November 17, 2014

Better than 80/20 - Diet, Pt.2

In part 1 of this update on my diet, I talked about when and why I eat what I do. This time, I’ll cover the what. As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I am more low-carb than I am Paleo. I eat some foods that are not considered “Paleo,” and I sleep without fear that the food police are going to come take me away in the night. That said, I stick mostly to whole, real, non-processed foods, with a little wiggle room for occasional exceptions. (I say this to distinguish the way I eat now from how I ate years ago, when I first started learning about all this, and would eat any ol’ low carb shake/bar/food-like thing, as long as it was low carb. So I’m still low-carb, but now it’s real food, for the most part.)

Like I explained last time, I am putting only the smallest amount of thought and effort into what I’m doing and I’m getting satisfactory results. This is not to say I put no thought or effort into my diet, only that planning and preparing my food doesn’t rule my life, I can generally throw together a meal in about twenty minutes, and I’ve never found myself at a restaurant where there was “nothing” I could order and consume without worry.

So the way I eat these days isn’t entirely effortless, but it’s certainly not difficult. And yes, I could probably be “cut,” “ripped,” or “shredded” if I wanted to micromanage my diet and exercise to the exclusion of all other aspects of life on planet Earth, but call me crazy, I just think there are more worthwhile things to experience than bouncing a quarter off my abs.

Seriously: ground beef, onions, 
zucchini, yellow squash = dinner.
It’s funny: considering how many cookbooks I own, and how much I love cooking, looking at recipes and watching cooking shows (they don’t call it “food porn” for nothin’), I eat very simply. When I’m cooking for friends, I’ll pull out all the stops, but when it’s just me, myself, and I (which it is, most of the time—someone, come over!), I’ll brown some ground beef, roast some cauliflower, and I’m good to go. I have neither reason nor budget to go all-out gourmet every night. I’m actually quite happy with simple food.  

Rather than make this post even longer than it’s already going to be, I’ll save the specifics of how I cook for a series I have in the works called Easy Food for Scared Cooks. Because cooking is SO MUCH SIMPLER AND EASIER than people make it out to be, and sticking to Paleo/low-carb/whatever is much easier when you have suitable foods on hand at all times, and you know just a few simple techniques for making a meal out of them in minutes.

For now, we’ll stick to the foods I do and do not eat. As for quantities, it’s hard to say how much I’m eating. As I mentioned last time, it varies a lot. Some days I eat very little; other days I pack it away. Some days I eat almost no vegetables; others, I’m practically an herbivore. Overall, though, I think I am consuming fewer total calories than I had been, largely by keeping the hunger hormones in check for most of the day. (But then again, there are the peanut butter binges I mentioned last time…)

I do it “all wrong.” My meals get larger as the day goes on. Small breakfast, a medium-sized lunch, and a big dinner. (Or sometimes a big-ish brunch, if I wait until later in the day for my first meal.) I think the satisfactory results I’ve been getting with my diet are mostly due to control of insulin levels. So this obviously has a lot to do with what I eat, but I think what I talked about last time—about when I eat—plays a big role, too. Exercise also factors into it, and I’ll cover that next time. What I’m trying to say is, it’s all related, and I think the specific foods I eat matter less than the biochemical and physiological effects of those foods—which is why timing and physical movement matter: what kind of hormonal state is my body in, and what type of foods fit that scenario best, to provide my body what it needs at a cellular level, with the least amount of hormonal and physiological havoc?


