Stop Eating Processed Foods

by Michael Scepaniak on September 2, 2014 in diet & exercise

Pacific coast beach near Fort Bragg

If you couldn’t exercise for six months, do you think you’d lose weight – or do you think you’d gain weight?

During the first half of this year, I had to stop doing all of my normal physical activities. I had to stop lifting weights, riding my bike, going for walks, using my standing desk, etc. This stoppage lasted for about six months. (Actually, to some degree, it is ongoing.) During that time, instead of gaining weight, I lost weight. I lost 21 lbs, to be exact. That was almost 12% of my bodyweight.

Becoming Sedentary

Since I was doing physical therapy exercises on a daily basis during this period of time, I wouldn’t say I was being lazy. But, physical therapy exercises (at least the exercises I was doing) tend to be very isolated and done in high repetitions. As such, the intensity level wasn’t all that impressive – not when compared to my normal catalog of weight-lifting movements. Frankly, when I had the biking, walking, standing, and weight-lifting taken away from me, I felt downright sedentary.

And yet I lost weight. A lot of weight. Involuntarily. To be fair, a lot of it was muscle. But, at my low point, which persisted for months, I was pretty skinny. I had very little fat on me. I had lost fat, too.

And yet, during that time, I had become somewhat sedentary. Hmm…

During my months of struggles, I made an effort to take a step back and be thankful. I was thankful that, despite my relative inactivity, I was losing weight, not gaining weight. I was thankful because I knew that, given similar circumstances, the opposite would be true for most people. Don’t get me wrong. I was very frustrated by the amount of effort it was taking me to keep on-, much less gain weight. But, I realized it could be worse.

My Diet

If the truism is correct that our body composition is due to diet and exercise – and, during this time, my exercise had largely been removed from the equation – then I have to conclude that my weight loss was due to my diet. And by “my diet”, I mean my normal, day-in, day-out habit of eating. Nothing really changed with my diet before, during, or after this period in my life. I ate the same stuff, in the same quantities, throughout.

So, what can somebody learn from this? One simple conclusion could be that I’m a genetic freak. And, maybe there’s some truth to that. But, let me add some balance to the story by saying that I wasn’t a particularly skinny kid. Especially during my middle school and early high school years, I was a bit chubby. And, in terms of muscle, I was a late bloomer. I don’t think I gained any real mass until late in college or even after college. So, while I’m OK conceding that maybe the weight loss (especially the amount of weight lost) is due to genetic freakiness, I’m not willing to chalk my lack of weight gain up to the same source.

Another conclusion could be that my diet is awesome – or extra-ordinary – or at least notable. Well, I like the sound of that better than the genetic freak theory. So, let’s go down that path a bit.

What I Eat

What exactly do I eat? In brief…

  • mushrooms
  • beans
  • beets, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, sauerkraut, pumpkin
  • beef
  • kale, broccoli, peas
  • chicken
  • tuna, sardines
  • eggs
  • coconut milk
  • water
  • dark chocolate
  • almonds, cashews
  • bananas
  • avocados
  • olive oil
  • whey protein

These foods constitute my baseline diet. Let me chunk these together a bit to make things easier to grasp.

  • Breakfast consists of a bowl (about two cups, total) of mushrooms, beans, and my “colors” veggie mix (beets, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, sauerkraut, and pumpkin).
  • Gym work-outs are accompanied by a shake made with whey protein and water. I also tend to drink one of these on days-off, as well.
  • Lunch #1 consists of a working glass divided 50/50 between my seafood mix (avocados, sardines, and a little tuna) and my “greens” veggie mix (kale, broccoli, and peas).
  • Lunch #2 consists of a working glass divided 50/50 between ground beef (cooked in extra virgin olive oil) and my “greens” veggie mix, accompanied by a glass of coconut milk (8oz), and finished up with some dark chocolate (a small handful).
  • Snack-time consists of a small handful of almonds, a small handful of cashews, and a piece of fruit (typically a banana).
  • Dinner consists of 8 eggs (6 yolks total) cooked in extra virgin olive oil, finished up with some dark chocolate (a small handful).

Everyday, I eat at least 4+ meals. Basically, I’m never hungry. In fact, it typically takes me more effort to eat all of this than to not eat all of this.

Unprocessed Food

See a pattern with all of the foods I eat? Yeah, all of it is what I’d call “real” foods. “Whole” foods. Natural foods. Unadulterated foods. All of it, excepting the whey protein powder and dark chocolate, is unprocessed or minimally processed. None of my food is “prepared” for me by…

  • Kraft (Miracle Whip, Maxwell House, Stove Top, Planters, Oscar Mayer, etc.)
  • Nestle (Carnation, Edy’s, Hot Pockets, DiGiorno, Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, etc.)
  • General Mills (Betty Crocker, Bisquick, Nature Valley, Old El Paso, Pillsbury, Progresso, Yoplait, etc.)
  • Kellogg’s (Pop Tarts, Eggo, Nutri-Grain, etc.)
  • ConAgra (Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Hunt’s, La Choy, Libby’s, Peter Pan, Bertolli, etc.)
  • Unilever (Lipton, Knorr, Hellmann’s, etc.)
  • PepsiCo (Lay’s, Tropicana, Quaker, Lipton, Tostitos, etc.)
  • Campbell’s
  • Hormel
  • etc.

And that is completely intentional. The less that multi-national consumer packaged food companies touch the food that goes into my mouth, the better. The more likely I’d be able to find the things I eat growing in nature, the better.

To me, this just makes sense. The foods I eat are the foods we evolved (over millions of years) to eat. All of the “improvements” that packaged food companies make to our food aren’t really improvements at all. They process and engineer foods to make them tastier, cheaper, more addictive, more satisfying, more appealing, and/or more convenient. But none of that activity makes the food better for you. There’s nothing that packaged food companies can do to food that will get you to “being healthy” in a better, more effective, longer-lasting way than nature can.

