For some time I have been thinking about writing a summary of my relationship with food throughout my life. It could fit into several of the sections on this site. It has tips, lessons and of course is key to a healthy lifestyle. So here is my story.......
Food and I Russ Leonard 12-17-17
Spectacular Christmas Eve Sunset, 12-24-17, followed by a fresh blanket of snow Christmas morning.
New England is known for it's spectacular Fall foliage. Early morning October walk in West Hartford, CT .
Here I am early September 2014. Already a veteran of 10 weeks of retirement. Hammonassett State Park, CT
Along with the air you breathe and the water you drink, food is a basic requirement to sustain life. Here in the US it is often taken for granted. Food is everywhere. The town where I live has almost 50,000 people. There are 3 major grocery chain stores, one large food warehouse, several medium sized grocery stores, a few mom and pop stores and too many convenience stores to count. Add to that a staggering total of about 200 restaurants. Easy access, relatively cheap food is the American way. According to the USDA, Americans spend about 6.4% of their income on food. That is the smallest percentage of any country on earth. Great for your budget but perhaps bad for your waistline?
The National Institute on Health, estimates that approximately 300,000 Americans die each year from medical issues directly related to obesity. An exact number is difficult to prove but even if that number was exaggerated twofold, it would still eclipse the total deaths from drug overdoses, auto accidents and homicides combined. I am thinking that that number is probably low. That is based on data from the CDC in Atlanta. Contrast those numbers to the staggering number of children that starve to death each year throughout the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million children die annually from lack of food. Even if that number is too high by a factor of three, it is hard to comprehend. Especially hard for someone like myself that lives in an area awash in food. It says a lot about governments, politics and the like. I don't take easy access to food for granted. I am grateful that I have always had enough to eat. I know there are still plenty of people in the US that do not have an adequate supply of quality food but death due to starvation in the US is almost non-existent. So let's begin the story of my relationship with food and how it has changed throughout my life.
Growing up in the early 1960's was much different than today. As I said, I always had enough to eat. There has never been a single day in my life that I went to bed hungry. I ate what was put in front of me by my mother. There were no choices. Show up at dinner and eat, period. My likes or dislikes did not count. Mom was not going to make me something that I liked better. Complaining was not an option either. My father was a WWII vet who was a meat and potatoes kind of guy, literally. Our diet was based on what he liked, what he could afford and my mothers less than stellar cooking skills. Though I must say she was a tremendous baker of sweets. We ate a lot of meat and potatoes. Mashed potatoes 5 nights a week. Roasted potatoes on Sunday and Pasta once a week. Only ziti with lines. I probably never even saw spaghetti until I started the school hot lunch program in 7th grade. I never even tried rice until the 7th grade. We ate canned vegetables. I am surprised that I don't have nightmares about canned yellow wax beans. I hated them but had to eat them. I may have hidden few in my paper napkins. The only fresh vegetable besides potatoes that I remember eating was carrots which were typically cooked around Sunday's roast. I loved those carrots. My grandmother used to tell me that I was going to turn orange because I ate so many. I do not recall turning orange. Fresh tossed salad, never even saw one until the 7th grade and that was only some hard iceberg lettuce with one slice of cucumber and a wedge of tomato. We did have some fresh fruit in the house. Bananas were always available. I am sure that is because my father ate them with his shredded wheat almost every morning. We would pick fresh strawberries in the late spring and apples in the fall. In between we would have an occasional grapefruit or orange. There were only 3 cereals that were ever in our house. The previously mentioned shredded wheat, Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies. Occasionally I would get some canned peaches to go with my cereal, replacing the normal banana. Of course none of these items could be consumed without milk. We drank a lot of milk. Whole milk delivered by the milkman. The importance of the milkman in the 1950's and 1960's can not be overstated. We lived in a development of small ranch houses each with an insulated galvanized box on the front step for the milkman's delivery. Probably close to 100 houses on the adjoining streets. Each week everyone would put the small brown envelope full of cash in the box for the milkman to pickup. Can you imagine that today? Money left on 100 front steps, the same day each week. Obviously no one messed with the milkman. We drank very little soda growing up. I do recall liking an occasional cream soda or birch beer. My stay at home mother baked her pies, cakes and cookies. We rarely had any type of potato chips or the like in the house. Almost all our food was baked or broiled. My mother did not fry food. We did not eat out at restaurants. It was not in the family budget. So looking back at my diet up to the age of 12, I would have to say it was poor at best. Way too much red meat. Way too much saturated fat. Way too much sodium. Way too much sugar. Not enough fiber or fresh fruits and vegetables. I definitely was not hungry but I also did not eat healthy. I do not believe nutrition was even a consideration while growing up.
