Lifelong runner shares her 11 year journey to a plant-based diet

A new Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast is now available on iTunes and Simplecast!

On this episode of the Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast, Amy details her 11 year journey to a plant-based diet, including learning a new way to cook, and how she learned to live without dairy.

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Amy also sheds light on her experience as a lifelong runner, the most effective way to set health-oriented goals, and why it's so important to be an advocate for your own health!

Don't miss this episode!

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The Energy Theory of Cooking, Comparative Anatomy, & What Causes Obesity

(This post is also a podcast episode! Listen here.)

After the last episode, a few listeners emailed asking if there was other, non-physiological evidence that supports Wrangham’s conclusion that humans have ADAPTED to cooked foods.

I’m glad you asked because I love talking about comparative anatomy. (Sidebar: Dr. Milton Mills has done incredible work in this field comparing humans to herbivores. I’ve included a few resources in the show notes if you want a deeper study. Visit getmealplans.com for the links)

Why can’t humans eat an all raw diet from an anatomical perspective?

In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham explains that compared to our ape and chimpanzee cousins, as well as other mammals, we have small mouths, weak jaws, small teeth, small stomachs, small colons, and small guts overall.

In the past, the small size of these body parts has been attributed to eating meat but Wrangham says the design is better explained as an ADAPTION to eating cooked food rather than raw meat.

Wrangham notes, “given that the mouth is the entry to the gut, humans have an astonishingly tiny opening for such a large species.”

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably stretching your jaw as wide as possible right now.

...And if you’re not, go find a mirror and do that, everybody else is.

Now compare your face to a picture of a chimpanzee with an open mouth. (I’ve included a picture with the show notes on getmealplans.com for easy access).

Chimps can open their mouths twice as far as humans, as they regularly do when eating.

Our mouths also hold very little, as I rediscover pitifully every time I try to eat popcorn.

Interestingly, we actually hold the same volume as chimps in our mouths, though we weigh 50% more.

We also have weaker jaw muscles by comparison and I know I’ve personally experienced muscle fatigue chewing hard foods before like big sourdough pretzels or Cliff bars.

Our teeth and molars are also the smallest of ANY primate species in relation to body size and our stomach is LESS than ⅓ the size expected for a typical mammal of our body weight.

The large intestine, meaning the colon, where plant fibers are broken down to be used as energy, is LESS than 60% of the mass that would be expected for a primate of our body weight. This is why we can’t “digest” fiber and basically send it back out whereas apes actually break it down and use it for energy.

For me, this fact alone provides a convincing argument that we are anatomically adapted to cooked foods because if we weren’t eating the high caloric density of cooked foods we would have to eat all day and probably eat twice our body weight as apes do. Even then we would still probably starve because the sheer amount of food needed is insane AND we’d basically have to eat all day while simultaneously foraging. I’m exhausted just thinking about that…

To summarize (in case I lost you back there), we have small teeth which are adapted finely mashing softer, cooked foods NOT chewing tough raw material. The high caloric density of cooked food also allows our stomachs to be small and our intestines to be short.

This next part is for the vegans. The “Man-the-Hunter” hypothesis assumes our ancestors were originally plant eaters, but that we evolved because we ate meat, and it was this meat eating that caused us to have small everythings and become the humans we are today.

But small mouths, teeth, and jaws are clearly not well adapted to eating raw game meat which is tough. Cooked meat is easier to consume, true, but it doesn’t move through the human body the same way it does in the bodies of true carnivores and omnivores. Humans are extremely inefficient at processing chunks of meat. It passes out of our stomachs quickly and then languishes in the intestines, where for other meat-eaters such as true carnivore and omnivores, it stays in the stomach for a really long time, with a short ride in the intestines.

Plus, as Wrangham pointed out, our ancestors were still eating at least half their diets of plants. They were hunters AND gatherers. So, if the meat-eating hypothesis explains the small everythings, it faces difficulty with the plant component of the diet. It cannot explain how humans with diminished capacity for digestion could have digested raw plant foods efficiently.

I’ll stop myself before I fall deeper down this rabbit hole of comparative anatomy. As I mentioned earlier in the podcast, if you’re as supremely fascinated as I am about this, I’ve left a few reading links in the shownotes. You can also read chapter 2 of Wrangham’s book. For those who wanted non-physiological evidence, I hope I have satisfied your appetite (see what I did there?)

The reduced size of our digestive system limits our effectiveness at digesting raw food, but it enables us to process cooked foods with exceptional proficiency.

This GREAT news from an evolutionary standpoint but not-so-good news when we consider what that means for processed foods and the obesity epidemic, which I’ll talk more about later in this episode.

The energy theory of cooking is basically this: By cooking our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food.

This is overwhelmingly true for all animals, even fish and insects.

But this wouldn’t be a science-backed research podcast if there wasn’t a giant, steamy caveat. (Science is so humbling!)

COOKING can also reduce calories. For example, cooking can lead to the loss of nutrient-rich juices or reduce the amount of sugars or amino acids which would consequently decrease the bioavailable energy. Cooking can also generate indigestible molecules or change the texture in such a way that the food becomes less digestible, though this is definitely the more rare exception. Though if you’ve ever burned something in the kitchen you’ve experienced this.

