If you’ve been taking a keen interest in nutrition for a while, you probably know the best way to ensure a quality meal is to make it yourself. You can select all of the ingredients, prepare them to your exact specs, and determine the quantity of your meal. Conversely, going to a restaurant or getting take out reduces the control you have over the process. As Dr. Eades has experienced, restaurants will typically use poor quality fat as cooking oil. Instead of healthier tropical oils, butter, ghee, lard, or olive oil, restaurants will likely cut some costs by using industrial vegetable oils. Additionally, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what does and does not have gluten in it these days. And finally, portion control can be difficult especially at places like the Cheesecake Factory where they bring your entree on what appears to be a serving platter. Though I wasn’t alive at the time, I’m fairly sure plates that big didn’t exist 50 years ago.
While there are pitfalls associated with eating take out or going to restaurants, nobody can deny the convenience they offer. This can be a big selling point for a quick lunch at work, a quick dinner after work, or a solid post workout meal. In a given week, I probably buy my lunch 2-4 times at work and grab take out 2 or 3 times for dinner. That’s a potential 7 meals during the week, which might make up a third of my total calories. When you think about it, a substantial portion of the health of my diet is made or broken right there. Ever since I can remember, I’ve used a little tactic with take out meals to pimp them out and punch up their nutritional quality. Here’s the basic gist of it:
The Base Take Out Meal
When I’m looking for a good take out meal, I try to follow a few basic rules:
- Protein quantity and quality – This is the big one. Find something with a quality portion of beef, chicken, fish, or eggs. These are complete proteins with a fully loaded amino acid profile that your muscles will thank you for.
- Gluten/grain free – No sandwiches, tortillas, chips, rice, flour, etc
- As many vegetables as possible – salad greens, leafy greens, as many colors as possible for balanced antioxidants
- Limit fats/dressings – unless you know it’s olive oil and vinegar, stay away from it. sauces and dressings can contain vegetable oil, gluten, and fructose, which is the holy trinity of nutritional madness
As you can imagine, I eat a lot of salads. My go to is a place near work called Cafe Insalata, which has a giant salad bar for a fixed per pound price. All types of veggies, hot meat, cold meat, sushi, beef stew, fruit, seaweed, fermented veggies, and olive oil and vinegar labeled as such.
In addition to salads, here are a few of my base go-to meals:
- Protein style double double – In N Out
- Taco Salad without chips or tortilla bowl – Mexican restaurants
- Grilled meat over bed of veggies – Thai/Chinese/Japanese restaurants
- Sandwiches with extra meat – Deli’s – This is a last resort and it forces me to throw bread away which I feel bad about because people are starving in Africa
After I have my base meal, it’s time to spice it up a little
The After Market Ingredients
This is the part that takes a bit of premeditation. You should always have a few items on hand at home or in the office that you can add to your meal. Since I’m getting take out in the first place, I already know I’ll be in a hurried mood and won’t want to prepare a bunch of food to go along with my meal. The key here is to find those items that give you a huge return on investment with just a little bit of prep work. An example for me is spicing up a taco salad. On my way home, I’ll pick up the basic meal, which is typically meat, beans, pico de gallo, cheese, and sour cream. Pretty good on it’s own but phenomenal when you add an avocado, sliced olives, a fresh tomato, some mango salsa, juice from half a lemon, and top it off with freshly chopped cilantro.
One of the most important things to have on hand is a good fat source. At work and at home, I’ll typically always have a bottle of olive oil, a few avocados, and a jar of almond butter. As I mentioned before, the sauces and dressings you get with most take out food can be highly sketchy and it’s best to just say no to them at the restaurant and then dress the meal on your own.
Here are some basic items that are easy to keep stocked since they’re not too perishable:
- Olive Oil
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Coconut Milk
- Almond Butter
- Chili Sauce (Sriracha, cholula, or Louisiana hot sauce)
- Ground Spices (oregano, parsley, chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, dill)
- Fresh Spices (cilantro)
- Limes and Lemons
- Dried Fruit (cranberries, raisins, dates, peaches)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachio, macadamias)
- Cheese (swiss, jack, cottage cheese)
- Greek Yogurt (very high protein content)
As you can see, some of these you can pair together and make a meal all to it’s own. Apples and almond butter are a staple for me. Greek yogurt makes a great snack with a little cinnamon. One thing I find from making little additions to my take out meals is that it allows me to stay on the right track. If I’m in a rush and all I can find is a sandwich, it’s very tempting to tell myself that the calories from the meat and veggies aren’t enough and that I should eat the bread too. But if I know I have olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, cheese, apples, and walnuts back at home, I can combine that with the meat and veggies of the sandwich to creat a giant waldorf salad. With salad ingredients and spices, there are myriad combinations and small changes can make a big difference. Even taking a run of the mill chopped chicken salad and adding a small portion of diced salami and pepperjack cheese can make it taste like an entirely different meal. Have fun and see what you can come up with!
Obviously this tactic doesn’t work so well if you’re eating in a restaurant or eating take out in a place where you can’t spice up your meal. A number of great bloggers like Mark Sisson have tackled the issue of how to stay relatively true to a primal diet while going out to eat. I’ll link to their work on this issue and tackle it myself in a future post.
Jim Wendler had a great line in his interview a few weeks back with Mark Rippetoe on the Starting Strength Series. They began by discussing the way in which the internet has sped up the flow of information concerning training techniques and methodologies. They noted that the increased accessibility has resulted in the negative side effect of too much false information on the web, leading Jim to an apt comparison:
“The internet is nothing more than Lex Luxor. It’s great, but all the power has been used for bad.”
How true it is. And I would extend that line of thinking to magazines, books, and most fitness products. Similar to nutrition, it’s not hard to get serious information overload these days when it comes to fitness. The fact of the matter is that in an economy like ours, a product or service needs to differentiate itself from the rest of the market in order to stand out and get noticed. And for those trying to make money, it helps to cater to the consumers’ needs and wants. It naturally follows that we now have products like Tony Little’s Gazzelle, the Ab Rocket, the Ab Swing, the Bean “Elite full body workout system”, and even an ab belt that apparently works while you sit there and do nothing. Here’s a short little blurb from the Ab Rocket site:
“The ab training secret that takes painful, boring ab exercises and makes them easy, fun, and effective.”
