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The sign on the computer programmer’s desk read, “Fast. Good. Cheap. Choose Any Two.” I’ve been thinking about that a good deal lately. Now, you may be one of those people who, when they see a title like “Fast Food, Fast Disease,” groan inwardly. The author, you may be thinking, is one of those people who’s always been skinny. Um, no. Not me.

I have a cousin exactly two weeks older than me. Growing up, the two of us attended the same family potlucks, ate the same food, and, if anything, he ate more than I did. Yet he was always thin. I, on the other hand, seemed to have fat thoughts. In garden terms, if he was a string bean, I was a butternut squash. In grade school, his blue jeans size was “regular.” Mine was “husky.”

I comfort myself that some of it has to do with bone structure. One chiropractor told me I had some of the largest vertebrae he’d ever seen. But big bones don’t make young children identify you as Santa Claus. No one has ever mistaken me for “skinny.” So, this is not a case of, as Shakespeare wrote, “He, who never felt a wound, jests at my scars.”

My doctor says that I’m healthier than I have any right to be. Being a lifelong teetotaler and nonsmoker has paid dividends. But as I grew older, it became clear to me that I was going to have to make changes, including eating healthier meals. I’ve discovered it takes longer to prepare healthy meals than to stick something in the microwave. I can prepare something quite healthy and at least edible (my culinary skills are no threat to the famous chefs), but it takes time. And I have a busy schedule.

Don’t we all!

More time cooking means less time for something else, whether that something else is writing an article like this, spending time with my grandkids, or even exercising. And even in relatively small towns, you can commonly find chain restaurants that specialize in making food fast, and at relatively low prices. Looking back at the sign on the programmer’s desk tells you where the problem lies. Fast and cheap almost certainly means that it’s not very good—that is, not good for you.

Intuitively, we realize this, of course, but it’s difficult to remember or take seriously when you’re in a hurry and need a quick meal, or when you’re driving cross-country and you can see the restaurant symbol right by the exit ramp: you can drive through, get your meal, and be back on your way in just a few minutes. Time is of the essence, after all, and how bad can it be?

That’s where reality kicks in.

Fast food makes us fat fast

I ought to know. I’ve struggled with fast food and with my weight most of my adult life. As I look into it, it starts with the simplest of things: portion size. Doctors generally recommend that women consume no more than 2,000 calories per day; and men no more than 2,500.

A study, published in the British Medical Journal, revealed that meals ordered by adults in so-called fast-food restaurants contained an average of 836 calories.” In other words, 42 percent of a woman’s 2,000-calorie daily allotment, and 33 percent of men’s 2,500-calorie daily allotment. And that’s the average order. A common “combo” meal consisting of a cheeseburger, French fries, and a soft drink ranged from 1,147 to 1,757 calories—more than half of the daily allotment in one meal. And the voice at the drive-through seems to always ask if I want to “supersize that.” I do want to. But I know better.

And there’s more bad news: it isn’t just fast-food restaurants. “Many nutritionists say fast food is making us obese, but that’s just because they tell us their calories. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Non-chain restaurants are just as bad as chain restaurants,” said Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

Then there’s the sugar and salt and MSG and condiments added to enhance the taste, and the typical restaurant meal is no bargain. With extra weight come the risks of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure . . . It’s a depressing list.

So what was I going to do? Well here are some suggestions I found:

  • Eat at least five servings of fresh fruit every day.
  • Have a fresh salad daily.
  • Eliminate fast food, including hamburgers, hot dogs, pastries, and sweets.
  • Drink lots of water.

Sounds good, but for me, the difficulty is not in finding out what to do but figuring out how to do it. If you aren’t one of those people who naturally goes into rapture celebrating the marvelous qualities of kale (and believe me, I’m not one of those), how do you manage to incorporate some of those things into your life, and will you?

Make small changes, incrementally

These total makeover diets may be marvelous, but if you’re like me, you find that making wholesale changes in your routine may work for a while, but they don’t last. Large changes require a lot of energy and time to begin with, and sooner or later life catches up with you. So, I’m going to share with you how an aging “junk food junkie” has been able to radically improve his diet over a period of months—and make it stick.

Water. The first thing that anyone can do is drink more water. And that’s the first habit I changed. I got myself a large, 44-ounce cup—you know, the kind convenience stores sell soft drinks in—and I fill it with water at least twice a day. That’s almost three quarts right there. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, preferably not just before bedtime. On days when my schedule permits, I fill it up in the middle of the day as well, to make a total of slightly more than one gallon for the day. When I drink that much water, I find that the next time I step on the scale, it rewards me.

This may sound challenging, and at first it is, a little. But after a couple of weeks, I found that my body craved water—not juice, not soft drinks, not milk—just sweet, clear, water. And once my body acclimated to being fully hydrated, it required no extra restroom visits.

Fruits and veggies. Once drinking all that water became a habit, I increased my fruit and vegetable intake. As I mentioned a moment ago, I’m no fan of kale. But I have some every day in my breakfast smoothie, along with celer­y, alfalfa, and dandelion. Mine also includes blueberries, pineapple, and almond butter, among other things, and I love it. It tastes like a blueberry milkshake—but without the sugar, the milk, and the calories. And I can’t taste the kale at all!

Don’t like blueberries? That’s fine. Whatever fruit or vegetable you really enjoy, you’ll find a smoothie recipe that includes it. Now, it does take time—about 20 minutes to make my complex breakfast smoothie recipe. But I make about 72 ounces at a time, enough for six servings. So I consume one and refrigerate the rest. It averages out to less than three minutes a day. Most of us spend more time than that watching cat videos on the internet!

Exercise. With the water and the fruits and veggies in place, I had to find some exercise that didn’t bore me to tears. I don’t believe in purgatory, but running around a track or on a treadmill is how I imagine that dreary place might be. It isn’t exactly hell. It’s designed to purify your character. But it’s the opposite of enjoyable. In my case, I found two activities that I enjoy and that make the time pass quickly.

One is nature photography. I carry heavy equipment as I walk, squat, climb, stretch, and go into all sorts of contortions to get a good picture of a flower or a landscape. I’m so fixed on getting a good picture that I pay no attention to the exertions it demands of me.

Second, on days when it’s too cold or rainy or whatever to take pictures, I enjoy shooting a basketball. I’m not very good, so I spend a lot of time running after the ball when I miss. Even when I don’t, every shot requires knee bends and stretching, sometimes jumpin­g—both to shoot and to rebound—and the time flies.

Making these small, incremental changes over time has radically changed my diet, helped me maintain and lose weight, helped me sleep better without snoring (my wife especially appreciates that!), reduced inflammation and arthritic pain, and has kept me completely off of medication.

And that last result is extremely important. As indicated, this regimen takes some time, and increases costs slightly, but the higher prices of some of the fresh fruits and berries are more than offset by saving on medications.

My choices of food and exercise may not suit you, but if you look around a bit, you’ll find some that do. And you’ll also find that reducing fast food—or, better yet, avoiding it altogether—can also slow down the aging process.

And boy, is that worth it!

From Food Junkie to Health Nut

by Ed Dickerson
From the June 2018 Signs