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Refined Sugar and Me Week 25 — Real Food Meets Real Life

real food meets real life

Welcome to week 25 of our ongoing series about refined sugar & me in 2017. This week I’m down another pound, for a total of 17 pounds less than when I first started avoiding most added sugars and processed foods at the end of December 2016. My comfortable capris from last summer are falling off me, and the ones that were too tight are now loose and comfortable. Hopefully by the end of the summer they will be falling off me as well… 😉

Real Food Meets Real Life

This week, I want to talk about part of the thought process behind the Real Food Meets Real Life tagline on my redesigned site. A while back I read an interview with Michael Pollan (of “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” fame), where he talked about being recognized in the grocery store while picking up a box of Fruity Pebbles as a treat for his son:

At the time, my son’s weekend treat was that he could have a sweetened cereal on Saturday. So this tall, bearded, graduate student taps me on my shoulder and says, “I’m watching Michael Pollan shop for groceries.” And there in my hand was a box of Fruity Pebbles. I did not go back to that grocery store for a long time.

I empathize with Michael Pollan! Back when I was couponing heavily, I’d inevitably be recognized in the grocery store and asked what deal I was doing — but usually on a busy day when I was running through and buying something at full price. And, as someone who writes a lot about real food and being mindful about what we eat, Pollan’s life is apparently filled with these sorts of incidents:

Recently one of my colleagues had at the office his nine-year-old son—who was starved, and found the vending machine in the basement. Normally this is not somebody who gives his son junk food, but he’d forgotten to bring a snack. His son wanted some Doritos that cost a $1.25, but he only had a dollar on him. And he sees my door is open—but he was too self-conscious to ask me for a quarter to buy his kid Doritos. [Laughter]

I would have given him that quarter in a second! There’s a time and place for Doritos, and this was probably it. But people seem to think that it would deeply offend me.

I’m so glad to hear these stories, because they dovetail nicely with where my thinking has settled on the real food question. Michael Pollan’s son ate well as a general rule, so a weekend treat of Fruity Pebbles wasn’t going to throw him entirely off course. If your kid is hungry and the only realistic option is a vending machine, get the darn Doritos. If your child goes to a birthday party, let him eat cake; if your out-of-town visitors want pizza, order a pie. We’re all human, we’re all imperfect, and there should be some room for flexibility in our lives.

Real Food Meets *MY* Real Life

real food meets real life

Other than entirely whole foods (such as, say, carrots or apples), just about everything we eat is “processed” in one way or another: Even at their simplest, wheat is milled into flour; peanuts are crushed into peanut butter; milk is fermented into yogurt. So, I think some common sense has to come into play here when deciding what processed foods to eat and how much: A box of deep fried frozen Twinkies is more processed than a can of tomatoes; a box of Hamburger Helper is more processed than a jar of just-contains-almonds almond butter; Yoplait flavored yogurt is more processed than plain Greek yogurt.

The whole Make It or Buy It series I’ve been doing here has really been an exploration of when it’s better to make, or process, something yourself, and when it makes more sense to purchase it pre-made. My cabinets still contain plenty of staples like El Milagro corn tortillas, Kirkland almond butter (it just contains roasted almonds, and makes my life easier!), Muir Glen canned tomatoes, and, yes: Even tortilla chips from ALDI.

So here are my general rules of thumb as to what to look for in the processed foods I do still purchase:

  1. Look at the length of the ingredient list. Here, for instance, are the ingredients in “bacon cheeseburger” Hamburger Helper— which I’m not inclined to buy, but I might purchase pasta, cheese, and ground beef to make a beefy cheesy pasta dish of my own.
  2. Look for added sugars on the ingredient list. (You can find a list of 30 common names for added sugar here.) So I will buy, say, jarred salsa — but not the brands that randomly contain corn syrup.
  3. Look at how easy it is to make your own alternative. It’s super easy to make salad dressing, for instance (and I always have the ingredients on hand), so it’s also super easy to avoid added sugars and other unnecessary ingredients there. It’s more time consuming to bake bread (and, honestly, I’m terrible at it), so I’m instead looking for labels with limited ingredients and hoping that bread making is a skill I acquire with a little more perseverance.
  4. Look at my own triggers. While some people are able to eat sugary desserts in moderation, this year’s experiment has taught me that sugar-laden-treats are trigger foods for me that make me feel endlessly hungry (and terrible!) even in small amounts.
  5. Look at what else I’ve been eating in a given week. Given that we just enjoyed lox and bagels for Father’s Day, for instance, I probably don’t need to be picking up tortilla chips and bread at the store today.

And some things, I just don’t bother eating at all any more: For example, I haven’t had crackers, granola bars, or packaged cereal this year, and don’t really miss them.

Overall, though, I try to think about balance and where to draw my own lines. I do occasionally eat tortilla chips and salsa, but don’t ever eat Chex Mix. I do buy a lovely sourdough bakery bread at Pete’s Market, but enjoy it with avocado or homemade sunflower butter rather than Jif. I start dinner with a salad, veggie, or fruit to fill up on whole foods before progressing to the main course, but share a frozen Home Run Inn pizza with the kids about once a month. I often buy big jars of almond butter at Costco rather than making my own; I make chili with canned tomatoes and beans; I eat tacos on El Milagro corn tortillas… and I don’t worry overly much about any of that.

So, that’s me this week…

This year is all about slowly figuring out my own pitfalls, it seems like, and mine may or may not be the same as yours. How are you doing on your own healthier eating plan so far — and what have you found that helps you stay on track?

Earlier installments in this series

refined sugar and me

Read the whole Refined Sugar and Me series in chronological order (or catch up on any posts you might have missed!).


Tuesday 20th of June 2017

I am holding steady at 9lbs since starting intermintent fasting and carb cycling. I have fallen off the wagon so to speak and have been indulging in some high calorie treats: cheesy pasta, pizza and an occasional ice cream. I was doing so good. I have not gained anything back. I am realizing that it is important to commit to healthy eating and forgo the "treats" I think I am missing out on. I did not feel well after the cheesy pasta and pizza.... too many carbs and dairy at one time. I am learning things about my body as I go.


Tuesday 20th of June 2017

That's exactly how I feel -- learning as I go along! But the fact that you are holding steady even after falling off the wagon is great.


Tuesday 20th of June 2017

May I recommend a bread machine, Rachel? I think I've posted about this before, but we love ours! It's *really* easy to have a fresh loaf in 90 minutes, and only takes a minute or two to prep. The best part is that you know exactly what's in it. The downside is that if you have a "carb addiction" problem (like I do), it's probably not helpful to have such easy access to delicious bread!

But if you and your kids still like bread, even occasionally, a $40 bread machine is well worth it. My kids won't eat the mass-produced kind now, and even I notice that the bread at nice restaurants is often not as good as what I make at home. And so easy!!!


Tuesday 20th of June 2017

That's a good idea. I had one years ago but no longer do -- I remember it not being quite the same, though. Maybe the crust? Have they changed? :)


Tuesday 20th of June 2017

Congratulations on your weight loss! Seventeen pounds--wow! I find that when my son is in school, I eat much healthier. Now that it's summer break, I am eating worse. McDonald's drive thru has seen me once each week driving to or from baseball, basketball and the other activities my son is involved in each week. He scoffs at my organic hard boiled eggs and salads. Mu husband is a junk food lover, so he is happy to do a drive thru for lunch or dinner. So, the summer is a struggle for me to stay on course of healthy eating.


Tuesday 20th of June 2017

Thanks! And yes, the kids are terrible influences...