Breakfast (if I eat early in the day) is usually soft-boiled eggs with homemade ketchup (recipe coming soon), sometimes bacon or sausage (cooked in advance and eaten cold if I’m at the office), and sometimes leftover vegetables, if I’m in the mood. (I usually don’t feel like veg in the morning, but once in a while.) I try to bring breakfast with me from home on the days I work at the 5-sided building, but when I don’t, there’s a decent cafeteria where I get…eggs and sausage. (Obviously this food is of extremely questionable origin and quality, but it’s better than the biscuits and French toast sticks they have on offer.) Honestly, though, sometimes breakfast is leftovers. There’s nothing wrong with eating chicken, beef, or whatever for breakfast, as long as it’s real food. Breakfast does not have to be eggs any more than it needs to be cereal, toast, and orange juice. It’s just a meal, right? An opportunity to feed ourselves. So yeah, sometimes breakfast is leftover stew, or chili, or a baked chicken thigh. Whatever I have on hand, ready to go. No problem! (Granted, I do feel less weird about this when I have my "breakfast" around noon, rather than 7a.m.)
You know you want me!

EXPERT TIP: For the hurried real-food cook/eater, if you do not own a Krups egg cooker, what are you waiting for? THIS IS THE BEST $30 YOU WILL EVER SPEND on a kitchen gadget. Perfect eggs, every time, whether you prefer them hard boiled with the yolks powdery and dry (yuck), or the way I do, with the whites set, but the yolk still a little runny (mmmm). Also makes wonderful poached eggs!


Lunch tends to be a crapshoot. It’s often leftovers from a night or two before, but when I’m at the day job, it’s almost always a can of tuna, some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bunch of vegetables. I keep a supply of canned tuna, sardines, oil, and vinegar in my cubicle. All non-perishables, and if I bring some veg from home, lunch is ready in about twelve seconds. (Often I eat raw vegetables with lunch, such as carrots, celery, jicama, cucumber, radishes, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes—depending on season.) It amazes me how much money people spend on food in the workplace. Some people buy breakfast and lunch there, every day. Granted, some of their salaries are more than double mine, but still. Pack your own and you get better quality, you know exactly what’s in it, and you probably save a few bucks, too.


Like I said, dinner’s usually pretty simple. Some kind of fatty protein (baked pork chop, pan-fried steak, ground beef or pork, chicken [with skin]), or a lean protein with a little bit of added fat, usually in the form of olive oil. Also a decent portion of vegetables. Steamed, roasted, grilled, sautéed…I mix it up. (But if your kids don’t like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, yellow squash, or eggplant, it’s probably because you’ve never tossed them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted them until they’re a little browned and crispy on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. If you’re boiling these things to kingdom come, don’t be surprised when the people you feed turn their noses up at it. Detailed instructions for simple yet awesomely delicious food in upcoming posts.)

Food in General

Here’s a look at what I eat on a regular basis. I don’t eat all of these things every day (obviously), but they all make regular appearances on my plate:

Animal protein: Ground meat (beef, pork, turkey); pork chops, various cuts of steak, sausage (beef, pork, turkey, chicken), bacon, eggs, canned fish (see below). I would eat lots more fresh fish if it was a little more affordable. Once in a while, when I visit this place, I get some ground venison or elk, which is pretty snazzy and damn delicious, but for the most part, I stick with beef, pork, smaller amounts of poultry, and eggs. I don't eat as much organ meat as I feel I should, but I'm working on that. (I have chicken gizzards in the freezer. Anyone have any idea what to do with them?)

Most of the meat I eat is from local farms, but not always. Like I said last time, I’m not in line for dietary sainthood. (If you live in the greater DC area, I have mentioned Chicama Run and Smith Meadows farms many times on this blog. I have also gotten excellent food from [and worked at!!] P.A. Bowen Farm, which is owned by Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation. (Love her or hate her, her farm is fantastic.) If you live near Central Pennsylvania [State College area], I encourage you to check out Over the Moon Farm. I worked there for a little while way back in 2009. They are the real deal, you have my word. They are at the farmers’ markets in Boalsburg and North Atherton, and occasionally at Tait Farm in Centre Hall on CSA pickup days. If you are in the vicinity of Over the Moon, you must—must—try their Turkish sausage and currywurst. Divine. The chorizo was also killer, as were the thick-cut pork chops. North Mountain Pastures is a fantastic farm in the Harrisburg/Newport, PA area, and they’re even at the farmers’ market in Takoma Park, MD, on Sundays.)