That pretty much sums it up as far as catering to most consumers. Now I’m assuming most people reading this blog aren’t lacking in motivation, so we’ll skip the part where I tell you that if you want a strong core, you need to put in some effort rather than actively seeking out something easy. I’m obviously picking on the low hanging fruit with these products. For most people, these infomercial offerings have been reduced to a punch line, but it’s just an extreme example of the kind of stimuli we’re presented with these days. And let’s face it. The sheer quantity of garbage products like these being sold at a profit maximizing establishment like Wal Mart suggests the frightening conclusion that they’re selling like hotcakes. And probably taking up valuable space in closets and under beds nationwide.
When we look at a less extreme example and consider exercises and training techniques instead of products, we see the same model playing out. Magazines like Men’s Health and fitness professionals who make money writing books and articles are looking to differentiate, cater to the consumer, and in so doing sell their product(s). Any reader of fitness magazines or web sites has probably had a few hundred different exercises and routines flow in one ear and out the other over the years. And in general, people are not equipped to intelligently discern the wheat from the chaff. How can we navigate through the never ending sea of exercises, routines, and conventional wisdom to develop intelligent strength and fitness programming for ourselves? It starts with systematic education, and for that we need to take a trip back to the basics.
A Lack of Systematic Education
Back in the first half of the 20th century and even as recently as the 1960′s and 1970′s, weight training was much more simple. There were no nautilus machines, cable machines, gravitrons, preacher curls, swiss balls, ab gimmicks, aerobics or even weight racks in some cases. Weight training involved moving heavy objects while standing firmly on the ground as nature intended. There were barbells, weight plates, dumbells, kettlebells, indian clubs, and other various objects that demanded to be picked up off the ground and extended overhead. Men like Arthur Saxon, John Grimek, Reg Park, and countless others trained only with this type of equipment and were able to get incredibly strong, fit, and well balanced.
It’s no small wonder that moves like the squat, the deadlift, the clean and jerk, and the overhead press have been staples of strength and conditioning for olympic weightlifters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, football players, track and field athletes, and to some degree with many other athletes for over a century. These movements are the foundation of building whole body strength, the basic education that is required to have a fundamental understanding of strength training.
Dan John talks about how subjects like math require a systematic education. It would be lunacy to try and teach a 10 year old calculus when they’re still learning basic arithmetic. Proper systematic education begins with the basics and gets progressively more advanced as each lesson builds on concepts learned in the lesson prior. It starts with counting on your fingers then moves on to adding and subtracting, multiplication tables, geometry, algebra, calculus, and so on and so forth. This works the same way in strength and conditioning. We start with the basics as dictated by human biomechanics. Almost as soon as little kids begin to walk, they begin to squat, pick things up off the ground (deadlift), and put them overhead (clean and press). They run, they jump, they climb on things. They’re flexible, strong (relatively), and well balanced. The only way to describe the way they move is ‘natural’. Mark Rippetoe once said something to the effect of, “barbell exercises are the weighted expression of basic human movement,” which encapsulates the idea very well.
Only after learning the basics of the squat, deadlift, clean, and press, will a person be able to fully comprehend and apply more advanced or isolated methods of training. Additionally (and most importantly), an education of basic lifting gives a person the knowledge to discern the correct from the incorrect in the future. Take a person who has learned the basics of algebra and geometry. Show them a problem that has incorrectly solved for the volume of an object. Even if they’ve never seen the problem before, they’ll be able to see that the solution is incorrect because they understand the basic concepts of the subject. Now take a person who has been trying and struggling to learn calculus on their own before ever learning geometry and algebra. Show them the same geometry problem and they will have no clue whether the solution is right or wrong. They have no systematic education in the subject.
Someone trying to teach themself calculus is analogous to a lot of lifters you see in commercial gyms. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen people trying to isolate their deltoids with lateral or front dumbell raises when they don’t even have the shoulder strength or flexibility to press a barbell overhead that’s loaded with 95 pounds. And anyone bold enough to do a leg day (which is rare) will spend the majority of the time isolating muscles on the leg curl, the leg press, and the abductor/adductor machines when if prodded to do so, they couldn’t come close to squatting as deeply and easily as they did when they were 3 years old. This odd fascination with isolation is evident in the pec dec, cable flys, preacher curls, tricep press downs, calf raises, lat pulls, and crunches.
Folks, these exercises are calculus, and many of them are bad calculus. These are advanced bodybuilding exercises used to get ready for the stage, not something to build a training program around. I know, I know, Arnold used to do these exercises right? Sure he did, but that was after he competed as a powerlifter and squatted 500, benched 450, and deadlifted 710. Now there’s a man who had a systematic education in lifting weights. As a young man, he developed himself into an elite level strength athlete training and competing in the squat, deadlift, and bench press. He also pressed 264, cleaned 298, and snatched 243 during the course of his career. With all of the basics learned and mastered, Arnold was able to apply his knowledge to more advanced exercises and routines which led to obvious success in the bodybuilding world.
The Basics – The Variety is in the Loading
At this point, I’m sure a lot of people are wondering how they could possibly build a training program around 4 or 5 exercises when most people do 4 or 5 exercises per muscle group. Well, the truth is that a program with a wide variety of exercises is mostly useless when you are a beginner trying to build strength. Here’s a secret: The bench press works the chest. Yes, the entire chest. You don’t need to follow up your flat bench work with incline dumbell presses, 3 sets on the pec dec, and 4 sets of burnouts on the cable fly. That’s variety all right, but not the kind we’re looking for. On a proper program, you’re looking to come in fresh, warm up and do 3 to 5 sets of 5 heavy reps on the bench press. After this, you’re done with your chest workout. A few days later after good rest and good food, come in and do the same thing but this time with 5 or 10 more pounds on the bar. Do this for 2 months. If you’re a relative beginner, you may find yourself benching about 65 pounds more than you used to for 5 reps. The variety is in the loading, which will increase every time you step in the gym.
