What motivates you more to be healthy: fear or love?
If you follow current health trends online — subscribe to a blog, follow a nutrition “expert” on social media, etc — you may feel like there is a ridiculous amount of conflicting evidence pointing one way or another on diet advice.
There’s the classic divide between paleo and vegan, but then there’s low-carb, low-fat, high-fat, Zone, South Beach, etc.
There’s a lot to be confused about.
Or so it would seem…
The reality is there is far more consensus on what we should be eating than you probably realize. Why might you not know this?
Controversy sells books.
The next study showing a previously heralded food is bad for you will be music to the ears of book publishers. They can’t wait to sell you the next greatest thing in to the diet crazed public.
Don’t buy the hype. Literally. Save your money.
Healthy eating is simple, and a few weeks ago leaders from all walks of nutrition, paleo advocates and vegan plant-based advocates alike, all met to discuss common ground.
And while many topics were discussed, this is where they landed:
“The foods that define a healthy diet include abundant fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes and minimal amounts of refined starch, sugar and red meat, especially keeping processed red meat intake low.”
Nothing too inflammatory there. Honestly nothing that would make for a New York Times Bestseller.
And that’s how you know it’s true.
All leading experts agree — paleos and vegans — that our diets need to be centered around whole plant foods and not animal or processed foods! It’s really that simple.
They went on to also agree on another key, interesting point:
“Food insecurity cannot be solved without sustainable food systems. Inattention to sustainability is willful disregard for the quality and quantity of food available to the next generation, i.e., our own children.”
And even a paleo die hard, Boyd Eaton, stated: “Red meat is incompatible with environmental health in a sustainable world. We need a diet that equals the nutrition of our Paleo ancestors, but is sustainable.”
The message is clear and simple, and still, to this day, best summed up by Michael Pollan’s seven simple words: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”
If you’d like to read more about this meeting of the minds, as well as see who was on the panel, check out the write up by Forks Over Knives.
If you were like me, growing up you and your friends likely asked each other pretty regularly what super power you most wanted.
The hot debate was always between flying or super human strength.
What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that I had access to a super power all along! It took me 20+ years before I finally discovered my super power, and now I’m here to tell you that you have one too!
It just has so far gone untapped.
Let me describe a scenario, see if you can relate.
You wake up for work, pretty normal morning, but you’re just feeling “blah.” You go through the day kind of feeling tired and you have no idea why. Even though your workday was fine — nothing major happened — you just felt low energy all day. Essentially you were in a “funk.”
Can you relate? This ever happen to you?
I know it happens to me.
Have you ever caught yourself in that moment? Can you bring awareness to this feeling in the moment? Or do you generally have no idea what’s going on until later?
For me, for most of my life, I didn’t really catch myself feeling this way until way later. Finally after hours of having just a crappy day I’d realize something was off.
That is until I discovered my super power.
What are all these funky names and acronyms?
They are all tools for meditation. Omvana has an extensive catalog of free and paid meditation tracks, and Headspace has a great 10-day beginners program that is totally free.
MBSR stands for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. This technique is non-denomenational, was developed at UMass-Amherst by neuroscience researchers, and classes are taught all around the country.
Essentially what regular meditation allows you to do is create space between you and your thoughts.
There are different methods and ways to achieve this, but about the most basic meditation on Planet Earth goes like this:
Sit quietly. Focus all of your attention on your breath. When your mind wanders (which it will constantly, at first), just bring your attention back to your breath. Do this as long as you can — starting with 5 minutes a day is great — everyday.
Essentially what this — and other meditation practices — teach you is that you are not your thoughts. They exist in your head, but they are not you. You can choose which ones to listen to and follow and which ones to ignore. What was automatic and unconscious becomes a conscious choice.
I’ll never forget when this concept first really solidified in my mind, and when I first started to think “hey, I’m kind of developing a super power here…!”
It was around the time I was taking my MBSR class. I was also in grad school at the time, and I often biked to campus. It was a bitterly cold morning, and my commute was all uphill — both ways! (Ok just one way, my way to school).
When you are biking in sub-freezing temperatures, you need a lot of gear. Windproof jacket and pants, gloves, hat, facial cover, warm boots, etc. It’s quite a process, and biking up a massive hill in this gear can be pretty annoying. You sweat inside your gear but are freezing on the outside. It’s unpleasant.
So I battled my way up the hill, slogging the whole way. I get to campus and walk into my office building, to the bathroom to change into my work clothes. I open my backpack only to find that I forgot my work pants at home!
Instantly I had a vision of them still sitting on my bed. So stupid!
