TL:DR — This is a long one! My Essential Food challenge outlines the specific foods, eating schedule, cooking and preparation methods and shopping for the month of January 2019.
As my Essential Clothing Challenge comes to a close, I’ve been playing around with a few ideas for my next challenge. A few good ones came up: an “Essential Entertainment” challenge, an “Essential Technology” challenge, and a few others.
But in the end, I decided to take New Year’s Resolutions to the next level. Most people will go on a “diet” (however you define that word) or start an exercise program. Something healthy and/or food related. My idea is related to that.
For my January 2019 challenge, I will be optimizing all the food that goes into my mouth. But it is more than that. This challenge actually combines areas of health, nutrition, efficiency, finances, spending, and productivity. As a result, giving it a single name, like “Essential Food” is actually not totally accurate. Just know that it is actually much more than just that.
The Necessary Disclaimer
Before I get started, I should mention that I’m not a doctor. Always consult with a medical professional before embarking on any nutrition program. Having said that, be sure they actually know something about nutrition. Most doctors aren’t required to actually study nutrition in medical school beyond a short introductory course. And, be sure to do your own research too.
A Quick Introduction Video
For those of you who prefer to absorb information with videos, here is a quick summary of the challenge. Lots more details are in the post below, but this should give you the gist of it.
Okay … so letʻs get into the thick of it …
Essential Questions I’m Trying to Answer
As always, this challenge is an attempt to answer fundamental questions about how to live an efficient and focused life.
- Essential Nutrition: What foods give the highest nutritional content that a body needs?
- Essential Eating: What is the optimal schedule of eating that is easy to do and promotes good health?
- Essential Cooking: What is the easiest way to prepare and cook those foods?
- Essential Shopping: What is the least amount of shopping time and energy necessary to get those foods?
- Essential Spending: What is the least amount of money necessary to get the highest quantity of foods?
This isn’t just about eating better. It is about re-tooling my entire methodology for buying, storing, cooking, preparing, and eating food. Its about making life easier while getting essential nutritional benefits. It is also about spending less, shopping less and taking less time to prepare meals.
Letʻs go through each area and share the specific plans for January 2019 (and possibly beyond?). I will attempt to be as thorough as possible, but if you have any questions just pop them in the comments below.
But first, I need to share a story that will help provide some important context to this challenge …
How I lost 70 pounds in 5 months and kept it off.
This almost feels like it should be a blog post of its own (and it might be someday). I won’t get into the details, but you should know about the health challenges I went through in 2017 and how I dealt with them.
In May of 2017, I started suffering from chronic and extreme joint inflammation. I had actually been dealing with this issue for over a decade but it really came to a head in that month.
Rather than going with drugs or surgery, I opted to combat the situation with nutrition and a deeper understanding of how my body works. I focused on four things:
- Elimination of sugar and foods that cause an insulin response, thereby forcing my body into a ketogenic (fat burning) and anti-inflammatory mode.
- A primarily organic, plant-based diet with a focus on foods with a very high nutritional density, such as kale, spinach, brussel sprouts, blueberries, etc.
- Adoption of an intermittent fasting schedule of meals to improve cellular autophagy, growth hormone creation, anti-inflammatory processes, and detoxification. I eventually reduced down to 1 or 2 meals a day in the afternoon or early evening.
- Supplements to aid in my body’s detoxification process, improve my liver and kidney function, reduce inflammation, and improve cellular function.
Because I was in a LOT of pain during the following 3 months (up through early fall of 2017), it was relatively easy to maintain my motivation. The changes were extreme but not nearly as uncomfortable as being bedridden, not being able to sleep, and having to go to the Emergency Room 3 times in one month.
Approaching my health in this way was a long road to recovery than drugs or surgery. But Iʻm happy I did it. The other methods might have been a quick fix, but it would have made my future even bleaker.
By focusing on nutrition and detoxification (and stress reduction), the changes have had a positive, lasting effect on my health.
