Have you ever thought, “If I could just take a week off of my regular life and focus on eating well and working out, I wouldn’t be such an enormous sack of shit all the time?” I have. Often. Luckily, I got to put my theory to the test a few weeks ago when I spent a week at renowned wellness mecca Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Did it work? Well, I’m a week out and I haven’t gained back all the weight yet, so… yes?
What I really realized is that it’s really hard to eat like you’re at a fitness ranch when you’re not actually at a fitness ranch. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though. Here are nine tips I picked up during my weeklong stay to help you eat like you’re living at a luxurious fat camp even when you’re in a tiny studio apartment in the middle of Oklahoma.
- Cook at home.
File this one under “easier said than done.” Cooking at home always trumps eating in restaurants when we’re talking about health. Restaurant meals are made to taste as good as possible and that means pounds of butter, sugar and salt are added into dishes because those things taste incredible. Cooking for yourself or your family not only saves money, it also allows you to control the calorie count. Plus, chopping, dicing, and cleaning up count as exercise. Win-win!
- Cut the salt, but not flavor.
At the ranch, the food was loaded with flavor but they didn’t resort to just salting everything to make that happen. Using rich broths, fresh herbs and a full arsenal of spices, you can fight back when your brain tells you that healthy food tastes bland. Poorly prepared healthy food is bland. Well-made healthy food can blow your tastebuds away.
- Portion control is essential.
It’s all about portion control, people. You can really eat whatever you want, as long as you’re not overdoing it. As Rancho La Puerta founder Deborah Szekely says, “Put your salad on the dinner plate and dinner on the salad plate.” Ranch nutritionist Yvonne Nienstadt says, “Veggies and fruits are loaded with trace minerals, vitamins, fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants while being low in calories. The standard American diet is just the opposite: high calorie and low nutrient, so we are overfed, undernourished, fat and yet starving.” So, go nuts on nuts and stick to one slice when you’re hitting the pizza.
- Go “Mexo-Mediterranean.”
This is the diet at a fitness ranch: lots of veggies and fruits, moderate dairy, whole grains, legumes, eggs and fish (for those who want it). You know what’s not on there? Fried Philly cheesesteak sliders. As Michael Pollan so expertly summed it up: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” If you can stick to that, you’ll be amazed at how good you feel.
- Juice it up for breakfast.
I love mornings. I’m energized and ready to go and anything I get done before 9 a.m. feels like I cheated Father Time. This applies to work, exercise and vegetables. Green things have never been a priority for me. I’m the guy that can eat a plain chicken breast for lunch without any sides and be perfectly happy. That’s why sneaking in an entire day’s worth of vegetables before I’m even fully awake is vital. Go to the farmers market, buy green things, blend them with some coconut water or apple juice. If you’re lazy, spend $10 on a fancy cold-pressed juice. Trick yourself into eating those vegetables early and you won’t have to worry about them later in the day.
- Don’t eat anything that’s advertised on TV.
I made this up. It’s a subset of the ranch’s “no bottles, boxes or cans” philosophy (which sounds like exactly like what it is). Basically, if you’ve ever seen an ad for something, skip it. Processed foods advertise, vegetables do not – with very few exceptions. There are billions of dollars being spent to try to get you to eat things that masquerade as food. Be stronger than the commercial, skip the cheesy bacon-stuffed-crust pizza poppers and eat a salad instead.
- Eat with other humans.
This one is hard. I’m a single dude. I eat most of my meals in front of my TV with my dog sitting patiently underneath the coffee table hoping I drop something. In that situation, eating becomes automatic. Lift fork to mouth, chew, repeat. Before you know it, the whole plate of food is gone. If you’ve stuck to good portion control (#3!), then you’re fine. If you loaded up your plate, the mindlessness of eating alone will make it disappear like a really bad magic trick. Eat with other people, so you can be engaged in something useful while you eat. It’ll make you more conscious of how much you’re consuming and also help avoid falling into a pit of Two and a Half Men reruns.
- Plan your meals.
Oh man. Planning. That’s something adults do. Like outlining a big term paper, planning your meals in advance can make a HUGE difference in the end result. Instead of having another night of “This Shit Was in My Fridge” pasta, planning enables you to be mindful about your meals and encourages you to be ambitious. With time, you can tackle an intricate lamb tagine. Without time, you’re making lamb meatballs – again. As an added bonus, planning means that you’re not buying a ton of food to waste. Knowing how much you need for a certain dish eliminates so much of the excess that we buy “just in case.” Be a good citizen of the world: buy only what you need, use it quickly, go out and buy more.
Are these tips going to seriously elevate your wellness game? Absolutely. Are you going to actually put them to good use after reading this far? That, my friend, is up to you…
(This post originally appeared as my Kessler Report column on Food Republic)