A healthy diet and a healthy life: It’s not that hard

My dad had his first heart attack when he was 48. At 61 he had his last. He lived the kind of life that was unkind to his heart. Who knows how things would have turned out if he had lived a healthy life? No smoking, regular exercise, a better diet, less stress.

In the 4 ½ years since he’s passed away, I’ve felt much more fragile and mortal. I’m in my mid-thirties and there are moments when I think I’m living on borrowed time, like my heart is clock that’s ticking away.

But that’s a cop-out. I have no way of knowing what my body has in store for me genetically, but I have a lot of control over my fate. I’ve heard people’s stories about how they got it together. They exercised. They ate right. They got fit. Whatever. I’ve let them keep those stories for themselves.

My story has always been simple. I’m not the healthiest guy around, but I try to take care of myself. Over the last few years I’ve given up soda. I’ve sworn off McDonalds and Burger King. I’ve substituted carrot sticks for chips a few days a week. I go to the gym two or three days a week. I don’t smoke, so I’m ahead of the game.

But reality is right there staring me in the face. Over the last 10 years I’ve gained 40 pounds and I don’t like the way I look. I don’t like the way my clothes fit. Walking up a few flights of stairs isn’t easy anymore. When I moved to New York City 15 years ago I lived in a fifth floor walk-up. I sprinted to the fifth floor every day when I got home from work. That’s out of the question now.

So I’ve decided to make a change. I don’t know what got into me, but I’ve had enough. I’ve been letting myself put this weight on like it was something I had no control over. I was beholden to my appetites and my lack of motivation. Not anymore. I’ve put together a plan. I’m not going on a “diet.” I’m not jumping on some weight-loss fad. I’m just going to live my life in a healthier way. It starts with two basic steps that are probably pretty familiar to anybody.

  1. Exercise. I’ve been going to the gym for years but I’ve never really had any kind of plan. Some days I’d do a couple different forms of cardio. Some days I’d mix in circuit of weight training. But there was never any comprehensive approach to it. Now I’ve decided to get more organized about it. I didn’t want to hire a personal trainer because I simply don’t like the commitment in my schedule. I want to exercise on my time. So I downloaded a personal training app onto my iPhone and had it design an exercise regime tailored for weight loss. I made the commitment to myself that I would go the gym at least four times a week, preferably five. Loosely, I’ll go two or three days in a row. Then I’ll take a day off. Then I’ll go another two or three days in a row.
  2. Healthy diet. Here’s the bigger challenge. I decided to get smart about nutrition and change the way I eat. I went online and searched for a basic book on the science of nutrition. I bought Eat, Drink and be Healthy, by Dr. Walter C. Willett of Harvard Medical School. After reading this book I’ve shocked myself with how much I’ve educated myself about a healthy diet. This book has been a huge eye opener. I’d heard references to some of the information I found inside, but I’ve never sat down and just gotten myself an overview about why we need to avoid saturated fats and trans fats and get a nice healthy dose of unsaturated fats. I’ve never understood why whole grains are better than other grains. Hell, I didn’t even know what to call non-whole grains (refined grains seems to be the term). I knew red meat was bad for me, but I didn’t know why fish and poultry were better for me. I was familiar with the different minerals and vitamins that people are supposed to consume, like niacin and riboflavin and beta-carotene. But I didn’t know why I needed all that stuff or how to make sure I got enough of it. This book has given me most of the basics on this, and it’s been an eye opener. I’d say this book has changed forever the way I look at food. I have always approached food as something I stuff into my mouth and enjoy. Now I look at food as something that I can use to make me healthy and happy, as long as I make the right choices. So far it’s going well.

These are the two changes I’ve made. I started at the beginning of July. A month later, I’ve lost 12 pounds. I’m building muscle. I feel healthier. I feel stronger. I feel happier. My goal is to lose at least another 28 pounds by the end of October. I think I can do it. I’ve never really tried to do anything like this, but I believe in myself. It’s funny what a little dedication and a little knowledge can do.

I’ve really surprised myself with some of the affects these changes have had on me. For instance, at the office my lunches always consisted of a ham & cheese or turkey & cheese sandwich with some carrot sticks or some chips. Not terrible but not great either. So I decided to switch over to a daily green salad with grilled chicken. My girlfriend and I shop at our local farmers’ market every Saturday and load up on veggies and make huge amounts of salad every week. The best part about this: I’m enjoying my lunches more than  ever. My salads just have more varied flavors than the sandwiches I’ve been making for myself all these years. I suppose I enjoy the salads even more because I know I’m doing right by my health.

I’m snacking on healthier stuff when I can. I haven’t cut sweets and chips out of my life completely but I try to mix in healthier stuff. In stead of tortilla chips and salsa for a snack, I grab a handful of almonds and peanuts and a handful of cherries and raspberries. That mix is a lot more flavorful than chips and a lot more filling.

Finally, this morning my girlfriend and I went out to brunch at one of our favorite local restaurants. Usually when I go to a restaurant I indulge. It’s my money and I want to enjoy myself. I want to get the richest, meatiest, most buttery foods on the menu.  Well, I plan to continue indulging myself to some extent. I’ll still order a cheeseburger occasionally. I’ll still get a pasta dish with a cream-based sauce at my favorite Italian restaurant.  But more often, I want to try to make the healthy choice. I made that choice at brunch today. I chose the “health nut’s omelet,” which consisted of egg whites, spinach and tomato, with a cantaloupe wedge on the side. I also got a side order of turkey sausage.

Part of me longed for the Eggs Benedict or a big cheesy omelet with bacon and hash browns. But I stuck to it and ordered that healthy omelet. And the food surprised me. I enjoyed it. I loved it. I savored the flavors of that healthy choice. It was the best breakfast I’ve had in a long time. I think my body is getting used to healthy food and it’s learning to enjoy it more. The more I eat healthy food, the more I enjoy it. Dr. Willett described this in his book, but I didn’t believe him until I experienced it for myself.

I hate to sound like I’m preaching, but Eat, Drink and be Healthy has been a revelation. I can’t recommend it enough.  Mixing the knowledge in that book with a decent exercise regime has changed my life. I feel hopeful about my health for the first time in a long time.

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One thought on “A healthy diet and a healthy life: It’s not that hard

  1. I wonder if Willett has any advice for a stressed-out 31-year-old who works from home and has a jar of peanut butter in the fridge constantly tempting him like an evil mistress. Nice blog.

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