As a wellness consultant I am often asked, “What do you eat to stay healthy?” The simple answer is real food. A more elaborate response is this post that highlights my general food philosophy.
My food philosophy is based on a ton of personal experimentation, reading everything I can get my hands on, and the common sense principles I learned from my parents. I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family that appreciated real food and enjoyed sharing meals together.
I believe paramount to maintaining a sustainable body is the willingness to change. The diet that worked for me as a young professional dancer did not fulfill my needs as an older adult. Bodies and hormones change, as do nutritional needs.
First of all, the disclaimer, I am not a food expert, dietician or other medically licensed individual. This story is my own personal experience. It is intended to offer insight and support to any individual struggling to find a solid nutritional path.
The Energy Theory (is out of date)
For most of my life I believed in the energy in, energy out theory. That being, in order to maintain a healthy body weight, there must be a balance between input in food and output in exercise. My thinking on the energy theory completely changed for the following reasons:
- My own personal experimentation
- As a personal trainer, executive coach and wellness consultant keenly observing clients in their food journeys, both positive and negative ones
- Developing a better understanding of the role of insulin in fat accumulation
- Living in Europe from the 1980’s through 2004 and witnessing the explosion of obesity in the USA (read what we are doing is not working).
In a nutshell, I am a firm believer in the notion a calorie is NOT a calorie. That the key to a healthy body means eat real food, that does not play havoc with your blood sugar. I believe exercise has magnificent benefits, but losing weight is not one.
My food philosophy
- Eat for performance
- Plan meals
- Make a shopping list
- Pack a bag
- Be willing to change
- Reduce carbohydrates and sugar
- Talk less about diet
- Read more
Eat for performance
My personal regime reflects a mentality driven by the belief that food is a source of energy and fuel to be utilized for maximum performance. This is different to “reward” eating. Meaning, I did this so now I can eat that.
Eating for performance means the food sources need to provide a consistent level of energy to the body. In essence food should not put you on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows.
What I don’t eat, or at least try to avoid at all cost!
- Processed food of any kind
- Low-fat products of any kind
- Sugary drinks such as soda, sport drinks and smoothies
- Highly commercial foods that contain GMO’s and other chemical substances
- Foods high in carbohydrate and sugar content that raise your blood sugar
What I do eat
- Organic whole milk dairy products, including all types of cheese
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi
- Whole nuts of any kind, with no added sugar or salt
- Organic vegetables and fruits, (WAY more veggies than fruit)
- Organic, grass-fed meat and poultry (local when available)
- Organic, pasture-raised eggs
- Fish of any kind, preferably wild not farm raised
- Dark chocolate (big smile)
- Our own homemade products like kombucha, yogurt and cheese etc.
I realize organic is in most cases more expensive. In order to buy organic foods expenses are cut elsewhere. For example, our house does not have a TV, thus no extra expense for cable. Eating out less offers more dollars to buy organic. It’s a choice.
Plan meals and make a shopping list
Planning and shopping are everything when it comes to food. In order to eat real food that will sustain a body, meals need to be eaten, not snacks. Meals require making a list, buying the food and cooking it. There is no shortcut, prepared and processed foods have minimal performance enhancing characteristics, besides the overwhelming negative effect on one’s health.
In our house we aim for a minimum of 3 to 4 days of meals in every grocery- shopping trip. We coordinate the meals in order to maximize the ingredients. For example, if one evening meal is pork chops and sautéed onions, we will cook enough to have leftovers for lunch the next day. Plus, utilize the bones from the meat for stock or make soup for the next night.
I see two major benefits to the shopping list, one is financial and two is the diversity in meals. First in terms of the money, it’s my experience that without a list I buy unnecessary items. In addition, it’s easier to be wooed by grocery store marketing ploys.
Secondly, a list assures more diversity in the meals. For example, my husband, Robert does the majority of the cooking in our house. He coordinates the meal plans to utilize assorted ingredients. Therefore, by having a list and sticking to it no two meals are alike, plus no last minute worrying about what to fix.
Pack a bag
Several months ago I spoke at a Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco. My topic was “A Dancer’s Perspective: Sustainable Performance” video here. I shared my thoughts on what it takes to have a sustainable career in a very high-risk profession. One component of longevity for a dancer is always pack a bag.
Sure food is omnipresent in our society, so why worry about taking something with you? If eating real food is a goal, one must think ahead. Particularly when traveling, whether in the air or on a highway, all of which a dancer knows well. Access to real food is often limited, of poor quality and low nutritional value.
Having a bag of walnuts, boiled eggs or hunk of cheese in your bag can be a life- saver. I learned this not only out of necessity as a dancer but through my Mom. Traveling every weekend with my father’s basketball team left them often on the road, with little available food. Small habits learned early provide great reward later in life.
Be willing to change
For more than twenty years I was a vegetarian. I actively practiced this throughout a major portion of my dance career. It was not out of any religious belief but more out of practicality. I found as a dancer often on tour and working with a rigorous performance schedule a vegetarian diet suited my needs.
However, shortly after turning 40, my body started to change and a vegetarian diet no longer served me positively. What is a long story I will try to make short here. While winding down my dance career I started to experience extreme joint pain and discomfort. These issues manifested in chronic back, neck and hip pain.
During that time I remained physically active and was under the supervision of one of the best physical therapists in The Netherlands, Ted Willemsen. Ted continues to be a well-respected authority on injuries and rehabilitation for dancers. I owe him an enormous amount of gratitude.