It wasn’t actually my intention to lose weight. It was my intention to be as healthy as humanly possible by giving my body the most nutritious food I could find. It was my primary goal to improve cellular and organ function. It just so happens that doing this helped me lose weight too.
I lost 70 pounds over 5 months. By October I was at a weight I hadn’t been at since my early 20’s. And, for the most part, I’ve kept it off. Iʻm generally diligent about what I eat. Sure, I have gone off the rails from time to time. But I am able to get things back on track pretty quickly.
The main reason Iʻm sharing this story is so you understand that a lot of the basis for this “Essential Food” challenge is derived from last yearʻs experiences. I know what will work for me. And it might not work for you. But thatʻs okay. You can take what Iʻm doing here and “season it to taste”. (See what I did there? 😉 )
The combination of those four elements is the foundation for what I will be doing in January 2019. The following is my summary of each area of my plan:
Here we go!
There are two primary actions I’m focusing on when it comes to my nutrition:
- Eliminate sugar and foods that cause an insulin response.
- Increase foods with a high nutritional density and low insulin response.
Let’s briefly explain each one:
Reduce my insulin response
Insulin is not just what the body produces when your blood sugar levels go up. It is a hormone that serves several functions and promotes specific responses in the body. Among other things, it is the primary fat-storage hormone. It also promotes inflammation. There are a lot of resources online that explain how that works, but here is a quick primer:
This video is from Dr. Berg who has a popular YouTube channel where he talks about health, the ketogenic diet, and nutrition.
By eating foods that cause a lower (or “normal”) insulin response, I’m also lowering my body’s tendency to both store fat and increase inflammation. That includes inflammation and plaquing of arteries (leading to heart disease) and a whole host of other health issues. Also, foods that have a strong insulin response tend to be less nutritionally dense. Which brings us to …
Increase nutritional density
When eating foods with high nutritional density, I am less inclined to eat beyond my needs. In my experience, when I have nutritious foods, my satiety response is triggered faster and I tend to be less hungry. Lower caloric intake is also good for health for reasons we’ll discuss in a little bit when we discuss the power of fasting.
In addition, by providing my cells with optimal nutrition I’m promoting good cellular function, increased efficiency of my biological processes, and all sorts of other health benefits.
The power of healthy fats
There is also a corollary to increasing the nutritional density of foods: Increasing the quality of healthy fats. Contrary to many beliefs, fats are actually good for you. But of course, not all fats are equal. Healthy fats are those you get from foods like avocados, olive oil, almonds, etc. But some saturated fats, like from meat, while not ideal, are not the disease-bringer that some want you to think.
Fats are powerful because, since most high-quality nutritional foods tend to be lower in calories, you still need to fulfill your caloric requirements. You wouldn’t want to do that with grains, pasta, rice, bread, etc. As we mentioned, those spike insulin which is bad for you. Instead, by increasing healthy fats, you get the necessary calories without causing adverse responses.
Fat and nutrition go hand in hand. If you eat a lot of healthy, green leafy, detoxifying vegetables, you are able to process healthy fats and some saturated fats without ending up with a super fatty liver or gallbladder issues. It is about a balance. A lot of what I’m doing will be fine-tuning that balance based on my previous experiences and what I’ve learned.
I’m going to get into my specific food list below when I talk about food prep and shopping, so stay tuned for that. But first …
So, now that we know what I’m going to be eating, let’s figure out the best schedule of eating.
Again, the common belief isn’t accurate. Many would have you believe that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. In reality, breakfast is one of the worst things you can eat if you want to improve your health.
I know. Crazy talk. But hear me out. Because, once again, this is about your bodyʻs hormonal response to food.
Just like insulin is the fat-storage and inflammation-promoting hormone, there is another hormone that promotes the exact opposite response: fat burning and inflammation reduction.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
HGH is what helps you burn fat, reduce inflammation, stay young, strong, build muscles, and much more. Think of it like your bodyʻs natural “fountain of youth”.
