Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Not Part of the Process

My marketing/production firm has a number of locations in the U.S., so I tend to travel across the country many times a year. During my most recent trips, my arrival has elicited two common responses from colleagues who haven’t seen me in almost a year.

The first was: “You’ve lost weight!” This is a typical reaction to seeing someone who has lost about 35 pounds in the course of 10 months. I am happy to say that I am back to the form I had when I was a starving post-college grad working 14 feverish hours a day in a Hong Kong manhua studio (only today I’m not actually starving; I am also not as spry as I was 25 years ago either…).

And as you may have already guessed, the second response was: “How did you do it?”

And by, “How did you do it?”, they actually mean, “What’s your secret?” As if there is some magic formula that makes you melt away pounds without any effort. This is ridiculous, because I can say there definitely was effort involved. For the most part, I used the only proven method of losing weight that works for everyone: eating less (going back to practicing “hara hachi bu” is quite a challenge in this food-plentiful country) and exercising more (I’m still figuring out which was the greater challenge there: the exercise itself or finding the time to do it). I also “watch what I eat,” balancing most meals with ¼ vegetables, ¼ fruit, ¼ protein, and ¼ carbohydrates. The USDA agrees with this strategy, so no real mystery there.

But I guess I do have an additional “secret” method – a method that requires more effort than what I have listed above:

I avoid processed foods as much as possible.

Okay, that isn’t really a secret method – and not only because I just told you. The World Health Organization informed the public ten years ago that processed foods are the reason for rising obesity levels and chronic disease around the world. I can say from my own observation that obesity was a rare thing in the Asian countries I lived in until a multinational phenomenon that starts with “McD” infused itself into the eating culture.

But the issue is more than just fast food. Even the so-called “low calorie, fat-free” foods (ironically labeled as “healthy” in the brand name in many cases) often have higher amounts of fructose sugar (sugar!)  so they can be more palatable. And the nutrients and fiber that may have been in the original fruit and vegetable ingredients are usually removed to enable a longer shelf life.

Of course, I didn’t know all this until a little over a year ago when I started consulting for the nutritional division of a national health care organization. My contact there passed me a copy of Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger, a fantastic book which goes into excruciating detail about the sources (and other industrial uses) of the most common processed food ingredients. She also gave me Food Inc. by Karl Weber, which examines the horrifying changes made to farming in order to meet the demands of the fast food industry. Both books were quite an eye-opener, and they inspired a dramatic shift in my family’s eating and shopping habits.

So for the past year, we have been buying a lot more fresh foods. We choose fruits and vegetables that are in season, and from local farms if possible. We also get our meat, milk and eggs from local farms – all organic as well.

Of course, we accept the fact that it is impossible to avoid processed foods altogether. However, we stock our shelves with minimally processed foods that have all-natural ingredients, and ingredients that I can find in the kitchen pantry. And yes, you can find such foods in stores out there, from cereals to spaghetti sauces.

We also don’t avoid treats. But again, we stick to “minimally processed” sweets. Häagen-Dazs ice cream is a great example; many flavors have five simple ingredients (milk, cream, sugar, eggs, vanilla/chocolate/coffee). We also make our cookies and cakes from scratch whenever possible, using basic natural ingredients. We also don’t overindulge.

Sounds simple, but it really isn’t. As I said, it takes quite a bit of effort. We have to cook more often, read every food label, shop in multiple markets, spend a little more money, and resist a lot of temptation. But the results are worth it. These practices have essentially changed my lifestyle, as well as that of my family, for the better. It’s also changed my body beyond losing weight; I now get physically ill after eating fast food or chain restaurant food, which I used to do on occasion while on business travel. Now I pack my own travel snacks of dried fruit with nuts and organic cereal, and stay in hotel suites that allow me to cook my own meals.

Even more effort. But still, a change for the better, at least for me.

[NOTE: I am a marketeer, not a doctor; this blog does not constitute medical advice. Results may vary.]

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