The effects of cooking on energy gain, however, are consistently positive.

Wrangham talks at length about gelatinization, denaturalization, and the reduced cost of digestion in exceptional detail.

I’ll share a few points or examples to give you a basic understanding, but if you’re even a little bit fascinated, or you want to know why bodybuilders started drinking raw eggs, or why we’re so attracted to marinades, pickles, lemon juice and beef jerky, see Chapter 3 in Catching Fire. Here’s a hint: it’s not just about the salt, denaturalization helps account for our enjoyment.

Here are the Cliff Notes:

We utilize cooked starches such as oats, wheat, potatoes, bananas, white bread very efficiently. About 95% gets digested. Raw starch, however, doesn’t fare so well. Digestibility drops to about 50%. It varies slightly for each starch food, potatoes being the worst, which I think explains why we don’t like to eat raw potatoes and also why raw bananas and uncooked oats don’t settle well for some people.

The principal way cooking increases digestibility is by gelatinization. Basically, the starch inside plant cells comes in these little dense packages that are hard to digest. BUT when you warm them up, they swell, weaken, fragment, and get goopy.

The more starch is cooked, the more it is gelatinized, and the more gelatinized it is, the easier it is for our digestive enzymes to reach it, and therefore, the more completely it is digested. Thus, we can assimilate more energy out of cooked starch than raw starch. (All of this is easily detected in blood measurements).

Interestingly, Wrangham notes that starch does not STAY gelatinized after it’s cooked. He says this might explain why we like to toast bread after it’s lost it’s initial freshness.

Gelatinization (and denaturalization) are chemical changes brought about by cooking, but as I mentioned earlier with the caveat, cooking can also have a physical effect. Usually that effect is that enhances digestion.

For example, the more tender, soft, or finely divided a food is, the more easily and completely it is digested.

Which brings us back to the very first episode, and each episode since, when I said a calorie is not always ‘a calorie’ and that the more processed or cooked a food is, the better we can absorb the calories (and also the nutrients) in that food.

Wrangham’s pet example is fantastic. Domestic pets become fat because the calories in processed pellets are so much more easily absorbed.

I parlayed this into my orange versus oreo example, that you’re probably not going to digest and absorb every calorie of bioavailability in an orange, but you can bet your bottom dollar you’re probably going to absorb every last calorie in an Oreo.

Why is that?

Softer food is digested faster and easier digestion demands less metabolic effort. Less metabolic effort means you’ve saved energy. You become more efficient. You become more like a Prius and less like a Hummer.

Here’s another way to think about it: Blending or pureeing is a form of predigestion. Your blender is doing the job your teeth and jaw would do. It’s literally chewing for you, saving you the energy and work of doing it yourself.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is like winning the Powerball, especially when food was so scarce. To get more calories out of my food all I have to do is cook it? No wonder we evolved into the badass humans we are today.

BUT when you consider processed foods and the wacky manipulations food giants have done to sugar crystals, the structure of salt, and a million other lab-created twists… YEOWZA!

Wrangham shared a study out of Japan that proved this point beautifully and if you like breakfast cereal, I apologize in advance.

In the study, 10 rats ate ordinary laboratory pellets which were hard enough to require substantial chewing. The other 10 ate a version of the standard food that was modified to be softer by increasing the air content. The pellets were basically puffed up like breakfast cereal and only took half the effort to chew.

In every other way, the conditions were IDENTICAL. The calorie intake and expenditure was identical, the pellets did not differ in nutritional composition, how they were cooked, or in water content.

Conventional theory based on the calculation of calorie intake, meaning the old calories in vs. calories out math formula, predicted that the rats should all grow at the same rate. They should be the same size and have the same body weight and body fat.

But they did not. Both groups were on the same diet the first four weeks of their life, and then they separated. After one week on the puffed pellets, there was a visible difference in the rats. By 22 weeks, the difference was significant.

The rats eating soft food slowly became heavier. On average they were 6% heavier and had more abdominal fat, enough to be classified as obese.

Soft, well-processed foods made the rats fat. The difference was in the cost of digestion.

The researchers concluded that the reason the softer diet led to obesity was simply that it was a little less costly to digest.

Wrangham wraps it up nicely: “If cooking softens food and softer food leads to greater energy gains, then humans should get more energy from cooked food than raw food not only because of processes such as gelatinization and denaturalization, but also because it reduces the cost of digestion.”

Completely and utterly anecdotal, but I had a similar experience in my own journey. At different times I eliminated juices and smoothies, breakfast cereal, and highly processed grains from my diet. It was always in an effort to reduce my calorie intake to lose weight. While I’m sure my weight-loss was due to my decreased caloric intake, this research does make me wonder if my perceived caloric deficit was even greater than what I thought.

I also stopped eating puffed food, not because of the calories, but because I noticed I always overate on them. I couldn’t seem to keep to portion size with popcorn, puffed kamut, rice cakes, and so on. After doing so I lost weight, which I still attribute to the decrease in calories but I do wonder if the puffed nature made a difference.)

I also wonder what this means for slow cooked foods and the pressure cooker...