Real training is a process of hormesis, which is to say a favorable response to a stressor imposed on the body. The basic premise is to load the body with enough of a stress, or force, in order to cause an adaptation to that stress. After sufficient recovery, the body supercompensates to this stress, allowing you to come back and lift more weight in the following workout. This is how we get stronger and fitter. This process works remarkably well when applied over time with escalating poundage with multi-joint exercises like squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and presses. This process is also easily disrupted when you add more exercises, more sets, and more reps to your training program. This will hamper your ability to adapt, recover, and supercompensate for the next workout and is a sure path to stalling out in your training.
Using the Starting Strength beginner program, people have added hundreds of pounds to their squat and deadlift, and dozens of pounds to their press and power clean using no more than 5 exercises for 8 – 12 weeks straight. In this program, you squat and press 3 days a week and add weight to the bar in every workout. Simple as that. Each workout takes about 45 minutes to an hour and minimal equipment. These are the basics, formed into a phenomenally effective training program. If your interest has been piqued about training the basics, the best thing you can do is buy the book and get started.
One of the greatest benefits from learning the basic strength movements, other than getting really strong, is the ability to discern what works and what doesn’t when you’re presented with new exercises and training methods. As I alluded to before, most people have too many exercises in their program and change them far too frequently to get real results. Dan John has a great line summing this up:
“If you have a tree and add ten ingredients to the soil, nine of them good for the tree and the tenth poison, how will you figure out which one is which? When I’m learning all of these wonderful new training ideas, how do I discern what works and what’s killing me?”
After building a strength base in a program like Starting Strength, you may find yourself stalling on some of the lifts. At this point, it might be sensible to change up your routine and add a little variation. As Dan would say, “use a light touch when adding variation. Change you grip, your rest period, or your rep scheme. Don’t take a sledgehammer to your programming.” Just because you’re stalling on your squat doesn’t mean you should change everything. Maybe one day a week, switch out heavy back squats for some lighter front squats to give yourself a bit more recovery for the other day you do heavy back squats. The great thing about a slight variation like this is you will be able to accurately measure its efficacy on your training.
When you only add one ingredient to the soil, you’ll know if it works or if it doesn’t pretty quickly. The main way you’ll know is how it affects your basic lifts. If all of a sudden you add in 100 swiss ball crunches every other workout and your squat and deadlift numbers and sports performance start decreasing, you can make a pretty good case for the fact that 100 swiss ball crunches every other workout is unnecessary. But if you add in 3 sets of 8 romanian deadlifts a few times a week as assistance to your squat and deadlift and three weeks later, you set a personal best in the deadlift by 25 pounds, there’s a good chance those RDL’s are a keeper. It doesn’t mean keep them in the program forever, but rather just add them to the stable of exercises than you know are effective.
The Bullshit Alarm
In addition to better assessing the efficacy of new movements, you’ll also develop a built in ‘bullshit alarm’ after learning the basic lifts. If you take a look at a legit lifting facility like this or a serious college weight room like this, you may notice they look nothing like a typical ‘fully equipped’ 24 Hr Fitness. In real strength facilities, there are no bosu balls, ab rockers, elipticals, nautilus machines, recumbent bikes, or smith machines. After doing the basic lifts for a while, your bullshit alarm will go off when you see equipment like this. Conversely, you’ll also better appreciate the usefullness of equipment like gymnastics rings, kettlebells, farmers bars, sandbags, and sleds for strength and conditioning. You’ll begin to notice patterns. That all of the bullshit products have some way of ‘supporting’ you, ‘protecting’ you, making the movement ‘easier’, or otherwise restricting the natural movement we were born to perform. Whereas the quality products simply aid you in performing weighted variations of natural, unrestricted human movements. For example, if you need something to support your lower back (other than own spinal erectors) while you’re doing an ab workout, then you’re not doing an ab workout and you can toss that product. Whereas if you find yourself behind a prowler using every muscle in your body to maintain a snail’s pace, that’s a keeper.
Wrapping it Up
Some key points to take away:
- Start with the basics: Learn to squat, deadlift, press, bench press, and power clean
- Cut down or eliminate all other exercises for the time being until you have a solid foundation
- Remember that the variety of the program is in the progressively increasing weight on the bar, not the amount of reps or number of exercises you perform
- Use a light touch to add variety. Don’t take a sledgehammer to your program.
- Use your knowledge of the basics to navigate the complexities of the fitness world by discerning what works and what doesn’t
- Use the concept of natural, unrestricted human movement as a guide to which products are garbage and which ones are effective
Strength coach Mark Rippetoe has an excellent series of videos on his website called the Starting Strength Series, in which he interviews some of the big names in strength and sport. His latest discussion with Charles Staley was a great conversation between two guys who have been in the strength and fitness field for a long time. They begin to delve into coach Staley’s approach to training and arrive at the idea that he treats each of his trainees like they’re athletes, rather than simply a personal training client. This leads into a give and take between coach Rip and coach Staley about what exactly defines a person as being an athlete. Paraphrasing from the discussion, here are some points made by coach Staley about his definition of an athlete:
- An athlete is someone who progressively tries to improve their physicality, physical capacity, and performance
- Being an athlete means setting goals and accomplishing physical tasks
- And finally, it means putting yourself to the test in an objective competition against others
This definition resonated with me because it allows for anyone with drive and passion to be considered an athlete. They may never be a collegiate athlete, a professional, or an Olympian, but they can be an athlete nonetheless. By this definition, anyone who trains for and competes in the following competitions (and many others) would be deemed an athlete:
- Runnings races: 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, ultra
- Bike races
- Weightlifting meets
- Powerlifting meets
- Fitness competitions
- Surfing competitions
- Gymnastics meets
- Track and Field meets
- Basketball leagues
- Baseball leagues
- Volleyball leagues
- Flag Football leagues
- Tennis leagues and tournaments
- Golf tournaments
Most of these are available at a reasonable cost to everyone of almost any age who have the desire to compete. And if you have a desire to succeed, just the simple act of signing up will have a profound effect on the way you work out. Quoting coach Rippetoe from the interview:
“The best thing we’ve ever done for our training is write out the check for the entry fee, sign the entry, and mail the damn thing to the meet director. All of a sudden, I have a completely different workout to do today, even if it’s the same workout. My attitude concerning my training has just gone up an order of magnitude. It’s the easiest way to completely change the intensity, the focus, and the commitment.”
