There is no denying it; a good diet is key to both physical and mental health. For years I fought against that concept, insistent that if I worked long and hard enough in the gym, I could “have my cake and eat it too.” And while I was successful at staying in above average physical shape that way, I ran into two problems. First, I could never completely outwork an overindulgent diet. The only way I have ever gone from good shape to great is by being disciplined about what I eat and when. Second, as I’ve gotten older (I’m in my early thirties now), the degree of difficulty has increased. Dietary sins I could easily have shrugged off in my early to mid twenties result in significant punishment today – both in my appearance and in the way I feel.
In my experience, eating enough good stuff isn’t too difficult. I love eating protein so getting enough of that is easy, although I mostly stick to chicken and fish with beef being an occasional treat. I force two to three servings of fruit and three or more servings of vegetables down my throat each day in the form of green smoothies in the mornings and evenings. From there, I just make sure there is some sort of vegetable element included with most meals and I have that covered. I make sure to get a moderate amount of decent quality carbohydrates, which is easy since I enjoy them. Making things as automatic as possible and minimizing the number of decisions I have to make helps me to maintain a solid baseline diet.
But one area has always been a thorn in my side. I love junk food. And I’m not one of those people who has only a sweet tooth or only likes salty/savory snacks. I’m an all of the above kind of guy, and a gluttonous one at that. So I want to talk about what I’ve done to combat that – what has worked, what hasn’t, and what I’ve learned from it. It probably won’t all apply to you but if any of it gives you an idea that helps, then I consider this post a success. So in no particular order, here we go.
1. Some things have been easy.
I loved soda (that’s “cokes” for my native Texan friends) as a kid. Thankfully, I wasn’t allowed to have it at home very often but when I was out of the house – hanging out with friends, for example – I went to town! I distinctly remember being “up north” (a Wisconsin term to describe “vacationing” in an even colder, more economically challenged place than your actual home, which is more than likely easily characterized by both of those already) as a young lad with some relatives when I consumed five sodas in a single day and wound up throwing up multiple times that night. I loved the stuff. But in my early twenties, I learned that it’s basically poison and almost immediately, I simply stopped drinking it. At no point have I felt any urge to “relapse” and as a result, I haven’t had any soda in a very long time. I’m almost exclusively a beer or wine guy when it comes to alcohol, so no, not even in mixed drinks. I have absolutely no idea why this was so easy for me but sadly, that hasn’t been the case with other forms of junk food.
2. Moderation has not been a successful approach at home.
Over the years, no matter what I’ve told myself, I’ve learned I simply can’t keep junk food at home. I’ve tried everything I can think of and the result is always the same; I start with the best of intentions (I will make this last two weeks…), then make little bargains with myself (I will eat tomorrow’s allotment today, but then NONE tomorrow), then break them in favor of other less restrictive ones (It’s football season – I’ll eat the rest of this bag this weekend, but then I won’t open another until next weekend), until finally, I simply accept reality and wolf down whatever is left, swearing to never buy it again. The take away here is pretty simple; I don’t keep junk food at home. Lack of access has proven very effective.
3. Associations can be powerful.
I don’t believe in drinking milk. At all. I wish I had known what I know now as a child when I guzzled it like water. Clearly my Mother hadn’t done as much research on milk as she had on soda; or perhaps the science hadn’t gotten as far with one as it had with the other. But live and learn. Anyway, at one time, my ultimate junk food weakness was Oreo’s – a product (note, I didn’t even use the word food) that requires milk in order to be enjoyed properly. It was very rare for a package of those evil things to last three days. If I was doing well, I could limit myself to a single ROW at a time. And I didn’t often do well. Thankfully, when I stopped drinking milk, Oreo’s no longer did it for me. I even tried once but without milk, it was like going to the beach without it being warm outside. It just didn’t make sense. So in that case, cutting out one bad thing made it much easier to cut out another. This is a concept that could probably be useful elsewhere…
4. There are definitely degrees of bad choices when it comes to lunch options and my body knows the truth.
As an outside sales rep, restaurant lunches are a reality of life. This was before my working days, but I went to a McDonald’s in 2010 for the first time in many years. I was involved in a big group activity, we were in a hurry for lunch, I was not in charge of the group’s decisions, apparently there was no decent alternative anywhere in the vicinity, there was peer pressure, etc. It happened, and I paid the price. Almost immediately, I felt like my stomach was going to explode. And it lasted for the rest of the day until I gave in, went to the bathroom, and threw up. I didn’t have to try to do that so much as I just had to stop preventing it from happening. My body’s tolerance for the purest form of garbage food had been gone for some time. Today, all I can think of when I see those golden arches is that experience and I have not repeated that mistake again.
I do go to fast food restaurants sometimes, but only if they serve some form of actual food. For example, I go to Chick Fil A and get just about any of the entrees, a large superfood side salad, medium fries, and water. That’s a pretty decent meal for a hungry, athletic man. If I want a burger, I go to a place where they cost around ten bucks but you get actual meat. Five Guys used to be a good example, although based on the last few times I’ve visited, it seems like they’re going downhill. Also, Five Guys is definitely a bulking phase only restaurant and even then I only order the small versions of everything. I enjoy the abundance of quality fast casual options here in Houston which, again, serve mostly real food. Or I go to any of a handful of good sub shops – or if there are no good sub shops around, I resolve to plan my day better, sigh, and go to Subway. Every now and again, I will go to Freddy’s and splurge big time. If you’re not familiar with Freddy’s, you’re both missing out and lucky at the same time. I fully prepare for a rough afternoon on those days (although still not McDonald’s rough), but Freddy’s is worth it.
5. A balanced approach works best for me – but again, not in the house!
Lately I’ve settled into a system that seems to work pretty well. I have a good “base” diet that covers the important things as I described in the second paragraph of this post. I eat in around a ten hour window, which is a relaxed version of an experiment I tried that was way too effective at weight management for a guy that looks and feels best carrying some extra muscle and is willing to sacrifice the exposed six pack look to do it. Seriously, if you want to maintain an extremely low fat/low weight build, this is almost definitely one way to accomplish it. From there, I enjoy life without letting things go off the rails. I get myself a coffee in the lobby of my apartment at least once a day (free and great quality – just one of the many perks of living where I do) and if I want to also indulge in one of the cookies they regularly have out, I do. Same goes for Costco samples. As long as it’s not IN my home, it doesn’t become excessive.
I generally eat nutritionally decent, but enjoyable food, but I do allow myself a single cheat meal per week, complete with the happy ending. No, I’m not talking massage parlors, you degenerates. I haven’t had to pay for that stuff…yet. I’m talking dessert. For a guy in his early thirties that spends a lot of time in the gym and wants to look like it, but also wants a little of what Joe Rogan, a man I actually couldn’t stand as an MMA hype man but love as a podcast host, regularly refers to as “mouth candy,” it works. For now. But keep in mind that things are significantly more difficult for me today than they were five years ago and five years from now, I will probably have to re-balance what I’m doing to adapt to the continuation of that trend. Whatever happens, I will try to maintain some food related enjoyment, even as it will almost certainly dwindle closer and closer to none.