Anyway, Wrangham also also references a python study (yes, pythons) and same results: Grinding reduced the snake’s cost of digestion and cooking had nearly identical results.

To me, this makes sense why we like foods that have been softened by cooking, blending, juicing, grinding, pounding, processing, and pulverization.

And it also supports eating the whole foods, plant-based diet we promote with the meal plans.

So what can we take from this? Cooking gives calories, but we are adapted to cooked foods. Processing also gives calories, but there’s a wide spectrum in terms of what processing means. Dieters please don’t start fearing chopped tomatoes, chunky stews, hummus, or applesauce. Their calories are not the same as the super absorbent calories in pretzels, Twinkies, and Big Macs.

Intuitively you know this, and now you know why 100 calories of doughnuts might lead to obesity while 100 calories of applesauce, tomato soup, or strawberries probably won’t.

Finally, I’d like to end this episode with my favorite Wrangham quote, “delicious” means high energy because what people like are foods with low levels of indigestible fiber and high levels of soluble carbohydrates.

Download your free research-based 7-day meal plan at getmealplans.com and leave the guesswork and science to me. I’ll be back next week talking about gut bugs and sugar cravings.

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How the Plant-Based Diet Made Me an Overeater {REVISITED with more honesty}

(This post is also a podcast episode! Listen here.)

One year ago I blogged about how the plant-based diet made me an overeater.

A lot has happened since.

After the post, hundreds (I’m not exaggerating for impact) of people sent me an email saying that my experience was THEIR experience.

“I feel like I am so similar” was a common phrase.

Here’s one of those emails:

When I first went plant-based, my weight dropped beautifully for the first 40 pounds. Then the weight-loss stopped, so I cut back a little more and I lost another 10 pounds, but then it just stayed there. No matter what I did it just stayed there.

We all hit a weight we couldn’t move past.

No matter how plant perfect we were eating, or how much exercise we incorporated, the scale would not budge.

For a lot of the people I talked to, (and I’m included in this group) this barrier happened at a lower weight.

Meaning, our weight was in the “normal” or “healthy” range for our height but we still had visible body fat. And I’m not talking about vanity fat “a little here or there.”

In my case, my stomach was still hanging over my pants and I had chronic, painful chafing along my armpits and thighs from constant rubbing.

I wasn’t comfortable physically and I didn’t like how I looked.

Then I had my body fat measured.

I was at the tippy top end of what was considered “healthy” even though I was at a “healthy” weight.

You have a really high percentage of body fat for your weight,” the technician told me.

Before I can continue this story, I need to first explain how the plant-based diet made me an overeater. (Don’t worry I’m not blaming kale.)

The plant-based community puts a lot of pressure on being perfect.

I saw this in the vegan movement too, though in a different way. With vegans, your membership card was revoked if you ate a hot dog, or in my case, used the wrong hand soap.

In the plant-based movement, there became this attitude that anything that was wrong with you was your fault for not being perfect.

If you weren’t losing weight, for example, it’s because you weren’t being perfect. You were eating oil, or sugar, or too many nuts, or not enough greens, or cheese.

And that’s not entirely untrue.

You can do any diet or lifestyle wrong, and it DOES come down to what you put in your mouth with weight-loss (more on that soon), but it’s also not as simple as “eat this, but not that” to lose weight.

Plants do not have magical calories that don’t count.

So, how did I become an overeater?

If you read any of the plant-based diet books, attend a conference, or watch one of the films, you get the impression that:

You can eat as much as you want. As long as it’s plant foods, especially whole foods close to nature. Don’t count calories or pay attention to portions.

Some of the experts say EXACTLY that outright.

Others send it more subliminally.

For example, they would share a recipe on their blog or Facebook. Someone would inevitably comment asking for calories or nutritional information, and they would get a response that you don’t need to focus on calories or portions when you eat this way (or something like that).

Monkey see. Monkey do, too.

Rip Esselstyn once bragged to me that he ate 22 (22!) of his burgers in one sitting. Another time I had lunch at FOK’s office and they fed me, I’m really not joking here, over 40 oranges and at least 100 strawberries for lunch. They kept piling more on my plate, rattling off something about how it’s mostly water and I needed to eat more because “it’s only fruit.”

I stuffed myself.

Another time I told Jeff Novick I ate a whole bag of frozen cherries for a snack – was that too much? And he replied, “only 1?”

(I have dozens of stories like this.)

Then there were the conferences where I watched these experts getting plate after plate of food. HUGE plates of food.

The one time when I stressed concern that I had overeaten (three plates of food) I was told not to worry about it. “You can’t gain weight on this food.”

But I did?

Point is, I was under the impression (and based on the responses, it appears many of you were too) that you can eat a lot. And that you SHOULD eat a lot. Eat as much as you wanted. Eat until you feel “full.”

So I did.

I ate and ate.

I quickly developed a habit of having 4 plates of food at a meal, all the while patting myself on the back for being so healthy.

For example, I would eat 4-6 bunless bean burgers, plus a huge "gorilla" salad, and 2-3 potatoes cut into fries for dinner. And I would still have room for 3-4 bananas blended as ice cream for dessert (and a snack later on).