One of the other great points they bring up about committing to a competition is that it changes the scope of your training. Most people who just go into the gym and exercise have a very limited focus. Coach Staley observes that a lot people who exercise do it out of penance rather than a desire to improve themselves. They go to the gym on Monday to ‘work off’ some bad decisions over the weekend or as a compulsive need to counteract poor eating habits. Anyone who has ever exercised for these reasons knows how boring and draining it can be. There is no tangible goal for the workout and nothing in the future that you’re striving to accomplish.
Real training for any type of athletic endeavor involves a long view. And signing up for a competition has a way of automatically putting you in this mindset. In the past few years, I’ve competed in running races, triathlons, swimming races, fitness competitions, golf tournaments, tennis tournaments, and a few rec sports leagues. And as coach Rip says, there is nothing that changes the face of your training like mailing in that check or signing up for the event online. The first thing I did when I signed up for my first triathlon was to buy a book and scour the internet for a training program. Instead of taking a short view and running, biking, or swimming a random amount each day, I made the effort to find out exactly how to improve my performance over a specified period of time so I would be at my best on race day. The best swim training I’ve ever done was preparing for the 1.5 mile Alcatraz island swim. It was scary as hell knowing I’d be out in freezing, choppy water that was a few hundred feet deep. This pushed me to train and prepare in a way that simply would not have been possible had I not entered that race.
Entering an event also provides for a great opportunity for camaraderie in your training. While most people go to a gym and exercise solo, training for a sport or a competition can give you a network of people to train with. Whether it’s going on weekly runs, strength training, or doing conditioning drills for tennis or basketball, it’s always more motivating to do it with company. And if you’re both training for the same event, you can feed off of each other in pursuit of the common goal. Last year, I signed up for the CrossFit Games Regionals along with a few other people at my gym and it immediately fueled our training.
Despite the great things competition can do for your training, I think people avoid it sometimes because it can be daunting. Everybody has pride, and it can be demoralizing to get crushed at something. Coach Rip talked about his first powerlifting meet, making the point that “even though I got my absolute detached ass handed to me, it made me better than all the guys that didn’t go to the meet.” This is a crucial point. When I ask people about getting into CrossFit or a high intensity fitness program, many will say that they need to get fitter first. That they need to get fitter before they start a fitness program. This same odd logic applies to competition. People think they’re not ready and need to get in shape or get better before they start competing. What they don’t realize is that resolving to compete now will make you SO much better than simply saying you’re going to get better and then competing at some undetermined time in the future. Even if you go out and walk a 5K race, enter a tennis tournament at the lowest NTRP level, or go to a weightlifting meet and just lift the bar, this will confer so many benefits. It will boost your training, give you the opportunity to build a network of people to train with, in addition to giving you a starting point. If you walk a 5K in 40 minutes, now you have a number to beat in the future the next time you compete. You’ll also learn the ins and outs of the competition, like how to taper before a competition, what to eat during your last meal before competing, and how best to warm up to maximize your performance. No matter how poorly you do your first time out, all of these things are invaluable.
Coach Rippetoe sums it up best:
“Competition has the potential to enrich your life in a way that isn’t possible by simply exercising.”
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts, there are a number of difficulties that stand in the way of maintaining a healthy diet in the 21st century. The main road blocks as I see it are time and information. We have too little of the former and too much of the latter. A significant portion of the population doesn’t even have time to prepare a solid meal, let alone sit down and sift through the endless nutritional studies they’re bombarded with by the media day in and day out. A big issue with a lot of these studies is that they rely on statistical significance, which can be a dubious practice. This can lead to studies that find effects where one doesn’t exist. So the January Men’s Health may tell you that 5 spoonfulls of flax seed per day will eliminate all cancer and let you live to 150. Two months later, the March issue drops in a tidbit from a recent study that flax seed will kill you (as you’re spooning flax into your morning cereal). I exaggerate of course, but if you read those magazines on a regular basis, this is not far off. And all the while, most people are far too busy to be digging into these studies to determine what the hell flax seed is.
These days, it’s nearly impossible to spend the time preparing every single meal, or even have someone else do it for you. Unless you’re Oprah, but that’s not working out for her too well. She’s a prime example of someone who falls victim to the deluge of information in the diet world to her detriment, but that’s another post all together. In order to get a leg up on nutrition with a tight time schedule, an important concept you should begin to grasp in your daily diet is the idea of premeditated protein. As a lowish carb, Paleo guy, I don’t really bother too much with counting my calories since a primal diet will put you hormonally in that sweet spot where you tend to eat the right amount to stay lean and healthy without giving it much thought. Despite that, I don’t just free wheel every meal and eat the first things I see in the fridge. Whenever I’m considering a meal, the first thing I think about is my protein source, for a number of reasons:
- Try to hit a daily protein intake of about 1 gram/lb of bodyweight
- Protein, along with fat, has a satiating effect that won’t leave me hungry a few hours later
- Protein sources usually have fat in them as well, which is a potent way to keep insulin levels low when eaten with veggies
- The amino acids in protein are used in the anabolic process of building new muscle
- Protein sources will make up a bulk of your calories so it’s important to make sure they are quality sources
The bottom line is that your protein source should be the foundation of your meal, around which everything else is added. If you’re into the nuts and bolts of this, I’d urge you to read Protein Power by the Drs Eades.
Here’s the kicker, though. While it is the most foundational aspect of the meal, quality protein unfortunately requires the most preparation. Good sources of carbs and fat can be obtained quickly and easily on the go. Carrots, celery, lettuce, almond butter, nuts, avocado, mushrooms, and all fruits are truly nature’s fast food. You can literally eat them at the register while you’re paying for them. A steak on the other hand, you can’t bite into while you swipe your debit card. Deli meat, you say? Not a bad last resort, but it’s poor quality, has preservatives, and is highway robbery in terms of cost. Good protein is simply not a convenience food. And yes, I’m excluding Myoplex bars, EAS formulas, soy shakes, and pretty much any piece of garbage with a barcode that you can buy in GNC or a supermarket.
