My week of eating processed food

canned food

I recently completed, with 5 other intrepid souls, a 5 day mountain bike ride starting in Telluride and ending in the town of Gateway, 150 miles away.  We rode as much as 41 miles in a day and as little as 14 miles.  We climbed up and down a lot of hills, with some trails that even required slinging the bike over our shoulders.  That was hard.  What was harder was a week of eating processed food.

We used a terrific company called San Juan Huts, which as the name suggests, provides huts to stay in along the way.  Their tag line is Adventure without the Weight.  We carried clothes and snacks, they provided lodging, food and drink.

While most would be concerned about the physical challenge of riding a mountain bike up and down a shi* ton of hills carrying a not-so-light back pack and seat bag at a breathtaking elevation, I was more concerned about the food.  My usual diet of unprocessed foods would be out the window for the entire week.  Could I survive?

After all , fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t exactly portable.  I had no room to carry a bushel of bananas or a dozen watermelons.  There would be no every other day trip to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  When we set off on Monday morning I pedaled away from fresh and towards packaged and canned.

spam
the ubiquitous canned spam

We arrived at the first hut and were greeted by a twelve foot wall of canned food including lentil soup, mushrooms, beans, corned beef hash and (drumroll please) spam!   I can’t believe they still make that stuff.  Yikes!  I’m convinced they did one run of production in the 1960’s and that we’re still going through those original rectangular cans of spam.

 

Our first dinner was a Mexican theme, with corn tortillas, black beans, rice and diced tomatoes.  Not too bad.  We even found some fresh cabbage to include.  Still, I felt the effects of the sodium  in all the canned food nearly immediately.  I felt puffy and sleepy immediately following dinner, not so much from the biking that day as the extra work my body had to do in order to digest my food.  Blahhh.

I had restless sleep that night, though in fairness it may have had more to do with getting so tangled up in my sleeping bag liner that I felt like lunch for a boa constrictor.

For the actual riding during the day, I brought raisins and dried flattened bananas from Trader Joe’s.  These bananas really hit the spot, and though I don’t typically eat dried fruit, this was about my only alternative to eating as close to my normal diet as possible.  I also brought crunchy peanut Clif Bars, which were good but I limited myself to one of those a day.

Day 2 and 3 dinners were couscous with marinara, and couscous with curried vegetables and potatoes.  All good and healthy vegan fare, but again, all generated using a can opener.  I happened to glance at the sodium content on the mushrooms and saw it was 390 mg per serving.  Black beans topped out at over 500 mg per serving. Yikes!

On a typical day of eating fresh fruit for lunch and an epic salad for dinner, I take in less than 100 mg of sodium.  Here I was, probably taking in around 1500 – 2000 mg a day eating canned and packaged foods.

My fingers and face were definitely swollen, along with my toes and ankles.  I also noticed that even though I was taking in a lot of water I wasn’t urinating nearly as much.  I also felt much more thirsty than I normally do.

I made it through day 4, though I dearly missed my morning ritual of eating a watermelon or cantaloupe and bananas.  I grew weary of looking at cans of food.  The texture also started to bother me, with everything feeling mushy.  I missed chewing my food.  With processed food, there’s hardly any chewing required.  It’s all mushy and slides right down your throat.  With fruit, there’s work to do.  An apple requires some serious masticating before swallowing.  P.s. that’s a good thing.

Some of the huts did have a few apples and oranges, which I snacked on immediately when we arrived.   I was thankful for even this small amount of fresh produce, though the quality and amount dwindled as the week proceeded.  Would it be too much to ask for organic?

Day 5 was a tough start, with some dicey single track and sections that required slinging my bike over my shoulder and hiking straight uphill with tough footing.  We soldiered on with good humor, knowing that today was the last day and tomorrow meant a day off from sitting on a bike seat.  Hallelujah!  My butt hurt!

The last long stretch into Gateway required sitting back and squeezing both back and front brakes for about 7 miles.  We catapulted down a severe pitch of a dirt road with sudden switchbacks, mounds of loose gravel and sandy transition areas that threatened to turn our front tires sideways at the worst possible moment.  We had some epic views, though you couldn’t take your eyes off the road for too long or you would miss a switchback and go flying off the mountain like some real life version of the poor Road Runner in Bugs Bunny.

I wasn’t sure which I looked forward to more, not sitting on a bike seat or not eating dinner from a can.  I couldn’t wait to eat anything that didn’t require a can opener and contain a months worth of sodium.  But also, my butt hurt.