Vegetables: I don’t eat strictly by what’s in season, but I definitely get a wider variety during summer, when I buy most of my produce from the farmer’s market. So this list includes a couple of things I eat mostly in summer, plus year-round staples. Open my fridge or pantry and you are likely to see a selection from the following: Onions, carrots, celery, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, kale (various: purple, curly, dino/lacinato), Brussels sprouts, and bell peppers (red, green, orange, yellow). Occasionally I’ll get some beets, swiss chard, radishes, mushrooms, cucumbers, winter squash, or something else I consume less often. I prefer fresh over frozen, but once in a while, I’ll get some frozen spinach to put in a quiche, or I’ll keep some frozen broccoli or Brussels sprouts on hand just because it’s not a bad idea to have those around.    

As for how many vegetables I eat, it varies. A lot. Some days I eat almost none, and other days I’m a vegetable-eating machine. I am unconcerned with day-to-day fluctuations in micronutrient intake. You are not going to induce a raging deficiency in anything after only a couple of days. There’s no need to obsess about vitamins and minerals on a daily basis. The focus should be the big picture, over time. Over the course of a few days or even weeks, have you had some leafy greens? Some cruciferous veg? Some sulfurous veg? Something red, purple, or orange? Have you eaten a few different colors? (And no, I’m not talking about Froot Loops!)

So colorful; it’s hard to imagine 
these not being good for you.
As for raw or cooked, I try to fit both in, again, over the course of time. My digestive system seems to prefer cooked vegetables to raw. I do all right with small amounts of raw peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and celery, but large salads seem to bloat me for some reason. No big deal. Salad’s a perfectly fine food, but it’s also a bit overrated, if you ask me.

I don't eat fermented vegetables as much as I probably should. That's more laziness than me not liking them or thinking they're unimportant. I just haven't made a batch of anything in a while, is all. But when I get ambitious, I'll put up several jars of kraut or kimchi and have 'em around for a while. (Get creative with your cabbage & green apple is a pretty nice combination.)

Starchy/Sweet Veg: I don’t test my blood sugar as often as I probably should, but overall, I seem to handle starchy vegetables better than grains. (I still go easy, though. My body just doesn’t do so well with lots of starch.) So if I go out for breakfast, I’ll get an omelet and hold the toast, but eat the potatoes. (More often than not, though, I’ll ask to substitute some kind of vegetable for the potatoes, but I’ll have the potatoes once in a while. I love hash browns and home fries, but I am not a fan of mashed potatoes. Yuck.) I don’t buy potatoes to have in the house. Just not that big a fan, and I'm not exercising intensely enough to warrant even medium-sized boluses of starch. Same with sweet potatoes. I’ll have them at a restaurant, in a hash or something, but I don’t make them at home. Once in a while I’ll do roasted beets because they are frigging delicious. A couple of times in fall and winter I’ll do roasted parsnips. Acorn or butternut squash roasted with butter and cinnamon, too. HOLY COW. YUM.

Fruit:  I keep some dried fruit in the pantry, for those times when I really want something sweet, and 1-2 dried figs, prunes, or dates are enough to satisfy that. (Even yummier with a little bit of goat cheese or coconut butter.) Other than that, I consume almost no fruit. I just don’t like it all that much. (Yikes! The nutrition police can kick me out of the club if need be. I ain’t skeer’d. There’s nothing I can get from fruit that I can get from other foods I enjoy more.) I don’t completely avoid fruit, but I have it only rarely. (Just like with certain veg, I consume more fruit during summer, and try to stick to the fresher, local stuff. And I tend to eat it post-workout, rather than at a random times elsewhere in the day. This past summer, after finishing up a particularly grueling workout or long walk, I really enjoyed a ripe peach or dark-skinned plum sprinkled with a little bit of salt. That might sound weird, but you’d be amazed how delicious this is when you have just sweat your proverbial balls off.)

