When I was growing up, nutrition was rarely a consideration.
My friends and I once had a Hot ‘n Spicy McChicken eating contest during the 60 minute break we were given between 2nd and 3rd period in high school. The details are foggy, but I’m pretty sure we got into “counting on two hands” territory before we ran out of either space or money. At 17, I didn’t relate food to anything… I wasn’t concerned about how something made me feel because I felt awesome all the time. I could eat an entire loaf of bread as a pre-ice cream snack for breakfast and still feel awake enough to learn about Euclidean Geometry at 9AM. “Lactose intolerance” was an excuse my best friend came up with for chronic flatulence and “gluten-free” was just the combination of a fake word and my favorite word.
Over the past few years however, I’ve noticed a much more direct relationship between what I eat and how I feel. I’m approaching 30 this year and I can’t make it half way through a cheeseburger before taking a nap. If I go too long without feeding, I turn into a cranky old lady who doesn’t understand what texting is and fast food makes my stomach feel like dubstep. Seventeen year old me would probably laugh between handfuls of jelly beans if he knew a cup of cottage cheese is how I relax after work.
I’ve also been given a fun opportunity to observe the relationship between lifestyle and indulgence: I spend anywhere from 8-12 hours a day within arm’s reach of 25 pound buckets of buttercream, milk chocolate brick slabs, and Scarface end-scene-ready piles of flour and powdered sugar. I own a family bakery and cake shop that’s been in business since 1959.
In addition to working in the dessert industry, I’m also fiercely interested in health and fitness. I’ve spent a large chunk of time trying to understand how my job relates to health since most of what we create at our shop is considered classically “bad for you.” Lots of calories, lots of fat, and lots of sugar. While I wouldn’t suggest replacing your lunch with a slice of cake, I do believe that dessert plays an important role in our culture/diet and that my experience at the bakery has afforded me a unique perspective on nutrition.
For a bit of full disclosure, I’m just a normal, everyday, super brilliant handsome international spy. I don’t have a degree in nutrition, nor am I doctor, food expert, or wizard. Most of my data is anecdotal or based on studies I’ve only just made up. I don’t plan on delving into the science of anything, just some good honest observations from someone who loves cake and working out.
Years in a family business dedicated to creating delicious pastries and desserts has provided some uncommon context for my outlook on health and nutrition, and I’d love the opportunity to share some quick observations I’ve come across while serving eclairs and butter cookies. I’m not laying down some incredible insight on zone blocks or macro-nutrient ratios, just some honest notes on what might be getting in the way of a healthier America.
1. Beware the clever disguise.
Working with confections has given me the ineffectual superpower of recognizing the difference between food, indulgence, and indulgence disguised as food. The nice thing about cake is that it’s very clearly not a cuisine associated with healthy eating. Many other foods don’t give us quite the same courtesy.
Growing up, I can’t count the number of times I was exposed to the phrase, “Part of this nutritious breakfast.” There is an entire aisle dedicated to sugar and processed grains pretending to be good starts to your day. “Hot Fudge Sundae Pop Tarts” is an actual thing that exists and it’s found in the breakfast aisle. Right next to sugary cereals that are fortified with a variety of vitamins and minerals to hide the fact that they’re basically tiny cookies and milk.
The tricky bit I want to point out here is not how bad grains are for you, but how careful we have to be with clever disguises. I grew up in a world of “non-fat” and “light.” It was a world where companies marketed products with clever buzz words to denote their healthiness without providing any real value. It was the same world a lopsided pyramid encouraged us to eat more servings of rice and pasta than meat and vegetables combined.
The Food Industry has not moved away from this practice. Smart players recognize what the populace perceives as healthy and follow the path as far as they can. It’s easy to avoid with phrases like “Hot Fudge Sundae,” but not so much as the game gets more sophisticated. At a recent baking convention, I made a habit of noticing the current and upcoming expressions wordsmiths are using as synonyms for healthy: Gluten-Free, Whole Grain, Vegan, Paleo, Sprouted, Natural, Organic, and Sustainable among others.
It’s not that “gluten-free” is always a deceitful marketing tactic, but it exists independently of “healthy.” Something can be both healthy and gluten-free just as easily as something can be gluten-free and terrible for you. There seems to be a large emphasis on increasing the perception of health rather than making a product actually better for you.
For example, I was raised favoring juice and shunning soda. Coca Cola is currently 140 calories per 12oz while the same volume of Welch’s Grape Juice has 210 calories, and they’re both just sugar-water sans nutrients. One is “100% All Natural Fruit Juice” while the other is whatever Coca Cola is (unicorn tears?). Neither is particularly good for you.
Be wary of this month’s health related buzzword when making purchase decisions and have a good understanding of what it is you’re looking for in food. Don’t be drawn in by clever marketing gimmicks, a gluten-free chocolate torte has the same amount of sugar and excess calories as a traditional chocolate cake and Oreos are essentially vegan (true story). It’s easy to be moderate with dessert when it’s being very upfront about not being a protein bar or something. Not so much when it’s hiding behind a forcefield of Sustainably Sprouted Ancient Whole Grains.
