I have a love-love relationship with food. I love it – all of it—from healthy raw foods to the most highly processed burgers with fried eggs, cheese, and bacon. I always have.
But, of course, as we age, our bodies remind us that they need more nutrition and less decadence. Ingredients can sometimes begin to process differently than before; some people develop allergies and others indigestion. I was one of the lucky ones to not have to worry about what I ate and notice any consequences until I was about 22, when my metabolism decided to kick in like a regular person’s and have consequences to eating pizza, cookies, etc. So I learned moderation. It made sense, still tasted delicious, never felt like I was lacking, never stopped me from indulging here and there (and perhaps still a little too often), and I truly have a passion for food knowledge. I love reading, learning about, and cooking all different kinds of food. I’m fascinated by the trends of superfood and love learning about traditional methods of canning and fermenting. I love learning about the powerhouse each vegetable possesses and reading recipes of cheesecake, even though I still vow not to learn how to make one in order to not eat cheesecake all the time. I love nutrition and hearing about the hot new diets (even though I don’t abide by any – and never have). I love trying new kinds of cuisine, spices, or other ingredients. When I cook (and I usually do), I generally don’t follow recipes; I believe in adventure cooking (now that, you know, I know the basics and can assume certain things go well together) without measuring. I usually cook pretty healthy and then balance it out when I go out to eat and somehow always order something ridiculous like a bacon-macaroni and cheese burger. That’s how I have generally done things until now.
Now, years later, I notice that I’m beginning to be intolerant of milk (but cheese and yogurt are still fine!) and was feeling digestively unhappy after a week of unusually high pasta portions. So, last month, amidst writing a weekly poem, I decided to eat real food for 21 days. It wasn’t too big of a change from how I normally cook with the exception of being strict to staying with it instead of somehow going out with friends and indulging or realizing after working all day that I didn’t want the meal I planned and choosing an easier option.
Pretty simple, right? Eat real food. No or (very) minimally processed. Yup. Until you check out the rosemary and olive oil box of coucous in your pantry and realize how much other stuff they put in there – which I knew but just didn’t worry about at the time of purchase thinking a box of this would be easier than tracking down bulk coucous (at an affordable price) to keep and store and cook as needed.
A few things to know about this personal journey:
- While I love learning about nutrition, food, cooking – I am not a nutritionist or registered dietician and am not writing this to present this information as fact. This blog is my personal experience and I am very aware we all uniquely experience and process food differently, so this is just how it went for me.
- I selected 21 days because I didn’t want to commit to a full month. Coincidently, a friend told me during this time that generally speaking, it takes 21 days of doing something to form a habit. Another happy accident to this experiment.
- My main goal of doing this was simply to do it – to not have the “balancing with delicious, more processed food” aspect in my diet – and to see if I felt better because of it.
- Please note that this journey was not to restrict the amount of food I ate (because really, if I was hungry, I just ate more). The goal was not to lose weight, although I was curious as if it a secondary result of this would occur. I’m always sensitive to women wanting to lose weight because of our society’s thin ideal. This 21 days wasn’t a diet – unless you meant it in the truest sense of the word, as in I made a lifestyle change of my diet (i.e. food I ate).
- In a sense to hold myself accountable to sticking to this and because I love photography, I took photos of each meal during the 21 days and posted it on my Instagram @lindsyhr. I’m very aware of food blogs and Instagram as showcasing the beautiful aspects of food, eating real, or organizing the cooking process. It really is an excellent way to show the beauty of a journey or lifestyle like this. It’s also a great way to make sure you’re excited about eating that salad, fish, tofu dinner (even if you really didn’t want to) as long as it looks great. But don’t believe for a second that it’s easy. It takes a lot of time and effort to research what you want to cook, grocery shop, plan 21 meals plus snacks for the week, and actually do all the cooking. Oh wait – and don’t forget about how that creates tons of dishes.
[This is what eating real food looks like. You won’t see this on my Instagram – it’s just the less beautiful reality that cooking real food takes a lot of time and creates a lot of dishes]
The 21 Days:
Again, I will point you to my Instagram to see the photos of each day. Here is one image to show you generally what my food for the day looked like. Please note that I generally prepared snacks for the week that I ate whenever I needed one and didn’t bother to photograph (unless I ate something even more in addition to my prepared snack). By the final week, I didn’t make anything extra, so I often just wrote what my snack was for the day, generally speaking, it was nuts. Also, I had a smoothie every day as a way to boost my intake of fruits and vegetables. I enjoy smoothies more than juice because it includes the full nutritional value of the food you’re drinking.
