There are plenty of food mantras out there: 'Eat This. Not That.' 'Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too Much.' 'You Are What You Eat.' Unfortunately, most address a general idea of what to eat without providing guidance on how to determine specifically what you should eat, much less how you should go about making the necessary dietary changes.
Those two items, what not to eat and how to avoid them, have been my biggest hurdles. I've read Mark Bittman, Michael Pollen and Marion Nestle. I've seen Food, Inc and Super Size Me. I get it. However, I live in a world where my paycheck does not revolve around food issues. My world is kids, work, household chores and socializing with conventional eaters. Chances are, yours is too. Perfect knowledge of the foods humans should eat is great, but we need more than that. We need to know what foods our particular bodies don't like and how to avoid them without becoming hermits or five-star chefs.
As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm not a nutritionist and I'm no foodie. However, I have managed to determine what my offending foods are and remove them from my diet with very little stress on a daily basis. Don't get me wrong. I'm still learning. Part of my goal with this blog is to learn from readers too. Any and all ideas on eating sanely in our crazy food culture are more than welcome!
So, without further ado, here is one more food credo from yours truly:
Know what you shouldn't eat. Know what you will eat.
Know What You Shouldn't Eat
There are some foods that, IMHO, no one should eat regularly: gluten, dairy and processed anything. However, there are some foods that I can't tolerate that you might be capable of chowing down on until the cows come home with no problem. There are two ways to determine what your offending foods are. The first is to have a food panel run by your doctor. That's what my thirteen-year-old daughter did. Her food panel showed that she reacts to dairy and all meat but turkey. It also determined that she is gluten sensitive. The upside of this option is that it's thorough and straight forward. The downside is the cost. Our insurance has a negotiated price on the test, but even so, it was $179. It's a bit pricey, but nothing compared to the cost of poor health over a lifetime or the lost energy and drive from feeling rotten all the time.
I took the second option: food journaling. Well, to be accurate. I did a bit of both. A blood test determined I was very gluten sensitive several years ago. (My doctor holds that my family medical history combined with my test results indicate celiac.) After going gluten free, I began noticing that my heartburn would kick up whenever I had soybean oil. More recently, I cut dairy from my diet for the anti-candida diet and realized significant weight loss and improvement in my skin. How do I know these foods are the culprit? Two words: food journal. All you need is a notebook, a writing instrument and some follow through.
My food journal is a small black book with gridlines that I carry in my purse. I record my weight nearly daily, everything I eat and how I feel physically throughout the day. I also make notes on any significant events and my emotional state across the day. I'll admit that I am not a perfect food journal-er. I tend to go in spurts, but I can't recommend it enough. That little book is my drill sergeant, food-intolerance detector and cheerleader. The drill sergeant aspect comes from accountability. After all, it's tough to overlook that bit of peanut butter cup when you know you will have to record it in your journal. The records on how I feel emotionally and physically allow me to pick up on patterns or usual suspects that I can try eliminating for improvement. Finally, it is so rewarding to go back through my journal and see how far I've come. There are foods that I thought I couldn't live without a year ago (Reese's peanut butter cups, <sigh>) that today I have no desire, yeah okay, little desire, to eat today. Bottom line: regardless of whether you invest in a food panel, start a food journal and study it.
Know What You Will Eat
This has been absolutely critical in every diet adjustment I've ever made. There is no worse combination than hunger and indecision. It's a perfect recipe for frustration and failure when it comes to making better health choices. You most likely have a computer and/or cell phone. Use them, everyday, until you achieve 'new normal' with your eating habits. For fast food restaurants, I use my computer to identify at least one meal at each establishment I might frequent. Here is my list from memory:
- Chipotle: Burrito Bowl (brown rice, fajitas, black beans, carnitas, guac)
- Hardee's: Lo-carb Thickburger, no mayo or ketchup, with fries (if they have a dedicated fryer)
- Five Guys: Burger, no bun, with sauteed onions and fries
- Chick-fil-a: Grilled nuggets with carrot salad
- Moe's Southwest Grill: Chicken Rice Bowl with peppers, black beans, cilantro and guac
- Steak n Shake: Royal Burger, no bun, with fries
When I travel, I make sure I look up my destination as well as my route to make sure there are a few of these places or grocery stores where I can stop. I also pack some snacks in my purse and luggage, just in case.
When it comes to going out with friends, direct communication is key. Regardless of what an establishment's website says about food allergies or diet requirements, call. Speak with someone in charge. Ask questions. I almost always know exactly what I am going to eat before I'm even dressed to go. This goes for everything from Morton's Steakhouse to Chuck E. Cheese. Not only does advance planning take the stress off of you to find something safe, it also allows you to focus on your dinner party rather than the menu.
Finally is the evening with friends at their home. This one is tough as you don't want to be the only one not eating, but you also want to stick with your plan. Again, communication is key. Tell your friends that you are making some changes to improve your health. Don't let it get you down if they don't 'get it'. Just let them know that you will be bringing an item or two that you can nosh on. You could also ask what they are planning to serve. If there is a dish that you recognize as easily made to fit your diet, offer to bring it. That's a win-win. The host is saved one dish and you get a safe dish. Whether you are bringing a dish or not, eat before you go and stash something in your bag or car. It's not too difficult to excuse yourself for a moment to consume a Luna Bar or almond butter pouch. My last tip: drink lots of water. If others are drinking wine or mixed drinks, pour your water into one of your host's nice glasses and add a lemon or lime wedge, if available. It invites fewer questions and is a nice reminder that eating well is special too.
Okay, so those are all the special occasions. What about day-to-day hum-drum lunch and dinner? That can be just as challenging, especially if you start your search online for special diets. I love the health food blogs I follow and I've given many of those recipes a go with success, but it's tough roasting a whole chicken when cello practice is at 7 and you get home at 6. I've struggled with this dilemma for years and I've finally come to two realizations: One, my children cannot be impressed by anything I prepare, so there is no need for fancy foods. Second, just as with going out to eat, know in advance what you will be eating. Tuesday night at 6:38 is no time to start considering what to have for dinner. Weekly meal planning is your friend and it's not just for the OCD among us. It also doesn't have to be up to you alone. Inspired by the book Sink Reflections, I began using a control journal and index cards to draft my kids into planning our weekly menu. My control journal is a 3-ring binder with pages inside plastic sheets for each day of the week. Each page has our schedule, chores and appointments. I've also added a space to drop in a 4x6 index card that has that night's dinner plans. My dinner index cards are nothing fancy. I've simply written with a sharpie on each card a dinner idea, i.e. spaghetti, breakfast for dinner. I then let the kids decorate and draw on each one. I keep the cards in a photo album. On Sundays, I have the kids go through the album and pick the five meals they want that week and I then drop them into the control journal. I then pull together my shopping list accordingly and head to the store.
I've only been using my cards for a short while, but it really works. I'll be adding to my card collection over time, but I think that as long as you five to ten standby dinner ideas, you are good to go. I also think these cards are going to become great family mementos. I'm such a sentimental sap, I can already envision showing my grandkids the pictures their mothers drew for dinner.
I hope these ideas are helpful to you. I would like to add one more caveat. Remember to not let perfection be the enemy of the good. If you are simply trying to eat better, don't let one slip up or even a few bad choices keep you from getting right back to your goal. No one is grading you or keeping score. This about living better and feeling better. Better is simply that: better, NOT perfection.
Good luck and please, share your ideas and thoughts too!