I Gave Up Processed Food For a Month, Here's What Happened
Sometime over the summer, I became increasingly annoyed at my own lack of energy. I couldn't wake up on time, tossed and turned all night, and just felt terrible. Over dinner one evening, amongst friends and loved ones, I made a half-hearted announcement: I'm going on a diet! Completely unaware, at that point, that this lifestyle change might be the most environmentally conscious action I had taken all year.
My diet was already pretty restrictive, so I wasn't anxious to narrow the field of foods I could eat, yet again. But I felt empowered by the three loved ones who decided to make a go of it, too. For thirty days we attempted an interpretation of clean eating: giving up soy, corn, sugar of any kind, grains, alcohol, and preservatives & additives. Basically, all packaged and processed foods waved goodbye to me in slow motion. Gone were the protein bars that I leaned on, sugary coffee drinks, vegan meat substitutes, and gluten-free cupcakes.
To prime you on my diet before this whole experience, I will say that I had a terrible sweet tooth. I was absolutely faithful to an 'end every meal with something sweet' kind of mentality. The foods I love already go through three filters - wheat-free, palm-oil free, and vegan - so I felt good that what remained wouldn't be too egregious under this new regime. I was quickly disappointed to find that most of my favorite foods - like plain black beans - contained soybean oil and even things labeled as 'soy-free' contained cane sugar or artificial sweetener. I even had to be wary of sautéed vegetables at restaurants, in case they used soy or corn oil in the kitchen. This level of scrutiny frankly made going palm-oil free look like a cake walk.
None of us set out to eliminate packaged food, per say; that was just kind of a happy side effect. Even with a relatively eco-conscious diet, I found that my little apartment had been producing a fair amount of packaging waste. Protein bar wrappers, cans for beans and espresso drinks, cartons of soy milk, jars of almond butter, etc. While most of it was recyclable or biodegradable, I was still responsible for its consumption. Stripping down my diet forced me to take an even closer look at what was leaving my home, instead of simply what was entering it. I had never really done an 'audit' of our food-related trash and recyclables but now I'm anxious to try and continue this practice.
Fair warning, once processed food and refined sugar starts to leave your system, it's a roller coaster. I felt amazing for the first four days. Why hadn't I done this sooner? This is living! The two weeks after that, however, were either completely hit or miss, or total hell. Sometimes I would have an all-day headache or feel on edge. Sometimes I felt really capable, like I could run a 5k at any time. I took this period of bizarre tumult to take mental inventory of food that routinely appeared in my diet and found that every meal I ate had sugar of some kind. I had unknowingly primed my palate to recognize sweet food as the best kind of food.
Sugarcane and soybean* are two of the most devastating commercial agriculture crops in the world, the latter accounting for 40% of deforestation worldwide. I would avoid these ingredients in most of what I ate but there were excuses. Being gluten-free and vegan is very tedious, not impossible of course, but frustrating. Finding a gluten-free and palm-oil free vegan meat substitute was like making a deal with the devil, it almost always involved soy protein. Cutting processed foods altogether forced me cut the excuses, too. The solution had to be learning how to make my own wheat-free, soy-free, palm-oil free meats. I was already making my own nut milk and vegan butter, so what was the hold up?
Well, I think half of the reason why we buy packaged food is out of convenience and the other half is because someone can do it better than us. We are, in part, paying for a great recipe or method (like commercial dehydration) that we feel we can't replicate at home, or in time. Making every single component of your diet forces you to take a good hard look at your skills in the kitchen. I'm pretty confident in myself as a cook but a lot of what I wanted to eat took finesse that I didn't necessarily have, which left me grumpy at the dinner table on more than one occasion. I did fall back in love with herbs, whole foods, and the practice of layering of flavors though. Ultimately, I forged a better relationship with the ceremony of meal crafting and am better for it.
I have to say that without a support group, I easily would have failed. Setting up a text message group and sending each other GIFs and words of encouragement was deeply necessary. Having weekly dinners and get togethers was a simple but powerful act of solidarity that I really appreciated. I wasn't the only strange eater at a party, I was one of four. If you're considering a lifestyle change at all, I would absolutely recommend roping in your partner or at least one friend - it makes a world of difference.
What's the takeaway? I identified some pretty crummy food habits and reinforced something I already knew: I was still not done exploring the environmental impact of my food. I lost ten pounds, started waking up earlier and sleeping the whole night through. My skin cleared up and my blood sugar stabilized. Afterwards, I reintroduced rice and nut flour back into my diet, primarily because being vegan without them, to me, is really very dull.
I can't say that I'll never eat another piece of packaged or processed food again. I mean, canned espresso is really, really good to me. But I also have to make amends with the fact that this is probably the best way of eating for myself, my health, and the world around me. Oh! And it also tastes great, so why rock the boat? ▲
* Largely due to animal agriculture