Since I usually eat healthy when I cook, generally speaking, this wasn’t a radical change for me. I actually have often eaten salads for lunch while at work as a way to ensure I’m getting enough veggies. The only radical part was the continued effort of doing so for 21 days. I think it’s important to note that beginning on day four and continuing through day nine and ten, all I wanted to do was eat a giant plate of tortellini. I was dreaming of my day 22 meals – imagining them huge portions of pasta, chocolate, and wine. My body was throwing a tantrum inside me demanding sugar and processed food – usually I would eat some chocolate or go ahead and have what I was craving –but for these 21 days, I didn’t. After the five or six days of an inner tantrum, my stomach leveled out again and was fine. I didn’t have those cravings anymore. By day 21, I actually didn’t feel like I needed to reintroduce processed foods immediately. I just chose to.
Day 22: Dinner
While I didn’t feel like I had a tantrum for this food, I did feel like celebrating my accomplishment of sticking to my goal and eating real food for 21 days. While I did give myself tortellini, it was a reasonable portion on top of a large pile of arugula. I sautéed mushrooms and tossed them on top of the drizzle of pasta sauce (yup, processed from a jar) and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. I had a pile of cut up asparagus and glass of sparkling wine. Some toasted, buttered bread. No dessert – I didn’t need one after all that.
Follow Up and Lessons Learned:
Generally speaking, the lessons learned were mostly things I knew that just finally sunk in after doing this process. For instance, we all know that we should be eating more vegetables, but it takes a lot of effort (and money!) to actually get it on the plate.
- I felt nourished – feeling better inside and out when I eat real, unprocessed food.
- My food naturally fell into portion sizes and I felt full from eating real food.
- Create a morning ritual with your breakfast. Mine (before this experiment/journey) used to involve eating a small breakfast at work in my office while checking emails. I no longer have a job that allows me to do that, so I wake up early and enjoy a cup of hot tea or coffee and dense, filling breakfast. Something with protein to really keep me full until my lunch.
- Eat a lighter lunch. When I say lighter, I mean it in comparison to heavy food (such as creamy or high calorie carbs, which I love). I used to eat salads for lunch at work, and now I’m back to doing that. I’m not a fan of dressing (never have been – it’s just a taste thing), so I always put a lot of other veggies and some protein on it. I want a meal salad – not a little side one.
- I found that I didn’t want to eat a lot of meat. (That’s really saying something to someone who enjoys a Texas sized bbq platter). For me, I need to include more beans, lentils, and nuts in my diet. I felt better, and then when I do eat meat, I seem more content with what a portion size of it really is than eating a large piece.
- Eating this way takes a lot of time and work, so you do have to be committed to eating like this as it’s way easier to take “shortcuts” with processed versions or eat out. Again, this also creates more work for the post-meal with cleaning up. You just have to be prepared for this.
My last overall realization is that while striving to eat real food is great, for me, I still believe in balance and moderation. I believe in eating for nutrition as well as to eat for taste. Eating real food is also challenging in social situations because going out will never be as “clean” or “real food” as if you were to cook yourself, but it’s important to be social and to still go out and let go a bit. For me, the key is to not order the “worst” item on the menu every time I go out. I dislike ordering salad at restaurants usually because I make pretty awesome ones myself, so they just don’t compare. I know in restaurants they usually add butter to make things more delicious. Soups aren’t necessarily healthy. It’s a bummer, but sometimes, you just have to indulge. I just need to indulge less when going out.
I will continue trying to eat better and more real food; however, I will reintroduce some processed food because it’s a reality, although I will be more conscious about when and how much I choose to eat. I still will not bother counting calories. I will try to maintain portion sizes on my plate without measuring. I will try to eat more vegetables and fruit – and include a few smoothies a week instead of every day. I will be grateful to own a dishwasher. I will go out to eat and think about my choices a little more before deciding. I will be thankful to be attuned enough with my body as it continues to change, including how it processes food. I will continue taking photos of my food, although not every day and not usually posting them on Instagram. I still have a love-love relationship with food – I will just try to have a long-distance love of the processed kind. The kind of relationship that you don’t visit too often.
This was my experience. How has your food journey changed and what are lessons that you learned?