There comes a time in life when one should forget about the whims of youth. For example, stop eating fatty sandwiches and drink red wine until late at night while watching videos of skydiving accidents on YouTube. Or give up the extra large pizzas that you ask for over the phone instead of cooking, so you do not miss an especially exciting episode of a television series.
Many people had warned me that one day I would get the bill for eating junk food. But I was young and thin; I never gasped when I ran to the train station, I did not have a belly, I did not complain like the elderly when they get up from a chair. Unfortunately, when I was in my mid-thirties, all of this started to happen to me. Aware that my health was in danger, I decided to find a quick solution.
I had seen the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, whose author, Morgan Spurlock, consumed only McDonald’s food for a month and the health effects were disastrous. And if I did the exact opposite for a month, I thought. This would be it if I limited myself to eating what advertisers and television dietitians call “Super Foods.” Products very rich in vitamins and minerals that possess properties to delay the signs of aging, prevent cancer and reduce blood pressure – Would I experience a significant change in my level of well-being and set myself on the path to a healthier future?
To find out, I made a list of 25 superfoods (among them tofu, tomatoes, pomegranates and spinach) that I thought I would consume and that, I hoped, would constitute a balanced diet and would provide me with numerous benefits. Then I prepared to go through a series of tests to know my state of health.
I started with a fitness test at a gym in London, where I live. I am a cricket fan, and my performance is invariably weak, but this time I had to cross the pool twice, reluctantly, before sitting in the sauna for an hour.
A blonde instructor named Laura me examined carefully. Although I measure him, 83 meters tall, weigh 76 kilos, and I consider myself quite agile his opinion was that it would not hurt me “a little work around the shoulders.” I performed acceptably in the races, walks, and jumps, and my pulse at rest, 81, was fine. But Laura measured the thickness of my chest, biceps, and triceps and concluded that although I did not have much fat, I had even less muscle.
“Oily fish and tofu are rich in protein, and I include them in my diet, so eating them will help me,” I said.
-Yes, that’s fine – he replied with a condescending smile.
For a week I had to keep a daily record of what I ate so that I could undergo the following test: a food evaluation with my nutritionist. At first glance, my diet did not seem so bad: it included too many triple cheese and tomato sandwiches. But also sea bass, chickpeas, onions, semi-skim milk, and yogurt.
The nutritionist did not find it that good: alcohol represented 58 percent by weight of my total daily food intake. And the fact that alcohol came mainly from the best beer on the market was irrelevant. Also, I ingested too many saturated fats; my cholesterol was bordering on the upper limit of the reasonable level, and I was not consuming enough fruits and vegetables. This last one surprised me since I ate several apples per week.
– People drink only one or two healthy things and forget everything else – he told me -. Your health is good today, but you will be prone to hypertension from 50 years of age. The only objection that the nutritionist put to my new diet of superfoods, predominantly vegetarian, was that it could be insufficient in iron and salt.
“Maybe he feels a little dizzy,” he warned, “or maybe his body adapts very well and you do not notice many changes. When visiting a dietitian, I discovered that superfoods might improve health, but they are costly. A bottle of concentrated cherry juice (which destroys free radicals and stimulates collagen production, according to some studies) cost the equivalent of $ 16.5. For a sachet of whole almonds (reduce cholesterol) I paid $ 8.20 and for a package of quinoa (a pseudocereal resembling rice, rich in iron, magnesium, and protein) $ 3.75. After a visit to the supermarket to buy vegetables and fish, my total outlay amounted to almost $ 150 in food for a week. I usually spend around 50 dollars, and that money reaches me to buy also take-away food.
My diet started badly. As I should not eat bread, my first breakfast consisted of an apple and a banana (rich source of potassium), dipped in beet juice, which helps lower blood pressure. I was alarmed to discover that he likes to … beet.
My lunch included quinoa, broccoli, almonds, and avocado. All this was substantial but dry, and I was not satisfied with the lack of sugar. I fried some garlic, more tofu, tomatoes and other vegetables for dinner. It was not bad, but later, at the movies, my sugar craving became unbearable and worsened by my wife’s insistence on eating puffed corn while we watched the movie.
