The fat loaf of supposedly healthy whole grain bread is staring at me like a baked temptress, calling out for the soft grass-fed butter to join her in luring me back. It’s just my first day of a new eating regime, and I’m already weak in the knees. It appears I have the discipline of Cookie Monster at Mrs. Fields. Later on in the evening after dinner, I’ll pine for a wedge of dark chocolate and a dram (or three) of single malt, so I have to tell myself “no” a few hours early to prepare my brain and my lips for disappointment.
What’s behind all this? Most of what we’re consuming as adults is killing us, at least slowly. Constantly and disproportionately bombarding ourselves with all manner of indulgences leads to both temporary bliss and long-term suffering. The problem isn’t so much that we consume alcohol, sweets, processed foods and simple carbs. It’s that we do it in ridiculous excess, like Takeru Kobayashi at a hot dog eating contest, but without the advantage of a hummingbird-like metabolism.
It’s also true that over time we become accustomed to the stuff we put in our bodies, good or bad. Drink five Diet Cokes a week or a brew or two a night? Have a morning blueberry muffin or big plate of pasta with cream sauce for dinner? It’s all delicious, sure, but avoiding fatty foods and finding health becomes more difficult with time. Anyone can do a crash diet for a month with astounding results, but can they stay the course?
What’s most important is overall health that is realistically maintainable over a longer periods of time, rather than beating up your body with repeated changes month in and month out. In the month of February, I set out on an experiment rather than a diet. I didn’t want to be drastic; I wanted to set a basis on which a healthier nutrition plan could be maintained beyond the initial month. I was inspired by Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat To Live, in which he provides in-depth data and justification for eliminating sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, even meat — and replacing them with high quantities of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. Though I wasn’t planning on eliminating meat altogether, I would follow most of his guidelines (and cut down my meat intake).
I wanted to cut down on the things that cause chronic inflammation, which studies have found lead to serious illnesses: heart disease, some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. If your daily diet consists of high levels of inflammation-inducing foods like sugar, trans fats in processed and fast foods, refined grains, potatoes, pastries, and processed meats, then it’s high time you took a good look at what’s going into your pie hole.
First, let’s explain what I was up against. I’m six-foot-two and a relatively steady 205 to 210 pounds, and have been for the past several years. I work out a few times a week, but nothing approaching Ironman levels. Weight training, running, body weight exercises and HIIT, as well as some yoga and the occasional punishing by Tony Horton’s P90X. I’m neither the most health-conscious person nor the least, but since I got married five years ago, I’ve been better with my nutrition — no longer pulling off damaging stunts like downing full slabs of dry-rubbed barbecue ribs with a pound of fries and a Diet Coke.
But the transition to responsible married guy wasn’t nearly as dramatic as my more disciplined self would’ve hoped. Even in the quest to consume more home-cooked meals, I’d regularly fire up hefty stews and pasta dishes, decadent big breakfasts and sugary kettle corn. I still enjoyed my vices — bowls of mushroom and parmesan risotto, burgers and fries from Five Guys, red velvet cake, beer, single malt scotch, small-batch bourbon. But over the past year, I’ve also incorporated more fresh fruits and vegetables and kept to fewer desserts and (sometimes) smaller portions. The thought that I would turn 50 in five years posed a big challenge — and I set out to change some of my cemented habits right away.
Body Fat Percentage: 11%
My first week out, rather than making huge adjustments to all three meals, I started modifying breakfast, my favorite meal of the day. Prior to the experiment, my usual morning started out with a couple of slices of wheat toast, two scrambled eggs and a cup of black coffee. It’s easy and I get fiber and protein with hardly any effort, but consuming fourteen slices of bread in a week just for breakfast seems excessive. I cut out the bread and instead ate homemade oat, quinoa, apple and banana muffins (no wheat) or steel-cut oats with unsweetened soy milk, a handful of blueberries and raw walnuts. And, like every morning, I downed it all with a large cup of dark roast black coffee with no sugar or cream.
Since I spend hours on the computer and work out at noon, I had to keep lunches quick and protein rich. This consisted of a protein shake with fresh fruit, a scoop of reduced fat peanut butter, a tablespoon of MCT coconut oil, a tablespoon of ground flaxseed, unsweetened soy milk and Greek yogurt. It didn’t look like enough, but it would have to do. Somehow, consuming anything more seemed like a waste of precious time. If I was going to do this, I might as well be efficient.
