I was having dinner last night next to a fitness trainer who literally takes two years (yes, two years) to transition his clients into healthy living.
This might sound extreme, but he’s actually onto something.
This guy knew that if he tried to get his clients to do things like exercise an hour day, start sleeping 8 hours a night, begin using natural house cleaning chemicals, and quit junk food “cold turkey”, that they’d probably be overwhelmed and just quit.
So let’s address that last part – quitting junk food. How exactly should you stop eating junk food, without experiencing extremely intense cravings that can have you derailed from your diet within a matter of hours or days?
Let’s begin by looking at an example of what it looks like to be at the extreme opposite of eating junk food, which I’ll admit would probably define how I’m now eating at this point in the progression of my healthy life. As I write this article, I am eating a salad of tomatoes, olive oil, mint picked fresh from the garden, raw walnuts, sliced peppers, and chunked organic mango cubes.
Indeed, my diet is now comprised of hippie-like foods such as heirloom tomatoes, organic carrots with dirt still coming off them from my backyard, local eggs from the farmer down the street, wild caught fish from the nearby lake, sorted quinoa, and homemade sourdough bread for a local ancient wheat. And I will readily admit that if you had approached me with these kind of dietary phrases and foods ten years ago, I would have given you an extremely bewildered look and meandered over to my cupboard to make myself one of my “healthy” whole wheat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crunchy Jiffy and all.
See, I grew up eating hamburgers, salads made of iceberg lettuce and drowned in Ranch dressing, take-n-bake pizzas and chicken wings. On 39-cent hamburger day, I’d pull into McDonald’s and order around a dozen, then just throw them in the fridge for the week to let them hang around in those greasy paper bags.
When I was a collegiate tennis player, I progressed to a Super Size meal with an extra large soda every day before I would drive to tennis practice (no wonder I had digestive distress that baffled me).
But over the past decade, I’ve made a long and gradual progression from eating McDonald’s cheap hamburgers to eating hamburgers made from local grass-fed beef on homemade sourdough buns and dressed with organic kale, homemade sauerkraut, and homemade mayonnaise made from free-range egg yolks and extra virgin olive oil.
At first glance, this may seem like an enormous, quantum leap in eating styles, but it all began with some very simple changes, which is exactly how to stop eating junk food.
You don’t simply put down the gas station trail mix and Top Ramen soup and purchase some kind of sustainable farm that you get all your food from, learn to hunt for every piece of meat that you get, or begin to go out and forage all your own wild food.
Instead, you gradually move in the direction of nourishing your body with some of the healthiest foods on the face of the planet, and you begin this entire process by making very, very small changes–also known as building “mini-habits.”
For example, if you’re starting with the Standard American Diet (AKA the “SAD” diet), you begin to first move towards eating more unprocessed foods that are around the perimeter of the grocery store and that don’t always come with a label or out of a package.
Then, once you’re eating real, unpackaged food (also called by Michael Pollan “edible-like foodstuffs), you begin to move to organic versions of the real foods, and then once you’re eating the organic versions , you move to local organic versions, and once you’re eating local organic versions, you move into growing a little bit of your own local organic food from your own backyard or potting plant.
So let’s use the mighty standard of a typical American diet – the hamburger – as an example of how to stop eating junk food.
McDonald’s Bun —> whole wheat bun from grocery store —> sprouted bun from frozen section of grocery store —> no bun and organic lettuce or kale instead —> making your own bread and using that for a bun
McDonald’s Tomato —> tomato from grocery store —> organic tomato —> tomato from a local farmer’s market —> growing your own tomato
McDonald’s Mayonnaise —> olive oil mayonnaise from grocery store —> no mayonnaise and maybe some yogurt instead —> making your own mayonnaise with olive oil
McDonald’s Meat —> meat from the grocery store —> grass-fed meat from the grocery store —> grass-fed organic meat from a local farmer —> joining a CSA and buying a half or quarter cow that you keep in your freezer —> buying a pet cow and a shotgun (OK, OK – I’ll admit that’s owning and slaughtering Bessie the Cow is not something I’ve personally done)
McDonald’s Pickle —> grocery store pickles —> organic grocery store pickles —> pickles from the farmer’s market —> growing your own cucumbers and learning how to pickle with some glass jars
McDonald’s Soda —> fancy organic soda from the grocery store —> sparkling water with essential oils added in —> making your own kombucha (a fermented power beverage that is the true reason the Russians destroy us in winter sports).
As you can probably imagine, you can simply rinse, wash and repeat this process with any number of foods – such as going from Domino’s pizza to making your own artisan pizza with fresh ingredients from your garden, or going from eating fish sticks to catching or finding wild caught fish and preparing at home with almond flour and olive oil, to foregoing dried fruit trail mix from the gas station to picking your own fruit and putting it into a food dehydrator in your kitchen. You get the idea.
The key takeaway message is this: you don’t have to jump straight from junk food to eating the healthiest diet on the face of the planet.
But if you want to look, feel and perform at peak capacity, you can begin by making slow gradual changes using my McDonald’s analogy above.
Some of my favorite books and resources to get started down this road are the “slow food movement,” the Weston A. Price Foundation, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, Rich Food, Poor Food by Jayson and Mira Calton, Feed Zone Portables (good one for you athletes out there) by Allan Lim, and of course, my own book, Beyond Training.
Ben Greenfield is an ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life” (http://www.BeyondTrainingBook.com).
In 2008, Ben was voted as NSCA’s Personal Trainer of the year and in 2013 was named by Greatist as one of the top 100 Most Influential People In Health And Fitness. Ben blogs and podcasts at http://www.BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and resides in Spokane, WA with his wife and twin boys.