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Use the Power of Food to Reboot Your Metabolism, Upgrade Your Brain, and Transform Your Life
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If you look up the definition of picky eater in the dictionary, you’ll probably see a picture of four-year-old me there holding a fish stick. I remember many days parked in front of the television watching Cartoon Express while dipping my fish sticks into copious amounts of ketchup. To me, food was just a delivery system to get as much ketchup into my body as possible. I loved that I always got to eat my favorite foods. And I had the perfect conditions to get away with it.
My earliest memories are from living (and eating) at my grandmother’s house in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a magical, happy, peaceful place. Each day my grandmother would pack up my metal lunchbox (which I’m pretty sure is a class II deadly weapon now) embellished with my favorite cartoon character on the outside. The usual lunchbox trappings were a sandwich (white bread, meat, and cheese only, please), potato chips, a fruit roll-up, and a thermos full of that sweet, sweet nectar called fruit punch. I fondly remember taking my lunch to school and often saving half of it to stop and have a picnic with my little cousin, Candi, on our way home. There was a little area where we ducked behind some bushes to sit together, eat, and talk about life. Ya know, kid stuff.
At home with my grandparents, my daily meals generally consisted of some type of “meat,” which was usually in nugget form, French fries (which were an important part of my vegetable group), sandwiches, potato chips, canned corn, canned green beans, and the occasional fresh broccoli florets that snuck their way in. Various cereals, orange juice, eggs, and/or sausage for breakfast. Mix in several meals from fast food restaurants and that was my weekly rotation. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Many people may have eaten fast food growing up, but I was really about that life. I even had my birthday party at McDonald’s and, for me, it was a dream come true. I loved that place. The food (that always tasted the same), the toys in the Happy Meals, and the play area! The only thing that creeped me out a little was the cast of sketchy characters on the McDonald’s team. The clown boss himself (think “IT” but with a worse makeup artist), Hamburglar (who was literally a criminal), Grimace (who was severely overweight and apparently in chronic pain, thus the name), and Officer Big Mac (who literally had a huge hamburger for a head). Even though they were weird, they were basically family. Our relationship had me hooked at a very young age and only grew stronger as the years rolled on.
Now, you might think, “How on earth would a good parent/caretaker let you eat that way?” And that’s just the thing… my grandparents were good caretakers. In fact, I’d argue that they were the best. They taught me the importance of education, spent quality time with me, made holidays and special moments truly enchanting, and they always held me close and were proud of me, even though I was different.
I say that I was different because I was a little biracial kid living in a household with my two older, white grandparents. And this was during a time that it was definitely rare to see a situation like ours. But even though I probably stuck out like a caramel thumb with my curly afro when I was out with them, they never let me feel like I didn’t belong. It was much later, outside of their care, that I learned I was different. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
My grandmother, like many parents and grandparents, wanted me to feel like I was special. And one of the ways she did that was through food. In many ways, food is an expression of love. It’s not just stuff we eat. Food can be an act of service, a gift, a means of quality time, a channel for words of affirmation, and, more than anything, food can touch our mind and body like few things can. If you’ve ever read the book The 5 Love Languages, this might sound familiar to you. As humans, we all communicate and receive love through five basic methods: Acts of Service, Giving/Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, and Physical Touch. Food deliciously fits into all of those categories, and that’s why food is one of the most powerful things in our universe.
Since my grandmother communicated her love to me through food and she wanted me to be happy, she always bought the foods she knew I’d like. Whether it was homemade, fresh from the microwave, or straight out of a paper bag from a fast food joint, good vibes were attached to those meals. Plus, like many parents and caretakers, she just wanted to make sure the kid ate, period! I was already a skinny child, so getting those calories in me by any means necessary was only the right thing to do. You don’t want a kid wasting away on your watch!
Add on top of that the brilliant marketing by food manufacturers. Their messaging led parents to believe that these foods were the right choice for your growing kids. It’s fortified with vitamins and minerals and gives your little ones everything they need. Plus, if you wanted some extra insurance, just have the kiddos pop a couple of Flintstones vitamins. And even though it was just glorified candy, at least it might prevent a few kids from getting scurvy.
Now, what’s truly strange about this is that my grandmother and grandfather lived their lives differently from many of the people in our neighborhood. My grandmother tended her own vegetable garden (although I never touched any of her bounty), had a lush cellar where she kept jarred foods she prepared, and she even made ice cream from snow, one time. I know the wise saying is to never eat yellow snow, but that vanilla ice cream she made was pretty tasty. What I’m trying to say is that she took a healthier approach to things, as did my grandfather, who hunted and foraged for many years as well. But the pace of life and convenience of heavily processed food eventually got its grips into them too.
While I was sitting at my kiddie table nibbling on fried fish and watching cartoons, I know my grandfather was giving me occasional dirty looks from the kitchen. He was probably wondering why I got to eat what I wanted and my grandma was making him eat something different.
You see, since he had his first heart attack, the doctors recommended that he make some changes to his diet. One of the first things to be nixed was butter. Butter was now to be replaced with a vegetable oil spread. It must be healthier. It says vegetable in the name! Plus, the commercials say it’s better for you. On the commercials there were two pairs of hands (no faces) and the voices of a man and a woman. The hands were flirting with each other as they spread partially hydrogenated vegetable oil onto bread. I’d never seen hands flirt before. I knew that when I grew up I definitely wanted a relationship with flirty hands too.
With more health problems, including a second heart attack and open heart surgery, the pace of living in a major city had become too much for the old country boy inside my grandfather, so they decided to move back near his hometown, hours away, of Piedmont, Missouri. And that meant after second grade was over, I’d be moving back in full-time with my mom and dad in a different part of St. Louis.