Human beings, especially profit-driven human beings, aren’t smart enough to out-smart nature. Not over the long-term.

So, in my mind, the key to “diet” is simple – stop eating processed foods. Just stop. If the food you are eating has been advertised to you, stop eating it. I know this is oversimplifying it, but I think you get my point. There’s lots of commercials on TV for Pop Tarts; none for broccoli.

Simple Is Not Easy

Of course, “simple” does not equate to “easy”. “Easy” is a whole ‘nother animal. In many ways, avoiding processed foods is not easy. To get there, you have to take three difficult steps.

Step #1 – Less Craving

The first step to removing processed foods from your diet is stopping your desire for processed foods. You have to ignore the barrage of advertising that packaged food companies pay for to make you want their products. You then have to wean yourself off of the manipulative and addictive food engineering that has brought you so much unhealthy satisfaction – for pretty much your entire life. Certainly not “easy”.

But, once you’re able to turn a blind eye (and, instead, give the finger) to the advertisements and offerings of packaged food companies, you feel so empowered! And, in hindsight, you’ll look back and wonder how you ever allowed yourself to be fooled and duped so badly.

Step #2 – More Money

The second step to removing processed foods from your diet is coming to terms with the cost. You’re going to have to increase your food budget. Perversely, unprocessed food costs more than processed food. Why? My guess is the large percentage of preservative chemicals and low-quality government-subsidized ingredients in processed foods. But, that’s just my guess. Regardless, if the cost gets to you, consider that 80 years ago, we spent about 25% of our income on food. Today, it’s about 10%. 10%! That’s a crazy huge difference.

While I can accept some gains because of productivity, I’m of the belief that a lot of that difference came about because quality decreased and exploitation (of livestock, labor, and the environment) increased. Taken in that light, you might feel better about the idea of increasing your food budget.

Personally, I’ve learned to (grudgingly) embrace my food bill. In fact, once you’re of the mindset, it’s easy to get sucked-into a sort of “quality vortex”. I eat organic, grass-fed and finished, pasture-raised, locally-sourced, Certified Humane, and fair trade whenever I can. To me, they are further refinements of “unadulterated”. But, don’t feel that you have to strive for these standards when it comes to your food. Just focus on unprocessed foods, period. Everything beyond that amounts to extra credit.

Step #3 – More Time

The third step to removing processed foods from your diet is learning to live without the convenience. This change requires that you dedicate a lot more time (than you are probably used to) to food preparation. In order to avoid the preservatives, additives, and low-quality ingredients that packaged food companies tend to lean-on, you’ve got to do without the convenience those same companies provide. Buying a half-dozen frozen pizzas and popping them into the microwave as desired during the week? Yeah, no more of that.

Personally, this is the step I struggle with the most. Food prep takes planning and forethought and, oh yeah, time and effort. And, with few/no other friends and relatives going to the same lengths, it can get frustrating. This is doubly true if, like me, you eat a lot. More food requires more food prep.

However, there’s something to be said for the greater appreciation you have for the food that you eat when you’ve put so much effort into preparing it. You know exactly what it is. You’re in control of it. You can take pride in it. You can feel good about it.

Long Term

The benefit of going to all of this trouble? You can basically eat as much of these (unprocessed) foods as you want and you won’t get fat. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ll lose body fat, feel better, look better, and be all-over healthier. The long-term benefits are huge.

As such, I suggest pursuing this over the long-term. Don’t try to get here in a day, or a week, maybe not even a year. Frankly, if I went back and told my college self what I ate, I think my college self would balk. For me, getting to where I am today, diet-wise, has been a decades-long journey. After all…

  • I was that kid who drank soda with lunch and dinner.
  • I was that teenager who ate microwave pizzas everyday.
  • I was that college student who lived on pasta packets.
  • I was that twenty-something who ate cereal every morning.
  • I was that thirty-something who downed protein shakes and Gatorade with every work-out.

My diet has been (and still is) an ongoing process. I suggest you approach it in the same way. I hesitate to even call it a “diet”. In the minds of many, a “diet” has come to mean a short-term endeavor. What I’m talking about certainly isn’t short-term. If it helps, think of it as a “food lifestyle”.

Specific Foods

As far as what, specifically, you should eat, I encourage you to look beyond my own personal list of foods. Astute readers with familiarity with it will probably notice that my diet looks a whole lot like a Paleo diet. And that’s because it is. As such, if you want advice regarding specific foods, I suggest you read Paleo-centric blogs and books. Personally, I have been reading Mark’s Daily Apple for a little over a year now. That’s been a good source for me.

To wrap up, this is how I eat. It makes sense to me. It works for me. I’m thinking that, since you are a human being like me, it would work for you, too. If it sounds daunting, take it slow. If, to you, it sounds really, really – I mean really – daunting, I understand. But, for your part, understand that the packaged food companies have been lulling you into a false sense of security and constructing a misleading world of food “normalcy” for generations. It makes sense that getting past that won’t be easy. Move toward it gradually. Progress will come on its own.

In the same way that eating processed food can be an addiction, I’ve found that, after a while, eating and being healthy become their own addictions. But, good news, these are beneficial addictions.

I could go on about this topic forever. But, I think I’ve written enough for now. If you have any questions or thoughts, please post them in the comments. Good luck!

Mike
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt December 28, 2014 at 10:25 am

Mike,
Thanks for taking the time to post this “golden” information. I subscribe to your ideas and strive to be as disciplined as you. Please keep sharing!
Cheers,
Matt

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Michael Scepaniak January 8, 2015 at 6:18 am

Thanks, Matt!

Mike…

Reply

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