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On Refining Diet

I eat pretty well and take pretty good care of myself. But it's taken quite a while to get here - before 2006, I had a pretty standard American diet. Lots of pizza, junk food, fast food, liquor, soda, sweets, etc. I smoked cigarettes, cigars, sheesha, and other kinds of tobacco.

Since then I've refined my diet and I eat pretty well. I have more energy, feel better, look better, and God willing, I'll live a lot longer as a result. It's a gradual process though, and I'm still improving. There's a few things I use to do it:

First, I'm all about incremental improvement - I think trying to crash change your diet is unlikely to work unless you have immense amounts of willpower and self-discipline. If you do have these Herculean amounts of will and discipline, you know who you are and don't need my advice. If you're more mortal, then you'll want to pick one or two things to be refining in your diet at a time.

Second, there's two ways I quit food or habits I don't like - "hard quitting" (cold turkey) and "soft quitting" (gradually reduce my consumption and eventually eliminate it). I pick which of these routes to go based on how convenient it is to quit something outright and if there's any detox process. If there's detox (like there was with nicotine), I think it's better to just get it over with once instead of constantly feeling deprived as your body re-adjusts to its new biochemical levels. The most successful method for quitting smoking is cold turkey, isn't it? Something like 80% of successful attempts to quit smoking are cold turkey? I don't have the statistics onhand, but that's the general idea. Quitting something like sugar, bad oils, or excess salt might be easier to do incrementally, since you need to replace the consumption with something else.

Which brings us to third point - I actively introduce new good behaviors before and during the time I quit something. Now, I don't know if the following is a good strategy, but it's what I did - when I started cutting down the sweets I ate, I increased my consumption of the kinds of salty foods I already ate: Chips, french fries, nuts, etc. Later I cut the salt content back. I don't know if that's a good habit, but it's worked okay for me. I also try to actively introduce fruits and vegetables before I quit something - it's hard to go from no fiber food that's highly processed to stimulate you immediately to fruits and vegetables. Fruit tastes bland compared to ice cream. So I introduce fruits and vegetables first, get comfortable with them, then increase my consumption of them as I decrease or eliminate bad consumption.

Simplifying Food (this one's a toughie)

On Happy Human

Humans need food to survive, as such it has always been an important part of our existence. Since the 1900s, advances in farming and food technology led to the mass production of processed food and commercial farming. By the 1970s we were drinking instant coffee and eating rehydrated powdered potato and pot noodles. Food had become 'space-age'. With the invention of the microwave oven, the market for convenience food was born. The Food industry worldwide is now worth trillions of dollars. Food producers spend billions annually on advertising. Driven by profit, farms resemble factories and efficiency gains are made at the expense of ethics, common sense and safety. Researchers make more and more discoveries about nutrition. Initially their findings were published in scientific journals, later in the mainstream media and now anyone with something to say about food can post their opinions on the internet. We have more nutrition information at our fingertips than ever before. Our culture's continuing obsession with thin and healthy, the obesity epidemic and companies competing to sell you food products means there is no shortage of advice on what to eat to be 'healthy' and how to lose weight. The common thread in much of it is there are 'good' foods and 'bad' foods and a food that makes it into the good list, can later be demoted to the bad. For example, tuna is low in fat and high in protein until they found it contained poisonous mercury. Apples were the original 'superfood' but now with high levels of fructose and pesticides have fallen out of favour. Whether eating for health or to lose weight, we no longer know how to eat 'normally'.

The amount of information available is vast and often contradictory, and if like me you love to read and love food, then there is plenty to hold your interest. Over the past 20 years, I must have spent thousands of hours reading and re-educating myself on food. Growing up in the 80s I remember eating Findus Crispy Pancakes for dinner with chips followed by Angel Delight for pudding without a thought as to how it was produced, or what was in it - like many teenage girls at the time, I was more interested in the number of calories on the packet. When i left home, I wanted to learn how to cook properly and so started my collection of cookbooks. Later, I wanted our children to eat 'proper' food at the dinner table, so we ate home-made chicken and leek pie or lasagne with garlic bread. The focus was on 'natural' ingredients without preservatives and additives and of course, taste. Animal welfare didn't cross my mind.

It was Jamie Oliver's 2008 campaign to turn the spotlight on battery-farmed eggs that finally opened my eyes to the welfare of the animals I was eating. I was horrified to learn the grim truth about intensively-reared pigs squashed into tiny pens, living stressed, miserable lives before slaughter. I discovered the cruel treatment of dairy cows that have to calve every year to keep producing milk, the sores they develop on their udders, the culling of male calves at birth. Some of the websites are truly shocking with disturbing video footage enough to bring you to tears. Overfishing hit the headlines warning of popular species of fish being fished to extinction, the seas emptying of cod and tuna. As someone who loved to eat cheese, steak, tuna and had enjoyed many a full English breakfast at the weekend, I couldn't imagine life without eating dairy, meat and fish, but I knew I could no longer in all conscience keep buying factory-farmed meat or endangered fish. Free-range, sustainable and organic was the way to go. We went so far as to grow our own vegetables (with limited success) and we kept three chickens in the back garden who each laid an egg most days. Reading about food and what to eat almost became a daily obsession.

There are thousands upon thousands of articles about what to eat and what to avoid: pesticides in fruit and vegetables, bad fats, plastic leaching into food, mercury in fish, genetically modified food, processed food, the effects of gluten, red meat and dairy, salt, sugar, bleached flour, most of which either increase your chances of getting cancer or heart-attack or both. In 2005, the top 10 superfoods promising health benefits were still recognisable as food and relatively inexpensive: apples, baked beans, wholemeal bread, bananas, brazil nuts, olive oil, broccoli, salmon, green tea and yoghurt. Then more exotic, unfamiliar and expensive superfoods came along: spirulina, acai and goji berries, chia seeds, kombucha, even bee pollen and some of the original superfoods had fallen from favour.

Armed with all this information, you risk becoming a food snob or a food bore, and deciding what to eat becomes confusing at best. Summing up all I've learned I can safely say there is no clear-cut right or wrong answer that works for everyone, you have to make the best decisions you can about what you feed yourself based on your own beliefs and the information and resources you have.

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