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Sam's a new man since he learned an important lesson a few years back. That isn't his real name, but he was adamant that I not disclose his identityhe's a bit embarrassed about the story I'm about to tell. Just forget that I told you he is a marriage and family counselor living in Southern California and has McDreamy-like hair any woman worth her weight in estrogen would die to run her fingers through. Sam didn't always have that hair. In fact, it was almost losing those locks that taught him the lesson.
Sam ate reasonably well as long as Mom was cooking throughout his high school years, but the diet thing really took a nosedive when he flew the coop for college. With no one in the dorm cafeteria nagging him to eat vegetables, he slid through the first year of college living on pizza and Coke. His menu choices went from bad to worse once he moved into his own house. "There were days when all I ate was Costco muffins or Super Value meals," he admits, then adds, "Except my one-dish wonderboxed mac 'n' cheeseI don't remember ever dirtying a pan."
For years, he appeared to get by eating these diet disasters, but somewhere around his late twenties the gig was up. "I was young, but I was losing my hair. I was having horrible stomach pains and I felt awful. Hey, I was starting to look like my dad, which isn't a bad thing except that he's 32 years older than me!" Around that time, a friend casually mentioned that no one could live on what Sam ate without dying a horrible death at a young age. It was a joke, but he took it to heart. It was just the wake-up call he needed. "I didn't cook, I hated vegetables and I was addicted to Cheez Whiz, but I also was scared," he recalls.
That is how I met Sam. He showed up at my office anxious but ready to make changes and without a clue where to start. He was sure I would force him to drink wheatgrass smoothies or dine on brewer's yeast muffins. Instead, we started small, just to get him used to eating real food. He began by snacking on oranges and bananas instead of chips and by buying roasted chickens and cartons of low-fat milk at the grocery store instead of pulling into a drive-through for his two millionth Big Mac. Next step was to eat more regularly and stock the kitchen with easy-to-make foods, like peanut butter, whole-grain breads, precut vegetables and frozen berries. "I found I didn't even need to cook to eat well," he says, "which was a huge relief for this kitchen-phobic guy."
The diet trend snowballed. The better he ate, the better he felt, and the better he felt, the more motivated he was to eat better. Within a few months, his hair was growing back and his stomach pains had vanished. It's been years since those diet-disaster days, and Sam is a born-again nutrition junkie.
Sam's story is not unique. From the science lab to my office, the results are always the same. A study from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that people showed significant improvements in memory and mental function within just two weeks of eating healthier. I can't tell you how many times people have told me similar stories. They followed my advice and were amazed at how much better they felt. Even people who think they eat well notice improvements in energy, mood, motivation, thinking ability, waistline measurements and more when they make additional changes in how, when and what they eat. I truly can't understand why people don't take better care of themselves, when the payoffs are so incredible!
But then, I'm also astounded by what people put up with. They tolerate feeling tired day in and day out. They shoulder depression or mood swings that strain relationships and dampen enjoyment of life. They give in to food cravings then blame themselves for being weak willed. They trudge through the day on little sleep and no enthusiasm. Their shoulders are tight from stress, their stomachs are in a knot and their brains are muddled. Often they look older than their years or are just plain worn-out. Maybe, like Sam, they are losing their hair, or their skin has lost its glow.
The food-mood issue can work to your advantage or against it. When you feel down, you eat worse, which only makes you feel lousier. That's what study after study has found, including one from the University of Southern California on air-traffic controllers, which found that stress snowballs into mood problems, like depression, which then leads to physical problems. The fatigue and depression leave you less motivated to eat well or take care of yourself. It might be all that you can do to drag yourself through the day. You may wind up lighting up, slugging down alcohol, vegging in front of the TV, eating junk and perhaps not even complying with instructions about medication. As a result, you gain weight, feel and sleep worse, stress out and enjoy life less.
Change your eating habits and I promise you will feel better, which starts the spiral working upward out of depression, toward a new you. The more improvements you make in what you eat, the faster and more dramatic the results.
We aren't meant to be in pain or depressed. We certainly are not designed to be fat. These are symptoms that something is wrong and needs fixing. Choosing real food and tossing the junk will help, if not solve, the problem.
What are Real Foods?
Real foods are authentic foods. They are foods as close to their original form as possible. They are the broccoli, not the broccoli in cheese sauce; the bowl of oatmeal, not the granola bar; and the berries, not the Flat Earth Wild Berry Patch Crisps. They are foods rich in all that Mother Nature designed them to be. They are naturally brimming with vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fats, protein and the thousands and thousands of healthenhancing, antioxidant-rich phytochemicals that protect our brains and bodies from disease and aging. Real foods don't have ingredient lists, and when they do, you recognize and can pronounce everything on it. Real foods grow on trees, bushes or vines. They have two or four legs, or fins. You know them as plain fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats or seafood, plain milk products, or foods made from these basic ingredients.
The more humans tamper with real foods, the less nutritious they get, and the further they are from alive, fresh or nutrient-packed. In general, the more processed a food, the lower its vitamin, mineral, fiber and phytonutrient content and the higher its calories, fat, salt and sugar.
Processed grains, for example, are a nutritional wasteland. Most, if not all, of the original vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and fiber have been stripped away when the germ and bran layers were removed from the whole wheat, leaving only the white, carb-filling inside. Then one measly mineral and four vitamins are added back to "enrich" these pathetic grains. And that's just the flour that goes into a processed food like the bun on a Big Mac, the flakes in most cereal boxes or the muffins, scones and pastries at Starbucks.
A friend of mine tried an experiment with a fast-food hamburger. She put it on a shelf, tucked away in her kitchen. Six months later, it looked almost exactly the same. That hamburger and bun were so processed, mold didn't even grow on it! A food that dead is not worth eating.