There’s another issue with me and fruit. I just said I don’t like it that much. Even so, it’s kind of like flipping a switch. If I have some fruit, I’ll want more and more. (It is “nature’s candy,” after all.) Obviously, there are far worse things someone could eat than fruit, and I have no problem with people eating fruit as a natural, whole, nutritious food. But for me, for the taste/pleasure versus consequence, I’m better off avoiding it. To be honest, I haven’t done much blood sugar testing post-fruit consumption. I will probably do that and see how it goes. If it doesn’t affect me too much, I might start eating more of it next summer. For now, though, in terms of my overall carb intake, I’d rather eat a large amount of vegetables than a small amount of fruit.

Coconut oil: as versatile
as it is delicious.
Fats: I keep a variety of fats on hand, some for cooking, some for eating a spoonful or two of straight-up when I’m in a hurry. (Yes, I do that. I am a woman and I EAT FAT! All by itself, sometimes!) All of the following are in my kitchen right now: olive oil, butter, bacon fat, coconut oil, heavy cream, beef tallow, lard, and duck fat.

Other than that, I suppose nuts & nut butters fall into the fats category, too. I mentioned my ridiculous amounts of peanut butter last time, and my snacking on nuts. Pretty much any nut you can think of makes an occasional appearance in my house: walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, and—when I feel like splurging because they are so darn $$$--pistachios and macadamias. I also have 2 jars of coconut butter waiting for me to get ambitious and make some kind of “Paleo dessert” that requires some of that.

Canned goods: I am not opposed to using canned food. There are some pretty great things that come in cans, especially for people in a hurry, or who just want something simple they can throw in their bag and bring to work for lunch or breakfast. Right now, I have on hand in cans: tuna, salmon, sardines, tomatoes (several varieties, excellent for slow cooker meals and just adding to ground beef or turkey for a one-skillet meal), coconut milk, pumpkin, and curry paste. (Salmon and sardines are with the bones and skin. Just under the skin is where most of those good omega-3 marine fats are, after all. And there’s calcium in the bones.) Occasionally I have canned mackerel, too.

What I do NOT eat in cans is vegetables. (Other than tomatoes and pumpkin.) I mean, why? Really. Just why. If fresh isn’t in the cards for you, at least do frozen. For all the flavor and texture canned vegetables offer, you might as well go outside after a rainstorm and eat leaves that have collected by a sewer drain. (Exceptions: for the starch eaters among you, I have nothing against canned mashed sweet potato or butternut squash. I think the real thing is better, but I totally get the convenience aspect of canned.)

Liquid humanity.
I get my dose every morning.
Beverages: I’d say the vast majority of my fluid intake is water. There’s also a significant amount of coffee (OF COURSE). Once in a blue moon, I’ll have a Zevia, when I get a hankering for something carbonated and sweet-ish (very rare, like once every 3 months or so). I’ll do herbal tea on occasion (usually if I have a stomachache or need a laxative. :-/  Other than that, I kind of hate tea, except for real-deal Paraguayan yerba mate. Every time I think about having tea, and I make some, I’m disappointed it’s not coffee. (Even with cream and sweetener, it still doesn’t hit the spot.) I don’t drink plain milk, but I use heavy cream (at home) and half-and-half (coffee shop) in my coffee. Once in a great, great while, I’ll have a protein shake made with unsweetened almond milk. (More on that in the exercise post, coming up.) Years ago, I did that every day. Now, hardly ever.

