No doubt about it, it’s hard to suddenly start eating a whole lot better. Because while it’s no secret that eating almost exclusively whole, plant-based foods is a recipe for health, getting there is a journey that takes either a lot of time (my case) or a lot of willpower.
But if you’re a No Meat Athlete reader, you probably already eat pretty well (congrats!). So what next?
Over the past few months, I’ve made a lot of tiny upgrades to an already pretty healthy diet. Upgrades that take almost no extra effort (in some cases, none at all), but each makes a significant impact. And when you add them all up — or better, when tiny upgrades like this become your habit, and you make 20 or 50 of them over the course of a few months — your diet is substantially better for it.
Here are some simple ones to nudge you down that path.
1. Add a small slice of fresh turmeric to your smoothie or salad.
Turmeric has become the hot new superfood, but this is no fad. We started eating it daily after Dr. Greger championed it in his bestselling book, How Not to Die, where he points out the numerous health benefits associated with eating turmeric.
He recommends a quarter-teaspoon of ground turmeric a day, or a quarter-inch slice of the fresh root. But why such a small amount? If a little bit or turmeric is good, wouldn’t more even better? According to Greger, it’s so potent that until we have better long-term data about its use, we should limit it to this amount.
So how do you incorporate this into your day? Since turmeric’s flavor is potent and distinctive, I find it hard to add to dishes where it doesn’t belong. So the fresh root is the way my family gets it each day. We typically just eat the slices whole (sprinkled with black pepper to increase absorption) when we’re preparing salad, but you’ll almost not notice it if you blend it into your morning smoothie.
Note: before incorporating turmeric into your daily diet, watch Greger’s video Who Shouldn’t Consume Turmeric?
2. Buy “no salt added” versions of canned tomato products and beans (and salt your food at the table, not while you cook).
But what is pretty easy is to stop cooking with salt, instead adding it only at the table, where you’ll really taste it. As my friend Ray Cronise pointed out to me, a serving of bread (1 slice) and a serving of potato chips (about 15 chips) typically have about the same amount of sodium — but the reason potato chips taste so much saltier is that their salt is added after they’re cooked, while bread has the salt baked right in. So if you only use it at the end, you’ll taste more and use less.
But some whole-food ingredients often have salt added to them before they even reach your pantry, like canned tomatoes or beans, of which a lot of healthy and plant-based eaters use plenty. So take the extra ten seconds to find the “reduced sodium” or (better) “no salt added” versions on the shelf at the grocery store. Most brands offer them, and the price is usually the same. You’ll hardly notice a difference, and if you do, at least you can add only the salt you choose to add.
3. Replace water with green tea, sometimes.
Truthfully, it’s probably better to replace your morning coffee with green tea, which is loaded with micronutrients (far more than coffee). But I’m not going to do this, and neither is any other coffee fiend.
But it doesn’t have to be a choice between coffee and green tea. Have the coffee in the morning, and then instead of drinking only water throughout the afternoon, have a cup or two of green tea. It does have some caffeine (though much less than coffee), so if you’re sensitive you should take it easy and consider cutting back on the coffee to make room for tea.
It takes a few minutes to prepare a cup of green tea, so my favorite way to do it is to make a pitcher at the beginning of the day, drinking the first cup hot and subsequent cups iced.
4. Replace lots of your vegetables with cruciferous varieties.
According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, cruciferous vegetables typically have about twice the micronutrient content of non-cruciferous varieties and offer greater protection against cancer. This isn’t a reason to give up your favorite veggies that aren’t cruciferous, but those times when it’s an easy choice to upgrade, why not?
So how do you get more cruciferous veggies? Replace fresh spinach or romaine lettuce in your salad with arugula. Instead of steamed or sautéed spinach, go with kale, collards, or bok choy. Add shredded green or purple cabbage and radishes to your salad, or swap them in for something else (carrot, celery, etc.) if you must. For dipping in hummus, go with broccoli or cauliflower over carrots or bell peppers. Not all the time — those other veggies are good too, and variety is a good thing — but a lot of the time. Get some cruciferous in you every day.
5. Replace beer or white wine with red wine.
Much as I enjoy a drink at the end of the day, I can admit it would probably be healthier to have water or tea instead.
But giving up a big source of pleasure takes effort, and that’s not what this post is about. What’s easier than skipping the daily drink, though, is upgrading it — and when it comes to alcohol, red wine trumps all. In my mind, the biggest danger of a daily drink or two is the elevated risk of certain head and neck cancers, and while red wine isn’t exempt, it’s thought that the resveratrol it contains serves to “challenge” cells and remove many of those that have been damaged and could potentially cause cancer.
Of course, you can also get resveratrol from fresh grapes or grape juice, so it’s not a free pass to drink your face off. And while red wine does have a lot of antioxidants, the benefit to someone who is already eating lots of fruits and vegetables is marginal.
I used the word “effortless” in the title of this post, but several of these changes have in fact gone beyond that: I’ve found them more enjoyable than what I did before. While turmeric still feels like “taking my medicine,” I’ve found green tea and red wine more interesting than water and beer.
Some will still argue that caffeine or alcohol of any kind should be avoided if health and energy are the goals. And maybe one day science will tell us whether or not that’s true. For now, I like what Blue Zones author Dan Buettner point out: that for the many of the world’s longest-lived people, it’s coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, red wine at night, and water throughout the day. Now that’s a nutrition strategy I can get behind.
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