Good protein is beef, lamb, chicken, duck, deer, goat, bison, fish, and eggs, all of which take time to prepare. This is where we come back to our problem of having too little time. Since good protein takes time that most people don’t have, it’s very easy to let it get lost in the shuffle. In the interest of speed, we end up grabbing cereal in the morning, a sandwich at lunch, and take out for dinner. While this may seem healthy compared to the standard american diet (SAD), that day’s eating has very little quality protein and too many starchy carbohydrates. And while we’re on the subject, this bit by Brain Regan on pop tarts is classic:
Okay, so what’s the answer then? It all starts with premeditated protein. Here’s my tip list for y’all about ways to plan your protein on a daily or weekly basis:
Get in the habit of cooking eggs EVERY morning for breakfast
It takes literally 5 minutes. If you need them quick, scramble them with a little butter or lard, add chili sauce, salt, pepper, and slice of cheese. Done! Eat this with an apple or orange and you have a meal that takes the same amount of time as instant oatmeal and toast. If you find yourself getting ambitious, throw in some mushrooms, garlic, onion, bell pepper, spinach, etc. Make it colorful!
Find one or two nights a week to make A LOT of food
The number of ways you can do this is almost limitless. Here are a few variations. You can use any meats and combos of ingredients and methods of cooking that will allow for tasty leftovers.
- Chicken bake – Go to the store and buy 2-3 packages of boneless chicken breasts and thighs. Take home, preheat oven to 325, fill baking dish(es) with chicken, garlic salt, pepper, basil, oregano, and a few sticks of butter. Cook for 45 minutes. Put in tupperware. You now have lunch and dinner for 5 days. It’s not sexy but it gets the job done. It also goes with absolutely everything. You could use this for a greek salad at lunch and a thai peanut vegetable stir fry for dinner.
- Pot Roast – One of my personal favorites. Go to the store or farmer’s market and find a giant brisket (3-5lb). Buy red potatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, celery, and a bottle of red wine. Combine all into a giant cauldron that fits on your stove along with some lard, butter, or olive oil. If you have a slow cooker or smoker and decide to do it barbecue style, you are well beyond needing any help from this post. Leave on stove at low low heat for about 6 hours. At this point, you’ll be able to cut the meat with a spoon. Put in tupperware. Lunch + dinner for 5 days.
Make or Buy Beef Jerky
Beef jerky and pemmican is a fantastic source of protein, can be carried with you anywhere, and will last for a while. For those of you ambitious enough to to set aside some time to make it, here is quick recipe for making your own jerky. And if you’re into DIY home projects, here’s a great tutorial from Lex Rooker on making your own $10 jerky cooker.
I understand this may be tough for people short on time, so one great option in to buy the jerky. But I’m not talking about the stuff at the gas station. That comes from poor quality beef and is loaded up with salt, preservatives, and other chemicals we don’t want anything to do with. Thanks to the demand in the marketplace, there are now two excellent resources for getting top quality paleo snacks and jerky online. One is Paleo Kits from Steve Liberati and the other is Paleo Brands from Robb Wolf. If you constantly find yourself on the go without any good protein source, it would behoove you to always have a few of these kits on hand to take the edge off.
Use Your Freezer
The freezer is best used for ice cups and meat, so clear out the 5 year old box of otter pops and make room. With a little foresight, some planning and a good sized sub zero, you could do all of your protein shopping for the month in a single day. Bacon, roasts, chicken breasts, spareribs, pork chops, fish, etc. Just remind yourself what you want to cook the morning of and put it out on the counter before you leave for work to thaw. Certain cuts are so easy that once you get home, you could cook up a meal faster than it would take the local Chinese restaurant to deliver your food. Chicken breast stir fry, pork chops, and thinly cut steaks can be pan cooked or seared then popped in the oven for less than 10 minutes. Here’s a recent purchase from the farmer’s market, much of which went straight into the freezer.
Make Your Work Fridge Work For You
If you’re lucky enough to have a large fridge at work, bring in your leftovers and put them in there. This gives you a few days worth of lunches and saves you the trouble of having to pack something every day. It’s also a great place to keep snacks like apples, almond butter, cheese, and milk.
Hard Boiled Eggs
Not exactly a fan favorite, but this ugly duckling gets the job done when all else fails. They taste bad, they smell worse, but they pack a great punch of protein and quality fat that is available on the run. Just dress them up a little by throwing them in a big salad or mixing them up with some paleo mayo.
Solid White Albacore
Like hard boiled eggs, this is another option for when you’re hanging by a thread and feel like you have no recourse but to drive to McDonald’s and super size the entire menu. Though not the best source of protein, canned tuna with some olive oil, mustard, salt, pepper, celery, and whatever else you may fancy is not the worst meal in the world. It won’t taste like prime rib, but honestly, not every meal should. Remember, food is medicine, not entertainment. While it’s nice to indulge once in a while, the flip side of that is that some meals involve biting the bullet and taking one for the team (that team being your body and general health).
So there you have it. Those are my tips for planning out your protein sources. You may find like I did that once you’re able to get a hang of this, the rest of your meal just tends to fall in place and it’s a lot easier to stick to a healthy diet.
I threw this meal together a bit randomly, which sometimes find produces the tastiest combinations. It started off as your typical post workout bacon and eggs chow down (which is always a great option). As I was getting ready to make it, I took a gander into the fridge and noticed I had some leaf lettuce that needed to be used up. Then there were the amazing little shiitake mushrooms from the farmer’s market that are tasty enough to snack on right out of the bag. I also spied a nice medley of cherry tomatoes and half an avocado and was pleading to be eaten. Long story short, this is what I ended up with…
This ranked up there among the top 10 quick breakfasts in existence. There’s no question the BLT sandwich is a staple for a reason. The salty, succulent bacon paired with the crisp crunch of the lettuce and the creamy smoothness of the avocado and tomato is a well thought out combo. Take out the bread and add in some lard-cooked eggs and shiitake mushrooms and you have yourself a rockin’ Paleo party. I’m one of those people who loves to mix my food during meals, which is probably why I’m such a big fan of stews and stir frys. This meal really pops when you mix it all together. Take your time and get a nice bite of lettuce, bacon, avocado, egg, mushroom, and a skewering of a rogue tomato in every bite. Cherry tomatoes, good bacon, and spongy mushrooms are the key to this one.
The Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Egg, Mushroom, and Avocado
- 4 slices bacon – 350kcal
- 4 whole eggs – 360kcal
- 1/2 avocado – 108kcal
- 2 tbsp pork lard – 140kcal
- 1/4 cup cherry tomatoes – 15kcal
- 1/2 cup red leaf lettuce – 5kcal
- 1/4 cup shiitake mushrooms – 5kcal
- Total – 983kcal
I’ve had some people ask me about both how to construct good meals as well as what I personally eat during the day, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and start posting some of my own meals. Note that the amounts that I give in the ingredient list and calorie counts are just estimations. I don’t count calories or % balance of macronutrients, but I thought it might be helpful to some people who are trying to maintain a calorie count. Also you should know that I typically eat big breakfasts because I work out in the mornings. My other 2 meals are about the same size calorie wise give or take. I’ll post some lunches and dinners in the future. Let me know if you have any questions about preparation or anything else.
Breakfast: Beef Brisket, Avocado, Sweet Potato, and Rainbow Chard
- 1 cooked sweet potato – 115kcal
- 4 oz leftover slow cooked brisket – 340kcal
- 1/2 avocado – 108kcal
- 1/2 cup rainbow chard – 3kcal
- 1 tablespoon of butter – 140kcal
- Total – 708kcal
Prep and Cook Time
- Pre cooked Sweet Potatoes and Brisket – 8 hours in slow cooker
- Plating and Reheating – 10 minutes
- Total (after initial slow cooking) – 10 minutes
Breakfast: Bacon & Egg Scramble with a Side of Apple
- 4 slices bacon – 350kcal
- 4 whole eggs – 360kcal
- 1/2 cup mushrooms – 11kcal
- 1/2 cup rainbow chard – 3kcal
- 1 pink lady apple – 70kcal
- Total – 794kcal
Prep & Cook Time
- Slicing and Dicing – 5 minutes
- Bacon cooking – 5 minutes
- Remove bacon, drain 1/2 bacon fat, and cook egg scramble – 10 minutes
- Total – 20 minutes
Breakfast: Egg, Ground Beef, and Sweet Potato Scramble
- 3 oz ground beef – 255kcal
- 4 whole eggs – 360kcal
- 1/2 sweet potato – 58kcal
- 1/2 cup broccoli – 17kcal
- 1 tbsp butter – 140kcal
- 2 tbsp almond butter – 206kcal
- 1/2 cup strawberries – 40kcal
- Total – 1076kcal
Prep & Cook Time
- Slicing and Dicing – 5 minutes
- Egg, ground beef, sweet potato, broccoli cooking – 20 minutes
- Plating – 5 minutes
- Total – 30 minutes
Before I get to anything, I have to give a shout out to my mom for Mother’s Day! We had a great family reunion last weekend down in LA with my mom, stepdad, grandma, aunt, uncle, and cousins. We had some great meals, played games, and had a lot of laughs. It’s a lot of fun to see everyone and catch up since we all live in different cities. After breakfast on Sunday, my mom, my stepdad Robert, and I spent a good amount of time around my grandma’s dining room table discussing the ins and outs of eating healthy. One of the main takeaways from the conversation was not the difficulty of making a commitment to eat healthy, but rather the difficulty of staying faithful to that diet in the modern world.
As I see it, over and above their own desire to eat well, there are two significant factors that keep people from maintaining a healthy diet:
- Misconception about what is and is not healthy
- Social pressure to eat certain food
Imagine for a second that you were transported back in time and placed in a tribe of hunter gatherers such as the Kitavans, the Masai, the Inuit, or a native american tribe in 16th century North America. Living among these tribes, you would consume a diet of game meat, seal fat, fresh fish, unpasteurized milk, root vegetables like taro and yams, leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, well prepared whole grains, and fruit. In these cultures, you would immediately take notice of how little technological and medical advancement there is. There is no knowledge of germ theory, insulin, saturated fat, cholesterol, or triglycerides. There are no pharmaceuticals, no heart surgeons, no diabetologists, no 24 hour fitness, no food pyramid, no blogs devoted to health and wellness, no FDA, no USDA, and no nutritionists or personal trainers. Yet in these tribes, you will encounter no obesity, nearly zero incidence of cancer, no food allergies, HIGH cholesterol, excellent blood glucose levels, perfect teeth, robust body composition, and nearly zero incidence of heart disease and diabetes.
Despite all of the expert opinion, conventional wisdom, and misconception that swirls among us in the modern world each and every day, you would be hard pressed to find a single rational individual who could look back on the incidence of chronic disease in those tribes and contradict their lifestyle. Yet these are messages we are receiving every day:
- Saturated fat is bad.
- Cholesterol levels are important.
- Salt is bad.
- Meat will give you colon cancer.
- We need 4-6 servings of grains per day.
- Fortified processed food is heart healthy.
- Pharmaceuticals are necessary.
- Ailments like heart disease, diabetes and cancer are hereditary and can’t be avoided.
- Exercise will make up for any deficiency in diet
With this type of advice, we find ourselves in the middle of an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which is encapsulated in Gerald Reaven’s Metabolic Syndrome. Cancer rates, autoimmune diseases, and food allergies are also increasing substantially.
To be fair, it is not simply the advice we’ve been given but rather a social shift in the concept of what a moderately healthy diet should be. First consider your typical young Inuit, Masai, or Kitavan. Growing up in one of those tribes, you’d adapt your food habits to your parents and the rest of society. You would see your father catch fresh fish and hunt game and your mother collect fruit and tubers, and soak and prepare whole grains. Your friends and village members would all sit down together and celebrate the hunting and the gathering of that day with a meal. Ask any young Kitavan what is an average meal, and they would say without hesitation, fish, tubers, and coconut.
Fast forward to the United States about 150 years ago. While you’d no longer watch your family hunt and gather food, you might grow up in a rural area where your mother and father buy food from the local grocery store. While the food is bought rather than obtained directly, the food on your table will still have some similarities to the tribal meals. Ask a young American kid at the end of the 1800′s what an average healthy meal is and he would say, steak, eggs, butter, vegetables, bread, and potatoes.