After my original blog post, I got this email from FOK:

For the record, it is not FOK's position that anyone can eat all they want on a whole-food, plant-based diet and maintain an optimal bodyweight. Our position is that one should eat until comfortably satiated.” (The email also said if I ate lower calorie foods I didn’t need to control my portions.)

WHAT IS COMFORTABLY SATIATED??!?!?!!

I have never found this “comfortable satiation” EVER.

My stomach has exactly three settings:

  • I’m HUNGRY
  • I’ve eaten but I could still eat more
  • OMG I ate way too much I can’t move

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. It’s normal.

In fact, “comfortably satiated” doesn’t exist for most people.

Scientists still have not figured out what makes us “feel full.” It seems to be a combination of environmental clues, thoughts we had before eating, how much we smell and taste our food, how long we’ve been eating, how much we ate yesterday, and a myriad of other factors.

We don’t stop eating because our stomach is full, except in very extreme cases like Thanksgiving dinner.

Brian Wansink Ph.d (out of Cornell, like Dr. Campbell) has spent his career studying this very topic: Why do we overeat. What makes us feel full. and so forth.

Of all the important, life-changing lessons Wansink has taught me, nothing has been so impactful as this:

Short of eating until it hurts, most of us seem to rely on size – the volume – of food to tell us when we’re full. We usually try to eat the same visible amount we’re used to eating. That is, we want to eat the same size lunch we did yesterday, the same size dinner, the same size of popcorn… We don’t stop eating because our stomach is full except in very extreme cases…

(Wansink talked about how even when we think we can’t possibly eat any more, when the dessert comes out, we magically have more room.)

This is where I admit I became an overeater.

Mostly because I got used to eating a lot of volume.

Some of that came from those “eat all you want” messages, some from chasing the “comfortably full” illusion, and some because I just didn’t know how to structure my meals or build a meal that was satisfying, satiating, AND calorically correct for my biological needs.

This part you all know:

When I started using my meal plans consistently, I finally broke my weight barrier.

I lost an additional 13 pounds. (I’m lower than my high school weight!)

AND I have maintained that weight for THREE YEARS.

(I’m still amazed because I was a chronic yo-yo-er before.)

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Before strict compliance with the meal plans (but plant-perfect) vs. me last week.

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Now I get why body builders do that weird pose. There's no other way to really capture a photo of your abs!

In the past when I gained weight, or I couldn’t lose, I blamed my lack of perfection.

I blamed the occasional oil or vegan junk foods, and sure, those foods were doing me no favors, but that wasn’t the sole culprit.

Because even when my diet was beyond “perfect” (there was a point where I’d eliminated ALL sugar, salt, oil, alcohol, and even pureed foods foods like hummus or applesauce. I basically was only eating whole fruits and vegetables) I STILL didn’t lose weight.

I still didn’t break my barrier and then I started to GAIN WEIGHT.

I GAINED 7-8 pounds in three weeks eating vegetables!

That’s when I had my “coming to Jesus” moment.

To lose weight (again) and keep it off, I had to come to terms with how much I need in a day, and that it can’t be a free-for-all.

At least not for me.

I HAVE to pay attention to total calories and portion sizes too.

The meal plans make it really easy on me since it’s already planned out.

You could do it yourself, or you can do it with me.

Here’s the beautifully simple part: weight-loss is physics, the law of thermodynamics. You have to consume less energy than you burn (create a deficit) to lose weight, which can be accomplished in one two ways: from input or output.

(Side note: In helping dozens of Meal Mentor clients lose weight, I find the input side is the easier strategy for most folks. You have total control over what goes in your mouth AND it tends to be easier to, say, stop drinking wine than to start a 5x a week 5am gym regimen, for example.)

But here’s the not-so-simple part: a calorie is not always ‘a calorie’.

For starters, not every calorie is nutritionally equivalent.

Intuitively you know that 100 calories of carrot cake isn’t the same as 100 calories of carrots.

Not every calorie is absorbed the same way, either.

For example, calories from predigested foods (like smoothies) or highly processed foods (like Oreos) are absorbed much more easily than whole foods. Meaning, you might not even absorb the full bioavailability of the calories in an orange, but you’re probably going to absorb every last calorie in a Dorito.

(This echoes what Dr. McDougall says about oil being easily converted to fat on the body, “That the fat you eat is the fat you wear.” He’s not wrong. “From your lips to your hips” is very real, except that it doesn’t apply ONLY to fats, according to new research.)

And don’t forget: Not every calorie satiates in the same way.

You’ve experienced this before when you ate a doughnut and were starving an hour later.

But even whole plant foods vary greatly in satiety.

That was one of my biggest problems.

I was eating healthy, “perfect” foods, but they weren’t satiating me so I would eat more looking for that elusive “comfortably satiated” dragon, all the while resetting my volume expectations (or “appestat” as I like to call it, short for appetite thermometer) to HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPO.

And this is another reason why I finally lost weight with the meal plans: They didn’t just teach me calories and portions, they taught what a meal needs to look like to actually satisfy me.

How to combine nutritious foods to feel satisfied so I DON’T overeat or feel deprived.