Interestingly, the peak times that your body produces HGH is in the early morning right before you wake up. Then it continues on in an elevated state until your first meal. This hormone production peaks in your childhood and youth, but you still produce it into adulthood.
However, it turns out that your body can’t run two opposing processes at the same time. You can’t simultaneously burn and store fat. So, when insulin is triggered, HGH production is halted. In other words, by eating an early breakfast, you’re cutting off your body’s optimal time to burn fat and reduce toxins.
The longer you wait before eating, the better off you’ll be.
Reducing the Feeding Window
In a similar vein, the frequency of your meals and the number of meals you have during the day also has an effect on your health.
Whenever we eat, our insulin is spiked. And if insulin is a (mostly) bad thing, then it makes sense that the less often you eat, the better.
This is why snacking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. Each time you snack you’re basically telling your body to run unhealthy biological processes. The less often you eat, the less you’re programming your system for disease.
This approach of reducing your feeding windows to a smaller portion of the day is known as Intermittent Fasting (“IF”) and it is very popular these days. Rather than get into the details, here is a quick video to help you understand why it is so beneficial:
Again, this is Dr. Berg, but there are a LOT of videos that dive deep on IF. This just happens to be a good summary video, but feel free to jump down the rabbit hole on this topic. 🙂
Based on my experiences last year, I know that I can run very well on one meal a day (known as “OMAD”). I can also do well on 1.5 meals, spaced a few hours apart. As a result, I’ve come up with the following optimal times for my meals:
- 4:00 PM: Meal 1. This is my main meal with the majority of what I’m eating. Lots of nutritious greens, good proteins, and healthy fats.
- 6:00 PM: Meal 1.5. I only eat this if I’m still hungry. Typically, if my first meal was done right then I don’t feel inclined to eat again. But if Iʻm hungry, then this meal is mostly healthy fats. Almonds, avocado, goats milk cheese — that sort of thing. Just to satiate without spiking too much insulin.
Those meals mean my feeding window is between 1 to 3 hours a day. And that means I’m fasting for 21 to 23 hours a day.
Caveat: I don’t recommend jumping into this sort of schedule cold turkey. I took several months to build up to that, so please be sure to ease into it. Again, consult with a knowledgeable professional.
You may be interested to know that often one of the first treatments for cancer is intermittent fasting. Why? Because it causes something called cellular autophagy. Basically, it detoxes all the old, used up cellular material from your body. You can watch this video to learn more about that:
This is Thomas Delauer, who also has a popular YouTube channel that also talks about the science of the Ketogenic and IF eating protocols.
Going to Bed Hungry
The other thing I’m implementing is a “no food after the sun goes down” rule. I find that my energy levels and health are much better when I go to bed with a slightly empty stomach. There are actually those who recommend eating your OMAD right before you sleep, but I prefer to eat it earlier in the day.
Understanding Caloric Requirements
I should end this section by saying that, if your goal is to lose weight, then you should keep something in mind. My goal is primarily health, but I wouldnʻt mind leaning up too as a side benefit. But, if I became super healthy and maintained my current weight, Iʻm okay with that.
The reality is, all the cellular and eating schedule hacking alone isnʻt what will help you lose weight. Weight loss, at the core, is about being in a caloric deficit. Developing a ketogenic response doesnʻt cause you to lose weight, but it assists in the weight loss process. That process, however, is a result of how many calories you are eating.
Of course, eating better quality foods increase your cellular efficiency. And eating on an IF schedule also helps promote fat burning. But if you require 2,000 calories a day and are consuming 3,000 calories of healthy foods, youʻre probably not going to lose much weight, if any.