At this point the thought of riding all the way home and back in the bitter cold sounded like the worst thing ever. And on top of it, the trip would make me really late for work!
But I had no choice and so I got on my bike and set off.
As I started my ride my mind was going crazy. I was impatient, anxious, frustrated, tired, sweaty, late. It was a bad brew of thoughts and emotions.
And then… it all stopped.
All of a sudden this rational, “all-knowing” voice appeared in my head, drowning out the anxious chatter that was currently driving me crazy.
I simply thought: “there is nothing I can think that will change this situation. No amount of thinking will make the work pants appear in your bag. There is no reason to suffer in this moment. Accept it.”
All negative emotion instantly vanished. I realized that there was nothing I could do to change what had to be done, and my only real options were: 1. make myself miserable as I ride home to get my work pants and then ride back, or 2. ride home to get my work pants and then ride back.
Option 2 sounded far more pleasant all of a sudden.
But here’s the thing — if it wasn’t for the regular meditation practice I was developing, I wouldn’t have even been aware of option 2!
We are so programmed for these responses, especially in stressful situations. And when you are so identified with each and every thought that enters your mind, you can never get any separation. It’s only through this separation that you can gain perspective, and make a better choice.
Just last week I found myself pacing around my apartment with in a funk, like we talked about before. Normally you just kinda have yourself a bad day.
But with my super power I caught myself, and that higher voice came in and said, simply, “I am feeling stressed today.”
No judgment, no trying to change it. Just noticing that the feeling was there. With that noticing I was able to allow it to pass more freely through me, instead of trying to resist it, and ultimately I had a better day thanks to the super power that comes from regular meditation!
If you are at all interested in starting up a regular meditation practice, I’d highly recommend checking out those apps I mentioned, Googling “MBSR [your zip code],” or simply starting with the five minutes of conscious breathing. Or, you can watch this funny video my friend and I made about how to start a meditation practice!
Go get that super power!
Dietary advice these days is just too complicated. There’s literally thousands of different “miracle diets” online and in best-selling books. And the worst part is you can routinely find polar opposite advice being sold as the miracle answer.
Well, I’ve got my own miracle answer, but unlike the others out there, I’m not selling anything and my answer is super super simple. Like, really simple.
If you want to lose weight and get healthy just do this one thing:
I’m not sure why, but I am really drawn to dietary experiments.
I find them really fascinating. I think it’s really powerful to, instead of contemplating how a dietary change may affect your health or your weight or your bottom line or your taste buds, to simply do it.
Just Do It.
It’s how I went vegetarian, how I went vegan, and how I started to eat whole-foods plant-based.
Each time I started with trial periods. I just did it.
Sure I had thought about some of the changes before taking action. But at the end of the day, taking the leap was far more powerful — and taught me more — than any amount of thinking ever could.
So with that in mind, I recently embarked on a one-week trial of a completely salt-free diet.
Why did I want to test this out?
Well I work with people who weigh-in everyday, and one thing I’ve noticed is that their weight tends to fluctuate a decent amount from day-to-day. It depends a bit on the person, but some people can change as much as a few pounds every single day. Up one day, down the next, then up a bit. It’s this vicious cycle (when you’re not used to it) that stresses people out when they start tracking their weight.
Yet tracking your weight is so important to weight loss and weight maintenance. And what is ultimately going on here is not changes in fat, but changes in water retention.
One of the big culprits in water retention is the amount of sodium we eat.
So, I entered into this experiment hoping to learn about how sodium affected my daily weight.
But I also wanted to learn more. Many followers of a whole foods plant-based diet also follow a “No S.O.S.” diet, which means no added salt, oil, or sugar to their food.
In short, I personally don’t add oil to my food. The only sugar I add is some maple syrup to my oatmeal and have sugar in the occasional vegan dessert or some processed cereal as a treat.
But I’ve never explored salt. Ever. I’ve literally never even thought about it, except to feel that by avoiding most processed foods and all animal products, and staying hydrated, I’d be fine. Salt was not a worry.
A few months ago I saw a YouTube video by a vegan who ate no salt in her diet. Her video was on the opposite experiment to mine — she added salt to her food for one week. And in that week she noted feeling bloated, fatigued, and having headaches.
Was I having these symptoms without noticing simply because I’d never gone salt-free? I was reminded of going plant-based — before I ate this way I had no idea I could feel this good, this energized.
When you eat a Standard American Diet you really don’t know what healthy feels like. It’s only when you have that feeling that you realize how awful you felt in the past.
Was the same true about salt? I had to find out.