There’s also new research that cooking methods, gut bacteria, the composition of the food, and our genetics determines how many calories we actually absorb when we eat. (FYI some people absorb calories more easily than others. It’s not purely about differing metabolism as we once thought.)

I follow all this research obsessively.

After my blog post last year, and hearing from so many other people who were struggling, I decided to get down to the bottom of it. Figure out WTF was going on.

I’ve read an insane amount of books and studies. I’ve talked with and listened to dozens of experts in a variety of field from Wansink (above) whose focus is on how our environment makes us overeat, to people who study feces and gut bugs.

I’ve uncovered a lot and that’s what I’ll be talking about in upcoming episodes of my new podcast, Shortcut to Slim (a research podcast on diet and nutrition) – This blog post has been recorded as episode 1!

But briefly…

What I’ve come to understand is that any diet works for weight-loss (provided that diet creates a calorie deficit).

It doesn’t matter if you’re low carb, low fat, paleo, vegan, or eating only tacos.

Now, you might feel like garbage on an all cupcake and tequila diet, and that diet might put you at risk for other health issues (like hypertension and cirrhosis), which is why I still advocate a whole foods, plant-based diet all around.

Might as well do yourself a favor.

(Plus, not all calories are the same, remember? So it’s not a straight math formula anyway.)

But the reason why I lost weight beautifully in the beginning was because although I was overeating, there was still a deficit compared to my prior diet. (Even though I was also physically eating more VOLUME than before, the total calories were still less because bean burgers have less calories than cheese pizzas.)

HOWEVER, as you lose weight, that deficit window gets much, much smaller.

There’s little margin for error (which I learned the hard way).

When you shrink, how much you eat has to shrink too.

Many of the people who reached out to me after my blog post joined Meal Mentor and broke their barriers as well. My story continued to echo theirs.

Even those that didn’t join, but started practicing some form of input control, also had success.

Bottom line: It’s not about being “perfect”, though making good choices certainly makes it easier, just like it’s a lot easier to run a marathon if you quit smoking first.

The plant-based diet works. And it works for a lot of people. Part of why it works is because the foods can be low calorie (creating a deficit without volume deprivation) but there’s no such thing as calories that don’t count either.

If you want to start using the meal plans that changed my life and broke my weight barrier go here.

Here’s an image of my recent body scan:

https://dmi4pvc5gbhhd.cloudfront.net/2016/03/body-scan.jpg

What's amazing to me (other than being 15% body fat, self high-five) is that compared to my last scan in 2013, I ONLY LOST BODY FAT. Muscle mass, water, bone density, etc. is identical.

I LOOK so much more muscular and lean now, but that physique was there all along, hidden under fat.

In 2013 I was shelling out THOUSANDS on a personal trainer. Now I just do some yoga and follow the meal plans. If this is not a testament to the power of plants and that abs are made in the kitchen, I don't know what is.

Finally I must say one more thing:

I find with these kinds of posts and/or pictures like what I’ve shared here, people tend to use them attack me, saying I’m anorexic, and/or or I’m not sympathetic to people with eating disorders or food issues.

I’ve been very open (and very public) about my struggle with overeating (see above) and comments telling an overeater they are anorexic, or accusing them of not eating, or telling them to go eat, is about the most painful, unhelpful, and detrimental thing you can say to them.

Additionally, accusing someone – anyone – of having an eating disorder (or disordered eating) when they really don't, does a huge disservice to those who actually do.

It's important that we talk about our struggles with food, whatever they are... or our hurdles with weight-loss, and OUR SUCCESSES and that we can do it without being judged or attacked. (Plus if you really do care or have concern for someone, pull them aside. Saying it on social media is bullying. It's asking others to stand behind you and gang up on them. If they really ARE in a bad place, think about what that bullying might do.)

DON'T LET THE INTERNET HELP YOU FORGET THERE IS A REAL PERSON A LOT LIKE YOU BEHIND THE SCREEN.

I would rather keep my personal battles and triumphs to myself, but I share them publicly so that they can help others and tell anyone who has ever struggled YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

And you do not have to sit in the dark and feel like no one else understand.

Finally, to the people who accuse me of not being sympathetic to those who are in recovery, I can only say this: I have to live my life and I can't do that if I'm always worried what other people might think or how they might feel or react.

I don't expect everyone to toe the line on my behalf. Not my parents or siblings, friends, coworkers, or other people I follow on the internet.

My struggles are *my* struggles, my challenges are *my* challenges, and for the rest of my life I'm going to be around food, and people eating food, and food images, and supermodels in LA. I have to find a way to deal with that and the thoughts I have when I see it, hear it, and so on. I must work my program and my steps and build my own support system. I do supplement it with the support of many of you, who help me in my darkest hours. Just knowing you’re there can be a comfort, but I also can’t live in a bubble. I am sympathetic, but that sympathy doesn’t mean I will alter my absolute commitment to total transparency.

My therapist helped me see I can’t change every person or every situation, but I can change how I feel or act in it. How I talk to myself is decided only by me. How I interpret others’ actions or words is within my sole control. I have so many strategies for dealing with my demons, adding more each day. It’s the program, and you work it, but ultimately, it’s all about you and not the bubble.