The true benefit of being in an IF and ketogenic eating protocol is that it makes being in a caloric deficit much easier. You donʻt have the hunger pangs that a glycogen-based fuel system causes. You donʻt have the urges to eat unhealthily. And you feel satisfied with more energy throughout the day. If you feel like this, then you are less inclined to binge on food and raise your calories beyond your needs.
Based on my lifestyle and body type I calculated my caloric requirements at just under 2,200 calories a day. So, if one of my goals is to lose some weight (while developing better health), then I would try to keep my calories between 1,500 to 2,000 a day. Doing this through three to five meals with insulin-spiking foods each day would be torture. But on this sort of eating protocol, it is much more pleasant.
Okay, so now we know what and when to eat. Let’s talk about food preparation and cooking methods.
The best way to make sure you are eating healthy is to prepare your own food. Of course, this takes time. One of the most common complaints (or excuses) for not cooking meals is the time and energy required each day.
For the average person, the idea of cooking 3 to 6 meals a day, 7 days a week, is probably a bit overwhelming. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t have that sort of time available.
But then again, I’m not eating like the “average” person. I only eat a meal (or a meal and a half) each day, so my food preparation is already cut down by 70 – 75%. The other thing I do is make sure to prepare more than one meal at a time.
This batch cooking method is not uncommon. A lot of people do this, even if it is just using leftovers from one meal to eat the next day.
But my specific schedule of food cooking and preparation is trying to get the most meals out of the shortest cooking time possible. As a result, my cooking is done in just 2 sessions a week, each less than one hour.
That’s right. I cook enough food for my entire week’s worth of meals in under 2 hours a week.
How? Well, it helps that I don’t mind a lack of variety in my meals. But it also comes from knowing the types of foods Iʻm going to eat and figuring out the preparation methods that allow me to store them safely in the fridge for at least 3 to 4 days.
My batch cooking is usually done in a single large pan on the stove where I make a cauliflower fried rice dish or some sauteed veggies with proteins. Occasionally I might do an egg dish, but those tend not to keep as long in the fridge. Oh, and in case you donʻt know what riced cauliflower is, it is a finely cut cauliflower that serves as the “rice” part of a fried rice dish.
Since I know how much of that cooked dish I need for a meal, it is easy to portion out the right amount for 3 days worth of meals.
When cooking, I’ll typically fry a couple pieces of bacon and use that bacon oil to cook the stir fry ingredients. Then I’ll use those bacon pieces as a salad topping during my morning prep. Usually one piece of bacon for each day.
Besides that single pan dish, I also will hard boil 6 eggs so that I have enough for the next several days.
During the month of January, as Iʻm going through this batch cooking process, I plan to take videos so you can see what it looks like. Keep your eyes peeled to this post or to my YouTube channel for updates.
Bento Box Configurations
The meal I take to work is packed in two bento box containers with some additional smaller containers for a few other things. One of the bento boxes has a “warm” element, that contains the batch cooked food from one of the two sessions during the week.
The second container is usually a salad with some toppings like cut up bacon, blueberries or hard-boiled eggs. I have acclimated myself away from eating salads with dressing (that took a while to do, but now I prefer salads this way), so as long as I have some things with stronger flavors in my salad (like feta cheese, for example), my salads are quite flavorful.
Typically later in the week, my salad mix gets used up (or doesnʻt stay fresh). In that case, I also have some frozen vegetables that Iʻll put in the second container. Usually, these are frozen broccoli or Brussel sprouts. They are already cooked and just need to be microwaved.
In the small container, Iʻll pack a handful of almonds and maybe some pieces of cheese. Those are for the additional fat content to make sure I keep myself satiated.
Morning Food Prep
With all of that, the only thing I actually have to do each day is to put the food in my bento container. I fill one with the batched-cooked food, and the other with the salad mix, bacon, egg, blueberries, etc. Then I fill the small containers. The whole process takes about 5 minutes at the most.
