How I (Slowly) Cleaned Up My Diet

salad bar with vibrant veggies
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
Before I became a nutritionist, I took a couple years to clean up my diet.

Actually, because I was attempting to clean up my diet I eventually became a nutritionist. I was doing all the research on the topic anyway, I figured out I might as well go all the way and add a credential. 

Here is my slow and steady process.
 Step 1: Get Really Proficient in the Kitchen 
I used to think I was proficient in the kitchen. I mean, I could follow a recipe and it would typically turn out okay. But it required effort. And I wasn't able to modify on the fly when things turned out different than the recipe indicated during a step. 

Then two things dramatically changed my proficiency: 
  1. my husband and I signed up for a meal kit subscription service (we liked Blue Apron the best but also did Purple Carrot and Hello Fresh)  
  2. we took a knife skills class 
At first the meal kits took a looooooong time to prepare. Then we got more familiar with various techniques and ingredients and it became pretty fun and way faster. Learning to season properly was a game changer. One of the reasons we started the service in the first place was so that we'd eat out less. That totally worked!

I wish I'd taken a knife skills class sooner. It was incredibly helpful to learn tips, tricks, and techniques for cutting a variety of ingredients. 

I'd say it took about 9 months to a year to become truly proficient in the kitchen.

Step 2: Reduce Added Sugar and Sweeteners
I actually started doing this concurrently with Step 1 and probably took 6 months total. First, in the processed/packaged/convenience foods we bought, I slowly started switching away from products with artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup and towards products that used sugar, honey, or other more natural sweeteners. 

By slowly, I mean really slowly. Each week at the grocery store I'd choose one item to read the label on and find a substitute. Just one. For example, one week I'd read spaghetti sauce labels and choose a new go-to item. Then the next time I had the time maybe I'd do bread. This kept it from being too overwhelming. 

[Reading labels, I realized how much extraneous junk there is in pantry items. Preservatives and such as well as items that really shouldn't need sweetener in the first place.]

As my palette adjusted to sugar/honey, I noticed that food in general tasted sweeter and less sweetener was required.   

From there, I worked to reduce daily added sugar consumption to less than 25 grams. I don't sweat the sugars that naturally occur in whole fruits - just the added sugar in processed items. For a while, I went down to no added sugar. There was a period of time when I'd adjusted to that and then having any sugar, even one bite of cake, would give me an immediate headache. 

These days, I keep my added sugars low for the most part. I can enjoy dessert again but my body tells me pretty quickly if I've had too much. I rarely crave sugar at all.

Step 3: Reduce Dairy
Oh how I love cheese! But man is dairy inflammatory in the body. And all the advice you see about low-fat dairy being good for you is pretty much crap. First, I switched my dairy consumption to full-fat. Turns out when I have full-fat dairy, I naturally consume less of it because it is satisfying faster. Also, when the fat isn't removed, they don't have to put as much sugar/sweetener back in. 

Then I started looking for places to cut back on or cut out dairy entirely. Milk for cereal? Almond or cashew milk are just as good. Cheese and sour cream on my tacos? Choose one. Yogurt? Again, almond/cashew/coconut milk options abound. 

This step was faster for me. Maybe a month or so of paying attention. 

Step 4: Reduce Processed Foods Overall
Reading labels on jars, bags, and boxes got to be fairly frustrating. So in many respects I just stopped buying processed food items. I could never have done this if I hadn't first gotten really proficient in the kitchen. 

Step 5: Follow a Whole Foods Plant Based Lifestyle
Meat, dairy, eggs. I love them all, but have (reluctantly) concluded that they should be only a tiny fraction of your diet if you are going for longevity, cancer prevention, and a body that feels good to walk around in. 

I now eat all the vegetables. So. Many. Vegetables.

If you are going to eat meat, dairy, and eggs then up your consumption of vegetables as a buffer.

I actually haven't found any studies that show zero meat/dairy/eggs is better than sometimes having those foods. These days I probably have meat 1-2 times a week. Dairy maybe once a week, if that.

This is my maintenance phase. Or I guess it's not a phase - it's a lifestyle. 

Through trial and error I'm learning which substitutions work for making recipes meatless and which absolutely need cheese. 

Update 4.21.2020:  I'm actually 99% vegetarian these days and I'd say 95% no eggs/dairy.  I'm pretty damn good at cooking entirely plant based. I travel frequently for work and that is mostly where the eggs and dairy end up coming onto my plate.