Now consider the present day. While a hunter gatherer tribesman and a young American settler may have been separated by a few thousand years, the natural food composition of their diet is strikingly similar. However, only 150 years later, we now have products in our food system that would literally appear to be from another world to the tribesman and the settler. Children are raised not on freshly caught fish or bought steak, but take out pizza, fast food, candy, and soda. Socially, our children are growing up with the idea that these food products are normal. And the frightening thing is that by a certain definition, they are normal. If you look at the young tribesman or settler, the normality of the food they were eating had nothing to do with how healthy or unhealthy it was. It had to do simply with the fact that this is the food their parents ate, their friends ate, and their whole social circle deemed acceptable. While that socially acceptable diet used to be composed of all natural food, children are now being socialized to accept products with refined grain and sugar as ‘normal’. The effects of this shift has had profound, measurable changes in obesity levels and chronic disease.
This becomes the main thrust of my second bullet point at the top of the post. A young Kitavan or American settler would not have been eating a diet that their family or friends would have called ‘healthy’, but rather it was a diet that was considered normal. However, try eating that ‘normal’ diet in the modern world. Fresh meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Soaked and fermented grains. Unpasteurized milk. No processed food AT ALL. People would look at you not in acknowledgement of your healthy eating habits, but in slight shock and awe that you could eat in such a socially unacceptable way. They would be stunned that you won’t take part in the ritual of pre-meal bread. Of chips and dip appetizers. Of movie popcorn and soda. Of a hot dog and french fries at a baseball game. Of pizza or ice cream at office lunches and birthday parties. Of candy on Halloween, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas. These things are all as American as, well, apple pie. The way we’ve integrated processed and fast food into the fabric of our society has effectively ‘moved the goalposts’ for health. What is considered healthy now is a diet of ‘moderation’. For most people, this means they try to eat as well as they can most of the time while letting themselves have some indulgences occasionally. Notice how subjective and vague that statement is.
I think this becomes an enormous factor for busy people who have good intentions about eating correctly. While their heart is in the right place and they may know what they should eat to stay healthy, the pitfalls of convenience eating and non-stop bombardment of social pressure to eat less than ideal foods is often too difficult to overcome. With all of this in mind, I’m going to do a series of posts called Health in the Modern World. In each post, I’ll describe in detail a tip or trick to remain steadfast in the face of social pressure to eat poorly. I know anyone who has tried to live a healthy lifestyle has been confronted with these kind of temptations and pressures, so I’d be very interested to hear all of your experiences and how you deal with each situation.
Made my way to the farmer’s market early this Saturday morning. Lately, I’ve been going a little bit later and there tends to be slim pickings at Marin Sun Farms. With a grocery store mentality, we often forget that for truly fresh food, there is going to be a limited supply. In order to get a good look at their whole spread, I showed up right around 8 when the market opens. Great vibe that early in the morning. Crowds are sparse and the vendors are all full energy, fueled by a mix of coffee and excitement. The mushroom guy was in a frenzy over Ironman 2, and I escaped just in time to avoid getting the ending spoiled.
After buying a basket of shitakes, I went straight to Marin Sun Farms. They had some excellent cuts that had probably been bought up by the time I got there on previous weekends. There was a bounty of pork bacon, flat iron steaks, tri tips, brisket, whole and half chickens, all kinds of offal, ground goat, and lamb stew. Here’s what I corralled for myself:
That’s about 2 pounds of bacon, 2 pounds of lamb stew, and a 3.5 pound beef brisket. I’m excited to try the lamb since I haven’t yet had it from Marin Sun Farms. They have a partnership with Hussa Ranch, which raises the Najavo-Churro sheep. These sheep are 100% grass fed and are raised free of all antibiotics and hormones. They are said to have a sweet, tender flavor.
When possible, it’s always best to dine on 100% grass fed ruminants. This means cattle, bison, sheep, goat, and deer. The protein to fat ratio will be much better in these animals and the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio is much improved over grain fed animals. Even if animals like pigs or chicken are free range and pasture raised, they’re still fed a certain percentage of their diet in grains. Even farm raised fish, which is the majority of fish these days, are fed grains or soy. This becomes very tricky because there is a good chance that this grain or soy feed comes from a genetically modified crop. A growing percentage of corn and soybeans in this country come from genetically modified seeds sold by Monsanto. There are still very big questions about the safety of this process, which essentially blasts genes haphazardly into seeds to modify their genetic material. There have been very few tests of the health risks of GMO’s and it would behoove anyone to take caution to stay as far away from these seeds as possible. And this includes staying away from animals that have eaten genetically modified feed. While it’s difficult to eat only ruminants as your protein source, the best plan is to try and work them in as much as you can. While chicken, pork, and turkey may sometimes be more economical or versatile as a food option, it’s important to get a bit of grass fed beef, goat, and lamb in when you can.
On my way out, I also bought a few avocados, some big bunches of rainbow chard, and giant bag of pink lady apples.
I’ll be cooking up the beef brisket today in a slow cooker for about 8 hours. My roommate Chad is also cooking a brisket with some potatoes, carrots, and teriyaki sauce and luckily there’s enough room in the slow cooker to throw it all in together and let it cook up slowly. I prepared some whole sweet potatoes in the oven last night, so I’ll probably be pairing those with the brisket over the next few days. With this, I’ll cook up some broccoli and some of the rainbow chard to give the meal a nice variety.
I’m not sure how I’ll prepare the lamb stew, but I’d really like to do it in a crockpot with some stock along with wine, carrots, celery, onions, and garlic. That will probably be near the end of the week.
As for this morning, I came home and immediately cooked up a few slices of the bacon, and then used some of the grease to make an egg and mushroom scramble. I added a sweet potato on the side and a little chili sauce to finish off a nice and easy breakfast.
I’m currently doing some catch up on old Underground Wellness podcasts. UW is simply the best podcast on heath at fitness out there right now, along with Robb Wolf’s Paleolithic Solution. Sean Croxton is doing some excellent work uncovering the myths and fallacies about nutrition. Some of the topics Sean has covered so far are the dangers of soy, the importance of gut bacteria, and the myths about cholesterol. I’d highly recommend you go to Itunes and check out the solid work that Sean is doing.
