I decided to write this and create a page to show how my food choices have evolved since I started my lifestyle change on January 21, 2001. It’s kinda long, so I’m going to post it in 4 parts. I hope it will help you to understand where I started, what I learned along the way, and how I got to where I am now. As I’ve mentioned many times, committing to a lifestyle change is a life-long commitment, not just a one-off diet.
In my lifestyle change, I went through four major changes: the low-fat weight-loss regimen, the South Beach Diet experience, adopting a plant-based diet, and moving to a low-carbohydrate–not paleo–regimen. Since I married a meat-eater during this time, another change I made was learning to cook for both of us without having to make separate meals every day. I plan to share a lot more about that in future posts, and make suggestions in recipes. I grew up as a meat-eater, so I have experience cooking with meat, but I gave up meat in 1991.
Change 1: The Low-Fat Regimen
In the late 1980s, I tried a pre-packaged weight loss plan, dedicated to sticking with it–even going to group support–which I loathed. I lost around 20 pounds within a few weeks, but was absolutely starving all the time. In hindsight, I realized it was because the program was designed for quick, but not sustainable weight loss. One of the biggest issues is that the diet industry needs to promise quick results. They sell promises of losing 10 pounds in a week or dropping a dress size without giving up bread, but these are just ploys to hook people into buying their products.
This is me, circa 2000. I was really reluctant to post this, since most of the people who I see today didn’t know me as a morbidly obese person. I realized that it was important, though, to be brave and show that it is possible to successfully make a long-lasting lifestyle change.
When I started my lifestyle change on January 21, 2001, I was determined not to fall into that same trap, but realized I did need to learn portion control. I signed up for that same pre-packaged weight loss program, but only for a few months as a way to have portioned out meals and snacks. Their plan had been revised since the ‘80s to be a bit more sensible. Instead of the 1,200 calorie meal plan, my daily calorie allowance was 1,800, which was much more reasonable.
Still, the plan expected me to do unsustainable things like only eat lettuce for a salad. I mean, who eats just lettuce and calls it salad? Like many overweight people, I was self-taught and well-versed on nutrition. I knew calories, fat, sodium–you name it– in order to know what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’. So from the start, I adapted the plan a bit to account for the fact that if a salad was going to be appealing to me, I would add non-starchy vegetables like tomatoes and carrots. I also discovered that Jelly Bellys were 4 calories each and could be combined to make different flavors. I figured that an extra 16–or even 32 calories a day was better than depriving myself of a sweet hit after dinner, since I had to save my evening snack until as late as possible to make it until bedtime.
In 2001, a low-fat diet was the prescription for weight loss, advocated by the government and major medical researchers. I opted to follow this plan. My daily caloric intake of 1,800 calories was based on 60% coming from carbohydrates, with fat and protein at 20% each. (Note that one gram of fat contains 9 calories, while carbohydrates and protein each contain 4 calories.)
I would recommend a low-fat diet to my previous self, even knowing what I know now. Before I started my lifestyle change, the bulk of my calories came from carbohydrates. A regimen centered around protein or fat would have set me up for failure. The great thing about carbohydrates is that the digest more quickly, making us feel fuller and more satisfied in less time than it takes to process proteins and fats. This is helpful when limiting calories and getting that hit almost immediately when you do eat.
Another reason is due to volume. Because carbohydrates are usually bulkier than fats, if you’re used to having a full stomach, you’d have to eat a lot more nuts to feel satisfied than eating the equivalent calories in bread, for example. Unless you can trade in the spaghetti for spaghetti squash, potatoes for cauliflower, and rice for shirataki, it’d be a rough road.
Consider how you eat now. What does your average daily intake look like? If breakfast is yogurt and granola, lunch is a sandwich with a side of potato chips, dinner is spaghetti with meatballs, and treats range from Doritos to Lara Bars, you would struggle to stick to a plan where the majority of your calories come from proteins or fats. And believe me–fats are not nearly as appealing when they’re not paired with carbohydrates. Peanut butter on toast is much tastier than peanut butter on carrots for breakfast.
