Food, health, exercise...goals

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to live in a middle-class household (before we fell into poverty, anyway), with parents who believed in good, home-cooked meals. Eating at Burger King or even at a restaurant or diner was considered more of a rare “treat,” as the normal thing to do was sit at the kitchen table and have a hot meal. Usually, the dishes revolved around meat (beef stew, chicken, meatloaf, spaghetti with meatballs, lamb chops, etc.), but there was always a side of fresh vegetables, and care was always taken to make sure I got three round meals of healthy food a day. Snacks were very limited, and other than soda, I hardly ever had anything sugary.

A lot of people don’t have that luxury today. I meet more and more people who claim to have grown up eating fast food almost constantly, whether it’s ordering take-out every other day or being a frequent visitor to the McDonald’s drive-thru. I can’t imagine how unhealthy that must make a person. It’s unthinkable that a child or teenager can’t have access to nutritious meals, but that’s what happens to many people in that age group, every single day. We lost our relationship with food - in the hunter-gatherer sense - long ago, but the problem has worsened in the past couple of decades, with cooking diminishing in favor of shoveling processed crap down our gullets or tossing something in the microwave because we’re too lazy to prepare something the old-fashioned way (I’m not being hyper-critical - I myself am guilty of this at times).

I understand this problem - even moreso when it stems from being poor. When we lost the house we had in Pennsylvania, we ended up returning to my hometown in Garfield, but with absolutely no money left. This is meant neither to exaggerate nor to complain, but things got so bad that I would often not eat a single speck of food for nearly two weeks at a time. Our cabinets were absolutely empty, and what we did eat was from food pantries or the kindness of neighbors. There were times when I had to eat a packet of salt just to get some energy, or take candy from the bowl in a bank because it was the only thing I would eat for the week. Point is, not only did I not have good meals during this time period, I was not even able to have fast food, unless my friends helped me get it. Suffice it to say my health was not great around this time.

Fast forward to today, and I have a good job that allows me to eat! Things are still tight, of course, but I am able to cook my own food in the way that I choose, and I take full advantage of that ability. I’m not the best cook, but I try my best. Thing is, I know what it’s like to have to budget - hell, I know what it’s like to have no money at all. And yet, I encourage everyone and anyone my age to try their best to opt for cooking fresh food, rather than going to McDonald’s or some other similar place. It is possible to grocery shop on a shoestring budget, and if you can teach yourself to prepare a few meals, that’s to your immense advantage, in terms of health, knowledge, and experience. Believe it or not, cooking is a skill that is still important to our survival. Absolute dependency is never a good thing, and believe me, the system in today’s American society is designed to keep you in need. The way to beat that system is to become as autonomous as possible, and this certainly applies to how and what you eat.
Don’t think that I’m some health freak or that I’ve got things all figured out. I’m giving myself advice just as much as anyone else, because while I do cook on a regular basis, I fall short almost as often. Some evenings, I’ll come home from work feeling so dead-tired that I just can’t do it. I mean, it’s a whole process. Take all the ingredients out of the fridge, oil up the pan, cook the main course plus the sides, so on and so forth. You know, if I want to cook up chicken breasts with onions and parsley, with sides of white rice and broccoli, that’s a lot of work, and involves having two or three pans and pots going on the stove at once. Sometimes I’m just too exhausted to bother, and I just nuke something in the microwave or make a sandwich (and everyone knows how healthy deli meats are, right?).

The other part of this is that you can’t just eat in accordance with the food pyramid and expect everything to be perfect. Exercise is also a big part of it, and that’s also an area in which I struggle. My job is largely sedentary; I basically sit in front of my laptop all day, putting up an online news publication. And afterward? I work on my long-term goal, writing my book, which also involves sitting. Drawing, another hobby, involves sitting as well. The only thing I enjoy doing that involves being active is hiking, and that’s something I only get to do about two or three times a month. To remedy this, I’ve been trying to use the little gym area in my building more often - mainly, the treadmill.

As goals of being healthy and/or losing weight are often difficult ones, I’ve decided to list a few tips that have worked for me personally. I’m not an expert on this by any means, and I’m still trying every day to improve my lifestyle in terms of physical activity. So take the advice that follows with a grain of salt (just a grain, because too much salt is bad for you).

Kick most of your vices . . . but not all of them

There are so many things that are bad for us. Too much red meat, soda, too much coffee, fast food, energy drinks, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. It’s important to kick most bad habits, of course, and as with anything, we should always practice moderation. That being said, I’m of the opinion that getting rid of all your vices may actually hurt you, because you don’t get that dopamine jolt you feel when you do something that you look forward to and enjoy. This causes unneeded stress, and when you’re trying to stick to a diet, quitting all the “bad things” cold turkey can really cripple your morale, not to mention suck some small (but nevertheless important) joy out of your day. Personally, I still like to drink alcohol, since a.) I don’t have a problem with it, and b.) I’m not genetically predisposed to have a problem with it. A little responsible drinking, plus trying to stick to eating better, is a nice balance for me, and I feel that I ultimately benefit from making this compromise with myself.

Don’t vilify meat, but don’t make it your only food, either

Obviously I’m not a vegan, and I could go into why I actually think it’s perfectly natural and important for people to be meat eaters, but that’s another post for another time. (And no, I have nothing against vegans or vegetarians). Again, though, moderation is key, and just because I support being a carnivore, this doesn’t mean that you can get away with eating nothing but red meat and still be healthy. In fact, doing such a thing might very well kill you. Epic Meal Time is a very entertaining YouTube channel, but using it as an eating guide could very well land you in a hospital. 

Now, it’s true that eight times out of ten, meat is a very appropriate main course, but always throw some vegetables in there. Cooking a steak? Try adding some huge portabella mushrooms, and don’t forget some onions. How about topping it off with some parsley? Steamed carrots or broccoli are always good sides, with the former being especially good in stews. And don’t forget that fish and poultry are excellent alternatives to red meat, and are much healthier choices. I would even argue that things like steak and pork should be eaten rarely, with chicken or fish taking precedence. Especially fish. I eat everything from pickled herring to salmon and tilapia; octopus salad or shrimp rings; tuna sandwiches or sardines in tomato sauce. So definitely prioritize seafood, and don’t be afraid to have the occasional meat-free meal, either.

When you can walk, walk

Look, I know a lot of people drive, and those who don’t usually rely on public transportation or Uber. But if you can get somewhere by foot, it can only help you to do so. If you’re going somewhere that’s two to four miles away, and you feel like you need some exercise, you can walk it - especially if you’re in your 20’s and in fair health. Unless the weather outside is hell, there’s no excuse not to hoof it. Lately I’ve started to fall into the trap of Ubering to nearby places, due to the sheer convenience of it, but that’s mostly because it’s been damned cold, windy, and icy out. Now, though, the weather is moderate in Chicago, at least until next week, so you can be sure that I’m going to take advantage of it and try and get more exercise. Whenever you have the chance to do the same, take it.

I hope these suggestions help. Remember that you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I’ve seen people who genuinely enjoyed eating meat become vegan, and change from being happy, easygoing people into those who are constantly nervous and stressed out. I’ve seen guys who like to have a cold beer quit drinking entirely, and stare longingly every time they pass a bar or see someone else having a drink. You do yourself no good if your diet or lifestyle change is making you downright miserable. Remember that mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health. Balance and moderation are essential. I’m still struggling to get it right, but damn it, at least I’m trying.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for sharing! this is a very important topic and, as your life experience shows, difficult!