Real Food – Does it Really Make a Difference?

This past summer, I had the amazing opportunity to go live and work in Florence, Italy for a month and a half.  For this theatre and history nerd, being in the heart of the Renaissance was amazing!  I had the opportunity to learn many things about the history, culture, and, of course, food.  My main hope was that I would even learn some classic Italian cooking! What I learned during my stay, though, was much more valuable.

Rewind about six years.  When I was at my heaviest – 175lbs on my 5’3″ frame – I wasn’t too concerned with exactly what I was eating. Senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. With this diagnosis, I made the connection that (1) my metabolism hated me and (2) even though I had a medical disorder to blame…I was *probably* eating too much.  Thus began the weight-loss journey.

I tried every fad diet I could read about.  Low-carb lasted about a week (and I had no friends left…see my previous post Lessons from a Carb-o-vore).  Low-fat was pretty easy because everything is available in low-fat these days.  Unfortunately, not a pound budged.  I tried all the diets that magazines were talking about including the feast/famine style diets, the strict calorie counting diets, and the just-eat-egg-whites diets.  Nothing worked!  Luckily, I found that Weight Watchers worked for me.  Their fairly simple point system did the trick and I went from 175lbs to 125lbs in about 9 months.  The downside to this miracle?  Because the basis of Weight Watchers old point system was really just calories in vs. calories out…I could eat anything I wanted to.  As long as I didn’t go over my daily point value, I could just eat low-fat, Splenda-enriched ice cream all day.  Yeah.  That’s healthy.

Now, I’m not knocking Weight Watchers.  I helped me lose 50lbs!  And I know several people (including my mom) that have had great success with WW.  I’m just saying that, while it helped reach the main goal, it didn’t create a healthy food relationship.  For years, I was eating little 100 calorie snack packs, “fortified” cereals, and seemingly healthy processed foods.  And all that time I was wondering why I was still tired, foggy, and craving everything under the sun.

Fast forward a few years.  As I’ve gotten older and more educated, I’ve read all the research on how processed foods are going to be the death of us.  And I’ve adjusted accordingly.  I’ve always loved cooking, so that part is easy.  But I’ve stopped buying the processed foods that were once a part of daily life: cereals, white breads, convenience meals, etc.  In the last few months, my boyfriend and I have even starting receiving a weekly CSA box full of local organic produce.  I was pretty proud of myself!  I thought I had it all figured out.  Then I went to Italy.

I spent 49 days in Italy.  I lost 5lbs.  I know.  You’re thinking, “Big effin’ deal.  It was probably water-weight or something.”  I would be inclined to agree with you.  Except that my daily calorie intake was surely upwards of 2500 calories. At least. I went to Italy with the full intention of experiencing all the food and culture that I could.  Here is a typical food day in Italy:

Breakfast: pastries and/or cookies with an espresso drink (mine was usually a cappuccino with a touch of sugar)

Lunch: pasta, cheese, meat, bread, olive oil, and wine (usually)

Aperitivo: bread, olive oil, cheese, meats, fruit, and wine (always)

Dinner: pasta, cheese, meat, bread, olive oil, and wine (always)

Sometimes there are salads present at lunch and dinner, and often fruit is on the menu for dessert.  But these are the only redeeming health qualities of the Italian diet.  And let’s not forget that I didn’t even mention how much gelato I ate over there…

So how in the world did this massive diet, full of heavy carbs and fats, leave me 5lbs lighter?  There are two reasons.

  1. Italians walk or bike almost everywhere.  Need to go to the store to get some bread?  Cardio.  Need to hit up that favorite gelato shop across town?  Cardio.  Everywhere you go is forced, unintentional exercise.  No sweating away in a gym for these people.  Just good old fashioned chores.
  2. Real food. No preservatives. No hormones. No fake food colorings. No unidentifiable chemicals.  That’s right.  My heavy, fatty, delicious Italian diet was, in a sense, cleansing my body.  For 49 days, I ate foods that were free of any unnatural ingredient.  And my body loved it.

Now, I’m not saying that if we all start eating a perfectly organic diet that we should just throw caution to the wind and eat everything in site.  I’m just saying that clearly the quality of food makes a real difference.  Upon returning from Italy my boyfriend and I made two huge changes to our life.  We found a local butcher where we now procure all our local meats.  And we bought (matching) bicycles.  I know what you’re thinking: “Um, I thought you were poor.”  We are.

We spend $29.50 on our box of produce.  We get roughly 25 servings of veggies and fruit from that. That’s $1.18 a serving.  From our new found butcher, we purchased a 14lb freezer stocking special for $49.  Since we only use 1/2lb per meal, that’s 28 meals at $1.75 (or $0.88 per person).  And we purchased our bikes from a used bicycle store for $250 each.  A bit of an investment, but given the fact that I can now be a bike commuter instead of driving to work everyday, the investment will pay off (see post Exercising in the Real World).

We also leave room in our budget for extra groceries that don’t get delivered to our door.  All in all, we spend $100 or less on quality, non-processed groceries every week.  In the few weeks that I’ve been home from Italy, these changes have already made a huge impact on my life.  I already thought I was “healthy,” but now I really feel like it!  My sleep is a hundred times better, I wake up easier in the morning, and even though I haven’t lost any extra weight, I feel less jiggly when I look in the mirror.