I also realized that exercise had to become a regular part of my life. I always felt like the outside of me didn’t reflect the inside because I wasn’t a lazy person. I didn’t start right away, though, because the dietary change required a lot of time and commitment, so I waited until I adjusted to incorporate more changes. About three months later, I started walking. At first it was only 15 or 20 minutes, a few days a week. As I lost more weight from my dietary change, I increased my exercise until I was walking about 5 miles a day, 5 days a week. I also started to add in some other activities I enjoyed on a more regular basis, but walking was my main thing. It’s important to keep in mind, as I’ll write in a later post, that exercise alone will not result in sustainable weight loss, but it is good for you in so many ways.
After learning portion control from the pre-packaged meals, I shifted to eating real food. I’d planned this from the start and did it because the plan was expensive, but also because changing my lifestyle meant learning to prepare healthful food in sustainable portions. I broke down the calories and fat for each meal and snack and over time substituted grocery stores items in place of the pre-packaged food. I discuss this more thoroughly in my Choosing a Plan post (8/4).
Despite the changes I’ve made over the years and knowing everything I now know, I would still opt for the low-fat regimen if I had to start all over again. Getting to the ratio I eat now (50% fat, 30% proteins, and 20% carbohydrates), was a process that took years to implement, built on the changes I describe below.
I’d had a typical American (though vegetarian) diet. I learned how to eat a lot less, but I was still eating a lot of processed foods. Had I attempted to suddenly go from the way I was eating to the vegetable-based low-carbohydrate, high fat diet I live on today, I never would have made it. If you continue reading below, you’ll see exactly what I mean when my spouse, Michael, and I attempted the South Beach Diet (it involves dog biscuits…).
The transition would have been far too radical and I would have quit, only to have wasted another valiant weight-loss effort to one more diet defeat. A lifestyle change must be a process in order to succeed, which is why I recommend choosing a plan as similar to what you regularly eat now. Despite their claims, after some preliminary research and calculations, it’s fair to say that the major diet plans out there (Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and Nutrisystem) are still low-fat, carbohydrate-centric programs, so I would start with one of them.
Among my earliest memories are people telling me I needed to lose weight. At the age of five, both of my grandmothers wanted to help me ‘slim down’. (I realized years later that it was their issue they were projecting onto me because I really wasn’t that chunky, but the damage was done.) When I was in first grade, I had a red dress that had an elastic bunched midriff. I remember wearing it and my grandmother saying it was like a girdle, so it would remind me to hold in my stomach.
Meanwhile, she was the same person who rewarded me with treats, gave me comfort food when I was feeling low, and took me out for a hearty breakfast every Sunday after church. I know she was just doing all of these things because she loved me, but these mixed signals were one of the earliest things that set me up for some serious food issues. The earliest that I can recall is being repeatedly told by my dad that I had to clean my plate because people were starving in China. (I was four, so I didn’t see the illogical nature of that statement until I was much older.)
So after losing 150 pounds over the course of 15 months, I was feeling great, but I still had food issues. The lifestyle change didn’t end just because I reached a healthy weight. For years, I continued following the same planning and portioning strategies, but went back to eating 1,800 calories, up from the 1,500 a day I had been eating at the end of the weight loss segment. When I wanted to lose weight, I accepted that I would regularly feel hungry. After I reached a healthy weight and still felt hungry only an hour or so after I’d eaten, I was less okay with that. It was about this same time the South Beach diet became very popular.
For decades, the prevailing approach to weight loss had been to adopt a low-fat diet, with the bulk of the calories coming from carbohydrates. Fat had been demonized as the enemy of weight loss, so the idea was that it was best to eat only the minimum amount a body needs to survive. The first successful challenge to this dominant method of weight loss was the Atkins diet. It gained popularity in the 1990s, but critics claimed that its regimen of eating so much protein wasn’t sustainable. One of its critics was the cardiologist behind the South Beach Diet, who not only challenged Atkins, but whose findings completely flew in the face of traditional diet wisdom: Eat more healthy fats.
My spouse is one of those fortunate people who isn’t saddled with food issues. But heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes run more prominently in his family, so his concern for his genes prompted him to buy the book and try the South Beach diet. Since the cooking responsibility falls within my division of the household labor (and good thing!), I read the book, cried “Egad! I’m a sugar addict”, and decided I would try it out too.
