Two posts ago I discussed the benefits of improving and maintaining one’s physical health. Last week I delved into the exercise aspect of this process. Now it’s time to finish up this crash-course on health and fitness with a few words on eating habits.
I ate a lot of crap when I was young. That is the correct word for what I was eating, because that’s exactly what it was—crap. It went into my body as crap and it exited it the same way.
Whenever I would get home from school, one of the first things I would eat was a big plate of microwaved Bagel Bites or something along the same lines. I’m not sure why they even waste the ink to print the nutritional value for things like Bagel Bites. There isn’t any. You can probably get the same amount of nutritional value from eating the box they come in.
For years I survived off microwaveable faux-foods, many of which were pizza flavored. In high school I didn’t want to eat anything but fast food. In college I ate whatever I could afford (which usually meant potato chips, frozen pizza, or that classic subsistence of academia, Top Raman). After graduating I moved to Portland where, whether I was experiencing a financial high or low, I seemed to primarily eat pizza. I recall a particularly dismal point when I was living on a friend’s couch for several months, over the course of which we ate a Totino’s frozen pizza topped with Pizza Rolls every single day. We referred to this as “pizza-on-a-pizza”. We both got a lot of stomach aches during that period.
This is a pretty standard diet for a lot of Americans—low grade cheese product atop low grade bread-base, add flavorings to taste. And I, like many people, never gave a thought to what I was eating. It tasted good (more or less), so I ate it. I didn’t eat it when I was hungry or at meal time. I just ate it. If I was sitting down, I needed some junk food within arm’s reach. Eating was something to do, plain and simple.
That all changed around the same time I decided to start working out. Oddly enough, when I made the decision to improve my health, eating better didn’t initially factor into my plans. It wasn’t until I took my first steps into exercising that I realized the importance of properly fueling my body.
Everyone Knows What Food Is, but No One Seems to Care
When I began working out, I was alarmed by my lack of stamina. I knew that it had been years since I’d been physically active, but I still felt like I should have been able to run longer and lift more than I was. At the time, I chocked it up to being extraordinarily out of shape. It wasn’t until I began researching new exercises that I was finally struck by the fact that my diet is inseparably tied into my physical capability and well being.
I remember reading some article that mentioned protein when it hit me that I had terrible eating habits. In that moment, I literally felt stupid.
I knew what protein was and why it was important. I knew the many health benefits of vitamin C. Over the years I had accumulated an expanse of knowledge about what makes certain foods healthy, I had just never considered it.
From that day on, I began working on improving what I ate, and the difference in my overall sense of health and fitness changed dramatically. Not only could I work out more efficiently for longer, I also found that my mental processes sharpened, I began to experience less digestive problems, and I began to lose weight faster.
You may be saying to yourself, “Tell me something I don’t know.” And your cynicism is justified. Most of us know the benefits of eating well, but actually doing it is a whole different business.
I understand, trust me. Changing my eating habits for the better is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
Old Habits Die Hard: Instead of Breaking Them, Make Them Work for You
It’s hard to stop eating junk food for a number of reasons, but if I had to venture a guess, I bet most people would say that they simply don’t have the willpower to do it.
Maybe you’ve tried to avoid bad food now and again, but you always end up right back where you were, elbow deep in a bag of Doritos. Each time you relapse you feel disappointed in yourself, and eventually in order to avoid that feeling you stop trying to change at all. Basically, you give up.
But wait! Allow me to let you in on something—it’s not your fault. It’s not that you lack the willpower to change, it’s that your willpower has been systematically worn down by companies who want you to keep buying their crap. That may come off as a little conspiratory, but it’s true. Advertising and food scientists have worked very hard and very well at making people crave their cheaply produced garbage food.
So how do you break these habits that have been carefully carved into your every day existence? It’s a three-fold process.
First: Retake control over your will in small steps by denying yourself the little things you desire.
Going cold turkey is not always the best way to achieve results. You don’t clean a room by snapping your fingers: you take the time to put each thing in order. Start by cutting out the sugar-filled cereal you eat every morning, or the soda you have with lunch every day. Train your willpower bit by bit to listen to internal commands rather than external temptations.
Second: Learn how and when to give in.
This is an extension of not going cold turkey. Do you feel like having pizza? Go ahead, but rather than ordering some crappy delivery or popping a frozen one in the oven, take the time to make your own using healthy ingredients. Instead of hitting McDonald’s, make your own burger at home. Are you watching a movie and you want a snack to go along? That’s not a problem as long as you can find a healthy alternative to potato chips or whatnot. I personally have become a big fan of hummus and pita.
Third: Find out what healthy foods are out there that you already like to eat, then build your diet around those.
As long as you’re getting enough exercise, there isn’t really a whole lot out there when it comes to un-processed food that’s all that bad for you. When I first started getting into shape I realized that I needed more protein, but I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on powders and shakes. Steak and eggs to the rescue!
Basically, the key to building a healthy diet involves what my grandmother used to call “making a colorful plate”. As long as you have some green and a few colorful fruits or veggie to accompany that brown slab of meat, you’re probably doing okay.
As you become adjusted to eating healthy, it gets increasingly effortless. You’ll eventually find that when you do make the occasional indulgence into junk, it doesn’t taste nearly as good as you remember it. That’s because it never was food in the first place, and after giving your body a taste of what it is to take in real nourishment, you come to recognize the flavor of junk food for what it really is—something akin to manufactured plastic.
I know that a lot of people say that preparing healthy food is too expensive and time consuming, but that’s simply not the truth. Yes, junk food is cheap, fast, and plentiful. But there are an array of inexpensive fresh foods out there that are tasty and easy to cook. In fact, fresh fruits and vegetables are generally the cheapest foods that you can find.
And cooking doesn’t actually take up as much time as we like to think it does, especially when you get used to it. Besides, there are two things you can take into consideration if you are going to use time constraints as an excuse not to cook for yourself:
First: Think of how much time you already waste doing things that aren’t good for you. Taking a little bit of time out of those activities in order to do something good for yourself is worth the effort. It is in fact almost ludicrous to think any other way.
Second: Who isn’t attracted to someone who can cook? Once again, it’s worth taking the effort to learn.
What’s your favorite healthy snack or meal? Or what’s the junk that you have the most trouble avoiding? Tell us about it by commenting below.