cancer.
Olestra – this is a fat substitute that’s a synthesized chemical - most commonly used in fat-free chips.
Nutritional Information & Whole Foods
Food labels have become a long list of unrecognizable chemicals and food derivatives. If you read food labels, do not focus on calories or fat, but focus on ingredients. Any product with more than six or seven ingredients should be avoided. Any food label with ingredients that you have never heard of is a problem! Focus on eating whole, natural foods. Go back to eating the way we are supposed to - from the garden. Stay away from the middle aisles in the grocery stores and you will make better choices. Making meals is easy if we keep the ingredients simple.
Diets do not work, lifestyle changes do! If you continuously chase the latest fad diet, new food report about super foods etc., then you will continue to get frustrated. Diets are temporary and usually create stress on the body because your body thinks that it is starving, especially if you are doing calorie restriction. When you starve your body, your body will do everything it can to retain the fat stores for survival. We cannot change the basic instinct to survive. The only way to lose weight and not starve your body is to change what you eat.
Exercise is very important today because of our lifestyle and conveniences. Our bodies were designed to move. Because we sit at our desk all day, drive cars, go through drive thru’ s and use elevators, our bodies are not moving like they should be. To make up for this, just get out the door and exercise. Whether it is running, walking, hiking, cycling, or going to the gym, get out and move every single day! If you do take up an exercise program, take it slow and easy. The biggest mistake newbies make is going out to hard and getting injured or hurt.
Calorie In / Calorie Out
We are taught that a calorie is a calorie. This is simply not true. If it were, then we could eat 2,000 calories of sugar and be done for the day, right? If you use calorie restriction to lose weight, then you will quickly find that it is not sustainable. Your challenge is to eat high-quality foods and the calories will take care of themselves. The problem is when we eat foods devoid of nutrition, i.e. processed foods, then the body is still hungry and we need to eat more. When you eat whole, natural, high-quality foods, you will actually eat less food but be healthier in the process.
We have a huge drug problem in America. We get sick, we take a pill; we have a chronic illness, we take a pill; we cannot sleep, take a pill. How about this approach: if you are sick, then look at what is causing it. Chronic illness such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis, impotence, sleep disorder, headaches etc. can almost all be alleviated, or at least reduced, to manageable levels by changing our diet. Not only can we cure these diseases - we can also have a huge impact on long-term illness such as cancer and obesity.
How To Get Started
Starting today, do something to get you going. You know what you need to do - you just need to start doing it! I did not make all of these changes in a day. As I stated before it’s a journey. Take one idea above and embrace it. Make it your own and try it for a month. What I found through my journey is this: when I made a change and felt better - I wanted to do more. Then I changed another thing, and so on. It does not have to be difficult or painful. I enjoy life more today because I am living to my fullest potential. I sleep better, feel better, have more energy, and I have not been sick or injured in two years! How is that for living proof!