How South Beach Works
South Beach advises resetting our bodies with a carbohydrate fast, followed by reintroducing healthier carbohydrates. The more carbohydrates are processed, the quicker our bodies digest them. When we eat processed foods, machines have done most of the ‘digestive’ work for us by removing the outer hulls and shells of grains. Refined flours certainly make fluffier pancakes, but don’t take very long for our bodies to process. As a result, we are set up to feel hungrier more quickly because it doesn’t take as long to process white flour as whole grain flour. Since simple sugars are the most basic form of a carbohydrate–whether it’s in the form of fruit juice, honey, or organic cane juice sugar–these carbohydrates digest even more quickly.
After reading the South Beach diet book, I conjectured that the reason I was frequently hungry was because I wasn’t eating complex enough carbohydrates. What happened next told me an awful lot about my food choices. We went into Week 1 of the diet–the carbohydrate fasting stage–with open minds, really hoping to make a change. But by about day 5, I was on the verge of eating our dogs’ biscuits when it was treat time. No lie! You know it’s bad when dog treats look and smell good!
My mom makes these and brings them for our dogs when she visits. How cool is that?!?
The Aftermath of the South Beach Experiment
Admittedly, neither of us managed to get through even a whole week. But for the first time, I didn’t feel like a failure. Instead, because I was at a healthy weight, I was able to learn from this experience without feeling terrible. We ditched the diet (Michael lasted about a day longer than I did), but learned from this experiment that we were eating too many processed carbohydrates and foods. (Part of the problem also ended up being that, conditioned to fear fat, I wasn’t actually eating enough of it. But it took years to make this connection.)
A typical breakfast for me was Frosted Mini-Wheats, a banana, and a yogurt. For lunch I’d have a veggie burger on a wheat bun with ketchup, mustard, and fat-free cheese, along with raw carrots and a yogurt. As a vegetarian, dinner was something like faux BBQ chicken with roasted sweet potato wedges, some non-starchy vegetables, and a salad with fat-free dressing. My favorite dessert from my lifestyle change food plan was half of a Little Debbie’s brownie in an ocean of fat-free Cool Whip.
What I learned from my South Beach Diet experience was that I needed to reconsider everything I was eating. I vigilantly examined the nutritional data on food packages, no longer just looking at the total calories and grams of fat, but looking for the amount of added sugars, the fiber content, and the source of grains and sugar. Not surprisingly, the ‘frosted’ part of the Mini-Wheats added a lot of processed sugar, the ‘wheat’ bun turned out to be only wheat flour, not whole grain wheat flour (a significant difference), and thought the BBQ sauce was fat free, it contained mostly sugar. These things are more likely to be common knowledge today, as the food manufacturing industry responded to the diet industry’s trends, but at the time was not what I was conditioned to consider. It was just fat content.
So I readjusted my food choices. I switched from white rice to brown, white flour to whole grain pastry flour, and ordinary pasta to whole grain pasta. These were less palatable at first and took some getting used to, but before long, I came to prefer these over the more processed versions.
I also tried to reduce the amount of sugar in my diet. More information was coming out about high and low glycemic index foods. For a while, even Whole Foods advertised these numbers on their fresh produce. Eliminating refined sugars meant moving to sugars that have a lower glycemic index, like brown rice syrup. I love to bake, so it meant figuring out how to substitute liquid sugars for dry, but with the help of the Internet, that was easy enough to figure out.
It took some time, but I got really good at integrating more wholesome grains and reducing processed sugars when cooking and baking. We really cut back on the processed foods we were buying, which meant I ended up making a lot more of what we were eating. I even figured out how to make pretty fantastic, healthier brownies. Oh, and I ditched the Cool Whip.
Making these changes helped me to be less hungry sooner, but it wasn’t for years that I finally figured out what the real problem was…But first, I went through another major change. Next time, visit me for Change 3: Moving to a Plant-Based Diet. I promise I won’t proselytize, just explain how the next step in my food education made me quit dairy and eggs.
Change 3: Moving to a Plant-Based Diet (and Making Cooking for An Omnivore and a Vegan Managable)
The next step in my food journey was a move to a plant-based diet. I’d been teaching a politics of food class for several years and knew too much about the impact of the livestock and poultry industry on the environment (and, of course, the animals). I decided I no longer had any excuses to keep eating dairy and eggs.
