Simplicity Is Beautiful
How I ate chocolate croissants, pizza and pasta for an entire month without gaining a pound.
I had a client, Linda, back in my gym ownership days who suffered from chronic pain in her knee. She was a stud athlete in her younger days, achieving All-American status in track and field in 1974 and twenty-six years later, she was still setting records. Nine Master’s sprint and hurdle records in the Inland Northwest which earned her Master Athlete of the Year in 2000. When I met her she was in her sixties, and could still run circles around most of the twenty-somethings in my CrossFit classes. Given her lengthy athletic career, her knee pain was to be expected. Being an athlete causes excessive wear and tear on your body and she’d been overusing her body for forty-five years. But I’ve never been one to use age as an excuse and I’ve never bought into the notion that being old inevitably means being in pain. So I helped her investigate exactly what was causing her knee to hurt by asking the one thing no doctor would ever think to ask, “tell me what you eat and drink, from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed.” We didn’t have to go beyond breakfast to solve the mystery - Starbucks!
As much as I’d like to pin the blame on Starbucks, it wasn’t their fault. The only thing they’re guilty of is pretending that what they serve is coffee. Her pain wasn’t caused by where she was stopping for coffee, it was what she was drinking while there- soy lattes. “But isn’t soy milk better for you than real milk?”
These sorts of questions define my fifteen plus years in the health and fitness industry. “Don’t eggs, butter and red meat lead to heart disease?” “Shouldn’t I drink soy milk or almond milk because it’s lower in fat?” “My doctor told me to eat oatmeal for breakfast because it lowers cholesterol, is that true?” “If I use gluten-free tortillas, with 3 grams of net carbs I’m technically on a keto diet, right?” It was a constant battle, educating people on the amount of lies perpetuated either intentionally or through ignorance in the diet industry. I spent over a decade trying to open eyes to realities like: the U.S. government and food manufacturers aren’t a reliable source of nutritional advice, that doctors receive at most three hours of training in nutrition during medical school and the diet and supplement industries are in the business of making things complicated because nobody makes money if we keep things simple. Which is why I eventually gave up the battle - I couldn’t make money keeping things simple either. Simple means doing the real work. Doing things like preparing food, not being a glutton, being more active and finding meaning in your life beyond looking good on your next family trip to the beach. Not many people want to do that. It’s much easier to say you don’t know how to be healthy and spend your time listening to audiobooks about the ketogenic diet and scrolling the Instagram feeds of fitness pros whom you will never look like. “I wonder what they do to look like that? It must be complicated.” Lack of money wasn’t really my catalyst for leaving the fitness industry (although people who tell the truth in fitness don’t make a lot of money,) I stepped away to broaden my scope. The truth is, I help people create beautiful lives, and nutrition and exercise have always been a small piece of that puzzle.
When I boarded the plane to London to kick off my month in Europe, I was dreading the relentless ache in my hip that would greet me upon arrival. Like Linda, I too was an athlete (although not near her caliber) and I too have a variety of overuse injuries. Injuries to my shoulder due to muscle-ups, my knees due to box jumps, my hips because of heavy squatting and my liver, thanks to excessive happy houring. If I sit too long, my right hip feels as if someone is cranking down on the long metal screw they’ve inserted into it, in an attempt to connect the head of my femur to my pelvis. “Stop! Those two parts aren’t supposed to be connected.” For the most part, in my daily life, I am able to keep myself pain free. If I avoid sitting at my desk for too long and steer clear of packaged foods of all kinds - breads, pastas, tortillas, and anything else living along the periphery of the grocery store, I am able to go about life as if I didn’t spend decades abusing my body. But put me on a nine hour flight across the Atlantic (even in First Class with a reclining bed and a 5 course menu) and I’m wrecked.
So how is it I spent the first two weeks of August eating my way through the streets of Florence, pain-free, fitting nicely into my overpriced linen pants? Scandalously pairing a cornetto al cioccolato with my cappuccino at 8am, outside my fasting window, down the ancient stone streets, on my way to deliver my daughter to her music program. Taking short breaks from consuming the works of Botticelli, Brunelleschi, and Giambologna only to consume a heaping dish of tagliatelle alla crema e’ tartufo. Venturing out at night, stepping far outside my window of digestion to devour a pizza at 8pm, made by a husband in the back of the restaurant, happily sliding disks of love topped with tomato sauce and DOP mozzarella into a wood burning oven, proudly delivered to my table by his tireless wife. If I attempted to eat this way at home, I would be bedridden and weighing 200 lbs. So what gives? Why can Italians eat this way and have far less chronic disease and far less obesity than us in America? How can I consume these foods and not return home squeezing into sweat pants and feeling as if I have rheumatoid arthritis? The answer is not simple but it brings us to the need for simplicity.