We arrived at Gateway and pulled up to the local convenience store, which was about the only store in this tiny town.  I re-filled my water bottle with mostly ice and a little water and looked around at all the canned and packaged food and headed directly out the door.  My friends loaded up with Gatorade and Beef Jerky.  They needed their protein after a week of eating vegan.  Right?

A week of eating processed foods taught me that I don’t like eating processed foods for a week.  Call me a food snob.  I get it.  Some people eat canned and processed foods exclusively.  For economic reason or because they don’t have the ability or resources to cook.  I know that.  And I feel for those people.

There is nothing healthy about eating processed foods.  Processed foods have a ridiculous amount of salt, fat and sugar.  Salt preserves, after all.  Want to make something last for a long time?  Add salt.  Want to make it still taste good?  Add fat and sugar.

I enjoyed the bike ride and the camaraderie of exploring a variety of terrain over multiple days with good friends.  I enjoyed the Colorado scenery and the physical challenge of miles and miles of hills and winding single track.

I certainly appreciate, even more now, the relative ease with which I can obtain fresh fruits and vegetables.  Going a week with eating processed foods made me realize how important it is to eat foods in their natural, whole state, as nature provides.

Last night I ate tomatoes from my garden, cut up in a salad of fresh romaine, spring mix, and avocado. Nary a can opener in sight.  Now if only my butt would stop hurting.

hut to hut
the crew

 

EatPlantsLiveWell!

 

How to go vegan, meditate and qualify for Boston.

meditation

You can Google how to go vegan and find a plethora of articles on faux meats, ordering vegan at restaurants and probably how to break it to your family that you’re vegan.  Those are all super important, but my advice on how to go vegan is a little different.

Last Saturday I ran the Big Cottonwood Marathon in Salt Lake City.  I needed a 3:55 to qualify for Boston, but I was more interested in besting my PR of 3:33.  I was leery.

Though my training went well, It had been over a year since I ran a marathon and over a year and a half since I struggled mightily at Boston in 2014.  By mightily I mean I barely finished.  I fell off my pace at mile 21 as abruptly as stepping off a sidewalk that I didn’t notice was there.

It’s safe to say the marathon distance had my number.  I had seven finished marathons under my belt, none of which I could say I performed up to my expectations.  The 26.2 distance baffled me.  I sure had the 20 miles figured out but the last 10k was like trying to play scrabble with no vowels.  Possible, but not pretty.

I recently started a meditation practice.  I needed to know what all the hype was about.  Could it make me a better runner?  A better person?  Rich beyond my wildest dreams?

Some types of meditation practice involve chanting.  Or repeating a mantra.   I know, right?  I wasn’t so sure about this part.  It seemed a little suspect.  But I did it anyway.

Sometimes I chanted I’m basically good enough.  I’m basically smart enough.  I said it out loud 100 times.  Then again.  At first I felt silly.  Okay, I still feel a little silly.  I remind myself of a Stuart Smalley sketch from Saturday Night Live.  I’m gazing in the mirror, wearing an awful pink sweater and saying I’m good enough…I’m smart enough….

It struck me at some point early in the marathon that I might do some of my meditation in the form of chanting. Heck,  I was going to be out there over 3 hours, I might as well entertain myself.

I decided on I’m relaxed, a reminder to relax my shoulders and feet as the pounding and time took it’s toll on my body.  Since I tend to tense up while running and expend valuable energy I don’t have, this mantra seemed so brilliant I couldn’t help but smile.  I’m relaxed!

I said it only loud enough for me to hear, looking around at my fellow runners as I mouthed the words.  Hopefully they couldn’t hear me.  They were oblivious.  The slapping of hundreds of $120 running shoe soles against the black pavement drowned out the sound of just about everything.

So I continued to remind myself that I’m relaxed.  Because I am, right? Feet, legs, core, shoulders and neck. Check.  All relaxed.  I’m relaxed.  I could take a nap I’m so relaxed.

Miles ticked by.  At mile 19 we headed out on a little spur and I was still relaxed.  We headed back in, with a slightly uphill section.  Mile 22.  I’m relaxed.  I’m passing a lot of runners.  Starting to really feel the pain in my quads like tiny balled up fists smashing into each leg repeatedly.  Mile 23.  I’m relaxed.

This is it, I thought.  D Day. The latter stages of the marathon is where I typically fade like a month old newspaper.  I once DNF’d a marathon at mile 25.  Yep, dropped out at mile 25 with severe calf cramping in both legs. The spectator who graciously lent me her cell phone asked me if I knew I was only a mile away from the finish.  The 25 mile marker was over her right shoulder.  Oh, right, I wanted to say, I had no idea how far a marathon was before I started running it.