After 20 years after opting for a vegetarian diet, I knew the transition would be easier than going cold turkey from full omnivore to plant-based. I thought I’d experiment for a month to see just how much of a change this would be. After all, I loved cheese.
It was back to reading food labels again, where I found lots of milk by-products and eggs lurking. But after a month-long trial, I realized I didn’t miss anything. I’d come across articles saying that something in cheese makes it addictive. But like the South Beach carbohydrate fast that resets your sweet tooth, if you can avoid cheese for a week, you can make the break forever, without cravings. I never checked out the research, but in my personal experience, I honestly didn’t find myself craving cheese, so maybe there’s something to it.
Plus, the world is a very different place from when I became a vegetarian, living in a rural area where tofu wasn’t even available. If I really needed to eat faux cheese, even my local grocery store stocks plant-based alternatives. My biggest reservation was that I wouldn’t be able to do much baking anymore. But I found that it’s really quite easy, and certainly more nutritious, to use butter substitutes like plant oils or mix up a flax seed egg substitute. (1 T. ground flax seed with 3 T. water, if you’re curious…)
His & Hers Meals
Even though I eat a fully plant-based diet, I still cook for an omnivore. For years, I apparently made the best pot roast in town, but I never even tried it. I’ve never pressured my spouse to change his diet, but I was clearly rubbing off on him. I remember one time in the car when we saw a truck full of pigs that were most likely on their way for slaughter and Michael said, “Wow. I eat them.”
Over time, as Michael reassessed his dietary needs and ethical principles, he decided to limit his omnivore meat choices to just poultry and fish. He’s kind of a picky eater, but he’s willing to try anything once. He discovered he liked more vegetables just corn and his version of a salad (croutons swimming in Italian dressing). He also found some of the fake meats and mock cheeses to be not only palatable, but preferable, along with vegan mayonnaise, sour cream, and cream cheese, which is great because these have far less cholesterol. Zero grams, that is : )
However, while I’m quite happy to eat a plate of vegetables, Michael would understandably rebel if that’s all I fed him. I don’t have a lot of extra time to make two different meals every time we sit down to eat. I’ve managed to simplify the process by making dishes that have some common components or require similar preparation. I still make pots of chicken and turkey soups, but I have integrated our eating patterns for maximum efficiency.
For instance, when I make the Spinach Fettuccine recipe I posted for dinner, we both eat that. To complement it, I bake and then broil an Italian chicken sausage in the toaster oven for Michael along with vegetable meatballs (yes, I realize that’s an oxymoron) and broccoli for me. For our ‘Parmesan’ night, I make a spaghetti squash for both of us, and bake chicken or a spicy ‘chicken’ patty (a chicken breast/patty, covered in spaghetti sauce, topped with Parmesan/vegan cheese). When I make Reubens, Michael’s is turkey and mine is tempeh, but the rest is the same.
This strategy has worked well for me, helping to keep me sane, especially on school nights. But after talking to my friend Melissa, who said, “You’re going to put more than just your vegan recipes online, right?”, she made me think. Until that point I hadn’t considered posting anything other than plant-based recipes, but realized that there are others out there, like me, who cook for family members who don’t all have the same dietary needs and might benefit from my experience.
So I decided to share this part of my food education as I post recipes with the hope that I can help others who personally made this plant-based lifestyle change, cook for someone who has, would like to transition to a plant-based diet, or just want some healthier recipe options. Most of the ingredients I use are readily available; some even ordinary foods you might not have tried. And I’ll help to demystify some of the odd ingredients that might appear from time to time.
I love to travel, but Michael isn’t a fan. (People ask me why and I can’t answer. I suffer from wanderlust in the worst way and don’t understand how anyone else would not want to travel everywhere, all the time, especially when they have a spouse who would happily plan out every last detail.) So it was while I was in Costa Rica over spring break in 2015 when Michael came across a study challenging the prevailing dietary model advocated by the U.S. government. (I’d be lying if I said this came as a surprise, since every time I leave Michael at home when I travel, he immerses himself in self-improvement projects.)