When I eat at work they have a sink in the breakroom. I clean the dishes after I eat and then theyʻre ready to be packed again the next morning. Washing the dishes takes about 3 – 5 minutes. So, my daily preparation and cleaning time is a total of 8 to 10 minutes! Over a week that is about an hour. So, my total time to cook, prep and clean my food each week is under 3 hours in total. That is a huge savings of time!
Again, Iʻm going to post up a video showing my daily food preparation, so check back later to see that here.
Just like with cooking and prepping, the most efficient way to shop for food is to buy items in bulk with a single trip each week.
And there is no better place to do this than Costco. Not only does it save on time, but it also reduces the cost of shopping significantly. How significantly? Stay tuned and youʻll see how Iʻm able to buy a monthʻs worth of food for under $200.
The Food List
But first, I need to share with you my list of the foods I buy and keep. Iʻve organized them by frequency of purchasing. Some foods last me a couple weeks or even a month (or more). So, the cost of those is amortized over a longer period than the weekly items.
- Roast Chicken ($5)
- Salad Mix ($4 ~ 5.50)
- Organic Eggs: 18 ct. ($10)
- Onions ($2)
- Half ʻn Half ($2.50)
- Frozen broccoli or other vegetables ($8)
- Frozen blueberries ($10)
- Frozen riced cauliflower ($15)
- Almonds ($12)
- Cheese ($4.50)
- Bacon ($12)
- Meat (Chicken, Beef or Pork) ($18)
- Diced Tomatoes ($7)
The Total Cost
As you can see, my total cost of foods isnʻt very significant. All together, Iʻm spending an average of $190 / month on all the food I need to eat, which works out to about $45 / week.
Of course, I’m not eating plain food either, so there are a few occasional food items that are bought on an even less frequent basis.
Occasional Food Items
These items are so infrequent that I donʻt even add them on the main list. Paying $5 for 6 monthʻs worth of Himalayan Pink sea salt, or $10 for a yearʻs worth of coconut oil, works out to less than $1 a month. That doesnʻt seem like worth mentioning, but just for the sale of being complete, here is a list of my “occasional” food items:
- Coconut oil (every 6 months to a year)
- Peanut butter or almond butter (every 6 months to a year)
- Salt/pepper (6 months to a year)
- Minced garlic (3 to 6 months)
- Apple Cider Vinegar (3 to 6 months)
- Cayenne pepper (6 months to a year)
- Low Sodium soy sauce (3 to 6 months)
- Turmeric (maybe once a year)
- Lemon Juice (6 months)
If you assume that each of these 9 items ends up costing around $1 or $2 / month, that is around $10 more per month overall. So, that brings our monthly total up to around $200.
Believe it or not, some of these I donʻt even have to buy. We were gifted with some really good olive oil this year so I odnʻt have to buy that for several months. Last year I got a huge bag of turmeric from my brother-in-law, and a year later weʻre still working our way through that.
Unpacking the Shopping
After I buy all those foods, I take them home and pack them up for storage. With a couple of the foods this requires a bit more than others, but here is how I deal with each item from the list above.
Roast chicken is the only “hot” food item from the list. Typically I’ll eat a chicken leg as soon as I get it in the door. Soooo good. :-). But that is my main indulgence. I leave the chicken in the fridge and each day Iʻll cut off some meat to put on top of my salad. Or maybe in my stir-fry.
But what is even better, at the end of the week I take all the leftover bones and chicken parts and stick it in a crock pot with some salt, pepper, onions, and spices. 24 hours later I have an awesome bone broth! Each evening Iʻll have that before going to bed. Itʻs great for digestive tract health. I can also use it during my batch cooking.
With my monthly meat purchase, I get out a knife and cut everything into three to five-ounce portions and wrap them in plastic and put each in the freezer. Then, when I’m cooking my meals twice a week I just take out exactly as much as I need.
And, that is all the prep I do after shopping. Everything else gets stored in the fridge, freezer or cupboard as it comes. Easy peasy!
