On Eating Food without Adjectives

I owe my former trainer a thank-you note. This is not to thank him for making me stronger, though he certainly has done that. I won’t even thank him for making me realize the value of getting up at 0500 to exercise. I’m thanking him for pulling the carpet out from under my diet and teaching me a few critical lessons about nutrition.

1. Lesson #1: No adjectives.

He had me begin by looking at ingredients on the packaging of everything in my cupboard and grocery cart and writing down everything I didn’t recognize as a noun. It was a sobering experiment. He explained to me what many of the terms I didn’t recognize meant and what impact they actually had on my body. (For example, “enriched” pretty much means the exact opposite.)  He then told me to stop eating everything that had an adjective in the ingredients list. Nearly 100% of the time, the foods that required adjectives were processed, not whole. This ruled out just about everything that came in a package.

Admittedly, I was really frustrated with these instructions at first. This new diet completely uprooted my approach to food – in the grocery store, in my kitchen, and even at restaurants. For the first week or two, I was second guessing myself all the time. At the  grocery store, I discovered quickly that this approach meant cutting out pretty much the entire middle of the store and only shopping around the edges – where the fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, and dairy were displayed. It also meant that my bill at check out was on average $20-30 cheaper every week. When I wasn’t going down the pasta aisle anymore, I wasn’t tempted by that extra box of mac and cheese; when I realized I had to make my own salad dressings, I wasn’t lured into any 2 for $5 sales.

At a restaurant, it can be much harder, as the food I’m being served is not made in front of me, and therefore, I can’t know, without being that customer, where exactly everything came from. To sort through a menu, I employed whatever knowledge I had gathered in my own kitchen. As I read through the menu descriptions, I thought about how a particular dish might have been made – what ingredients went into it and where the restaurant might be getting those ingredients. This process helped me zero in on dishes that were primarily prepared with what I had to assume were relatively fresh – and more importantly – PLAIN ingredients.

2. Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15

Once my food choices were whittled down, I tried to become more discerning in choosing what remained. Nutrition presentations at OMG2012 and WTF2012 reminded me about the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen, two lists to help me when I’m in the store remember how to save pennies when buying organic fruits and vegetables. The short version: If you typically eat the skin, buy organic. Otherwise, save your coins.

3. Eat 5-7 times a day

I’ve heard this one before, but I assumed it would be impossible between full time work and graduate school to sit down and have 7 meals. I also couldn’t fathom the idea of eating that much. But when a fruit and protein smoothie or a piece of dried fruit becomes a meal, suddenly I found I could eat that much because my portions had been downsized. When I do follow this guideline, my meals shrink considerably, but my metabolism kicks into overdrive.

4. If it’s not water, consider it dessert.

This one sounded a bit too anorexic calorie-counting to me at first, but it did remind me to drink a lot more water. Combined with a resolve to try to get up from my desk more frequently, I find myself downing a lot more water every day. Though I’m not really trying to get myself to eat less, I do question that urge for cheese more often.

5. Avoid cheese, cow’s milk, and bread. 

The no cheese rule was the worst. I used to reward myself at Whole Foods with one of those sample-sized bricks of some sort of smelly or complex cheeses. When I discovered Robusto a few summers ago, I found I could go through a whole normal-sized brick in a week. Training myself to avoid the cheese aisle completely has been a trick and a half, but it’s done wonders for my waistline and wallet.

No cow’s milk wasn’t too hard to folliow. I don’t actually like milk that much. Giving up my daily Stonyfield farms fruit yogurt was harder, but between the fake fruit and the cow’s milk, it had to go. I’m trying to train myself to like plain almond-milk yogurt, but so far, no luck.

I have given up on avoiding bread. This rule just does not fit into my daily life. I have made concessions, such as only buying or ordering whole grain bread or pasta and cutting out things like english muffins, Velveeta cheese shells, and weekly ravioli. I also try not to eat bread products after 3pm, but sometimes that doesn’t work either.

I’ve fallen off the nutrition bandwagon more times than I can count, and I still haven’t mastered following these guidelines when I’m eating out with friends. But I do find them helpful.