I apologize in advance for the amount of babbling below. I meant for this to be concise, but there is just so much stuff that I wish I could have known about when I was figuring all of this out, and so much junk to wade through on the web, that I wanted to put it in here in case you needed the same information.
I kind of went off the deep end with my diet, so take all of this with a grain of salt. But there may be some nuggets that you can use within the insanity. Also, keep in mind that I am pretty new to this and still learning, so it's possible that I am way off base. This may all sound ridiculous to me in a year.
My diet has been through a few phases over the past year or so, depending on what I was going for. For me, it has mostly been to try and rid myself of a skin condition. Along the way I began geeking out about what I eat and it's now become an odd sort of hobby. I never made any changes for the purpose of losing weight, but that happened as a side-effect of eating healthier. I have also never limited the amount that I eat. In fact, I probably eat more than I did before. It's just more nutritional food now.
In general, I have felt best when I keep my diet mostly plant-based. I have cut out meat and dairy, but not because I have anything against them. I just seem to feel better when I don't eat them. I eat a lot of fresh veggies. Mostly salads. Huge ones. I never had to starve myself. The more of this stuff I eat the better (nice for a change). I had to be careful about salad dressings, though. I could easily put as much crap back in as I was trying to avoid in the first place if I just poured on some Thousand Island. I found it easiest to make my own dressing from apple cider vinegar, olive oil, spices, and agave or honey. There are tons of healthy dressing recipes out there if you aren't into oil and vinegar. As a side note, I found that I really like making salads. It's relaxing cutting up all those veggies.
The other major change that I made was in radically reducing sugar and salt intake. I no longer eat anything with added sugar. I get plenty from fruits and vegetables. I also eat very little food that has added salt. I will use a dash of good sea-salt when fixing some foods but very, very little overall. I figure that if I do nothing else but this, I have already reduced my chances of heart disease significantly. And I don't even miss it. The amazing thing is that after cutting salt and sugar from my diet, I actually began tasting more saltiness and sweetness in ordinary whole foods. It's like I needed to cleanse my palette so that I could really taste the food again. A spoonful of raw almond butter (made just from almonds, nothing else) is about as sweet a thing as I ever need.
At the end of the day, the thing that matters most is that I feel really good. My energy level is higher. My skin cleared up. Food actually tastes better to me now. I am much leaner. And I know that I am healthier than I was before. Maybe it's my imagination, but over the past year I seemed to have been passed over by all of the illnesses that I usually pick up from the kids.
Food was All in My Head
The biggest lesson I have learned is that food is a mental game. It's largely based on habit and habits can be changed. It didn't even take that long, but the first steps were tough. One of the hardest things for me was giving up my Starbuck's coffee every morning. I couldn't get going without it. But I quit cold-turkey because I was sure that it was causing my headaches. Caffeine withdrawls aside, seeing that Starbuck's outside of my office window every morning was complete torture for a couple of weeks. I never caved in, but every time I passed a coffee shop all I could think was, "that's something I can't do anymore." And then, one day, I drove by and I thought to myself, "that's something I don't do anymore." And then I realized the subtle difference between those two thoughts and I knew that I had successfully kicked coffee for good. It was a bit of a revelation for me. Now, I don't even think about it when I walk past a Starbuck's or even when I go inside with someone else. There is no temptation at all. I just think about how much I enjoy not having headaches anymore (and I haven't had one in a year). Now that I have severed the association between coffee and the immediate payoff from drinking it, I can clearly see the more important association between it and a painful migraine. I always knew that link was there, but I couldn't get past the short term gain every morning.
Everything has been like that. Cutting out sugar was only hard for a week or so. Same with salt. Just realizing that I can change those behaviors makes it easier to change others. It's kind of empowering, not being ruled by my body. I just had to muscle past the first part and it started to get easier and easier.
That leads me to the next big change: processed food. There was the obvious issue with how much sodium was in the food that I was buying, but the more I read and learned the farther away I wanted to get from processing. It's really nasty business. The things that are added to our food seem to cause all sorts of dire consequences over time. It's almost impossible to get useful, non-politicized information about the effects of a specific additive or chemical, but at some point, I just got the feeling that it was best to do without any of it. It seemed like food shouldn't be that complicated.