So far we’ve covered the what and how of my food. And we also talked about the cooking and shopping of the food. The last step is to take a look at what my typical day is going to look like during this challenge.
My Daily Schedule of Essential Food
Here is a look at how and what I’ll be eating during this Essential Food Challenge:
The first thing I have is a detox drink. I put a tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar and a tablespoon of lemon juice into a shaker. I also add some cayenne pepper and Turmeric powder. To balance out the sweetness I’ll add a few drops of stevia. That is a great way to get my body going and get it geared up for health.
I also make a cup of coffee and put it in a Hydro Flask container to take with me to work. Depending on the day I prepare it different ways. Sometimes black coffee. I often will make it either a bulletproof coffee by adding in some MCT or Coconut Oil, and some heavy cream, grass-fed butter or coconut cream. Once in a while, I make it a Turmeric latte too.
This helps activate my metabolism and fat burning, reduce inflammation, and gives me a boost of energy. The fats also satiate my body and prime it for a ketogenic response.
I get off work at 4:00 PM (usually), so when I leave the office Iʻll head down to the break room to heat up and eat my food.
You’re probably doing a double take after realizing I wonʻt be eating a single thing until 4:00 PM. Like I said earlier, this is something I developed over a period of several months. I can provide more details on this another time. Basically, I started by moving my first meal to 30 or 60 minutes later (around 10:00 AM) and then kept adjusting it later during the day.
Now I can go until the middle of the afternoon before I feel an urge to eat. Some days I can even go until 5:00 PM or 6:00 PM. Just depends on how I’m feeling.
This is the main meal of the day. As you saw it is usually loaded up with lots of healthy fats and greens and lean proteins. I would guesstimate it is around 1,500 to 2,000 calories, which is about what a normal adult needs.
If I’m still hungry (which happens) I might snack on a hard-boiled egg, some cheese or some almonds. This satiates me some good fats and is only a few hours after my main meal so I don’t spread my feeding window too wide.
Before I head to bed I’ll often have some bone broth. Just a half coffee cup size and I might put some nutritional yeast (good source of Vitamin B) and a pinch of Himalayan pink or Molokai sea salt (good source of electrolytes and trace minerals). I have some daily vitamins and a few other supplements I take with this too.
And there you go. That is my planned food intake during the month of January 2019.
Tracking my Essential Food Challenge Progress
Unlike my clothing challenge, tracking my food challenge is going to require a few more elements than just seeing what items of clothing I have left at the end of the week.
I’m going to track my progress by evaluating five different areas:
- How I feel. What is my state of mind and my emotional state? Do I feel happy, calm and relaxed with what I’m eating? Does it satisfy me?
- How much I weigh. How does what I’m eating affect my weight. I’m not trying to lose weight, but this is a useful metric to evaluate how the food is changing my body composition.
- How my clothes fit. Are my clothes more comfortable and less pinchy? Do they fit better? Do they fit at all? Lol.
- My health. Do some of my chronic aches and pains in the old joints feel better or worse? How about the quality of my skin and hair? Eyes? Teeth? When I made the change last year I noticed a lot of changes in my health so I expect this will also happen again during January.
- My Energy. How much energy do I have? Do I get any afternoon “sleepies”? How is the quality of my sleep? Do I feel drained in the morning or ready to go?
So, each week I will take note of these areas in my own journal and at the end of January I will post up an end-of-Challenge reflection post and update to share what I learned, what changed, and how I might do it differently.
How to Keep Up to Date with the Essential Food Challenge
In the meantime, you can get updates by subscribing to my newsletter below or checking my posts on Instagram @walktheplanet9. The other place to find out how things are going is my bi-weekly podcast. I share the latest learnings and progress, along with lots of other cool stuff.
Of course, I’m sure you have questions or thoughts about this new Essential Challenge. Go ahead and post them in the comments below and let’s talk about how you would adjust this for your own situation.
Until next time … a Hui Hou!