Week 1 felt like a mild depression, not because I had anything to be depressed about, but because my system didn’t take to the suddenness of the new routine well — it’s one thing to cut back on one ancillary item like a glass of wine at dinner, but three major “food groups” made for a bit of an onslaught. We are quite emotionally tied to food, and I felt that. All that first week, around 2:30 pm, I would crave something carb-loaded. My mood by 3:00 p.m. was crabby and irritable. I wasn’t exactly surprised by the change, but that didn’t help much. I’d grab a handful of baby carrots and try to get back to work.
– Skippy Reduced Fat Peanut Butter (Chunky)
– Chobani Greek Yogurt (Plain)
– Red Mill Golden Flax Seed Meal
– Coconut MCT Oil
– Organic Eggs
– Smoked Salmon
– Chicken Breasts
– Raw Almonds
– Raw Walnuts
– Romaine Lettuce, Bibb Lettuce, Kale
– Baby Carrots
– Roma Tomatoes
– Steel Cut Oats
My regular workouts felt like more of a chore than usual. I felt lighter and less burdened on the treadmill as early as day 2, but my head was in a fog. Whatever feeling I had of looking forward to even a smattering of carbs along with my post-workout protein was replaced by tacit acceptance. Physically, I felt good, but emotionally I was unsatisfied.
As for sleep, I’m typically not a very deep sleeper, and it’s been that way since I was a kid. I’m better now as a father of small children, largely for survival reasons, but when I’m stressed or consume a late-night alcoholic beverage, I go back to my old ways. I crash hard, but then wake up with random thoughts swimming in my head, and I stay awake, unable to sleep. After a full week without a drop of booze, I rested far more deeply and if I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d go right back to sleep without any trouble. Six hours felt like eight. The near absence of any wheat in my diet for several days made me feel less bloated, and my body felt more relaxed, not just tired at the end of the day.
End of Week 1
Body Fat Percentage: 9%
Mood: crabby, moody
After seven days went by, along with six pounds and two percent body fat, my mood lightened. What was once a chore just a couple of days ago started to feel like an actual means to an end. And it wasn’t just about the weight loss. I started out far less focused on weight and more on overall well-being, and things had already changed.
Halfway through week 2, I felt downright crisp. Mornings were more focused since I had rested well the night before. My workouts felt more productive, and recovery actually started to feel easier. Sleep was now much deeper, and I awoke far less often through the night. I was excited about my new nutritional regimen and I felt like a guy getting out of several years stuck in a lousy relationship that I didn’t have the resolve to end.
The day’s activities and duties no longer revolved around food. Instead, the order flip-flopped, and I found myself consuming meals and snacks as a way to energize the day for greater productivity, stronger workouts and better sleep. I was always one of those live-to-eat folks (and still am), but that lifestyle’s grip on me was loosening, and I was enjoying the freedom. And then the challenge came.
End of Week 2
Body Fat Percentage: 9%
On February 16th, my son was born. We spent the next five days in the hospital while he was in the NICU. My wife had a cesarean section, and I knew well before my son was born that he would need surgery not long after he was born. The joy (and stress) of everything going on felt like someone wanted to drop kick me off the wagon and back to my old ways. A big part of me just wanted to drop the whole experiment and focus on the important things at hand without worrying about my intake.
Food was a way of latching on to some stability, however weak it was. The hospital food court was no help, especially since it was one of the worst weeks of winter, with temperatures barely hovering above zero. Plus, I was sleep deprived, since we were going down to the NICU to feed our son every three hours. The only hot food available was exactly what I swore not to consume. Pasta, sandwiches, pizza. The Dunkin’ Donuts inside the lobby beckoned, and nearly all my resolve from the end of week 2 was now paper thin. Thankfully, I found a place called Protein Bar nearby, and their delicious low-carb, no-sugar meals and shakes became a lifesaver. By the time we left the hospital, I felt far less defeated, but I knew the next two weeks would be an uphill battle at home with two children, visitors, work and one very tired and recuperating wife.
