Suzie & I eating out way through Italy.

I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life. Last year, I put the pedal to the metal and lost 30 pounds. But I did it in a way I wasn’t entirely thrilled about – I focused on counting calories, not really counting quality as much as I would have liked.

With all the amazing plant-based and whole food information out there, it occurs to me that nutrient dense food also tends to be, at least in my experience, pretty calorie dense. So I issued a challenge to one of my favorite healthy lifestyle bloggers (who also happens to be one of my favorite people), Ms. Om Cooked Kitchen herself, Suzie Blackman. I asked her if she could come up with a nutritious, delicious food plan for someone who was also trying to lose weight.

I’ve known Suzie for a few years – I even got to travel to Italy with her (during which time I was decidedly NOT on a diet. Nor should you be, if you get the chance to eat your way through the nation that came up with both focaccia and gelato). Suzie is truly a beautiful, wise, old soul. And her blog and Instagram account make me want to just move right in with her so she can cook me breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As she contemplates the gauntlet I’ve laid down for her, we spent some time talking about how she approaches eating a healthy, whole foods diet without driving herself crazy. I’m hoping we can follow this up with a second interview in which Suzie provides the magic, super-food-fueled bullet that will help me lose the next 20 pounds. Until then, here’s a recap of our conversation:

Based on your Instagram account (and, of course, what I know of you), you are an amazing chef and also an incredibly healthy eater. Was that always the case?

I have always loved to eat. For as long as I can remember, I have loved healthy foods. But I have not always been a consistently conscious and clean eater. I grew up in a house with a Jewish mother who loved to bake, and, of course, never wanted us to go hungry. My father loves ice cream. There were many nights when we would all be armed with a spoon (well, my mom always used a fork – she claimed she consumer fewer calories that way) standing over a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.

And then there was my ranch dressing habit as a kid. And the fact that McDonald’s was only a three-minute walk from my middle school campus. So, no, I have not always been an incredibly healthy eater.

But, I also grew up with fresh vegetables and fish as a regular part of my diet. Not to mention that I was always extremely active. So I feel like I have a baseline of relative balance.

So, how did you become the health and wellness champion you are today?

In high school and, in particular, college I started to do my own research and be more health conscious. I also cooked a lot for myself and other people in college. I have always loved to cook for people, to share meals and to show how incredibly satisfying, nourishing, and soul inspiring healthy food can be.

When I did my yoga teacher training, I definitely became an even more conscious eater. I was influenced by the glowing health of the ladies who led it, not to mention the incredibly vibrant, healthy 55-70 years olds who were in my class.

But the turning point was really when I moved to from Washington, D.C. to Winston Salem, North Carolina. It’s amazing what happens when you leave the hustle and bustle of a large, metropolitan area for a smaller, slower-paced city; one with far fewer food options. It’s pretty interesting what came of all the newfound free time I had upon moving here.

I was going through a hard time for many reasons, so I tried to take really good care of myself. There was a good stretch of time that I didn’t have health insurance. Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.

I wouldn’t say I am a health and wellness champion (BB note: I disagree). But, I am extremely passionate about all things health and wellness. I really and truly believe in the idea that we get this one container and we really have to make a tireless effort to keep our bodies and our minds in a healthy place. I have done a lot of my own research; I follow a ton of health and wellness based bloggers; I experiment with different recipes. I enjoy the art of cooking well and see it as an expression of love when I do so for others and vice versa.

I get totally sucked in by things like vegan food porn and am a wellness blog junkie. But there is so much information out there; it’s completely overwhelming. Everyday, I feel like I hear about a new superfood that I am supposed to incorporate into my green smoothie (the ones I don’t make every morning). How do you sort through all the noise? What is your approach to a healthy diet and how do you filter through all of the information available on the Internet and elsewhere?

