Real Food

Protein shakes have been a dietary staple of mine for much of my life.

I loathe MRE’s; the “Meals Ready to Eat” given to military personnel in the field consisting of roughly a thousand calories of mostly flour, soybean oil and corn syrup. On deployments I would often live exclusively on meal replacement shakes, flax meal, greens powder and dried fruit and almond butter mailed periodically by my family rather than eat MRE’s.

It’s safe to say that I’ve had at least one protein shake a day for the last decade, and often half of my meals in a given day were in liquid form, largely for the sake of convenience.

I know that many potentially allergenic foods, including protein powder, should be cycled to prevent the development of intolerance. Dr. John Berardi recommends cycling through different brands of protein powder every month or so for this reason.

Somehow, following the stereotypical pattern of ignoring one’s own advice, I often went years without switching out brands. In fact, I relied primarily on the same brand for at least eight years.

I had a moment of clarity about four months ago and realized that this was an unhealthy habit and a dependency that I needed to cut away. I finished my last jug of meal replacement powder in a breakfast shake and decided to wait at least a month before ordering any more. I still haven’t bothered.

Making the switch from shakes to entirely whole foods was inconvenient at first, particularly around the peri-workout window. What do people do without magic kool aid during their workouts? And do you have any idea how long it seems to take to cook breakfast when work starts at 5:30 a.m.?

It didn’t take long to develop the little rituals and systems. I often cook food in large batches and breakfast in a hurry is often leftovers tossed in a bowl and microwaved or eaten cold.

On the days that I don’t have to get up early though, I have grown to love my breakfast routine. I keep a huge salad bowl covered in my fridge full of pre-washed and cut up baby spinach, red kale and cilantro. I fry four cage-free eggs in coconut oil (a delicious idea I learned from Jen Sinkler), drop those on a plate and then fry two strips of bacon (nitrate-free) in the same pan and then drop in a little more coconut oil and sauté a panful of the mixed greens.

Altogether this takes me about fifteen minutes and I have one pan to clean. While everything is cooking I sip coffee, drink about a half liter of water and make a small smoothie in a magic bullet blender out of sugar-free almond milk, ice and almond butter. I slice up an avocado, drop that on top of the everything and munch a few extra brazil nuts for good measure.

I found a farmer’s market in Denver (Sunflower Market is fantastic for anyone who lives near one) and shop there once or twice per week, following a list that I write out in advance. I enjoy wandering the aisles and ticking off all of the wonderfully healthy things that I’ll be eating over the next week. Cabbage, kale, broccoli, carrots, avocados, peppers, cashews, brazil nuts, almond butter, walnuts, grass-fed beef, bison, tomatoes, onions, berries, spaghetti squash, spinach… I remember coming home from deployments and wandering grocery stores for hours marveling at the abundance of food to be had on a whim. I still get that feeling.

The rest of my meals follow a similar theme and I tend to cook in large batches and prep veggies in advance on two days of the week. Cooking doesn’t take all that long but I’ve come to genuinely enjoy the process anyway.

Here’s the big catch, and the reason I’ll probably never go back to regular use of protein powder: I feel incredible. I sleep better, have more energy, a better mood and just generally feel good.

I take the usual supplements; fish oil, cod liver oil, D3, K2, and occasional curcumin and have worked out a few little strategies for the peri-workout window. 90 minutes pre-workout I’ll have a meal with an entire can of rinsed lentils or black beans and twenty minutes out I’ll eat more protein with some fruit; often a kiwi and berries blended into almond milk. I feel fine during workouts and my muscle mass, bodyfat levels and bodyweight have stayed roughly the same as they were in my eat-the-Biotest-warehouse for-breakfast days. If anything, those measures have improved.

Protein shakes can be a great tool for saving time and working towards body composition and health goals. But, at some point they can also become a crutch and a limiting factor. If you’ve developed a routine depending on protein shakes at some point in your day, try eliminating them for a month and see what happens. Living solely on healthy whole food takes a little more effort and strategy, but you’ll probably find it worthwhile. Even if it doesn’t become a lifelong habit, it can be a good thing to cycle through periodically.

Try cutting out artificial food for a month and let me know what happens. Do you already do this? What has your experience with it been? Got any favorite recipes or cooking strategies?

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