The last 3 miles were downhill into an SLC suburb.  We ran right down the middle of the road as if we owned the city.  Huge orange dividers lined the middle lane so cars could go on either side of us. A young boy yelled out his car window at me…Go, Go, Go!  I passed two girls awkwardly high-fiving each other and yelling “we did it!”

I looked down at my Garmin to see 25.5 as I tried following a guy wearing bright yellow Nike’s and billowing black shorts.  He looked fast and fresh, as if he could run another 10.  I saw no finish line yet.  I’m relaxed I said again, feeling proud that I stuck with my game plan even down to less than a mile to go.

Finally seeing the orange finish line with the giant clock, I gutted it out the last quarter mile.  Crossing the finish line in 3:25.  I had a PR and a BQ.  Personal Record and a Boston Qualifying time, in case you’re not up on your runner lexicon.  Plus a race medal resembling a manhole cover.

But wait, what does meditation, chanting and running a marathon have to do with how to go vegan?

Well, I highly recommend meditation and chanting.  Oh, and qualifying for Boston is pretty fun too.  But I also see a lot of parallels between running a marathon and going vegan.

Strictly speaking, going vegan is pretty simple.  You eliminate all animal products from your diet.  In a marathon, you run 26.2 miles.  Simple, right?

But running a marathon also involves weeks of training.  20 or more, to be fully prepared.  Speed work.  Long runs.  Hills. Resistance training. Stretching. Good nutrition.  Mental focus.

Becoming vegan also involves work.  It requires education (not your own but you educating friends and family).  Research.  Trying new foods.  Changing habits. Being flexible.  A thick skin.  Focus.  Persistence.

I finally learned the value of working on my mental focus during the marathon.  Though I won’t say I have it all figured out, I’m making progress.  It took me 8 marathons and a handful of years.

My advice on how to go vegan has nothing to do with how to grocery shop, where to get your protein, or how to survive eating at a steakhouse.  I won’t even provide you with a great vegan recipe.  There are plenty of sites out there that do an excellent job of that.

Being successful at going vegan will require a lot from you above and beyond the traditional “how to.”   Saying no to meat and dairy and an entrenched food culture that refuses to consider how those chicken wings or hamburger arrived on their plate is going to challenge you.

You’ll take some shots.  People will question your decision.  You’ll have to defend your beliefs.  Which will seem silly since the meat eaters are really the ones that should be asked to do that.   Right? I wish it were as simple as changing the food you eat, but going vegan is much more than that.

The good news (and there’s a lot of good news) is that living the vegan lifestyle is so fulfilling and so worth it.  Knowing that you’re eating the healthiest diet for your body, saving animals from a horrible existence and doing your part to save our environment is what you should remember when it becomes difficult.

While I wouldn’t call my own journey to veganism easy, I will say I haven’t regretted it for a single moment.  Ever.  I wish you the same.

EatPlantsLiveWell.

 

 

 

 

 

Why eating fruit is best.

good better best

Abundant Energy

Without a doubt, eating fruit makes me feel my best.  I sleep better.  I run better.  I recover better.  All around, eating fresh, ripe fruit feels like what drinking 4 cups of coffee used to feel like.  When I drank coffee.  Which I don’t need anymore.  Now I look to food for energy and not to a drug.  What could be better than that?

Truth be told, if you need 4 cups of coffee to make it through the day, it might be a good idea to to take a hard look at your diet.  I did.  Could I get all the energy I needed from a raw food diet?

The only way to tell was to try.  So I quit caffeine.  After 3 weeks of intense headaches, I discovered a whole new world without caffeine dependency.  Yes!  My diet could indeed provide all the energy I need in a day and then some.  I just needed to get through 3 weeks.  Of hell.  What happened on the other side changed my life.

If you’ve ever trained for a marathon, ultra, triathlon or any other endurance event, you know the most challenging aspect of training is recovery between workouts.  Sure, you can get through that track workout on Wednesday morning, but will you be ready for that recovery run on Thursday?  With a clean diet,  I have no problem summoning enough energy for the next workout.

Improved Digestion

Eating fruit and simple salads of tender leafy greens is about the biggest favor you can do for your digestion.  After all, what could be easier to digest than fruit and lettuce?

The high water content of fruit, like watermelon at 92%, or iceberg lettuce at 96%, makes it’s trip through the ridiculously-long roller coaster of your digestive system about as smooth as can be.   Giving your body such easy to digest food is the gift that keeps on giving.  Not only do you make it easier on your body to break down and assimilate these foods, you’re also providing hydration.  If it could, your digestive system would give you a high five.

