“I’m tired ALL the time!” I told the doctor adamantly. My blood tests had come back normal, with no explanation as to why I would still feel fatigued. Over the years doctors told me: “You’re depressed,” or “Your blood pressure is a little low, so, maybe eat salt?” I needed an answer, and soon!
“You’re overweight,” she said dispassionately, “Eat healthy and exercise.”
“But I am healthy!” I said to myself, driving my ’95 Honda Accord back to my apartment. “I don’t drink soda; I don’t eat junk food; I even exercise at the gym every once in a while!”
I had to lose weight. That must be my problem. Weight must be sucking the life out of me. So I tried to just do that. I would exercise every day and never see any results. So I would give up. I finally got desperate enough to take a drug combo to help me lose weight (which did nothing but give me abnormal heart palpatations, anxiety, and I found out that one of those drugs was pulled from the market because it can cause brain damage.) I lost three pounds over three months despite a 1200 calorie intake. Following basic tricks like cutting soda didn’t work because I never drank soda! But I kept hearing that “eat healthy” and “exercise” would eliminate my troubles.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my body wasn’t ready to give up the weight because my definition of “heathy” still wasn’t good enough to encourage my body to let go. My body needed to detox and heal from the years and years of unhealthy food and yo-yo dieting. I guess I didn’t realize how bad it was until I admitted to myself that I had to be patient with my body and treat it well with whole foods and consistent exercise (that I enjoy!).
Then, I finally started my journey. I ate down on my processed food and started to incorporate new, whole foods into my diet. I made cooking my hobby so that I could eat real food (and I have several roommates willing to testify that I burned pots of soup or made disgusting cookies). Gradually I became better (now my friends would tell you I’m a gourmet chef) at not just cooking, but at choosing the right foods to prepare (for me: paleo, dairy-free, and sugar-free).
I’m still on the journey today, and, though my energy levels have increased, I’m still not to my optimum health level yet. But I am able to do more activities, like hiking, zumba, running, gardening, and a host of other activities that would have left me exhausted. I’d call that a win for being healthy.
The key, I think, is that I finally gave up asking for help and took it upon myself to change. I stopped paying attention to other people’s definitions of “healthy” and researched what that word meant for my body. And along my journey I’ve collected advice from many sources, some of which I’ve incorporated into my lifestyle, and others that I have chucked to the curb. And of course I have advice of my own (since I’ve read so much and tried it all!). But the most important advice I can give you is this:
Listen to your body.
You are the only one who lives inside of you! You are the only one who can pay enough attention to say, “I don’t feel good. What did I eat last night?” And you are the only one who can change you.
In the meantime, here’s my best advice for those of you who are journeying towards optimum health.
1. Eating healthy doesn’t happen over night.
Don’t expect to be able to stop buying take-out, overhaul your entire pantry, throw out the frozen pizza, white flour, or whatever else your vice is. Eating healthy takes time. You may have to eat down on what you do have, and transition to a more healthy diet. Maybe you’ll start asking for your hamburger to be wrapped in lettuce, or maybe you’ll start buying hormone-free/antibiotic-free milk. Start with small transitions and don’t be upset if the bigger ones are hard for you. Winning smaller battles means greater victories in the end.
2. You can’t eat healthy and exercise simultaneously without feeling exhausted or quitting (eventually).
I don’t care what Pinterest says, just don’t expect the two to go together, at least, not at first. If you focus on one at a time, though, then the other will follow and you’ll be able to keep your healthy habits going for longer. And to those of you that have been able to do both at the same time without derailing either, I applaud your willpower. I focused on food first, and that is encouraging me to be more active.
3. Fad diets aren’t healthy.
The no-carb, low-carb, no-fat, low-fat, diets are damaging our bodies when we use them for weight loss. Your body needs fat and carbohydrates to function! Choose healthy fats (coconut and olive oil as well as nuts and seeds) and complex carbs (like veggies and fruit) to fuel your body for optimum health. Make sure your intake of macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) is balanced, but don’t forget about your micronutrients! Drink a green smoothie or juice to help fuel your body.
4. Your body isn’t a textbook body.
And that’s okay. Your optimum workout or diet will look totally different than the man or woman on the treadmill next to you, or from the magazine article you read yesterday on losing 10 lbs in a week. Take time to get to know your body’s needs and strengths and then use those to your advantage.
5. “Cheating” is okay.
Eating a bag of potato chips won’t throw your health off balance, and they won’t kill your healthy habits. “Cheating” becomes a problem when you view junk food as a reward and your abstinence from it as a punishment. That’s a difficult mindset to get away from, so be patient with yourself and at least start recognizing what your relationship with food is. So eat what you want to, but put a limit on high fat, high calorie, and high sugar food.
6. Eating healthy is time-consuming…at first.
I cannot count the hours I spent in the early days just chopping veggies. Every meal would take an hour of prep and it would drive me crazy. “I can’t eat healthy! It takes so much time!” But I got faster at it, and I found ways to cut corners, including shopping lists, meal plans, fast recipes and some great appliances (never chop a vegetable again with a decent food processor slicing blade!).
7. Eating healthy is actually just as expensive as eating unhealthy.
A bag of chips costs around $4 these days. And a pound of sunflower seeds costs $4. Sure, consuming more nuts (like almonds and cashews) can be more expensive, as well as antibiotic-free meat, but those items should be eaten in small amount. So if you eat less of the expensive foods and more fruits and veggies–well, you’ll come out with about the same cost.
8. Your body will adjust to the way you eat.
You won’t always crave breads and sugar. These cravings will go away eventually, and food with sugar will actually start to taste too sweet! Just hang in there. You can do this. It isn’t easy, but you can start by finding new things to love as your tastes begin to change.
9. You can still eat out.
Surprise! The kitchen is a mess from cooking all those healthy meals and I don’t want to wash anything! So I’m going out to eat….but where? At first I could only go to one or two places that I knew had one item on their menu I could eat! But now I’ve got my list up to ten places! Just ask for substitutions like protein-style/lettuce wrap or ask them to leave ingredients off (no cheese, please!).
10. You’ll most likely need to invest in some equipment to cut your cost and your prep time
I used to spend one to two hours prepping for a meal. Now I only spend thirty minutes–and that’s if I’m cooking something complicated! A couple of items I have purchased that make clean eating so much easier include a good blender (I own a Blendtec, but Vitamix is also a good brand), a food processor (make your own nut butters and chop your veggies in seconds), a juicer, and a dehydrator. I blend my smoothies and soups in the Blendtec, but I have used it to make hummus, flour, coconut pudding, and baby food. The food processor is my life saver because I can use it to chop veggies for a salad and veggies for a stew! Not to mention the amount of money I save by making my own almond butter.
And a Bonus:
11. Always read labels and always ask questions.
Don’t be afraid to ask the waiter for a list of ingredients or take another minute to read a label in the store. If you can’t pronounce it, there’s a very good chance that it shouldn’t be going into your body!