The Face of Raw Milk
Back in April 2009, Sean spoke with Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures farm in Fresno, California about raw milk. Organic Pastures sells raw milk, butter, cheese, and cream at select stores throughout California. Mark is a very well spoken, intelligent advocate for the raw milk movement, and his conversation with Sean discussed the pasteurization process or regular milk, the health benefits of raw milk, and the misconceptions and government intervention in the raw milk business. Before listening to this podcast, I had little knowledge about the facts surrounding raw milk. The only things I knew going in was how heavily processed pasteurized milk is and that raw milk gets very little publicity. By the end of the podcast, my libertarian leanings were out in full force, frustrated again with the government’s uncanny ability to meddle with the decisions of the consumer.
The Pasteurization Process
In the beginning, all milk is raw. But at that point, milk diverges into either the kind that becomes pasteurized and the milk that remains raw for people to drink. The government sets much different standards for raw milk that is consumed and raw milk that becomes pasteurized.
Named for Louis Pasteur, milk pasteurization involves the heat treatment of milk to kill pathogens. To pasteurize, raw milk is heated to 161 degrees fahrenheit for about 15-20 seconds, effectively killing most of the pathogens and bacteria contained in milk. At first blush, this appears to be a good thing, because nobody wants to get sick. However, let’s look at the benefits of raw milk that are lost during the pasteurization process.
Raw Milk Benefits
One of the effects (and main goals) of pasteurization is to kill all of the bacteria in milk, both good and bad. This acts like one giant antibiotic for the milk you drink and destroys all of the biodiversity of flora in raw milk. And we all now how important good bacteria and probiotics are for our gut health, right? Mark describes how the good bacteria in his raw milk are so biodiverse that some don’t even register on the probiotics scale. Some of the crucial roles played by good gut bacteria like Lactobacillus are in the immune response, the metabolic process (digestion), repression of pathogens, preventing allergy, and preventing inflammatory disease.
Additionally, Mark’s milk contains a plethora of digestive enzymes, which take significant pressure off of our digestive system. He has countless stories from people who are lactose intolerant that are able to drink raw milk with absolutely no problems. Additionally, the benefits from raw milk have been so effective for these lactose intolerant folks that they were able to even tolerate some processed milk and ice cream after drinking raw milk for a while.
Mark describes how cultures like the Masai and early herders have been drinking raw milk for many centuries with no illnesses or danger of pathogens. This milk from pasture raised, grass fed cows is extremely high in omega 3′s, which is a crucial aspect especially in the modern American diet that is unfavorably balanced toward Omega 6 fats.
For a referenced summary of the many health benefits of raw milk, go here.
The pasteurization process, in order to protect us against milk-borne pathogens, is killing all of the good bacteria in milk, which protects us against other pathogens, not to mention the other functions of our gut flora. The real question becomes, is it worth it to lose all of these benefits of raw milk to pasteurization? Is raw milk really so dangerous that we need to protect ourselves?
Raw Milk Safety
It’s true there have been issues with raw milk in the past, specifically with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter. According to the FDA’s statistics, raw milk has led to 187 hospitalizations fro 1998 to 2008. However, pasteurization itself is hardly perfect, as noted by a study by Fahey and Morgan who noted an outbreak of Campylobacter from failed pasteurization. Despite what the FDA would have you believe, pasteurized milk has resulted in salmonella outbreaks and is not a perfect system. In fact, the processing of food in general has had significant problems with infection lately, so it’s not like raw milk is the black sheep when it comes to food borne pathogens.
The big truth to glean from this is that the source and quality of raw milk is of the utmost importance. This study assessed the association of risk factors with raw milk contamination in dairy farms. They found the cleanliness of the cows, the cows’ exercise area, and the process of milking to be the biggest factors associated with contamination. Additionally, the diet of the cow is critical. Raw milk cows that are grass fed as nature intended it have significantly more health benefits and lower incidence of contamination. This is in contrast to cows who are fed with grain, soy, or cottonseed oil.
At Organic Pastures, Mark has never had a single problem with contamination. His cows are 100% grass fed and well cared for. The biggest problem he’s had is actually getting his milk to the consumer. The FDA bans sales of non-pasteurized milk and it is outlawed in 25 states. However, strangely enough, it is permitted as pet food. Consumers in states where raw milk is banned have taken to driving hours to find it under the guise that it will be used as pet food. Despite the many noted benefits described above and in the referenced link, the FDA has released a statement that raw milk is extremely dangerous and has no ‘nutritional difference’ to pasteurized milk. This is sadly typical of the FDA or USDA, who tend to break things down into nutritive categories, rather than considering the fact that maybe nature had a plan a few hundred thousand years before we got here. It is with this hubris that they come up with ‘fortified’ food products, which effectively process the natural nutrients out of our food and then decide to artificially add them back in to the end product. If not hubris, their declaration that there is no nutritional difference between the products is simply an outright lie in order to make consumers focus only on the negatives of raw milk.
For me, this is another case of the government seriously overstepping it’s bounds. There is an obsession in this country with making everything perfect. With protecting us from ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. Yes, raw milk has bacteria. But everything has bacteria. You can’t sterilize the whole world. As an informed consumer, I am happy and secure in the knowledge that I can learn everything I can about my raw milk producer in California and make an educated decision to buy from him. What about the people in the 25 states where raw milk is banned? Sadly, they don’t have that luxury.
The FDA is treating the consumer as if they were idiots who need to be childproofed and stifling local agriculture at the same time. The problem with raw milk for the government is that it doesn’t work as a national, industrial enterprise. Scaling this up to the magnitude of factory farming simply does not work because the minute it gets too big, cleanliness and bacteria become a problem. Because the process is well, unprocessed, healthy raw milk will always be a local endeavor between the farmer and the consumer. And this means small farms. Who don’t have general counsels. And branding officers. And marketing teams. And people to do paperwork. Essentially, they don’t live on the level as the FDA, or the government in general. And so the FDA hates the fact that they can’t control the process rather than god forbid, allow the market to dictate. It boils down to the fact that if I want to take the chance to buy a product with proven health benefits despite a chance of negative side effects, that is my right as a consumer. And unfortunately that right is currently unavailable to the citizens of 25 states in this country.
In the future, I’ll get into detail about some of the current news involving bans, legal issues, and regulatory standards for raw milk across the country.