Lying on a hospital bed in my fourth mental ward, as my mind raced wildly, I decided that, no matter what, I was not going to give up. That may have been one of the best decisions of my life. However, it did present a problem. My health was so poor that doctors kept informing me of how precarious my situation was. Honestly, I was barely clinging to life. When I was finally released, I found myself hobbling from the discharge area over to our car because I was morbidly obese and completely out of shape. I knew I was in serious trouble and eventually had to face the fact that I was, quite literally, in a fight for my life. It was time for action, but exercising wasn't much of an option in the beginning because of my poor health and weight. I realized the thing I would have the most control over, in the beginning, would be what I ate. That was not a comforting thought. I was filled with anxiety as I began pondering the questions that so many others have had. Why has every diet I've ever tried failed to improve my health? Why am I afraid of food? Why isn’t there any consensus on what healthy foods are?
I went to the library in search of answers, not another ridiculous diet book. I was determined to find why diets had failed to help me achieve any degree of mental or physical health in the past, despite giving them my best efforts. I also decided to research what the populations with the fewest diseases and longest life-spans ate. I was curious if those communities shared similarities in their diets, and if so, what they were.
I found answers. Thankfully, I found many answers, and they revolutionized my experience of life. I used them to lose the weight, improve my mental and physical health in ways I could have never imagined, and I was able to fall in love with food again. That’s right. I love food. I love everything about food. I love that it sustains life, brings people together, and highlights our cultural differences. I love the way it smells, the way it looks and the way it makes me feel. I am not afraid of food anymore. I am able to embrace it in a healthy way.
Some of the answers that brought me the most relief were found in the data that I highlighted last week.1 Finding out that 95% of people who go on diets fail, long term, and that the majority of them end up gaining more weight than they lost, allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief. As I said, I knew I wasn’t lazy, self-indulgent or stupid. The more data I dug up, the more I realized that complicated, or overly restrictive, diets were clearly not the answer for the vast majority of people. What a relief, finding out it wasn’t all my fault.
That data was extraordinarily helpful, but I still had to figure out what I was going to eat. I started looking into what people all over the globe were eating. I found it interesting that we are surviving on many different types of food in many different environments, all over the planet. From the Inuit to the Amazonians, we seem to be able to adapt to whatever food source we are presented with. We can survive on nearly anything. That’s one of the reasons there are over 7 billion of us in nearly every climate on earth. We can survive. The question for me wasn’t who was surviving. The question for me was, of those 7 billion, who was thriving and why?
The answer was/is clear. Before I give it, please remember, I have no agenda here. I’m not selling a diet book or any supplements. I’m not trying to convert anyone to a way of life because I’m not a Vegan, Vegetarian or Paleolithic person. I am simply passing on the answers that I found by digging through the data. If someone out there has found that eating fried pig skins works for him/her, then my hat is off to them. The information that I use comes from some of the most respected, scientifically sound health and medical organizations on earth. Do with it what you will.
With that being said, in nearly every study done to date, the populations of people who eat the most whole plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds) are the healthiest and live the longest. Diet book authors who don’t like this fact claim that there are other contributing factors that cause this to be true. I agree, to a point. There are many factors that decide a person’s health. For instance, last week I mentioned the number one predictor of mental and physical health is glucocorticoid levels (stress levels). Another factor that is most likely contributing to these populations' health is that nearly all get a considerable amount of physical exercise, whether it be from their occupations or that they simply walk a great deal. Both of those factors, and others, undoubtedly play a role in these people’s health. However, that does not negate the fact that, overwhelmingly, the people who experience the fewest diseases, and enjoy the longest life spans, eat a diet that mainly consists of minimally processed plants.
Study after study confirms this. The more I found, the more excited I became. I had already collected many studies on how fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds improve mental health. I began to see that there was a chance I could improve both my mental and physical health simply by eating more unprocessed, or minimally processed, plants. Of course, I was skeptical at first, but I decided I didn’t have anything to lose. Why not try eating more plants?
In the beginning, all I did was attempt to stuff myself with as many whole plant foods as possible. I did not, and still do not, deny myself anything. I don’t count calories. I don’t obsess about food. I simply eat plant foods ninety to ninety-five percent of the time. And no, I don’t berate myself when I eat something unhealthy. If I’m traveling, or craving something unhealthy, all I do is eat as many plant foods as possible before I eat the unhealthy foods. I still get to enjoy them; I just eat much less of them. Below are exhaustive lists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. I went through them and wrote down all the things that I would eat and could enjoy. It’s that simple.