A big part of me just wanted to drop the whole experiment and focus on the important things at hand without worrying about my intake.
By the end of week three, I was tired but still fixed on the prize (though the prize began to evolve, and I started joke to my wife that my reward would be a huge cigar and two very wheat-y beers, rather than the resulting health benefits). I hadn’t worked out the entire week after my son was born, so I was desperately in need of some endorphins. And, I yearned for more than four hours of uninterrupted sleep. The hard work of deprivation in the first two weeks was paying off in a weird way. I was still exhausted, of course, but it was a different kind of tired. Underneath, I felt a layer of tappable energy. Rather than feeling like I couldn’t focus in the afternoon, I was able to pull through, thanks to the high-energy breakfast and the low-carb lunch shake. I felt like my overall body chemistry had changed, and I was better able to handle stress and maximize even the short hours of minimal sleep.
End of Week 3
Body Fat Percentage: 8%
I knew that my first workout after coming home from the hospital would be less than optimal, but taking more than one full week off with no physical exertion was not wise. I swore to myself that I would be in better shape with my second child than my happy Buddha-like physique when my daughter was born three years earlier.
I would be in better shape with my second child than my prior happy Buddha-like physique.
I stepped into the gym and looked at the workout on the board. Three miles of interval running with ever-increasing inclines, from 1 percent to 15 percent. Interval work amounting to 4,000 meters on the fluid rower and then HIIT with dumbells and body weight for half an hour. Ordinarily, I’d look at it as a decent challenge, but on four hours of interrupted sleep, I felt differently.
Oddly enough, throughout the workout and even at the very end, I felt good. Over 1,100 calories burned, and I hadn’t skipped a beat. In fact, during the incline running portion, I felt my body easily tap into that foundation of energy it hadn’t offered up since law enforcement training two decades before. With my sleeping hours virtually sliced in half, I was able to get in two hard workouts during the fourth week, and though I was pretty spent by the end, my ability to recover and maximize resting hours were made possible by the nutritional adjustments and smart substitution.
And then two days before the end of the experiment, our neighbors dropped off an incredible-smelling pan of baked ziti with meat sauce that weighed as much as a wheel chock for a 747. The refrigerator was nearly empty (if you don’t count condiments and a really old jar of Mom’s kimchi), and our son had woken us up five times during the night to feed, thanks to an infant growth spurt. Less out of desire and more out of necessity, I caved and ate a small slice of the ziti. It was more decadent than the penthouse suite at the Ritz, but my body and my brain didn’t receive it well. Almost instantaneously, I felt stultified — like I was walking through a pool of partially formed gelatin. I mustered up the strength to go grocery shopping right after and followed the ziti with a fresh salad with romaine, tomatoes, beets, carrots and cukes. Not five minutes later, I felt like myself again. The abrupt effects were remarkable, considering that a month before this, I would’ve felt nothing significant from either plate.
End of Week 4
Body Fat Percentage: 7.5%
After nearly the full 28 days of February with drastic changes, I built a solid framework for future health. It turned out to be less discipline, and more incentive from reward. After week 1, I was fueled by the considerable physical and mental benefits of cutting back on the things that ailed my diet. And, rather than wanting to just go back to the same volumes of alcohol, carbs and sweets, my palate and physiology were altered in such a way that the cravings were significantly diminished. Plus, I’m much more aware of the direct and nearly immediate effects, not just the long-term consequences.
The pervasive mentality that we just need to lose weight and find any means to do that — including radical, punishing diets — is what’s killing us. Changes of habit, changes of lifestyle, satisfying substitution and real nutritional education are the actual cures, not fad dieting. I think differently about food now, and though I still crave certain taboo foods from time to time, I don’t wage war against my body on grand scales like before. 28 days of changing a handful of standbys resulted in a paradigm shift that I’m confident will last, because I’ve reworked my frame of mind. My workouts are no longer weight loss sessions, but strengthening and conditioning. My meals aren’t opportunities to emotionally indulge, but ways of providing an enjoyable sustenance for living. I find my mind sharper, my waistline more natural (thinner), and I cater now to what my body needs rather than what my emotions want. And, when I do enjoy decadence now and then, it’s more satisfying to partake knowing I’m eating free of that awful feeling known as dependency.