Things started to change when I was 12 years old. Instead of the lunch pail, I was allowed to take the hot lunch program at school. I think it cost about $1.85 a week when I started in 7th grade. My father had also transferred to second shift and was no longer around for dinner. I seized the opportunity and started to influence my mother and what she prepared for dinner. I also would frequently eat over my friends house down the street. They had 6 boys one year apart with the middle child the same age as me. I was like the 7th son. Their mom was also an excellent cook. Our parents were good friends as well. About this time I also started to cook. My mother thought it was cute. I did not dare to tell her that my motivation was her poor cooking skills. Our diet changed drastically during this time period. It was about variety and taste. Nutrition was still not a consideration. I was eating healthier by accident. I liked salads and fresh vegetables. It was a welcome change from canned yellow wax beans. When I was 13 years old I also started to lift weights. At first I had no concept of the connection between proper eating and strength training. That would start to change a few years later. By the time I was 17, I was preparing a good number of the family meals. Gone were the days of pork chops that required a chainsaw. When I was 18, I prepared the Christmas dinner for the entire family including Grandma. Not only did I prepare it, I bought all the food with my own money. It was a far cry from the normal roast or turkey. I made veal scallopini, lasagna, salads, fresh baked goods etc. The family was shocked. Even Grandma loved it. That started a tradition that lasted 33 more years until my father passed away. To this day I still love to cook. I prepared all the food for my own wedding and even catered my younger sisters wedding some years later.
I was married at 21 years of age. I was mature for my age. I had worked since I was 10 and cooked since I was 12. It is a good thing because my beautiful wife of 40 years must have gone to the same cooking school as my mom. When we first got married money was tight and had a major influence on the type of food that we ate. I had also been lifting weights for a while and was very aware of the relationship between proper diet and muscle development. That does not mean we ate really good. I had cut back on the sweets, had switched to skim milk and ate as many fresh fruits and vegetables that we could afford. We still ate junky foods, like high sodium lunch meats, hot dogs and too much red meat. This continued until I was 27 years old.
My relationship with healthy food has been a slow evolution with one drastic revolution. That happened a few months before my 28th birthday, when my life changed forever.
Our family doctor was more than a doctor. He was a good friend of my fathers. He was considered a genius amongst his peers and was truly way ahead of his time. He was also a tough old German who stitched me up more than once without novacane. He also saved my life when I had a severe asthma attack when I was ten years old, coming to our house at midnight with the syringe of adrenaline that kept me breathing. He may have been the only person in my life that I totally trusted and never questioned. He certainly was the most influential. I tell you these things because the sudden turn of events in my life that occurred just before I was 28 are hard for most to believe. Just before my doctor was about to retire, he requested that I come in for a physical. Seemed like a reasonable request. I probably had not seen him for a couple of years. He did the normal exam things then pulled out a pad and paper and asked me to listen to him and take him seriously. He was well aware of our family history of heart disease and dying young. He knew I was a weightlifter. He wanted to talk to me about my diet and how it would not only help determine how long I would live but the quality of my life as well. He said, "There is no reason to eat certain types of foods. Highly processed, high fat, high sodium foods such as hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, bacon, kielbasa etc., must be avoided. If you are smart you will never eat them again." That was 33 years ago. Since that day I have not had even a taste of any of the items that he mentioned. Not a single hot dog or slice of pepperoni pizza. Hard to imagine but true. Did I miss these items at first? Absolutely! We also talked about lowering my sodium intake, eating enough fiber cutting back on the sugar and everything you could imagine about healthy eating. He took notes and gave them to me as a guideline. He told me that when I lift weights do it with a purpose and end goal. Join a gym but don't listen to the muscle heads. Educate myself. I did both. Within a month of our conversation I stopped lifting at home and joined a gym. I also started reading about health and nutrition. Everything he suggested, I did, period. Changed my life overnight. Most people don't really listen to their doctors advice. When they finally do it is often too late. My sudden change of lifestyle is both a testament to the respect I had for this man and the discipline I have demonstrated throughout my life. When I make up my mind to do something, I do it. It is the same type of discipline that allowed me to save and retire at 57 years old.