I went through two years of tests, doctors etc. and nothing was found. The result being I must have a psychological disorder (read depression), a rare form of arthritis or some type of allergy doctors could not diagnose.
Finally, not getting any better and numerous discussions with Ted, we said, well what about diet? Maybe this was my body’s way of saying that my current diet was no longer serving me positively.
I slowly started reintroducing meat into my diet and things started to change. My energy improved, my joint complaints lessened and overall ease in moving came back. While certainly not everything went away, not to forget I spent more than 25 years as a professional dancer, the change from my perspective was dramatic.
After moving back to the US in 2005, I discovered the work of Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories. While weight has never been a major issue for me, my joint pain was a problem. While Taubes’ book focuses on the root causes of fat accumulation and the role of insulin, I was intrigued by the possible role of inflammation in my own case.
Subsequently my husband and I made the decision to reduce our carbohydrate and sugar consumption to an all-time low level. Our little in-house experiment brought additional benefits, my husband allergies completely disappeared, our energy levels continued to improve, my joint issues stabilized and we no longer suffered from the extreme highs and lows of hunger.
Finding a common sense nutritional pathway, through the morass of information and disinformation, in a food-obsessed society, is rough. I was very lucky to have a partner willing to experiment and change together. In my opinion, the support system, (like my partner) is paramount to success, especially if food is involved.
Reduce carbohydrates and sugar
As mentioned above I found the best way to maintain a healthy weight is by dramatically reducing simple carbohydrate and sugar consumption. I do not believe in the calories in, calories out theory. In other words, I believe weight is controlled by the kind of calories one consumes, i.e. foods that raise insulin cause fat accumulation.
SUGAR, SUGAR, SUGAR it just has to go. If one is really serious about a healthy diet, eliminating sugar has to be a priority. That is why I feel strongly about no processed foods, no low-fat products and certainly no soda, sport or energy drinks, juice or smoothies. All have high concentrations of sugar, as well as other toxic ingredients.
In addition, we do not juice in our house. Why? One would never eat that amount of fruit, you miss the fiber content and it’s too much sugar. Sugar and carbohydrates raise insulin levels. Insulin causes blood sugar to rise, all of which make for a constant wave of highs and lows, mentally and physically.
Two side notes
It’s not that I never enjoy a sweet. Dark chocolate is a staple in our house. When invited to dinner or special occasion we join in the dessert festivities. But bottom line is sugar items such as nutritional bars, pastries, donuts; candy bars, cookies and ice cream, all remain treats for special events not for daily habits. If you are prone to gain weight they are not your friends.
Here’s the second and ironic caveat. My Dad a WW2 veteran, ex-Marine also believed that bread, pasta and beer made him gain weight. When he wanted to lose a couple pounds that was what he cut out. In addition, my Mother was a firm believer in the power of butter. Thus, healthy fats were never excluded from our household. So my food journey came full circle to what I had been exposed to as a child.
Talk less about diet
It is impossible to go anywhere these days in the US and not be surrounded by food. Therefore, I devoted a previous blog post to that subject titled Let’s Change the Conversation. In that post I promote less obsessive talk about “diet” in our culture, as a means to a healthier lifestyle.
I realize the enormous challenge this poses in a society where food is everywhere. However, if one consciously takes the effort to enjoy meals and steer the conversation towards topics other than diet, it can be refreshing. I’m not saying don’t talk about your food, but relish more on the origins and cooking process of the food, as opposed to the calorie content and guilt implications.
It might be a stretch for some individuals but worth a try. Similar to powering down and turning off electronic devices, a dinner without calorie conversation offers a chance to savor the food, pay tribute to the chef and gain respect for the farmers.
Take the time to dive into some of the current research on food. By this I don’t mean the latest headline, breaking news and or trendiest study blasted on the air. I encourage taking one author or two and read several of their works, published articles, interviews and blog posts.
By digging deeper into the subject matter you will start to solidify and understand what makes sense for you. It’s provides a more nuanced approach to food, beyond news headline mania. Learn to “read” a study, dissect the content and think critically about the observations and conclusions. Headlines are deceiving.
For example, I dug into Taubes’ two books, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and Why We Get Fat, read his articles on the New York Times, listened to lectures on You Tube. The same goes for Michael Pollan, journalist and food author. I devoured his books, Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules; movies like Food Inc., listened to countless interviews, podcasts and audio books. I attended Mr. Pollan’s Edible Education course, which is free and open to the public at UC Berkeley.
This same approach was used for a number of thought provoking authors, a short list being here. Dr. Robert Lustig, Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, John Yudkin, Dr. William Davis, Peter Atia, Zoe Harcombe, Dr. David Kessler, Michael Moss and an old classic Dr. Atkins.
If you want and desire better choices in food, get involved. It will support your own journey as well encourage change in our communities.
Last month I volunteered for the Slow Food San Francisco Childhood Obesity Conference, to have a chance to hear speakers on various food issues. I belong to a variety of social media groups focused on food, and avidly follow individuals working in the field of nutrition, food policy, justice and organic farming.
Change is going to happen, one person, one table at a time.
I mentioned several times my parents in this post. I owe them a huge debt, especially my Mom. She taught my brother and I to love being in the kitchen, she made incredibly delicious meals out of nothing, operated on a strict budget, and never got swayed by the latest diet or marketing craze. Her creativity is and will forever be inspirational.