P.S. Annual Meal Plan Premium Memberships are on sale this Friday April 22nd, for ONE DAY ONLY! Stay tuned for more details.

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Healthiest Choices at Fast Food Chains

In a perfect world, you would make every meal you eat…

But we don’t live in a perfect world. 

“Eating out” is a social aspect of your life (and sometimes you forget your lunch).

Remember too that the meal plans are a TOOL.

A tool that helps you make the best choices “out in the wild.”

With consistent use, meal plan recipes teach you portions and what a balanced meal should look like so you feel satisfied without going overboard on your own. 

Here are some decent options when you’re dining out:

CHEESECAKE FACTORY #1: Fresh Kale Salad (400* Calories)

Why I picked it: Small but simple with apples, raisins, almonds, and green beans. Hold the almonds for less calories (and hold or swap dressings to be vegan). The Skinnylicious Fresh Vegetable Salad is another option (370 calories), hold the cheese. Rumor has it their Skinnylicious mustard vinaigrette is oil-free. (Believable at 15 calories per 1g serving!)

CHEESECAKE FACTORY #2: Skinnylicious Veggie Burger (500* calories)

Why I picked it: It’s made from vegetables, beans, and grains rather than processed soy, and served with a green salad. It’s not as healthy as homemade, but how often do you get to have a “burger” out that’s fairly healthy? Hold the mayo and cheese so it’s vegan. 

CHEESECAKE FACTORY #3: Vegan Cobb Salad (1210 calories)

Why I picked it: It’s a large serving and the calories can be greatly reduced if you hold all the nuts and seeds (ask for more veg). There’s also the Kale and Quinoa Salad (900* calories) that will drop in calories when you hold the nuts and cheese.  

STARBUCKS #1: Oatmeal (160+ calories)

Why I picked it: Clean as a whistle – just oats and water. Most of the toppings (nuts, dried fruit) have added sugar and oil to them so that’s annoying, but you can usually also buy a banana to dress the oatmeal up AND their “coffee station” has complimentary cinnamon! Some locations also offer fresh blueberries for the oatmeal (+20 calories).

STARBUCKS #2: Hearty Veggie & Rice Bowl (430 calories)

Why I picked it: There’s a lot of veg and it’s not a tiny serving. The rice, butternut, and tomatoes are cooked with a little oil, but the other vegetables are clean. The tahini dressing contains honey.

PF CHANGS #1: Buddha’s Feast (steamed) (260 calories)

Why I picked it: Baked tofu and a good portion of steamed vegetables in soy sauce. You can add a side of rice (6 oz) or quinoa (small) for 300 calories or order more vegetables. 

PF CHANGS #2: Spinach with Garlic (large) (160 calories), Sichuan-Style Asparagus (small) 90 calories OR Shanghai Cucumbers (small) (70 calories).

SUBWAY: Veggie Delight (6-inch) (230 calories)

Why I picked it: While all the breads are pretty processed, you do have a large selection of vegetables to choose from and when you don’t get meat or cheese they tend to be a bit more generous with the vegetables or offer up some avocado! AND you can get apple slices!

PANERA #1: Low-Fat Black Bean Soup (bowl) (230 calories) OR Low Fat Vegetable Garden Veg (140 calories) just ask to hold the pesto. 

Why I picked it: Soups are reasonably filling and these are low in calories. Add the Classic Salad (170 calories) to feel more satisfied. A serving of bread adds 130-150 calories. 

PANERA #2: Greek Salad (without cheese)

Why I picked it: I’m always hesitant to suggests salads because (ugh… duh!) but this salad has a nice variety and, while not oil-free, these dressings are vegan: Low Fat Thai Chili Vinaigrette, Reduced Sugar Asian Sesame, White Balsamic Fuji Apple Vinaigrette. 

PICK UP STIX: Brown rice and steamed vegetables. 

Why I picked it: Filling portion + if you ask, they will give you any vegetable listed on the menu. Veggies can be steamed, so clean dream! Many of their sauces, while not oil-free, are vegan.

AU BON PAN #1: SOUPS! 12 Veggie Soup (120-240 calories), Barley & Creamy Lentil (140-280), Black Bean Soup (180-360), Carrot Ginger (100-190), Curried Rice & Lentil (120-240), French Moroccan Tomato Lentil (130-260), Harvest Mushroom (140-270), Swiss Chard 3-Bean (140-270), Tuscan White Bean (150-310), or Vegetarian Chili (170-340). 

Why I picked it: Soups are filling and you can add a Garden Salad (50 calories). While these dressing are not oil-free, they are vegan: Fat Free White Balsamic Vinaigrette, Lite Lemon Shallot Vinaigrette, Maple Walnut, Red Wine Peppercorn, Sesame Ginger, Southwest Vinaigrette, Thai Peanut. Beware that most seemingly vegan things like hummus contain milk.

AU BON PAN #2: Oatmeal (170-370 calories) 

Why I picked it: Well, it’s oatmeal. You can also get roasted potatoes (1 oz) for 35 calories and most locations have an assortment of fresh fruits. Probably contains oil, but potatoes are satisfying. 