I tracked my weight for the week leading up to the experiment so I would have baseline data. How did my weight fluctuate on my normal salty diet?
THURSDAY – 173.8
FRIDAY – 172.8
SATURDAY – 174.6
SUNDAY – 177.2
MONDAY – 174
TUESDAY – 174
WEDNESDAY – 172.8
As you can see from the graph, my weight fluctuates a decent amount during the week.
In my baseline, my lowest weight was 172.8 on Friday, and highest was 177.2 on Sunday. [NOTE: Research has shown that people are, on average, their lightest on Friday morning, and their heaviest on Monday morning. We tend to indulge on the weekends…]
That’s a 4.4 pound change in just 2 days! Did I gain 4.4 pounds of fat in 2 days?
Well I wasn’t in any hot dog eating contests that weekend, so…no.
It was changes in water weight!
Here’s a look at my salt-free week weights:
THURSDAY – 171.4
FRIDAY – 174
SATURDAY – 174
SUNDAY – 171.6
MONDAY – 172.8
TUESDAY – 170.6
WEDNESDAY – 171.6
The red line on the graph is my salt-free week. Notice how on average I am below the baseline week.
On the weekend my weight is still the highest, but after that the line trends downward.
[A note about that — on Thursday of that week I hung out with a friend and we went to Chipotle, where it is physically impossible to order anything without salt, so this day was not salt-free. More on that in a second.]
My average weight for my baseline week was 174.4 and my average weight for my salt-free week was 172.4.
That’s 2 pounds lighter! Of course that is changes in water weight, not fat, but it is still less weight that I am carrying around, and a tighter look to my physique.
How Did I Feel?
Besides being down 2 pounds on average, did I notice any change in how I felt? Was I noticing less fatigue, feeling less bloated, noticing a clearer mental state?
Overall I’d say… sort of. I don’t think there was any profound changes in mood or energy level, but I will say that I definitely felt lighter. Not just because I was carrying around 2 lbs less water, but just in general I felt maybe a lightness of mood and mental clarity. I won’t call this definitive, but definitely plausible that going salt-free lead to this outcome.
How Did It Taste?
This was my biggest concern — taste.
Salt is just delicious, plain and simple. There’s a reason we add it to our food. And to be fair to salt, it is absolutely necessary for bodily function. The problem is we simply eat too much of it, and too much salt leads to higher blood pressures and greater risk for heart disease.
In fact the American Heart Association recommends we stick to less than 1500 milligrams of sodium per day. Your average American gets 3400 milligrams per day — or more than double the AHA recommendation!
But how did my food taste?
Probably the most interesting result of this entire experiment was that my hunger was reduced by eating salt-free. One of my go-to lunches is brown rice, chickpeas, carrots, kale, nutritional yeast, and soy sauce. The soy sauce-nutritional yeast combo gives it a nice cheesy taste and it’s pretty irresistible. I usually polish of a giant bowl of it and still feel like I could eat more.
All week I made this same lunch minus the soy sauce, and even though the quantity I served myself was the exact same, my desire to finish it diminished drastically.
With the salt, I craved the next bite. The salt fueled my appetite.
Without the salt, I lost interest, and my appetite faded quicker. I still finished my meal, but it took me longer, and I was less satisfied. It still tasted alright, but it was far less “craveable.”
Now for someone hoping to lose weight, that is a very great thing! Eating more slowly no doubt leads to more of a feeling of fullness. And reduced appetite is obviously helpful for losing weight!
For someone hoping to simply enjoy their food, it may not be so welcomed. The one major caveat is this — when reducing salt it is highly recommended that you go down incrementally over the course of a few weeks. Your taste buds will adjust if you decrease incrementally. If you go from full salt to no salt overnight like I did, you may find your food tasting a little on the bland side.
What Did I Give Up?
One thing I noticed was how salt lurks in so many things you don’t realize!
I knew I wouldn’t have any potato chips this week, or use any salt in my cooking. But I roasted up some potatoes and realized I couldn’t have ketchup with them — plenty of salt in there.
I had some beans but couldn’t add salsa, no way!
I even grabbed a box of Kashi cereal that had no salt, but couldn’t add my almond milk because lo and behold — added salt!
I finally found a Westsoy Soy Milk product that had no added salt — just soybeans and water — so I used that.
Salt is in everything.
Another thing I had to give up was eating out. Except for that trip to Chipotle.
This was another profound realization of this experiment.
I have a hard enough time eating out as a vegan. Well really it’s not that hard — I’m used to it and know how to do it (reading menus ahead of time, having a plan, etc).