The media had uncovered some research from the 1950s that found that a plant-derived high-fat diet was better for our bodies. At the time, that research had apparently been buried in favor of studies that instead favored a high carbohydrate diet. (Try as I might, I could not find the articles we’d read. Maybe the information got buried again.) The history of the USDA’s nutritional guidelines is based on a complicated web of government agency, corporate, and medical industry interests that has conditioned the public to fear fat. For generations of Americans, food recommendations like the Basic Four and the Food Guide Pyramid advocated eating much more meat, dairy, and starches than research in the 1950s found promoted a healthy lifestyle.
So over time, people started gaining weight and the diet industry started to boom, growing into the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today. And the food companies followed, taking advantage of the increasing demand for ‘lite’, fat-free, reduced calorie, or whatever product the latest diet trend was encouraging people to eat. But keep in mind that any food that’s been altered to remove fat (or salt, or sugar, or gluten, etc.) needs to have something put in its place to be palatable. Quite often, carbohydrates replace fat, chemicals enhance dulled flavors, and the added artificial sweeteners end up altering our taste buds so that when we do eat plain old sugar, we need a lot more to get the same satisfaction.
The research indicated that a diet rich in plant-based fats was the key to a healthy life. So instead of a ratio of carbohydrates (60%) to fat (20%) to protein (20%) that I had been eating for more than a decade, the research advocated a ratio of carbohydrates (20%) to fat (50%) to protein (30%). It was a scary proposition, ingesting that much fat. After all, I’d been programmed to recoil at fats because fats are what make us fat. Wrong. Well, mostly wrong.
After doing more research to learn about food science, denying this research could actually be accurate, and continuing to fear fat, I decided I’d give it a shot. I was skeptical, but I was still getting hungry within a few hours of eating a meal. By this point, I was well-conditioned enough not to give in and eat more food, but I was frustrated. I felt that since I wasn’t trying to lose weight, I shouldn’t be hungry all the time. So here I was again, back to reading labels.
The Basic Science (Don’t skip this part just because it’s all technical. It’s actually pretty interesting, and definitely important stuff.)
Too much food will make us fat. But, as I discovered, fat is not responsible for making us fat: It’s an imbalance of fat and carbohydrates, since everything we eat is either stored as fat or carbohydrates. Our bodies will store as much fat as we give them, but that’s not the case with carbohydrates, whose purpose is to help fuel us through the day. If we eat more carbohydrates than we can burn in a day, our body converts them to fat and stores them. That’s how we end up with extra, unwanted pounds.
Nutritionally, our bodies (especially our brains) need what complex carbohydrates offer, but in much smaller quantities than what most people eat. And these carbohydrates should come from whole, fresh plants over anything processed-–even whole grains. It takes much longer to break down plant fibers from fresh plants, so it our system works really hard to utilize these calories.
Carbohydrates hold a lot of water, which is why drinking beer and eating pizza will make you feel bloated. This is why eating a serving of pretzels is more immediately satisfying than an equal calorie serving of nuts. It takes longer to process the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the nuts than processed flour in the pretzels. On a low-fat diet, since carbohydrates make up the majority of the calories, we burn through them much more quickly than if we ate more fat or protein alongside them. When I was following a low-fat plan, a common snack for me was pretzels with fat-free cheese, which was just a big carb-fest. Carbohydrates are great because they make us feel much fuller and more quickly satisfied when we eat them, which I expect is part of the reason that the major diet plans have stuck with that formula.
Fats take a lot longer to process than carbohydrates because they’re harder to break down. The best fats are those from plants in their unprocessed state: avocados, olives, seeds, nuts, and nut flours/butters. By opting for these whole foods over the pressed oils, we get the fiber that is otherwise lost in pressing out the oils. Some studies suggest that the fats in coconuts and red palm oil are also good for us, but the research thus far has been inconclusive about how those saturated fats affect us.
What the good fats offer are essential to our health. They nourish our skin, muscles, and organs. The problem is that by eating too many carbohydrates, the excess is converted into body fat. Instead of our bodies going about what they were meant to do, (i.e., efficiently burning the carbohydrates to fuel us through the day and using the fats to condition our organs and tissues), we take in more carbohydrates than our bodies can use, so for lack of something better to do with them, the body converts them to fat and stores them up for future use.
Having extra body weight means that we eat more calories than we burn. Period. End of story. We’ve given our bodies too much to use, so it doesn’t get around to processing fats because they are harder to break down. The fact that we refer to the nutrients we eat as “fats” and being overweight as ‘”fat” only perpetuates the problem, driving the public toward low-fat and fat-free foods that contain even more of an imbalance of carbohydrates and fats.