WENDY'S: Plain baked potato (270 calories) 

Why I picked it: Wendy's is the healthiest option around. Stop by a nearby gas station and get some salsa to go with your taters! You can have a Garden Salad too. (While not oil-free, these dressings are vegan: Fat Free French, Italian Vinaigrette, Pomegranate Vinaigrette). 

See this blog post for even more ideas!

Please check with the restaurant before eating as ingredients may change!

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Achieving Balance and Finding Empowerment Podcast

A new Meal Mentor co-pilot podcast is now available on iTunes and Simplecast!

In this episode, member Karen discusses her journey to a plant-based diet, including finding balance within her community, religion, and self. Karen also shares how the meal plans have simplified her life, and how structure can create a sense of freedom.

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Don't miss a discussion on fitting treats into a healthy diet, allowing others to experience their own journey, and much more about growing into a plant-based lifestyle.

P.S. Do you love listening to the podcast? Show your support by leaving a review on iTunes.

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Debunking the ‘Raw Foods are More Nutritious’ Myth

(This post is also a podcast episode! Listen here.)

A few weeks ago I sent a newsletter to the meal mentor community titled, “Are frozen vegetables unhealthy?” For convenience, I’ve posted the newsletter on the meal mentor blog and you can catch a direct link from the show notes on www.getmealplans.com

But I’ll recap quickly right now and end the suspense: Fresh vegetables aren’t so fresh.

It takes 7 to 16 days to transport “fresh” produce (which doesn’t exactly scream “fresh”) and to ensure the food isn’t rotten by the time it gets to the store, produce also has to be harvested prematurely.

(Side bar: If there’s anything I hope to convey with this podcast it’s that we can’t outsmart or cheat nature without consequences)

Back to my point: It takes 7 to 16 days to transport “fresh” vegetables, which requires premature harvesting. Compare this to frozen fruits and vegetables which are harvested ONLY at their peak AND frozen within a few hours.

The freezing aspect is important here because it creates a time capsule. A leaky one, but the taste and nutrition value of frozen produce is mostly preserved while “fresh” produce degrades constantly (losing their important vitamins and nutrients as the clock ticks ticks ticks).

A 2010 study by the Institute for Food Research concluded that fresh produce loses up to 45% of their essential nutrients from farm to table.

(For a list of the top 11 best frozen fruits and vegetables to buy, check out the blog post I mentioned earlier on www.getmealplans.com.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking (because I was thinking this too) “What if I buy from the Farmer’s Market or a farm stand? Or grow it in my own backyard?” Yes, those items would have degraded less and might be more nutritious than frozen.

So haven’t I then just admitted that raw foods are nutritionally superior? Not quite.

In episode 2 “Should you track your calories?” I discussed briefly how every calorie is not ABSORBED the same way.

That by cooking or processing our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food.

We’ll get to the energy theory of cooking and how cooking our food made us evolve into homo sapiens in a future episode but for now

Let’s begin with this fun fact:

Humans are the only animals that cook their foods.

Indeed societies all around the world past and present practice cooking, it is one of the few human universals.

In “Catching Fire: How Cooking With Fire Made us Human” Richard Wrangham hypothesized, “Are humans an ordinary animal that enjoys the taste and security of cooked foods or have we evolved to depend on them?”

Raw-foodists claim plants contain “living” or “active” enzymes, which, if eaten raw, operate for our benefit inside our bodies. As such, food cannot be cooked above a certain temperature (45C (113F)) because doing so destroys the “life force” of the enzyme.

I have to quote Wrangham here, “To scientists the idea that food enzymes contribute to digestion or cellular function in our bodies is nonsense because these molecules themselves are digested in our stomach and small intestines. Even if a food enzyme survived our digestive systems, their own specific metabolic functions are too specialized to allow them to do anything useful in our bodies.”

In case you fell asleep, the whole idea of “living foods” is NOT accepted by physiologists.

Reviewing countless real-world studies and volumes of books by anthropologists, some dating back to the early 1900s, Wrangham found “home cooking was the norm and eating raw was a poor alternative demanded by circumstance.”

This was true even for hunter and gatherer populations, including the Inuit (Eskimos). They too cooked their food and preferred it that way. This is remarkable considering they had no bark or branches to make fire most of the year, and had to use animal fat as a burning oil to slow cook their food all day. (They also ate deer poop, which I just have to throw in here for paleo readers).

Wrangham was unable to find any report of people living long term on a raw wild food diet, but he did provide a generous anthology of groups of people who were forced to endure an all raw wild diet, whether it was purely plants, purely raw meat, or a combination of meat and plants.

I was particularly captivated by the Robertson family who survived for 38 days in a dingy after a whale sunk their ship in 1972. The family survived eating mostly raw fish and turtles and doing some funky stuff with makeshift enemas to avoid dehydration.

Anyway, each story suggested that raw diets do not provide enough energy, even when there is no shortage of food available. These people simply couldn’t extract enough of the nutrients or calories from raw foods.

This was even true with the shipwrecked Robertson’s. They caught more food than they could eat, and despite being given more bone marrow than everyone else, Neil Robertson was disturbingly thin when he was rescued.

