There’s wisdom in an old sentiment: You’ll persist in your folly until you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. That aptly describes my relationship to my diet. A year ago I decided to change that.
I’ll tell you exactly how, but first, some background. During my sophomore year of college I began studying religion. Three years later I’d graduate with a degree in the topic with an emphasis on Eastern philosophies. Entwined in a subset of this discipline is an ethical call for vegetarianism. While not an immediate convert, I spent my twenties as a pescatarian. Burgers offered in Rutgers dining halls had no small influence in this decision.
It’s impossible to extract ethics, politics, and social mores from nutrition because food is cultural as much as it is personal. Over time I shifted to vegetarianism, which I practiced for the entirety of my thirties. This included two years of veganism, which I told myself was the healthiest option, for the planet as well as my body and mind.
Then I got sick and tired.
Maybe I was all along. We have the capacity of convincing ourselves of tremendous illusions. I considered myself healthy, given that I’d been teaching at Equinox since 2004. Being in shape was not something I worried about because I’d maintained my health since my earliest days playing sports.
Still, I had digestive problems, gastritis, chronic canker sores, and inflammation (a year ago my elbows began hurting, odd given that my trouble spots are my knees and hips.) And the worst issue of all was my perpetual anxiety disorder. I’ve suffered hundreds of panic attacks, including two that hospitalized me and one that caused me to black out in an East Village restaurant, walk into a wall, and land on some poor woman’s lap.
It’s impossible to extract ethics, politics, and social mores from nutrition because food is cultural as much as it is personal.
Then, I started coming across people with similar stomach and mood problems. They discussed the benefits of a paleo diet—a restriction on carbs/sugars while focusing on whole foods, meat included. So, in January 2016, I decided to ease back in to the carnivorous world. (I never went completely paleo, but I use the general philosophy as a guideline.) My wife and I went to The Briks, an amazing Mexican-North African fusion restaurant in Los Angeles, and ordered a whole bronzini. A few nights later, I sampled a steak she was eating.
My body immediately showed the results. I’d been adding the so-called ‘pound a year’ many of us gain without changing a thing. Within three weeks I dropped ten pounds. At six-three I was never bothered at 185, but being back to 175 feels great.
More importantly my digestive problems cleared up. I’ve not had a canker sore in a year. Elbow, knee, and hip inflammation: gone. I’ve also suffered no panic attacks. As someone who developed anxiety disorder at sixteen, this was the most surprising and welcome shift.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have shocked me. Nothing affects our nervous system as much as the food we ingest, which has an effect on not only how well we move and feel, but the quality of our thoughts. It’s hard to think when you’re sick and tired. It makes a man anxious.
To be clear, I don’t attribute the bodily shifts that quickly unfolded to meat alone. Rather it was the reduction of daily bread, mounds of grains, and perpetual soy products. I never devoured bags of chips and vegan cookies, but looking back, my diet was carb-heavy. Now I know that the macronutrient turns into sugars in your body which wreak havoc.
Yet meat did help. More importantly, the type of meat matters, and I’m not just talking grass-fed and local varieties (though the former is also key). Just as food is social, so are taboos on unacceptable foods. For all the talk of health in America, we strangely eat few organs, the most nutrient-dense part of an animal. Take beef liver, for example. It has the equivalent or more nutrients than what is found in muscle meat or many vegetables, including calcium, potassium, iron, copper, vitamins A, D, and C, niacin, folic acid, and biotin. Organ meats also have higher amounts of essential fatty acids like EPA and DHA. Further proof can be found in the animal kingdom: Predators often start at the center, leaving extremities for scavengers. If you want to talk unsustainable, look no further than the terrible habit of picking a few tender cuts while throwing out the healthiest sections.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have shocked me. Nothing affects our nervous system as much as the food we ingest, which has a system-wide effect on not only how well we move and feel, but the quality of our thoughts.
Alongside the integration of organ meats, grass-fed muscle meat, and shellfish (which have higher amounts of many nutrients than other fish), I toned down carbs. I limit bread to once a week, keep my rice intake down, and focus on a wide range of vegetables.
Meanwhile, I ramped up fats: avocados, coconuts, nuts, eggs, and nut butters. Fortunately our understanding of saturated and polyunsaturated fats has grown, as has the consensus that cholesterol is not the killer we once thought. As a huge fan of chocolate, I do my best at buying 88-92 percent bars. I no longer count calories.
My body experiment is forty-one years in the making. I don’t expect it will stop anytime soon. When not teaching group fitness, I’m writing about health and fitness. The amount of nutritional advice assaulting our social media feeds on a daily basis is staggering. There is no silver bullet for ideal health for any single individual. There’s too much nuance in everyone’s biochemistry and environment for that.
But one thing is certain: We don’t eat food as much as chemistry, and that is a problem. Food companies and the scientists and engineers they employ are concerned with the bottom line, not your health. Fads are their cash cow; misinformation is valuable.
Yet claiming that I eat a mostly plant-based diet with a healthy serving of organ meats and shellfish is not sexy. There is no trend to manufacture, no antioxidant or reverse-aging promises, no Amazonian or Tibetan superfood eaten only by monks and yaks. There’s no romanticizing of purity, as if food is an elixir guaranteeing vibrant health if only you can dial in (and pay for) the perfect diet.
That’s okay, as I feel better than I have in my entire adult life. I’m no longer sick and tired. Leaving behind calorie counting, ethical superiority, and nutrient micromanaging is the healthiest choice I’ve ever made.