It is impossible to eat out if you are trying to eat salt-free.
As my friend and I were hanging out and contemplating grabbing food, I realized there wasn’t a single restaurant I could choose that would serve me salt-free food, unless I ordered a salad with no dressing, and that didn’t sound particularly appealing.
The other thing I learned is that while my friends are used to me being vegan and give ample consideration for my need (thanks guys), suggesting we eat salt-free was just too much…
I offered to cook up a salt-free meal and my friend looked at me like I was from Mars.
So I caved and I had Chipotle, where it’s easy to be vegan but impossible to be salt-free.
That’s ok. It was part of the experiment. I learned a lot. If you want to cut salt, you cannot eat out.
My post Chipotle weigh-ins confirmed there was a spike in my weight for about 2 days, then back down.
Where Am I Now?
I learned a lot from going salt-free for a week. I learned how it is in everything, how eating out is impossible, how it contributes to holding onto water weight, how much my weight fluctuates in general, and how my friends are able to cope with my weird vegan diet but are simply not on board with me going salt-free completely!
That’s why I love dietary experiments!
You learn so much.
So, with what I’ve learned, how will my behavior change?
Well, I’m not sure I can quite answer this yet… What I do know is that today I am far more aware of the impact salt has on my weight and how I feel than I was a few weeks ago. I think I’ll still use store bought condiments — I currently don’t feel super motivated to make my own ketchup or almond milk on a regular basis. But I could go easy on the salt in the foods I prepare…
The next step may be to track the actual number of milligrams I consume everyday. I would wager that I average below the AHA recommendation of 1500 milligrams even with my soy sauce and store bought salsa and occasional trip to Chipotle. But regardless, going salt-free lead to a feeling of lightness and 2 pounds lost, so I can’t say that salt has no impact on me!
Armed with that knowledge, I think I’ll be much more aware of how heavy my hand is with the salt-shaker! And the lighter feeling is motivating…!
Do you know how much salt you eat everyday? I didn’t. I also didn’t know how it was affecting my body. So I gave it up for one week. Here are the results.
Check out the American Heart Association recommendation on salt: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/About-Sodium-Salt_UCM_463416_Article.jsp#.Vry361MrJhE
If you follow the various thought leaders in the plant-based movement you may have seen the acronym WFPB. For the uninitiated, this stands for “Whole Foods Plant-Based.” That’s the diet I and many others advocate for.
Adding to the lengthy acronym, many experts in the field also tack on that the diet they recommend is “WFPB No SOS.”
That, good sir or madam, is a mouthful.
“But a mouthful of what?” you ask.
The “No SOS” addition to the acronym stands for “no added salt, oils, or sugar.”
For many, the thought of simply following a vegan, whole foods diet can be extreme enough. Let’s be honest — for most of the country this is still seen as extreme (even though I really don’t think it should be!)
So the thought of eating this way while also cutting out all added sodium, cooking with oils, or added sugar, seems not only ludicrous, but what’s the point? I mean, is the point of eating to not enjoy our food??
So where do I fall on the “no SOS” spectrum? Let me take it piece by piece.
I do still add salt to my food. Except for the past week… Sort of.
For the entirety of my healthy eating journey I’ve taken a pretty simple approach to salt in my diet. I’ve felt that if I stayed hydrated enough (never a problem for me) and limited my processed food (also not a big problem) that I didn’t have to worry about whatever salt I used on my home cooked meals.
I still feel this way, but over the past week I have been trying a “no added salt” experiment, which I will detail in next week’s post, once I have the final results. So stay tuned…
Though spoiler alert, I don’t think it will change my salt philosophy. Stay hydrated. Limit processed foods. Don’t sweat it (or, do… see what I did there).
I do not add oil to my food. This one was relatively easy for me. I never liked the oily taste anyway, the way oil coats your mouth and lips. Yuck… And once I started sautéing with vegetable broth, I really, truly didn’t notice a single difference in the final product (other than the welcomed absence of said oily mouth syndrome…)
I will still occasionally eat things cooked in oil. If I’m out to eat I may indulge in a few fries here and there, or a vegan baked good that obviously has oil in it. I’m not a complete stickler, but in my kitchen I don’t use it. The only oil I keep is for seasoning my cast iron skillets… I do not believe oil is a health food or necessary in a diet, unless you want to add massive amounts of calories and fat to your meal without increasing the fullness factor one bit. Oil is a great way to gain weight. I stay away from it.