After the drastic changes I made based on my doctor's advice, a slow evolution in my eating habits started and continues to this day. After giving up all the good tasty stuff, I decided to look into my sodium intake. This was both a recommendation of my doctor and a natural progression. When you continuously eat salty foods you are not aware of how salty they really are. After giving up the high sodium processed meats, I became more aware of how salty other common items were as well.
These included things like soups, packaged noodles and rice with sauces and even some breads. I slowly started to replace all the prepackaged processed foods with fresh foods. Many frozen foods were replaced as well. We used to eat some frozen corn with a butter sauce. Astronomical levels of sodium. As I transitioned away from high sodium foods, I no longer associated good taste with high sodium. I no longer liked salty foods. This was not a problem at home but eating out became difficult and less enjoyable. My wife and I went on 7 cruises during the next several years and eating healthy was a chore on a cruise ship at that time. Lucky for me, that the waiters were eager to please and wanted to get a big tip. They would bring me items without the sauces or gravies etc. I admit that I like my sweets but almost totally eliminated them from my diet by the time I was 30. I would be polite and have a sliver of my moms pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving but rarely ate any sweets. Of course everyone has a weakness and mine always was and still is ice cream. More on that later. There are many other things that I have not eaten in the last 30 years. Not a single Oreo or chocolate chip cookie, both of which rate fairly high on the pleasure scale. Keep one thing in mind, I do not deprive myself of enjoyable foods. I replaced them with healthy foods that are enjoyable. We will get to that later as well.
From 28 to 41 years old I lifted heavy weights, especially for someone that peaked at about 168 pounds. During those years while I was transitioning to a healthier diet overall, I was also trying to eat in a way that would make me both bigger and stronger. I found that the harder I worked out the more I needed to eat. Sounds very logical but it is not as obvious as you would think, especially when you are used to eating a certain amount of food. It required that I eat more often and also consider the timing of my meals in relationship to my training. By the time I was 41, I was eating 6 meals a day and about 5500 calories. I was only about 9 pounds heavier than I was a dozen years earlier. The big difference is that I was 168 pounds with 8 or 9% body fat compared to 159 pounds with about 16% body fat. That might not sound like a big difference but when you calculate my lean mass it means that I gained 20 pounds of muscle during this time period. I will also add that this was done without any supplements, just hard work and good food.
The wear and tear of my intense lifting became apparent by the time I was 42. I backed off the heavy weights and started to do some intense circuit training. My eating habits were generally the same as far as total calories consumed and 6 meals a day but I started to change some of the specific foods that made up my diet. I started to put more nuts in my diet especially almonds which became one of my favorite foods. I increased my salmon intake to twice a week. I was always very conscious of eating enough carbohydrates prior to and after my workout. After my morning workout I would typically drink a quart of skim milk and have a large whole wheat bagel. I never bought into the protein only myth tossed around by the body builders. All you had to do was witness how weak they were before a competition when they stopped eating all carbs. Most of my serious carbs were consumed before noon during my heavy lifting days. I would still carb load in the evening when I had something "special planned for the next day. Up until my late 40's my eating habits were shaped by both need and some basic reading.
When I turned 50 I was in the best overall condition of my life. I also knew that it was not going to last forever and I needed to do something else. I couldn't workout any harder so I decided that I needed to get smarter. I started taking college level courses on fitness and nutrition. Within a few years I had completed two personal trainer programs, got certificates in both health and nutrition and sports nutrition. I enjoyed it immensely. Not only did I learn a lot but it validated all the good things that I had done by trial and error and the mistakes I made as well. It added the science element. I started to reevaluate some of my eating habits and start to tweak them a little more. I performed calculations on nutrient timing and ran careful experiments on both the timing and quantity of food. I was always careful to never have more than one variable at a time. It was sound science. What did I learn? Some things had almost no impact on anything, others made a world of difference. I found that eating a certain amount of carbs a specific amount of time before my workout was very beneficial. As I age and my body continues to change I will on occasion run a new experiment hoping to find new ways to get the most out of my diet.