This feeling lasted about a week. People said I looked good, but the salad dressing jars and chocolate eggs fluttered in my head all day. I did not feel bad exactly, just a little unsatisfied.
Then my wife vindicated herself by discovering on the Internet that a newspaper had classified as a superfood baked beans baked in the oven, and ketchup (the tomato is rich in lycopene), as a nutritious dressing. Now I would be fine: I could eat almost everything with ketchup. My mood improved a lot and I started to get creative in the kitchen. With a mixture of green soybeans, mushrooms, walnuts and some pieces of fish, he prepared something quite rich. Among my assortment of desserts was yogurt with probiotics, apples, Tibetan goji berries, and raspberries. I savored whole liters of the delicious juice of acai berries (some call it “bottled Botox”) and, as Jane Fonda would say before looking nostalgically at something nonspecific off camera, my lines of expression seemed to be fading. The only bad thing is that there is no super fast food. Every night, instead of resorting to my simple culinary technique of heating and serving, I had to prepare most of my food from scratch, including lunch for work. It used to exhaust me, so after I had my only beer a day (relaxes the arteries), I usually went to bed early and fell asleep listening to the educational programs on the radio. Suddenly I was faced with a severe difficulty to continue with my diet: I was going to spend a week in the house of my in-laws. Could I find tofu or quinoa on a Spanish island? I was surprised: in a local store, there was the most significant assortment of vegetarian products I have ever seen. Despite that, I was a little irritable all the time, and when my wife took some pictures of me, I realized that I was pale and skinny. The truth is that I have always lacked color in the skin and had burned many calories running on the beach.
The last day of the diet arrived … and I did not want to leave it. My diet, abundant in vegetables and limited in alcohol, had given me a lot of energy, and I felt detoxified. However, a new series of tests in the gym yielded confusing results. I performed slightly better in the various exercises, which was perhaps due to lack of practice. What was worrying was that my resting pulse had changed almost nothing, and I had lost three kilos of weight unnecessarily, most of them in muscle. My body mass index had dropped from 23 to 21, so I had become skinny. The nutritionist told me:
– You have consumed a lot of proteins, more than twice the recommended daily requirement. The problem is that vegetable proteins do not usually contain enough amino acids to become muscle. It said that tofu is the perfect protein, but it is not true.
The positive thing was that my cholesterol concentrations had dropped to normal; my consumption of vitamin C had been more than seven times greater than the recommended daily requirement. My potassium concentration was “phenomenal,” which was excellent for my blood pressure, and I was full of almost all the vitamins and minerals I needed. Nevertheless.
“You have an iron deficiency, and it could become anemic,” the nutritionist continued. Spinach, for example, is a rich source of iron, but unlike the iron in meat, for the body to absorb it well you have to eat complementary foods, such as whole grains. You were at risk of fainting. My enormous daily caloric intake (3,458, on average), the fact that I went to bed early and had little alcohol during the month of the diet, kept me from getting as bad as it could have happened. However, inside my body, there was a non-ferrous time bomb.
-Anemia can kill me, can not it? – I asked the expert. – They would take him to the hospital before that happened – he said. He added that although my cholesterol reduced by diet, I had ingested too many polyunsaturated fats, which could affect my body’s ability to cope with inflammation and raise my risk of heart disease and arthritis.
-With his experiment, he has shown that what believed of the “super foods” is a myth – he said -. It is true that they help to make the diet more varied, but that is all. The healthy food industry often says that high consumption of certain substances is beneficial. Is not true. You can consume all the calcium you want, but your body only absorbs what it needs and eliminates the rest.
In short, was all this a big waste of time? Not quite. The good news is that, apparently, a balanced diet without too much alcohol is the best way to live.
-Need to consume more vegetables to have antioxidants – the nutritionist told me -, and prefer fish to sausages or mayonnaise, but the diet that he adopted brings almost all the nutrients he requires. It is not worth the illusion so much with what one consumes.
Of course, you have to eat superfoods, but these are not a panacea. Ingested in excess, we could be so full of antioxidants that we might never get cancer, but we would become pale and arthritic old-timers whose only talent would be to produce urine with high nutritional value.