I do occasionally add sugar to my food. Well, not like, white sugar. Or cane, brown, coconut, whatever. I don’t add that kind of sugar. The sugar I do add is in the form of maple syrup in my morning oatmeal. I try not to add a crazy amount, but I definitely use it everyday. I could possibly wean myself off it, but hey — life is meant to be sweet.
In fact, I think the entire war on sugar is a bit overblown and is a red herring meant to distract us from the role of animal products in our diet and processed foods at large.
Sure soda is just awful for you. There’s no doubt. We weren’t meant to be able to deliver 50 grams of sugar to our bloodstream in under 60 seconds. That is decidedly bad for us.
But, it is also undeniable that fruit played a major role in our evolutionary diet.
Oh and not to mention the preferred fuel source in the body is glucose, and the only fuel source for the brain and red blood cells is glucose. Our bodies were designed to run on simple sugars. While much of that can (and should) be delivered to the body in the form of complex carbohydrates, there’s no doubt that simple sugars from fruit are important to our physiology.
And back to the red herring thing. I bet if you asked 100 random people why ice cream was bad for them, 100 would say “sugar.” Not the fact that there is also loads of dairy fat, specifically saturated and trans fats, or cholesterol, or hormones, or pus, or preservatives, or anything else. Is the sugar in the ice cream good for you? No. But is it the only reason it’s bad for you — in other words, remove the sugar and ice cream is now a health food? Absolutely not.
So to make a long story short, I am not completely anti-sugar. I am not afraid of it. I think it is very natural for humans to be drawn to it, and thus I don’t get all bent out of shape about the maple syrup I use in my oatmeal 🙂 And I even bake up a batch of vegan cookies from time to time with some real cane sugar added. You gotta indulge sometimes…
So there you have it.
My feelings on the “no S.O.S.” version of the WFPBD. Did I lose you? Essentially I think oils are useless, salt is delicious (more on that next week), and sugar is a o.k. — in moderation.
Now let’s be clear — the title of this post is not “how to NOT die.” That would be a whole different blog post.. I have no current theories on how to obtain immortality.
The title of this post is how NOT to die. Because, let’s face it — we’re all going to die at some point. But there are better ways to die and worse ways.
Getting eaten by a tiger might be considered a way NOT to die.
If you ask me, dying early from a completely preventable disease (like heart disease, type-2 diabetes, stroke, certain cancers, etc) seems like one way NOT to die.
But why all this talk of dying?
Well, it’s because one of my personal heroes, and a true Plant-Based All-Star, Dr. Michael Greger, has written a book called (you guessed it) How NOT To Die!
In the nearly 600 pages he goes through all the exhaustive research showing how a plant-based diet can prevent, treat, and reverse the leading 15 causes of premature death in America.
Another way to access this life-saving information is to check out his non-profit website nutritionfacts.org. I often link directly to his amazing videos in my citations. Dr. Greger’s ability to synthesize complex nutritional research into a compelling, easy to understand narrative is an incredible resource. I highly recommend spending some time on his site.
There’s an app for that.
But perhaps the most exciting development of late from Dr. Greger is the release of his app, called “Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen.” (available on iPhone and Android)
This app serves as a daily food tracker, and it’s like a game. You score points by getting the recommended daily servings of each of the dozen foods.
The foods Dr. Greger recommends we eat daily to prevent our nation’s leading killers are beans, berries (and other fruits), greens (and other vegetables), flaxseed and nuts, whole grains, spices, water, and exercise.
The research on food tracking is pretty good — people who track their food daily tend to weigh less and be healthier. Yet paradoxically, the research on calorie counting is pretty abysmal. Studies have even shown that nutrition professionals are inaccurate when trying to count calories.
Make your life simple, and just track your daily dozen. If you get these 12 foods (and behaviors) in every single day, your health will improve dramatically and you will improve your chances of avoiding one of the ways NOT to die!
I share the story of how I went vegan! And how I lost tons of weight in the process. Speaking of, that’s a great word — process. Going vegan is often not an “overnight” kind of thing! Most people who successfully transition to a vegan plant-based lifestyle do it gradually, over the course of several months or several years. Going vegan overnight can be great, but it can also be too much to take on at once. As you’ll see in my story, I took my sweet time. And while I wish I’d gone vegan wayyyy earlier, that’s not how life works.
So if you are thinking of going vegan here’s my one piece of advice for you: DO WHAT YOU CAN. Don’t worry about labels right away or going 100%. Just cut back where you can. It gets easier. I promise 😉
OUR VEGETARIAN BLOG “MEAT MEETS GREEN”: http://meatmeetsgreen.blogspot.com/