Before we get to exactly what I currently eat I would like to share my general philosophy about food. First I love to eat. My relationship with food has been pure joy, except for those wax beans. For many people food is a source of constant battles and stress. My mother was constantly dieting and worrying about her weight. My Grandma ate anything and everything. She was large. My nickname for her was" the moose". As the only grandson out of seven grandchildren, I could get away with it. Obesity is actually common in my family. I choose a different path than most members of the family. Nothing would irritate me more than somebody telling me"how lucky " I was to be thin and in shape. If I depended on luck I would either be 250 lbs. or dead by now. Food is a very complex subject. The emotional impacts of eating often overshadow the basic need for nutrition. We have all heard of "Comfort Foods". Most people do not pay enough attention to what they eat. They certainly do not appreciate how much of a role it plays in the quality of their lives. It is the fuel for your body. Would you put kerosene in a Ferrari? Then why put junk food in your body? You can only perform to the level at which you choose to properly nourish yourself. If you choose to be an overweight couch potato, wings and beer will do the trick. If you choose to be a competitive triathlete, only the highest levels of proper nutrition will do. I choose to be healthy and active. I eat and train for life. Competition is a thing of my past. I only compete with time and the aging process. My long term goal for eating healthy was always quality of life, not quantity. Eating right is something that I can control. I can not change my genetic profile. As you age everything starts to fall apart, diminish or disappear. A proper diet can not stop the inevitable but can certainly delay it. I have worked hard with both my diet and my training for most of my adult life. I was fortunate to accomplish many things that few people will ever do and do it without supplements or drugs. I did these things by eating right and I am proud of it. It does not matter what I did it was how I did it. It was not hard to understand, just hard work. That work was both enjoyable and fulfilling to me. The information is out there. It is a personal choice whether or not to embrace it. That information is often overshadowed by slick marketing, power and greed. Did you know that the Coca Cola company spends about 3 BILLION DOLLARS a year on marketing? Fast food chains spend billions more. They are not known for supplying good nutrition. If they are spending that much money it is for a good reason. We live in a world where we are constantly barraged by ads for items that are known to be bad for your health. It definitely has a significant impact on the overall health of our society. On the other hand, weight loss is a 20 Billion dollar industry. We are all getting pulled in different directions often in pursuit of the almighty dollar. And for some cruel reason, nature has decided that things that taste really good are bad for you.
My Current Diet
That of course is what I eat. I have never been on a "diet". My definition of a diet is a temporary eating disorder that will result in a short term loss of weight. My eating habits continue to evolve. I made some major changes only a few months ago based on the fact that I recovered from an injury and could work out harder again.
As I already stated you know that I never eat hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, regular pork sausage, bacon or any of those highly processed high sodium meats. I do eat meat. I rarely eat marbled red meat. This year I have eaten two steaks at restaurants. That is the most steak I have eaten in years. Most years I will only eat steak once at the most. I always order the smallest steak on the menu. Even if that means ordering the "Princess Cut" in front of a bunch of cowboys in Texas. I eat 96% lean ground beef on a regular basis. Meatballs, meat sauce or meat loaf. It makes for a really dry lousy hamburger so I do not use it for that. It only has 4.5 grams of fat per 4 ounce serving and has 24 grams of protein. I eat both chicken and turkey breast cutlets on a regular basis. They are the two meats that I consume the most. Lean, free of antibiotics and growth hormones is what I look for. I also eat them as snacks with a little marinara sauce. I will occasionally barbecue some chicken drumsticks. No salty barbecue sauce. I barbecue very little. I eat some lean pork chops as well. It is very rare for us to eat any type of roast either pork or beef. The only lunch type meat I ever eat is a small quantity of very low sodium ham. That is about it for meats. I do prepare them many different ways.
Wehave a large salad full of fresh vegetables almost every night. For greens I use kale, baby spinach, red and green leaf, romaine, chard, and sometimes some mustard and collard greens. I do not use iceberg lettuce. I always have celery, tomatoes, green peppers, carrots and cucumber. When good broccoli and red peppers are available at a good price, I add them as well.
I occasionally have some asparagus and brocolini. I will eat almost any vegetable except beets. I don't like them. We do not eat any canned vegetables and only rarely eat any frozen vegetables. I only make mashed potatoes once or twice a year. Had too many as a kid. I still love my carrots, especially in my homemade soups.