The Robertson’s were also constantly starving which was my experience on a raw food diet.

I WAS ALWAYS HUNGRY.

Even when I ate more calories than I biologically needed, I was not satisfied. I lived in a state of feeling hungry even when my stomach was uncomfortably full.

The Robertson’s said they fantasized about cooked foods constantly and I remember Zamperini reporting similarly in the book Unbroken.

Not that I’m comparing a juice fast to what the Roberson’s or Zamperini went through, but when I tried to juice fast I became obsessed with pizza. I couldn’t stop thinking about it which seemed odd to me because I don’t particularly like pizza, and in all the times I’d tried dieting in the past, even crazy diets, I didn’t have obsessive food thoughts or cravings quite like that.

Anyway, Wrangham explains “the raw diet supported survival but it also brought out a sense of starvation.” He also said the lack of evidence for longer-term survival on raw wild food suggests that even in extremes, people need their food cooked.”

I mentioned in a previous episode that any given food has a set bioavailability. That is, how many calories, minerals, or vitamins it offers, but that even in the best conditions, we may not absorb all that is being offered. That’s what Wrangham is getting at here.

That’s the energy theory of cooking, which I’ll discuss more deeply in the next episode.

For now, the summation is that by cooking our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food.

Admittedly, when I first started learning about this, I thought it sounded a lot like “negative calories.” This idea that a food requires more energy to be digested than the food itself provides. (Here’s the fancy scientific lingo: the thermic effect or specific dynamic action—the caloric "cost" of digesting the food—would be greater than its food energy content.)

There is no scientific evidence to support “negative calories” but there IS evidence that we are unable to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food, which I’ll talk about more about next time.

To wrap up for now, Wrangham, and a recent study out of Germany, unanimously concluded “a strict raw food diet cannot guarantee adequate energy supply.”

Which I interpret as, even if raw food was magically more nutritious (and this episode definitely poked a lot of holes in that) we humans can’t assimilate enough from it anyway and are thus setting ourselves up for hunger, misery, energy depletion and nutrient deficiency.

It’s sort of like like eating tree bark or cardboard, but maybe small amounts of whole raw foods, such as salads with cooked meals, can help ease the pain of dieting and weight-loss by providing more physical and visual volume without disturbing the needed caloric deficit since we won’t assimilate it. (I need to think more on this).

True for all: cooked food is easier to digest than raw, and all animals grow better on a cooked diet, just ask any farmer.

Wrangham suggests this is why domestic pets become fat--the calories in processed pellets are so much more easily absorbed. It’s similar to my orange vs. Dorito example in the last episode.

Meaning, you might not absorb every calorie in an apple, but you’re probably going to absorb every calorie in an Oreo. The theory of cooking really is amazing…

Let’s circle back quickly to Wrangham’s original hypothesis: “Are humans an ordinary animal that enjoys the taste and security of cooked foods or have we evolved to depend on them?”

Humans, unlike all other animals, have adapted to cooked foods. The reduced size of our digestive system (compared to our ape cousins, for example) limits our effectiveness at digesting raw food.

HOWEVER, that shortened digestive system enables us to process cooked foods with exceptional proficiency. GREAT news from an evolutionary standpoint as I’ll explain in the next episode but not-so-good news when we consider what that means for processed foods and the obesity epidemic.

Finally, and this point is more for my non-vegans listeners, but applies to plants as well: let’s not forget that cooking also reduces the risk of eating toxins or pathogens that make us sick and can kill humans.

Animals do not have these same constraints. They’ll eat roadkill covered in maggots.

Animals don’t worry about salmonella or “starve” on a raw diet. This distinction lead Wrangham, and eventually me too, and hopefully now you as well, that humans need cooked foods.

To be clear, Wrangham doesn’t say it’s IMPOSSIBLE to live on raw foods, but that today’s voluntary raw foodists can only thrive in rich modern environments where they depend on eating exceptionally high-quality foods they do not forage for themselves, and that are also elaborately prepared with special equipment to increase their energy value and absorption.

Which is his very British way of saying “they’re cheating.”

By the way, there’s still one more compelling reason to eat frozen fruits and vegetables (which are lightly cooked)...Did you forget we started out talking about frozen vegetables, the nutrition superstars they are?

Frozen produce is often cheaper, but it also consumes less resources.

The Natural Resource Defense Council released a report stating 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year AND that all this uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste.

Getting food from the farm to our fork also eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States.

Those numbers are quite literally hard to swallow when you realize almost HALF goes to rot in a landfill.

NRDC notes that reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year. Increasing the efficiency of our food system is a triple bottom-line solution and buying frozen, meal planning, and using all the foods you buy without having leftovers or waste (which we do with the meal plans) is the easiest way you can help get us there.

There’s a link to the full NRDC report on www.getmealplans.com

If you’re enjoying this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes or share this podcast with your friends.

And speaking of friends, I’d like to give a shoutout to @UglyFruitandVeg on Twitter and Instagram. You should definitely follow them and I commend them for their ongoing efforts in getting all of us to buy food because it’s edible and not worry about if it looks pretty.

Download your free 7-day meal plan at https://www.getmealplans.com.

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