Alcohol: I’m not a big drinker, but once in a while, a glass of wine is just what the doctor ordered. (The doctor in my head, that is.) I mostly stick to red wine, and I’ll go months without a drink, but if I decide to buy a bottle, I’ll have a small glass a couple times a week, and then not buy any again for a while. (Sometimes it takes me two or three weeks to finish a bottle, and it’s pretty nasty tasting by the end. When this happens, sometimes I’ll just use the wine in a meat dish, like adding it to something in the slow cooker or using it as an excuse to make pâté, if I happen to have chicken livers on hand.) On rare occasions, I’ll have a glass of white, and on even rarer occasions, I’ll have a lite beer. I’m really not a beer gal, but once in a while, I do get in the mood, and I am not such a connoisseur that my palate is too refined for Miller Lite. (Although a nice Guinness every now and then never hurt anybody.) To be honest, my taste buds love the “girly drinks.” Pretty much anything with fruit juice and coconut rum. A Blue Hawaii is probably one of my favorite drinks. But my BODY doesn’t love those things as much. When it comes to alcohol, blood sugar, and body fat, it’s not so much the alcohol itself that’s problematic, as what we mix it with. In other words, straight-up vodka, rum, tequila, and other hard liquors are not all that bad. It’s the juice, soda, and super sugary mixers we add them to that really do a number on us. (Here I am referring only to blood sugar and body fat, not to the other effects of alcohol. Please drink responsibly!) Back when I was in the Air Force, and going to the bar just outside Offutt AFB was the main social outlet, I used to bring those Crystal Light to-go packs, order a glass of water with a shot of vodka in it, add the Crystal Light, and make my own sugar-free mixed drink. My friends called it “the Berger.” (No, I no longer drink CL. Aspartame is not one of the artificial sweeteners I am comfortable with.) So drier wines are preferable to sweet ones, and if you do indulge in the occasional cocktail, be mindful of the mixers. (This being said, if you are super-uptight and socially inhibited like I am, a drink now and then can probably help your health, in that it might relax you and quiet some of the dark voices in your head just enough to let you have a good time. Plus, let’s not forget about the good stuff in red wine. It’s practically a vitamin! Not really.)

Condiments: Since I cook a fair bit of simple food, I eat a lot of my food plain (meaning no complicated sauces or accompaniments that require 87 different ingredients), but I do doctor them up with condiments. There’s good ol’ salt and pepper, and I will have a post on the importance of salt in the near future. I also enjoy fish sauce (rich in salt and iodine!), hot sauce, mustard (I prefer snooty Dijon and coarse-grain varieties, but I’m not above plain ol’ boring yellow), homemade ketchup, and last but not least, VINEGAR!! Holy cats, everyone, vinegar is the nutritional sleeper hit of the century and will have its own dedicated post coming soon. Seriously. Vinegar.

A good kitchen will also have a wide variety of herbs & spices, but I thought that kind of goes without saying. In case it doesn’t, let me say it: I have in my pantry right now dried oregano, thyme, cumin, cayenne pepper, curry powder, rosemary, chili powder, smoked paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, crushed red pepper flakes, and a couple of different blends (like Montreal Chicken and some really yummy blends from Penzeys and Spice Merchants). This is part of what makes whipping up delicious last-minute meals so easy.

Treats: There is no shortage of dark chocolate in my house. Every few months, there’s also a pint of ice cream in the freezer. (Sometimes something simple, like plain vanilla or chocolate, but once in a while, something straight-up crazy, like Steve’s Bklyn Blackout.) I don’t keep too many other treats in the house, because if they’re not here, I can’t eat them. Every now and then I’ll get a fresh-baked cookie or biscotti from Whole Foods. (What can I say? I’m a New York Jew; dunking stuff in my coffee is hard-wired in my DNA.) At work, once in a very rare blue moon I’ll have a donut…and I usually feel a little sick afterward. (Possibly this is psychosomatic, but it could also be whatever super-nasty oils it’s cooked in.) Once every few months, I’ll go on a little bread bender and buy a fresh, yummy, crusty-on-the-outside-but-pillowy soft-on-the-inside loaf. (Usually from WF or a farmers’ market. Yes, it’s carby, and yes, it’s gluteny, but the ingredient list isn’t 800 words long and I can identify everything in it.) This happens maybe twice a year. I do eat bread more often than that, but I don’t keep it in the house.