Berries, berries and more berries. There are always some berries in the house. Usually strawberries and blueberries. blackberries and raspberries as well. I eat them every day. Blueberries are my favorite. When in season I like white flesh nectarines. I also eat bosc pears. I will on occasion eat some watermelon. I do not eat many bananas. I like black seedless grapes. I will put a few raisins in my oatmeal but only a few due to the high sugar content. I never drink fruit juices, too much sugar. I have a very low opinion of orange juice as part of a healthy diet. Fresh fruit can be expensive. Eating what is in season is very important for the food budget.
I eat oatmeal everyday. Quick cooking rolled oats with a large handful of walnuts. I never eat the prepackaged oatmeal that is loaded with sugar. The only cereal I eat is Shredded wheat. The only cereal I know of without any added salt or sugar. I do not eat white bread products. I eat a whole wheat potato bread. I only eat breads that have whole wheat flour as the first ingredient on the label. If it says enriched wheat flour I avoid it. The bread I eat is high in protein and high in fiber. I am very careful about sodium levels in breads. I do eat bagels. Actually only one type of whole wheat bagel that has 37 grams of net carbs and a whopping 11 grams of protein. Most bagels are junk food. I eat very little pasta or rice. When I do it is probably only a quarter of a serving.
Unfortunately I eat much less fish than I used to. The reason is simple. Good wild caught fish is no longer available at a reasonable price. I refuse to eat farm raised salmon. I also will not pay $20-$25 per pound for fish. I used to like wild caught Chilean sea bass. At $35 per pound they can keep it. I keep my eye out for good fish at a reasonable price. I do eat one can of low salt tuna a week.
I eat about 18-20 eggs per week but only 3 yolks. There is a lot of contradictory information on eggs. They are a good source of protein and I am playing it safe with the yolks. I hate it when the so called experts disagree.
I drink mostly water. I have never had a cup of coffee in my life and sometimes will have some lemon zinger tea with some local honey. On weekends I drink some Bourbon. Yes I do have some vices. I have one drink per week of a bourbon or Tennessee whisky mixed with 6 ounces of regular or diet soda. I know the soda is junk. I do not worry about splitting one can a week with my wife. I only use one ounce of bourbon. I have not had a beer or glass of wine since 1974. I don't like it
I rarely eat desserts. I eat one small square of 85% dark chocolate every day. It is 1/4 of a serving. I started about a year ago just because I wanted to. It is the only candy that I have eaten in the last 40 years! I do like strawberry ice cream with fresh strawberries on top. I usually eat that in the summer only.
That brings me to Dairy. I gave up all dairy a few years ago with the exception of a little ice cream. It started to bother my stomach. I drank skim milk for years then suddenly could not. I gave up Greek yogurt as well. I only used to eat the plain yogurt with very little sugar. When my wife and I were in Maine recently we split a piece of cheesecake topped with wild Maine blueberries. The first piece of cheesecake that I had in at least 10 years. I generally snack on almonds, fruit and a little natural peanut butter on wheat crackers.
The bottom line
My diet is better than most but not perfect. I have invested a lot of time in finding a diet that suits the type of life I want to live. I will tweak it as required as I age. I truly enjoy what I eat. I do not feel that I am sacrificing any quality of life or enjoyment by avoiding certain foods. In fact, I am doing just the opposite. I currently weigh 158 pounds have a 32 inch waist and have 12% body fat. I eat 3500 calories a day and some form of exercise consumes on average, 3-4 hours of my day. Not too bad for a 60 year old.
Kent Falls State Park, Kent, CT 3-30-17
My latest thoughts on retirement and how we are doing, are frequently added to the end of the "Leaving the Workplace" section
What to expect from this website
Tips on: Preparing for Retirement, Simple Ways to Save Money, Preparing and Eating Healthy Foods, Making Logical Choices, Developing Good Habits, Proper Exercise for your Age, Avoiding Common Pitfalls, Enjoying your Hobbies, Traveling Smart, and many more topics of interest.
What not to expect, Investment advice
I hope that you will find the information within this site helpful. I am very aware that our lifestyle differs greatly from the norm. With thoughtful spending, diligent saving and a dedication to healthy living we have accomplished much more than we could ever have imagined when we first met in 1977.
The Milky Way from the top of Cadillac Mountain Acadia NP, Maine 9-23-17