If I eat cooked foods like rice and potatoes, I notice the increase of time these items are digesting.  I feel sluggish and more than a little bloated the morning after a meal of cooked foods.  When eating salad and fruit, I feel lighter and don’t have that annoying bloat sensation hours and hours after I eat a meal.

Understand that for your body, digestion is a huge energy suck.  While you eat food all day long and forget about it the moment you swallow, your body must stop everything it’s doing to work on digesting that food.  It’s like trying to clean your house and people keep stopping by.  You have to entertain.  But you need to clean.  Can it do both?

No, your body cannot work on cleaning up your body and digest food at the same time.  It gives priority to the digestion process.  So the cleaning and repair of your body must wait.  If it gets fruit and lettuce,  it can break that down quickly and get back to cleaning.  If you throw down vegan pizza, bagels, nuts, seeds and other high calorie and low water content foods, it expends a lot of time and energy digesting.  Thus you have less energy.

Sodium and Weight Gain 

I’m putting these together as that’s the way they always appear to me.  Where there’s one there’s the other.  By far the biggest reason why I consistently return to eating fruit and salad and a low fat diet is the added sodium and weight gain I experience when eating cooked foods.

You can surely try to avoid taking in salt on a cooked vegan diet but it’s like trying to play Scrabble without vowels.  It’s just not going to happen. You can ask at restaurants for no added salt but good luck with that on a regular basis.  Restaurants are busy.  Restaurant kitchens use salt.  A lot of salt.  The chances of you getting any menu item with no salt are pretty much, well,  zero.

You can also eat cooked food at home and not add salt, but I think you’ll find foods like rice and potatoes need something to make them palatable.  Plain rice doesn’t taste that great.  Plain potatoes don’t taste that great either.  You might find yourself, as I did, opting for some low salt salsa, ketchup, or adding cumin for some flavor. Or soy sauce.  Salt.  Pepper.  Something!

Adding some salt, of course, isn’t the end of the world.  However, I found that after a bit I wanted a little more salt.  Then a little more.  Then I thought maybe some other spices might taste good.  Every single time I return to cooked vegan foods I don’t seem to stay satisfied with plain cooked foods for long.

As a result of the additional salt, and also the additional calories I would take in by eating higher caloric cooked foods, I gain weight.  Without exception, the numbers on the scale begin to rise.

Even though I try and eat less when I’m eating cooked food, apparently the scale doesn’t get the memo.  The numbers keep inching cruelly upwards when I choose to eat cooked foods.

Salt also creates inflammation in my body so that looking in the mirror the next morning turns into a harrowing experience.  My eyelids and cheeks swell and if it’s bad enough I may look like I’ve been in quite a bar fight the morning after a super salty meal.

I recently had a vegan spaghetti dinner on a vacation trip overseas that had so much sodium my eyes were almost swollen shut the next morning.  I was unrecognizable.  Okay, slight exaggeration, but not much.  I had sausage fingers and cankles.  I swear.

Is eating fruit for everyone?

Maybe.  Maybe not. I’m not an expert on how other people feel when they eat a low fat raw vegan diet.  Only you can determine if raw is for you.  Though, there are studies showing high fruit consumption has pretty remarkable results.

I do know that eating fruit is best for me.  If it makes you feel best, then yes, it’s for you.  You’ll need to spend some decent time gauging your reaction to various foods in order to know for sure.   My reaction to cooked foods is a pretty clear indication.

My body loves a low fat, high carbohydrate diet.  I have the energy of a five year old at her birthday party and a happy and extremely efficient digestive system.  I don’t gain weight and I don’t look like I woke up next to a hornet’s nest.

Am I always raw? Nope.  

Having said all of that, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I struggle to stick with a lifestyle of eating fresh fruit and salad.  I guess I’m human.  When I stroll in to Whole Foods I smell the wood-fired vegan pizzas, the savory soups and warmed tortillas getting ready to be rolled into vegan burritos.  I am tempted, and sometimes I do eat those foods.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to make those cravings and departures go away for good.  Yet.  I do know that I’m trying every day to improve, to go longer in resisting those cravings and the desire to eat food that I know isn’t the best for my body.  I’m making progress, in so far as I keep trying.  I keep moving towards the foods that make me feel the best and away from those that don’t.  For now that’s the best I can do.

Are you doing the best you can do?

EatPlantsLiveWell!