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As a known health and fitness enthusiast over the years, I’ve been approached by many people looking for advice on how to be healthier, lose weight, increase energy and feel better. Since joining the Townsend Harris community approximately a year and a half ago, numerous inquiries have continued to come my way with the same sense of urgency and desperation as they have in the past. Students and staff alike have been in search of that “magic pill” and input from me that would cancel out long stints of minimal activity and poor dietary choices.
Unfortunately there is no pill, drink, drug, fad-diet, or “quick-fix” to counteract the damage that has already been done. The good news is that there are some small steps that can be taken which would potentially yield significant results right away.
One step you can take towards making lasting change in the direction towards better health is limiting the amount of highly processed foods consumed on a daily basis. Technically, food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to consume. With this in mind, it’s best to consider processed foods as on a continuum that ranges from minimally processed to highly processed. Examples of minimally processed foods would be washed and packaged fruits and vegetables, bagged nuts and seeds, canned beans or tuna, or pureed and jarred baby foods. These examples may have one or two ingredients listed on the nutrition label and usually do not include foreign ingredients in the form of additives, artificial sweeteners, or preservatives that help maintain a long shelf life.
Conversely, highly processed foods have nutrition labels listing a multitude of ingredients, many of which are challenging to pronounce. Of the numerous ingredients found in these food products, the three main culprits exacerbating our nation’s issues with Heart Disease, Type 2 Diabetes, High Blood Pressure and Obesity are salt, sugar, and fat. Highly processed foods are jam-packed with them. While advertisers like to point out how their products are low in one ingredient (“Low Sodium,” “Sugar Free,” “Low Fat”), chances are the food product is loaded with a version of the other. That’s why it’s very important to look at food labels very closely and not be hoodwinked by these savvy marketers. I like to reference salt, sugar, and fat as the Three Amigos when joking around with my son about my issues with his favorite junk foods. However, the damage these three ingredients has caused over the years in the U.S. and abroad is no laughing matter. Heart Disease claims well over 610,000 lives every year. It is the leading cause of death in America. Being cognizant of what goes inside our bodies should be taken much more seriously. Making efforts to periodically replace highly processed meals and snacks with whole foods greatly decrease the chances of you becoming another statistic. Baby steps. Once in awhile, swap out that bag of chips for a banana or an apple. Choose to snack on bite sized carrots, raw nuts, or minimally processed whole grain Cliff and Kind bars rather than some of the more popular sugary snacks like cookies, donuts and candy.
A second step that can lead you down a healthier path is to incorporate green smoothies into your life. A green smoothie combines ingredients such as fresh fruits, dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard) blended together with juice, coconut water, or some form of dairy free milk (almond or soymilk). More advanced smoothie makers often add super-food powders such as wheat grass powder or spirulina. I like adding chia seeds to mine in addition to a few other super-food ingredients to really make it nutrient dense. There are many reasons to get into green smoothies. It’s the easiest way to get your daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. If you struggle with salads and eating greens, you’ll find green smoothies exciting and doable. Green smoothies are loaded with antioxidants and other micronutrients which help build up your immune system. These drinks provide natural energy without the use of caffeine. Due to the high amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals, green smoothies can assist with weight loss. They’re also very easy to make and taste great. In my opinion, the biggest benefit of incorporating these green drinks into your life is the reprogramming of your taste buds. Over time, you might find yourself going from not liking veggies at all to craving them. Talk about a 360!
A third step you can take towards health, vitality and accomplishing your fitness goals would be to reduce the amount of meat and animal products in your diet. I’m not suggesting that you need to go vegan overnight in order to be more healthy and make the lasting changes you desire. However, Americans consume well beyond what is recommended by the USDA and the suggested Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines are set to help combat the preventable ailments stemming from our SAD (Standard American Diet) lifestyles. For those who make the effort and investment in consuming mostly grass-fed, organic, home-cooked, lean meats that are free of GMO’s, injected growth hormones and other unnatural and unhealthy additives and preservatives, more power to you! However, most people who find themselves wanting to make lifestyle changes that cross my path looking for direction, guidance and support, are not consuming meat and animal products in that way. Most of their meat consumption come from hot dog stands, food trucks, fast food chains, delis, and other miscellaneous places. These meats and animal products are highly processed, full of sodium, loaded with saturated fat, high in cholesterol (and God knows what else!).
Even if you are eating the higher quality meats, it would still serve to cut back a little. Periodically replace the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich with oatmeal for breakfast. You can add banana, blueberries, almond flakes, raisins, chia seeds, and many other plant-based ingredients to make it filling. For lunch, instead of the turkey and cheese sandwich, you can make a nut-butter sandwich using almond, cashew or peanut butter. Add tomatoes, onions, sprouts, avocado, and spinach with some baked chips on the side, and you will be good to go. Then go home and have your meat and potatoes or chicken and rice for dinner. Some people have committed to going one whole day a week not consuming animal products. They are part of the Meatless Mondays tribe that is gaining popularity throughout the country. This craze has helped people experiment with new foods and has encouraged a shift in perspectives on how individuals eat. My friend Dave has gone from Meatless Mondays to Meatless Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He’s lost weight, feels great, and is trying new foods that otherwise would have never been an option for him. Whichever way you make efforts to reduce your meat consumption, one thing that is for sure is that your body and all it’s organs and cells would be very appreciative. Don’t take my word for it. Give it a try yourself. Start with one meal and see if you can get to a point where you can go meatless for the whole day . You might learn something new about yourself in the process that may surprise you.
In conclusion, making any kind of lifestyle change can be a daunting task. When it comes to improving one’s overall health and fitness, it can seem almost impossible. However, where there is a will, there is a way. If you can begin with baby steps and celebrate the triumphs of accomplishing mini milestones, it can provide the necessary motivation and momentum to continue setting new goals and reaching new heights. As your body begins to respond in positive ways and you are looking better on the outside and feeling better on the inside, there is no telling how far you can take your transformation. In this space, you will surely find a new found love of thyself, exude confidence, positivity, and best of all, motivate others to take steps toward being their better selves. All of this is possible. Are you ready to take that first step?