Dairy: I saved this for last because it’s probably the biggest change to my diet. I LOOOOVE DAIRY. Unfortunately, I have come to realize that dairy does not love me quite as much. I consume far less of it than I used to. I am a fiend for pretty much any dairy: cheese, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, etc. In fact, for a long time, cheese was my main go-to snack. It’s one of a low-carber’s best friends—provided one tolerates it well.
You would think for as much as I love dairy,
it would show me more love back.  :-/

I posted a while back that I was doing a low-dairy experiment. What I discovered by reintroducing larger amounts of dairy after that was that I react to dairy. (BOOOO!!) I don’t have any digestive symptoms (so no sign of a lactose issue). What I do have is some facial breakouts (there’s a big connection between dairy and acne, likely because of IGF-1…growth signals and all that) and some all-over “pudginess.” It’s not the same as intestinal bloating. It’s hard to describe. When I eat larger amounts of dairy, I just feel “bigger” – all over, not just in the abdominal region. It’s probably not anything anyone looking at me would notice, but I feel it, and it’s uncomfortable.

I discovered my dairy issues when I was visiting the aforementioned Over the Moon Farm. It’s not a dairy farm, but their Amish friends just down the road run one, and because it’s Pennsylvania, where at least some of the laws aren’t insane, raw milk and raw dairy products are perfectly legal, and I couldn’t well pass up a chance to gorge on raw milk yogurt, kefir, and cheese, from some of the most beautiful grassfed cows I have ever laid my eyes on. My point is, this wasn’t ultra-pasteurized & homogenized supermarket swill milk. This was as pristine as it gets, and I still broke out and felt big & squishy, so it’s gotta be something intrinsic to milk itself.

(If you are in the Centre County/State College area, and you enjoy real, raw diary, I give you my highest recommendation to check out Spring Bank Acres. They don’t have their own website, but you can check out the basics here. And their on-farm store operates on the honor principle! Seriously! Take what you want and leave the money in their cash box! Gotta love PA Amish farm country!!)

Thankfully, I don’t experience the unpleasant symptoms when I eat butter and heavy cream, so I very happily keep those in my diet. (I am one of those people who can’t do black coffee. Don’t tell me I “don’t like coffee” if I can’t drink it without doctoring it up. I do like coffee. I just happen to like it light and sweet. ;D) And I do still have some cheese occasionally, but in much smaller quantities than I’d prefer to be eating. But I feel (and dare I say, look) better for it, and if the price for that is less yogurt and cheese than I’d like, I can live with that.

That’s Great, But What Do You DO With These Foods?

As for how I prepare some of the foods I’ve mentioned here, stay tuned for that Simple Food for Scared Cooks. I’ll have tips for cooking in advance, good things to have on hand at all times, and how to cook once and eat two or three times, but have that one food item taste completely different each time. ‘Cuz I think this is what gets people tripped up—they know what they should eat, but they don’t know how to cook it in such a way as to make it simple, quick, easy, and delicious. (Yes, all four of those things can occur together!) I don’t do meal plans. I refuse to tell people what to eat for, say, lunch next Wednesday. If you know about that old fishing analogy, I don’t like giving people fish; I prefer to teach them to fish. If you know a few go-to cooking strategies and have a fridge, freezer, and pantry stocked with the building blocks for good meals, these ways of eating (be they low-carb, Paleo, Primal, or just real food) are so much easier than the processed food and “convenience” food manufacturers want you to think.

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Throw those gizzards in your crock pot with some onions and celery, cook until they cut with a spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sandy

  2. thanks for the well researched blog. I also find i get acne breakouts when i drink milk (usually in latte) on regular basis. Not so much yogurt n cheese. I know this is an old post but its interesting that when peoplesay low carb high fat and we look at what that actually looks like with real food its really not that much more fat visually(unless you were doing low fat before). Couple of tbsp butter, some olive oil, an avocado, few nuts, some full fat yogurt plus whatever fat is in your meats and it can be achieved pretty quick. Its what we used to eat before the lowfat thing started. But when i calculate it out and say thats a 55%of calories (for my 1600 calorie day) from fat, my family freaks out saying OMG so much.