Protein is also essential to our health, but in much smaller quantities than most Americans ingest. Exactly how much a person needs is actually pretty vague, with the recommendation by WebMD for daily protein intake ranging from 10-35 percent of calories for the day. So if we go with their average recommendation, that’s 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams for men. Consider that an 8 ounce steak has about 50 grams of protein, so that either meets or comes close to the full daily requirement, with most people getting way more than that in a day. It’s really easy to check labels to tally protein grams to get a sense of how much you eat and make adjustments because too much protein leads to kidney damage and other bad stuff.
The End of the Dietary Road?
Michael and I have been eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet now since March of 2015. Switching to the high-fat diet took some work. (Check out the chart below for a comparison.) It required working out calorie intake ratios, figuring out how to make a meal seem like a meal without pasta, rice, or bread, and reworking baking recipes yet again. But it was totally worth it.
I have never felt better. After two annual physicals each, our high-fat plant-based diet has only improved those key indicators doctors look for: good and bad cholesterol, protein, ketones, glucose, etc. I get hungry, but not within a few hours of having eaten like I previously did. Without even trying, I lost some more weight, which leads me to conclude that I had been eating more than I needed because of what I was eating. It seems like I’ve finally found the right food regimen. At least for now…
We occasionally lament over how ruined we’ve become, no longer able to blissfully indulge in the stuff of childhood memories, like Twinkies and Doritos, seek comfort in macaroni & cheese and New York style pizza, or enjoy a Reuben sandwich on crusty rye bread. In our brains, these foods seem enticing, but in reality, they just don’t taste the same anymore.
Every once in a while we get a pizza, eat a doughnut, or have a deli sandwich. What we’ve both found over time, though, is that they just aren’t as satisfying as they used to seem. But because a really important part of a lifestyle change is not feeling deprived, we occasionally indulge only to find out we really prefer the way we eat now. For dietary changes to be permanent, they need to be choices, not dictates, or they’ll just lead to resentment and eventual backsliding.
In case you’re curious, here is a comparison chart of a typical day comparison for me on a low-fat versus low-carbohydrate regimen.
|Low-fat regimen||Low-carbohydrate regimen|
|· Frosted shredded mini wheats, banana, fat-free yogurt (~250 calories)||· 1 ½ oz. nuts (~250 calories)|
|Morning Snack||Morning Snack|
|· Lara-type bar (~100 calories)||· Usually none, but maybe ½ oz. nuts|
|· Boca burger topped with ketchup, mustard, and fat-free cheese on 70 calorie wheat bun, raw carrots, 1 fruit, fat-free yogurt (~400 calories)||· Boca burger topped with Daiya cheese and mustard, vegetable soup, 1 oz nuts, a few raspberries (~350 calories)|
|Afternoon Snack||Afternoon Snack|
|· Fat-free yogurt or pretzels with fat-free cheese, 1 fruit (bt. 100-250 calories)||· 1 oz. nuts, 3 sq. 88% cocoa chocolate, or Beanito tortilla chips with Daiya cheese (bt. 100-200 calories)|
|· Faux chicken breast with BBQ sauce, 3 oz. roasted sweet potato, steamed vegetables with 1 t oil, salad with 2 T. fat-free dressing, fat-free yogurt (~500 calories)||· 3 faux meatballs broiled in 1+ t. oil, spaghetti squash topped with 1+t. oil and 1 T. nut Parmesan, Chinese eggplant topped with 2 t. oil, salad with 1/3 avocado, 1 t. flax seed, 6 olives, and 2 T. low-sugar dressing (~545 calories)|
|Dessert/Evening Snack||Dessert/Evening Snack|
|· ½ Little Debbie Brownie with fat-free Cool Whip, topped with hot fudge and a maraschino cherry (~250 calories)· Pretzels with fat-free cheese (~150 calories)||· It depends on what I had throughout the day, I may have 3 sq. 88% chocolate, some potato chips, some high-protein pretzels and/or some cake I make (bt. 100-350 calories)|
|Total- bt. 1,800-2,000 / day, ~ 40 grams of fat||Total- ~1,700-2,000 calories/ day, ~90 grams of fat|