2. Broccoli is not spelled b-a-c-o-n.
Occasionally, my wife and I will go out on a date night to sit in awkward Facebook lit silence. When the time comes to select our dessert, very little thought is given to anything that doesn’t completely fulfill all of our sweet related desires. That is to say, I would never select whatever boring fresh fruit option is available over the ever-loving deliciousness of a freshly torched creme brûlée. I know a sliced pear is significantly more healthy than sugar topped cream, but dessert when eating out is a time to mollycoddle my taste buds, not my fitness. During times of indulgence we target what we enjoy most and ignore the rest.
The very same can happen when we jump into a new dietary lifestyle. Often we tend to stick to the aspects of the diet we enjoy most and ignore the parts that may help us create success. Discussions on “paleo” often seem to regress to recipes for bacon wrapped something somethings and coconut brownies. Eating bacon wrapped steak fried in coconut oil every meal is probably the most awesome and least creative fantasy I can come up with, but it’s not really conducive to a long-term plan for healthy living.
We’re all adults here… Broccoli kind of sucks. Vegetables as a whole aren’t nearly as appetizing as platters of coconut shrimp. But it takes work to be healthy in the overwhelming paradox of choice that is America, even when you get rid of all the processed foods. Avoid taking the dessert approach of, “whatever I like most” when so many options within the boundaries of your diet are available that totally defeat the purpose of your new lifestyle. “Paleo” isn’t a section of the menu where everything is exceptionally healthy, good decisions still need to be made. So make good decisions.
3. Third verse same as the first…
I think people are somewhat distrustful of a fit-ish guy that works at a bakery. I’m often asked how I manage to stay thin while working around cookies and cake. It seems that the assumption is I must not eat any of it or that I’ve somehow grown tired of it. The truth is I absolutely love the stuff. And I eat it, probably more often than I should.
So how do I stay fit? This might be getting redundant, but I try to make a point of understanding the difference between eating for pleasure and eating for fuel. If you happen to be one of those lucky folks that loves raw garden vegetables for every meal, this is probably something you don’t need to worry about. And if you happen to be one of those equally lucky folks that can eat Baked Alaska during a workout and still crush personal records, then this is still equally worthless.
I once had a customer complain that a coffee cake she had eaten made her stomach upset. I was absolutely concerned even though we’ve never had an instance of food poisoning, so I started asking some questions to understand a bit more about the situation. She said she was positive that it was the coffee cake because it was the only thing she had eaten all day. The only thing. All day.
I think coffee cake is a magnificent breakfast dessert, but it doesn’t make for proper nourishment as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Copious amounts of sugar, fat, and flour is not going to treat your body the way some grilled chicken and vegetables will. If I go without eating for six hours and eat a couple of cookies to keep me moving, it doesn’t take long for me to feel pretty un-glorious. Paying attention to the quality of what we’re putting in our body isn’t something we should immediately ignore after we move out of mom and dad’s.
Though finding a gentle balance between eating the things we need and eating the things we love is absolutely paramount. It’s not that strict meal plans don’t function, only that as a long-term solution there really needs to be the inclusion of treats and rewards, but avoid rewarding yourself for making it two hours without eating. Indulgence is awesome. Life’s too short to cut it out, but life can be a lot shorter if dessert’s all you eat.
Made it this far?
Diet is a funky thing to discuss in any setting, I’m hesitant to write about something so polarizing when I’m admittedly a bit ignorant on the science. Like religion and politics (and CrossFit apparently), folks can get pretty passionate about what they believe when it comes to nutrition and what’s worked for them.
The real degree of a diet’s merits should be measured by its effectiveness related to your goals. I know a guy at my gym whose single purpose in life is to throw up the most massive numbers possible on his clean and jerk. His diet is going to look starkly different relative to the woman who’s trying to drop 30-40 pounds in the next 8-12 months.
Understanding your objectives when scrutinizing your nutrition should really be step one. Someone who makes a decision to be Vegan based on moral grounds is going to have a lot harder of a time with a Paleo diet than someone who has no issues getting down with some bacon. If fitness and how I feel simply isn’t a concern, brownies and beer may be exactly what I’m looking for.
There is no “one size fits all” diet plan that addresses everyone’s needs and objectives a to z. I’m an average guy that does CrossFit to look more majestic during the summer and win three-legged races at corporate picnics (I choose my partners carefully). I’m not trying to optimize my health to become a professional athlete or games competitor and I’m also trying to limit my dietary sacrifices to those that are convenient. I’d like to get healthier and more fit but not at the expense of my ability to see bright colors and hear music.
That said, Glassman’s rundown is probably the most concise, balanced, and common sense approach to nutrition I’ve ever come across: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
If you can stick to that prescription the majority of the time, I think you’ll find at the very least a good starting point. Just don’t forget a cookie or two when the time is right.