I have improved my mental and physical health to such a degree that now, I rarely want unhealthy foods. Usually, unhealthy food cravings come up when we travel. Traveling is a passion of ours. We love experiencing new cultures, climates and scenery. For example, when we’re in Southern California this summer, I promise you, I’ll be having In-N-Out (A fast food burger joint that I love). When we’re in Europe, there is no question, I’ll be having fish and chips, bratwurst, cafe con leches, baguettes, gelato, and pasta. How could I travel through Europe again and not enjoy those staples? I intend to live my life to the fullest.
If I haven’t traveled for a while or haven’t had a craving for anything unhealthy, I’ll go so far as to schedule something like eating pizza into my week. That helps keep me grounded and reminds me that I am not on a diet. Diets often lead to obsessing over and fearing food. If you think I'm exaggerating, please realize that a new term has been coined by many in the mental health profession to describe that very phenomenon. It’s Orthorexia Nervosa. Orthorexia Nervosa is described as a condition in which a person becomes obsessed with eating foods that he/she considers healthy, usually from faulty information that was sold to them in a diet book. The people who suffer from this condition increasingly limit the foods that they will eat, often become critical of those who don’t eat the way they do and experience something akin to elation when they eat something that they feel is healthy. Their lives become consumed with the types of food they will allow themselves to eat, and they berate themselves if they eat anything not on their list of approved foods. These are the type of conditions that can help foster an eating disorder.
The number of people with an eating disorder is skyrocketing. I certainly don’t have any cures or definitive answers, but I do have data. For instance, 80% of 10-year-old girls in the United States admit to having tried going on some type of diet, at least once in their life. That is a scary figure because we know that 95% of people who go on a diet fail. What's worse is, more often than not, they end up gaining more weight than they lost. So, what do they do? They go on another diet, and the cycle begins. People are failing on diets, getting fatter, sicker and becoming increasingly afraid of food. Those realities certainly aren’t helping to slow the number of eating disorders that are occurring. Enough! Let's fall in love with food again. When I did, I improved my mental health, lost nearly 100 pounds and recently got my first top ten finish in a race. To get started, all I did was find as many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds that I loved and ate them as often as possible.* Life rarely gets much simpler than that.
I am painfully aware that there are people out there selling countless books and programs that have conflicting data on what they say constitutes healthy food. Often, the authors of diet books are forced to bash the research of well respected scientific organizations, with anecdotal data, to try and support their claims. Robert Coleman Atkins was so upset that scientific bodies like the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences opposed his diet that he said, “My sheepdog will figure out nutrition before the dieticians do.” When I hear statements such as those, I am reminded of what Steven Novella has to say to people like that: “What do you think science is? There's nothing magical about science. It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with? Do you disagree with being thorough? Using careful observation? Being systematic? Or using consistent logic?” Are there areas in life that are outside the realm of science? Of course. Is what the healthiest, longest living people on earth eat one of those realms? No.
Unfortunately, I am out of time, so I am going to cover what diets get right, and wrong, according to actual science, next week. Until then, just know, when I separated the people who had money tied up in selling me something from the independent and well respected scientific sources the answers became clear. The more whole plant foods [fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds] a group of people eats, the longer they tend to live and the healthier they tend to be. Period. Don't forget the added bonus, there is a mountain of verifiable, scientific studies that show whole plant foods have an incredible, positive effect on many mental illnesses. I highlighted a few in the post on green smoothies.2
To sum up, I am posting a picture of a small checklist I designed to carry in my pocket. The list is based on what I like and what I need to fuel my workouts. I doubt there would be anyone on earth with the exact same list. I'm not prescribing meal plans. I'm demonstrating my philosophy. Instead of counting calories and worrying about cutting foods out, I focus on adding foods in. I concentrate on getting as many healthy foods, that I love, into my day, as possible. That shift in focus changed my life. It’s simple; if I can fit these foods into my day, in a way that I love, then everything else usually takes care of itself. If I do end up craving something unhealthy, I eat a piece of fruit first, and then I eat it. No big deal.
As a side note: To help illustrate how easy this is, I’m going to start posting more pictures of what I am eating on Instagram and Facebook. I will also be adding Healthy Foods That Rock into the topic section, soon. In it, I will occasionally post easy recipes and tricks for awesome healthy foods. Hopefully, the pictures and the recipes will be helpful. I will be sure to post photos of when I have an unhealthy meal, like a big slice of pepperoni pizza, as well as the healthy foods. I want everyone to know that a person can be extraordinarily healthy and fit while still having an occasional splurge with family and friends.
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As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a fantastic resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
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*I did gain a few pounds in the beginning because my leptin hormone levels had crashed, and my metabolism was shot. I didn't care. I felt better and was sure it would work itself out. Thankfully, I was right.