Adventures in Eating Clean

Age is not kind.

I can remember a time, not that long ago, when I could eat anything (in just about any quantity) and not gain an ounce. Or if I did gain weight, all I needed to do was watch what I ate and I could drop the extra weight with no problem. I gained 60 pounds when I was pregnant with my first child and dropped it within 12 months. Losing weight was a piece of cake (chocolate, if you please).

Then my 45th birthday arrived, and I slowly started to gain weight. The old ways of losing didn’t work; my metabolism had slowed, or that’s the excuse I gave to myself. In reality, my eating habits were not stellar. I relied on fast food, sugar, and caffeine to get me through the day. Seriously, is there anything better than Ben & Jerry’s “Chunky Monkey” ice cream to battle stress? (Maybe chili cheese fries, but I digress.) I spent a few years telling myself that gaining weight was the inevitable result of aging; in the alternative, I would reassure myself that, as Catherine Deneuve once said, it was better to carry a few extra pounds on my rear end and have a youthful face than be thin and look older.

However, about a year ago, I became interested in the role that nutrition plays in overall health. I have several friends who have recently battled cancer, and two family members live with auto-immune disease. Both my parents have had heart issues and strokes, and diabetes and hypercholesterolemia run in my family (and being perfectly vain, my clothes were just a little too tight). I began to study the effect of nutrition on the body. The body of literature is compelling; so much research has been done on the connection between sugar and food additives and many diseases that rather than list several citations I invite you to do an internet search on the subject. Movies such as Food Inc. and Sick, Fat and Nearly Dead have brought awareness that the foods we consume can either have a deleterious effect or a positive impact on our health. Closer to home, my son and his girlfriend changed their diets and incorporated more fruits, vegetables and water into their everyday meals. My son, who had suffered with horrible acne during his teens and early twenties, had skin that was the clearest I had ever seen. It was time to look at my own eating habits and see what I could do to bolster my health through nutrition.

I began to pay attention to how I felt after eating certain foods. One of the first foods I banished from my diet was red meat. I thought back to a few years ago when I had oral surgery and, for three weeks, all I could consume were protein shakes and fruit juices. I felt incredible during that time and further realized that whenever I ate red meat I would feel sick. Fast food was the next category to be eliminated, along with fried foods.

After a few months of these dietary changes, I started reading about people in their 40s and 50s who had adopted a "clean eating" diet. Clean eating is a way of eating that has been familiar to bodybuilders for years, and involves eating lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, and drinking large amounts of water. I decided to give clean eating a try in mid-October.

My first step was to purchase The Eat-Clean Diet book by Tosca Reno. This book is a bible for folks trying to follow a clean eating diet. The foundations of this way of eating are simple: six small meals a day, sixteen ounces of water with each meal, no sugar, no refined carbohydrates, little caffeine, and no alcohol. (Stay with me and don’t turn the page. It’s really not that difficult!) Meals consist of a lean protein and a complex carbohydrate, and are eaten every three hours to keep the blood sugar level stable (a stable blood sugar level staves off hunger and, for me at least, keeps mood swings to a minimum). After a week of following this eating plan, I had lost five pounds, felt more energetic, and slept better. The first test of this food plan was vacation. By following this eating plan 80 percent of the time, I only gained two pounds. I picked back up when I returned and lost the weight immediately.

This is what I eat on a typical day:
Before breakfast  8 ounces of water with lemon
Breakfast (around 7 a.m.) 1 scrambled egg white with spinach
½ cup oatmeal with almond milk, wheat germ and flaxseed
Green tea; 16 ounces of water
Snack (3 hours later) either a protein shake (almond milk, protein powder, and fruit)
or a grilled chicken breast and half a baked sweet potato; 16 ounces of water
Lunch (3 hours later) a can of water-packed tuna on a bed of spinach, radishes, and tomatoes with balsamic vinegar; 16 ounces of water
Snack (3 hours later) apple with 2 tablespoons no-sugar peanut butter; green tea
Dinner (3 hours later) grilled fish; steamed green beans; wild rice

I have been following this eating plan for two months and have noticed several changes:

  • I have much more energy
  • My allergies aren’t as bothersome
  • I don’t crave sugar
  • Everything "runs well” (if you catch my meaning)

If you decide to try this way of eating, I suggest that you invest in a durable, insulated lunch tote or small cooler and several plastic containers for food. When you grocery shop, concentrate on the perimeter of the store where the veggies, fruits, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products are located (you might have noticed that I use almond milk; that is a personal preference and not required to eat clean). Read food labels: you will be amazed at the amount of sugar that is in everyday foods. Try shopping at the farmer’s market; produce and meat are local, taste great and stay fresh longer. Substitute herbs and spices for salt, sugar, and heavy dressings; you’ll be surprised at the true taste of food. I cut up about three days’ worth of produce and salad so that it is quick and easy to pack, and I grill several days’ worth of chicken, turkey and fish to have on hand. In other words, set yourself up for success by planning ahead!

A good website reference is www.eatcleandiet.com. This site has great tips, tools, and recipes. Once you learn portion size, it is so easy to eat clean no matter the time of year or the situation (party, business dinner, dinner at Mom’s house ... Okay, the last one is a bit difficult.) I hope you’ll give Clean Eating a try and see how your health can benefit. Feel free to contact me with questions or for a “Can I really cut back on sugar?” pep talk. Here’s to a new way of eating!