The most inclusive answer as to why a diet rich in wheat products, animal fats, caffeine and sugar is tolerable in Europe but not in the United States is to say it’s the quality of the ingredients. While this is true to some extent, it doesn’t tell the whole story. 100% certified Italian wheat is undoubtedly grown, harvested and prepared in a healthier fashion, but 60% of flour used in Italy is imported from places that grow GMO wheat and spray glyphosate as liberally as I used AquaNet in the 80’s. Who cares about cancer, we have to make this shit resilient! In Italy however, this imported flour would only make its way into larger, chain style restaurants, not in Alfredo and Natascia’s kitchen at l’Pizzachiere, which is why I didn’t cross its path during my travels. Unlike in the U.S., Italy and many other EU nations have banned the use of chemicals such as glyphosate on food crops. But rather than fixing the poor quality, pesticide ridden wheat and other crops in this country, we conjure up someone to blame. That someone is gluten. By pointing the finger at the sticky, benign little protein, instead of at giant food lobbyists and government subsidies where it belongs, we garner a way to complicate nutrition and make billions of dollars (The global gluten-free food market was $6.45B in 2022 and has an expected compound annual growth rate, CAGR, of 9.2% over the next eight years.) More irritable bowel syndrome and more celiac disease means more visits to the doctor, another prescription drug, or ten and a few more diets to follow. Cha-Ching!!!
The steady decline in food quality in the U.S. is a long yet interesting story. Industrialized farming became the predominate way of farming because of good intentions. A big-hearted government official had the idea of feeding the world, but instead of spreading prosperity and health, we spread chronic disease. During the hard times of WWII, in response to the shortage of meat products, we experimented growing crops not native to this land, like soy beans (if China can do it, why can’t we?) We were so successful in our mission that we had to figure out what to do with the exorbitant spoils of our labor. When we run out of animals to feed it to, we’ll turn it into oil! It’s toxic but that’s besides the point. If we could grow soybeans like this, why couldn’t we grow wheat and corn for gluttony too? We could and we have, but in order to grow crops at this capacity, we needed to remove animals from the land. So we rounded up all the cows, put them behind fences, fed them the crops we were growing that we didn’t need in the first place and made them sick. Lucky for them, there is a flourishing pharmaceutical industry to heal what ails them. This method of agriculture proved to be so lucrative that we decided it was time to round up all the pigs and chickens and make them sick too. (Chickens were actually the first animals to be farmed en masse starting in the 1930s but not comparable to factory farming today) No need to worry about the inhumanity, pigs are only as intelligent as your dog or your two year old and chickens don’t mind at all living in shit-laden, tiny cages for 48 days, until they make it to your dinner table.
After we locked up all the animals and made them sick, we told people not to eat these animals or any of their products anymore. “The incredible edible egg” was downgraded to the sphere of high cholesterol and post mRNA, it was accused of causing blood clots. “Got Milk” and the babelicious milk models of the 70’s were tossed aside for milky white liquids extracted from nuts. (Never mind the fact that almond trees are one of the most highly sprayed groves and bee farmers lose nearly half their hives when they ship them out to pollinate these poisonous profit covering millions of acres across the great state of California) The more crops we grew, the more bad press animals got. We soon realized the soil in which we were growing our crops, from which animals were now banned, was devoid of all nutrients. Lucky again, because we just happen to have a fertilizer industry to take care of that! We used synthetic fertilizers to replace what we intentionally removed and created more sources of illness and hence more customers for the health industry.
Fast forward to today, we grow 4000 calories of food per person per day and those calories have to go somewhere. So where do they go? Simple - we stuff them into the ingredient laundry list on the back of packaged foods where most people will know none the better; then into the body, then into your pants, eventually stuffing you into a healthcare system where you will be stuffed full of prescription drugs. A beautifully constructed system really, if your interest is solely on making money and profiting from the sick. Not such a great system for those looking to live a beautiful life.
With an unnatural, unsustainable food system in place, we have endless opportunities to complicate nutrition. If food is making you sick, you better get busy figuring out all the things you shouldn’t eat. Usher in continual glucose monitors, intolerance testing, dogmatic diets, supplements, powdered proteins, liquid energy, personal trainers with heads of meat and when none of that works, cosmetic surgery to remove the excess crops you’ve been stuffing into your pants and implant all you want but cannot achieve on your own.
Of course all of this takes time and energy so you don’t have any left to move your body. Better get a device to track your steps and an app to help you obsess over it. The stress of it all is surely enough to disrupt your sleep but once again, the pharmaceutical companies are there to catch you when you fall.
What a wonderfully, complicated, profitable web we have woven. How in the world do we get out of it?