Sorting through the noise is a shit show. I am not a registered dietitian, a nutritionist or an official health coach. But, I have had success by using these three “rules” to do it:

  1. There are no rules. What works for you may not work for someone else. We are all unique individuals, with varying levels of everything from activity level to number of hours we sleep. So;
  2. Be willing to experiment. We have to actually try something in order to understand what works for our bodies. I think when it comes to diet, women in particular are so scared of what will happen if they eat one thing or another, or if they opt out of some fad or another. As a result, they don’t actually experience what they might need to, to see how their body reacts; to learn what is right for them, as an individual. This leads me to the third way of sorting through the noise;
  3. If it is a real, whole, pure, food — one that has not been processed or packaged — then it’s likely OK to eat. But bear in mind that most if not all things should be consumed in moderation. Avocado are a good example. They are the most perfect food ever, in my opinion. But they also need to be consumed in moderation.

I do incorporate “superfoods” (e.g. matcha, maca, cacao, acai, goji, etc, etc, etc). But I don’t think they are entirely necessary for a well-balanced, healthy diet. Besides, things as simple as blueberries are considered superfoods, too.

I also could spend way too many hours reading health related information. You can find literally a zillion articles to support one theory or the next. The number one way to sort through the noise is to put your big girl pants on, and experiment to see what works for YOU!

It seems like you generally like fruits and vegetables. Let’s say someone isn’t naturally inclined in that direction. How would you advise them to begin to incorporate better nutrition into their lives in a way that wouldn’t feel like a complete overhaul? What are the most basic baby steps you would suggest to someone who is embarking on the process of cleaning up their nutrition?

The most basic of baby steps really do go a long way. For example, one 20-ounce soft drink a day for a year equates to 25 pounds of weight gain. Even forgetting about the weight gain, think about how much more nourished your cells would be if you replaced one 20 ounce soft drink with one more 20 ounce cup of water. That could be someone’s baby step.

I know “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” seems like such a cliché, But I know not only from research but also from my own habits how important it is. Just eating breakfast —  ideally one that is nourishing and balanced — would likely make people less apt to eat junk throughout the day. Not to mention a good breakfast kick starts the metabolism and helps stabilize blood sugar, which impacts us in numerous ways.

Here are a few basic baby steps that people might be able to pick and choose from:

  • Drink a glass of water, or warm lemon water, right when you get up.
  • Eat a nourishing breakfast – including protein, a little bit of fat and, ideally, greens (that’s right, eat your veggies even at breakfast!). An example of a nutritious breakfast could be, for example, some oatmeal (the kind in the canister, not the kind that come in packet, as they tend to be chock full of sugar) and a spoonful of peanut butter. Or, those ubiquitous smoothies, of course!
  • Carry a healthy snack with you at all times – a piece of fruit, a single serving of almonds, celery, something that is portable and nutritious. When we get hangry, we make less rational decisions.
  • Find more ways to incorporate movement every single day. Maybe it’s a 45-minute walk, but maybe it’s as simple as making sure to take the stairs instead of the elevator or park a little farther away from an entrance.
  • Stock your pantry with predominantly healthy ingredients and snacks so you’re not tempted to eat less healthy options. If you don’t have it in your house, you’re less likely to over indulge. Which leads me to my final tip:
  • Cook more at home.

What does a “clean,” healthy diet mean to you? 

To me, a healthy diet is one that includes:

  • Lots of organic, local and seasonal vegetables, first and foremost. In particular, I like my diet to be full of greens and cruciferous veggies, like cabbage and broccoli.
  • Ample lean protein. Though there is a lot of conflicting evidence out there, I know that my body responds well to protein sources such as fish and eggs. Every once in a blue moon, my body might tell me I am low on iron, so I’ll eat some red meat. But that’s pretty rare – I get my  share of iron from all of the greens I eat.
  • Some healthy fats such as nuts, avocado, olive oil, ghee, etc.
  • Some vegetable-driven starches (sweet potatoes). Or, when my body feels it needs it, some whole grain driven starches.
  • Allowing yourself space to get creative and experiment with what things like gluten, dairy, sugar, may or may not do to you (rather than just taking someone else’s word for it).
  • Very few DON’Ts and NO’s.
  • Chocolate as a major food group.

Food is medicine. Food is fuel. Food is a connector. It helps create memorable experiences. What it shouldn’t be is a stress or burden. Just taking a step in the right direction, even if it’s a baby step, is progress.