It’s nothing revolutionary: cooking with whole foods is the best way to live. You can tell exactly what’s going into your meals, and you’re consuming the freshest ingredients. This pumps your body full of the vitamins and minerals you need to keep you healthy and your energy levels sustained. But the western world has been engulfed by convenience foods in recent years. We’re talking processed food that’s packed with salt and sugar. I challenged myself to a month without them. What I assumed would be a relatively easy challenge–what with being a healthy eater, I thought–turned out to be excruciatingly tough. It was an eye-opener in more ways than one, and I would encourage everyone to give it a go.
Did you know that over 2 billion people globally are overweight? This is approximately a third of our total population on earth. A THIRD! The United States is the leading nation in this statistic, particularly amongst younger people. It’s a health epidemic caused by consuming more calories than are burned off throughout the day. The calories come from fat and sugar–but it’s important to take a more nuanced look at these two dietary components.
We have this fear of fat in the US and UK. We think that consuming fatty foods will make us fat. It’s simply not true. Eating the right fatty acids allows us to synthesize essential hormones. Saturated fats are the ones that aren’t so good. They’re mainly found in animal products and can increase cholesterol levels. This increases the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats are the good ones. They’re found in plant oils and keep our body happy. This is just one of the reasons that a plant-based diet is so good for us.
Sugar is the major culprit, though, and we are highly addicted. Processed food manufacturers marketing low-fat products will tell you all about how healthy they are because they haven’t got any fat in them. But what they fail to mention is the fact that the fat never did us any harm in the first place. The sugar they’ve replaced the fat with is doing the dirty. And it’s no longer just table sugar that’s in the mix; we’ve got a devastating addiction to high-fructose corn syrup. In 2009, Robert Lustig of the University of California gave a lecture which has gone on to receive millions of views on Youtube. In it, he discusses why sugar should be considered toxic. There’s emphasis on fructose in his research, which is the type of sugar most commonly found in processed foods. It’s a bold statement, but his biochemistry is on point and the argument highly valid. Insulin resistance, empty calorie consumption, and addiction–it’s not a pretty picture.
In this little mission of mine, I didn’t worry too much about the fat. I hardly ever eat potato chips, TV dinners, or the like. No, for me it was the sugar. Sugary rice cakes, cereal bars, soft drinks, chocolate and other sweets, cake, cookies…the list goes on. I decided to eliminate both processed foods that I would typically purchase and homemade baked goods that contained table sugar. If I could make energy balls with maple syrup or agave, those could stay. But anything else: gone.
The first thing I noticed was how much I relied on convenience foods throughout my day. I typically spend my time in a building far away from much civilization; therefore, I can’t just hop out to a café to pick up something wholesome. I need to take all of my food with me for the day. Eating whole foods meant taking much more with me than I was used to. This got really annoying, really quickly. Whole vegetables, fruits and a million pots of tupperware were a burden to carry every day. And when co-workers were passing round the snacks, consistently declining didn’t feel so great.
I persisted, though, and I thought everything was just starting to go well until I fell really sick with a chest infection. At that point, I succumbed to eating whatever was within reach at home. I didn’t have the energy to leave the house for days and despite my lovely boyfriend doing his best to cater to my “processed food-free” needs, he’s a busy guy and simply couldn’t get me everything that ideally I would have wanted. Plus, I didn’t have the energy to prepare whole foods myself. I needed fast and easy, whatever that meant.
This sickness took two weeks out of my monthly challenge, but instead of throwing the towel in, I continued with the fight until the end of the month. I figured, if there’s ever a time that my body needs ample vitamins and minerals at its disposal, it’s now. But the same old frustration built, with having to carry everything with me and so much of it at that.
Something I’ve learned throughout this exercise is that a diet free of processed food is only attainable if you lead a lifestyle that supports it. Lots of time at home or time around cafés and restaurants that can cater to your hunger are conducive to being able to live and eat this way. Working long days for most of your week makes it difficult to see the good in doing this. It made me resentful and felt like one more chore to manage when all my body wanted was to relax. Preparation is everything, and access to great quality whole foods essential.
There’s no doubt in my mind that saturated fats and too much sugar are terrible for us. They cause an array of health problems, which certainly doesn’t leave us looking or feeling our best. But compromise is required if you choose to live a certain kind of busy, working life. Sometimes convenience is necessary. I use my weekends to cook wholesome meals and prepare healthy snacks for the week, and my boyfriend and I take turns cooking throughout the week so that we each get some evenings to simply relax. Planning, preparation, and organization definitely help with living processed-free, but I don’t think it’s kind to be too harsh on yourself for slipping up from time to time.
Will it stay? As much as possible, yes. I always notice a difference in my skin and mood when I’m eating whole foods. There’s no doubt about that. But I’ll try not to be angry with myself if sometimes I have to prioritize my time to do something else and grab a processed snack instead of spending time in the kitchen.
Have you ever tried going a month without processed food? What did you learn?
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Photos via Unsplash and Kat Kennedy