What I came to believe is that essentially anything in a box, a can, or from a restaurant was not terribly good for me. There are many exceptions, of course, but that is the premise that I now start with. If it's in a box or a can, I am suspicious. If I read the ingredients and it's all roses, then great. But most of the time, that's not the case. Anything with the words "natural flavors", for example, gets left on the shelf. That is a catch-all term for the ingredients whose amounts were under the minimum that require a more prominent place on the label. I am amazed by what things can be wrapped up in that healthy sounding phrase. Cans seemed better (how bad can a can of beans be?) but they are coated with materials like epoxy resins or other sources of BPA (Bisphenol A) that are potentially nasty. It's hard to avoid some canned food, but I try and do without as much as possible. I can buy a bag of beans and soak them overnight like our grandparents used to. All of that stuff building up in our bodies a little at a time can't be good and I just figured that it's not worth the risk anymore if there was something I could do to avoid it altogether.
Of course, this made eating at restaurants especially tricky. There is just no such thing as a restaurant without processed food (unless you live in a place like L.A. that has a few hardcore organic/raw/vegan type joints). About all that I could do was pick the least worrisome thing on the menu. Usually this was a salad minus about half of the stuff that normally came on it. It was challenging, all right. I have actually asked a waitress for a plate of romaine lettuce and a sliced avocado with nothing else. It takes a while to convince them that I really mean it, but they will do it. Of course, that's an extreme (I was trying a particularly strict diet at the time) but the point is that a restaurant will almost always do whatever you ask. The main thing I did in order to avoid going off the rails at a Chili's or a friend's house was to prepare myself mentally before I got there. If I found myself unprepared while looking at a menu, then it was usually too late and I would default to the thing I always got (Chicken Cripsers!). If I told myself beforehand that it's OK to ask for something different, then I would ask for it. And when I got up to leave I would still feel good, instead of wanting to take a nap.
I found a few foods during all of this that became staples, even though I had never eaten them much before. Here are some of my favorites.
Kale - One of the most nutrient-rich foods there is. Good steamed with garlic and lemon juice. I eat a lot of this stuff.
Apple Cider Vinegar - Really good for you. One of the few vinegars that is alkaline instead of acidic. Good for digestion and won't kill the good bacteria in the intestines like most vinegars do. Get the raw, unfiltered kind. It will be cloudy, but that's a good thing. Use it for salad dressings or anywhere else that you would use vinegar. I also mix a tablespoon or two in a glass of water with a bit of honey or agave as a tonic of sorts. If you are OK with the taste (it's stout), it will help keep your gut healthy.
Coconut oil & Coconut butter - Awesome stuff. The kind of fat that is good for you. I substitute coconut oil for other types of cooking oil. It has a really high heat tolerance and doesn't produce all the nasty carcinogens when you cook with it. It's really good for making popcorn. The difference between the oil and the butter is just the amount of solids (coconut meat) in the mix. The butter is much thicker and good on bread and toast. Try and get the organic, expeller pressed variety.
Coconut water - Also awesome. Supposedly made of the same stuff as the plasma in our blood, only better tasting...
Almond Butter - So good! I put it on anything I can. A little almond butter, orange juice and some spices mixed up makes a really good sauce for steamed kale (sounds weird, but it's good).
Nuts and Seeds - Almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, etc. Nuts are great. Peanuts aren't really nuts, so I tend to avoid them. They can do more harm than good. Sesame seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), flax seeds are all super good for you. Flax seeds especially have tons of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Amazing for lowering the risk of heart disease, lowering cholesterol, and supposedly protecting against some cancers. I keep a bag around and add a handful to salads, rice or whatever else I can sneak it into.
Dates - A great way to add some sweetness into salads and other dishes without pouring in sugar. One of the sweetest fruits.
Hummus - A Mediterranean dip made from garbonzo beans (chickpeas), tahini (sesame paste), garlic, olive oil, lemon, salt and various other ingredients depending on the variety. You can easily make it yourself in a blender. It's a great way to make a meal of veggies; cut up a plate full of cauliflower, celery, onions, broccoli, or whatever else you have and start dipping.
Zucchini Hummus - Same as regular hummus but substitute raw zucchinis in place of the garbanzo beans. This makes it a completely raw dip, which regular hummus is not since the beans had to be cooked. It's a bit more thin, but if you toss some flax seeds into the blender they will thicken it up.