If you’ve been feeling a little less than healthy lately, maybe see if these changes can work for you:

  1. Check out local CSA programs.  Community Supported Agriculture programs are wonderful! Basically, by helping ensure the farmers that they have continual customers, you get access to reduced-cost, local, organic produce. And if you love to cook – these boxes are a cooking adventure waiting to happen.  Just search for “CSA __(your city)__” and something is bound to pop up.  We get ours from New Roots Organics.
  2. Make friends with a butcher.  Until I went to Italy, this didn’t seem important to me.  But after tasting how delicious local, non-arsenic-laced meats taste (and how they feel in my body), I knew it was a change I had to make.  Yes, meat from butchers cost a little more money than in the bargain grocery store.  But you are paying for fresh, local meat and for the expertise of the butcher.  Ask if he or she has a “freezer” deal or specials for loyal customers.  If you’re in Seattle, check out Don and Joe’s Meats in Pike Place Market.
  3. Go SUPER Local.  If you live in an awesome place like Seattle, you’ve got food artisans on every corner.  If you can afford it, make those foods a part of your life.  Get fresh cheese from a local shop, fresh eggs from a farm, honey from bees in the meadows, or freshly baked bread from a bakery.  These things are a bit out of my budgetary reach right now, but I look forward to the day I can include them!
  4. Shop Wisely.  Get good at grocery shopping. This is really a tip to save money while eating healthy. Do some research on food prices in your area.  I shop at two stores.  Because there are some things that are dramatically cheaper at chain stores. Don’t be afraid to put a little inconvenience in your day so you can save money AND be healthy.  It’s not that big of a deal.
  5. Read your Labels.  I get tricked by “wholesome” looking foods all the time.  A good general rule of thumb is that a food should be made with only a handful of pronounceable ingredients.  If you can’t pronounce it and don’t know what it is…you probably shouldn’t eat it.
  6. Eat REAL food.  Of course, cut out processed foods.  This is a no brainer.  But also…if you are a consumer of pre-made shakes or shake mixes (like many exercise programs promote), I STRONGLY encourage you to stop!!  These shakes are supposedly little packages of nutrient-rich slush that allow you to “eat” healthy without eating.  Um…soylent green ring a bell, anyone??  Seriously.  Unless you are a body builder, fitness competitor, or extreme athlete, there is nothing in that shake you need that you cannot get in real, wholesome food.  Start your day out with a homemade shake, like I do every morning (recipe at the bottom).  Sneak greens and veggies into foods all day long (pureed into sauces/soups, sauteed and tossed with pasta, the possibilities are endless!).  You’ll feel better and your bank account will probably get healthier, too.

I hope making the transition to a more local-based, whole food diet rewards you the same way that it has rewarded me.  I feel like I’m taking better care of myself and my boyfriend when I can whip up a quick dinner and I know all of the ingredients are wholesome and fresh.  It’s just one thing that makes it a little easier to be healthier in the real world.

Morning Shake Recipe (makes two 20oz shakes)

2 cups frozen unsweetened fruit (I usually mix strawberries/blueberries or have a berry mix)

1/2 cup plain unsweetened Kefir (find it by the yogurt….or just use yogurt)

1 cup Almond-Coconut Milk (like Blue Diamond brand)

1/2 cup 100% Fruit Juice (I like cranberry blends)

2-3 tbsp Ground Flaxseed Meal  (optional)

1-2 cups Kale or other leafy green (dark leafed lettuce works well, too!)

1 medium Banana

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend for 2-3 minutes until smooth.  If your blender is ornery like mine, defrost the fruit a little in the microwave first.  This recipe provides roughly the following nutrition per shake:

270 Calories…7 grams of healthy fat…9 grams of protein…125 milligrams of sodium…and 50 grams of carbs…not to mention a healthy dose of fiber, omega-3’s, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, vitamins A, B, C, and K (and others that I’m probably forgetting).

Once I pair this with a protein rich egg breakfast (adding another 7 grams of protein per egg), my day is good to go!  Or, if your morning’s a time-crunched, put all the ingredients in your blender the night before and leave it in the fridge.  In the morning, just blend and go.  Breakfast in less than 5 minutes!

**Note** This shake is, in fact, a little carb heavy.  But remember, fruit and dairy are natural sources of sugar (i.e. carbs) and are not processed.  This shake is meant to be something that boosts my energy rapidly and keeps me going (carbs) and that keeps me full until lunchtime (fat and protein).

P.S. If you want to read about my adventures in Italy, here is my blog from my visit: Avventure Toscana

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4 thoughts on “Real Food – Does it Really Make a Difference?

  1. Love this!! I went down the same journey as well and try to keep my diet 80/20 with organics. 80% orga
    nic, 20% conventional or other. When I have the money, I plan to go 100% organic, but as long as I’m 80/20 for now, I feel great! I also lost a TON of weight by cutting out processed foods! It’s amazing how much better our bodies react when we put real food in them! Miss you! xoxoxo

  2. You can also add plain non-fat greek yogurt or natural peanut butter to your shakes for protein. I’ve been participaiting in a clean eating challenge with friends this month and that’s my daily breakfast routine, I just experiment with different fruits so I don’t get bored. Even when I “cheat” I tend to make better choices and watch my portion control a lot better.

    • Truth! I actually hate the taste of peanut butter in my shakes. I don’t know why. I love peanut butter. Poor Erich always added peanut butter to his, but I’m in charge of morning shakes now! 😛 However, t is definitely a good source of protein and great to add in if you like it!

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