My parents wanted to give me better opportunity, so that’s why I spent a few years living with my grandparents. At that time, it was really tough on my parents financially to get by, plus my little brother and sister had come along. Having me there was one extra mouth to feed, but we all made the adjustments and figured it out.
Third grade in a new school was a complete culture shock for me. In the blink of an eye I went from walking to school in a suburban neighborhood to busing to school within the inner city. I have to tell you, I loved riding the school bus. It was more time with friends and more time to goof around. But what I really loved about the new school was the food.
Instead of my grandmother packing me lunch, I now got to pick my own lunch with these magical red tickets. I was on the “free lunch program” designated for low-income households, but it felt like I was rich with that little ticket in my hands! I could pick pizza or chicken nuggets, juice or milk, an average apple or a jazzed up fruit cup, and no one was watching over me to see what I ate.
I adjusted to the new school pretty quickly overall, but one thing I refused to change was the way I ate at home. I remember my mom telling me that I wasn’t going to leave the kitchen table until I ate those beans. “Well, guess what, Mom? I’m willing to sit here all night. Are you?”
I eventually just wore my parents down to pure exhaustion and they relented to let me continue eating what I wanted. But now the pickings were a whole lot slimmer. My parents worked long hours to pay the bills, and we also received food stamps to help bridge the gap. When the food stamps would come in it was like Christmas. We would stock up the house with some of my favorites like canned ravioli, ramen noodles, and off-brand cereal. Instead of Froot Loops, we’d have Fruit Rings, instead of Rice Krispies it was Crispy Rice, instead of Cheerios I ate Toasty O’s. But it didn’t matter one bit to me because I would add so much sugar that by the end it looked like wet, white sand had settled at the bottom of my bowl.
The only problem was there was usually too much month left at the end of the money. Food Stamp Christmas would come and go and we’d be forced to do the best we could afterwards. But this also led to some of my most special food moments in my childhood.
You know how you open the refrigerator and stare into it for a while, like something you actually want to eat will magically appear? Well, it was one of those days. But it was also one of the rare moments that my father was there to make food for us for lunch. He was actually a professional chef and a phenomenal cook. But he worked such long hours and was constantly cooking for other people so he understandably didn’t cook that often at home. But, on this day, with nothing but some Texas Toast, some deer sausage that my grandfather made that was tucked away in the freezer, some government cheese, and a cheap jar of pasta sauce… this man made pizzas out of it!
Government cheese sure didn’t melt like Kraft cheese slices. Yet, this day, it seemed to melt just right. It definitely didn’t taste like a typical slice of pizza. But that wasn’t the point. It was the experience we all had. Having a food we enjoyed, eating it together, and watching him make something out of nothing really stuck with me for many years to come.
How the Cookie Crumbles
My comfortable eating habits continued into high school and everything seemed to be going as planned. I was getting good grades, on the student advisory committee, a scholar athlete award recipient, and I was even hand-picked as one of the first students eligible to take crossover college credits while still attending my high school classes. Although I was easily handling things academically, my heart was definitely focused on running.
I came in as the fastest freshman athlete by a long shot. But by my sophomore year things started to go sideways. The best description that I have is that it seemed like my body was fighting against me. I started to slow down and I didn’t feel like I had the freedom of movement I once had. It all came to a head at track practice one day while doing a 200-meter time trial.
I was at the starting blocks, my coach at the finish line with his stopwatch in hand. Bang! The gun goes off, and I sprint around the curve of the track. Heart racing, blood pumping, eyes focused on what’s in front of me. I’m leaning in slightly to my left side as I come off the curve into the straightaway, and as I’m about to straighten out to finish the final 100 meters, I hear another BANG! But this time it was coming from the inside of my body. I had just broken my hip.
Up until that point, I had never really been injured before, so I had no idea what had just happened. It was painful, but it was way more confusing than anything else. My leg wouldn’t move like I wanted to, I couldn’t stop limping, and my coach told me that I needed to go in for an X-ray and ultrasound.
The physician I saw said it appeared I had pulled a muscle and part of the iliac crest from my hip broke off along with it. “Ah, no big deal! Take some anti-inflammatories, use these crutches, and come in for an occasional treatment and you’ll be as good as new in no time.” That’s the attitude he seemed to have about it, and so I did too. But no one stopped to ask, how did a 15-year-old kid break his hip from simply running? And it wasn’t until five years later that I found out the answer.
After about a half a dozen more injuries and my dreams of playing collegiate sports vanquished, I was finally diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease and degenerative disc disease at the age of 20.
I was having leg pain (again) and my doctor sent me in for an MRI of my spine. He put the scan up for me to see and he showed me that I had two herniated discs (L4 and L5-S1) and that was the reason I was having so much leg pain. The sciatic nerves that ran through that area near the discs and down into my leg were being compressed. I was pretty psyched to finally know what the problem was, and so I immediately asked him, “How do we fix this?”
He took a step back from the MRI scans and looked at me. He told me that the discs were herniated because of severe degeneration. He said that he’d actually never seen this happen in someone so young. And he also told me that this was incurable.
My first reaction is that this guy’s head mirror must be on too tight. My second thought was, “Why does he even have a head mirror on in the first place? This is the year 2000 and this guy looks like he just stepped out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I mean, come on, Doc? This can’t be that bad. I feel pretty good other than some leg pain, I can’t have an incurable condition, can I?”
I asked him again, “Is there anything at all that I can do to fix this?” And, to this day, the next question I asked still baffles me. I had no grounds for asking this question. I had no grounds for understanding why this may have even mattered. But I asked him, “Does this have anything to do with what I am eating? Should I make some changes to my diet?”
To this, he cocked his head to the side and gave me a look of half irritation and half pity. Then he said these exact words: “This has nothing to do with what you’re eating.” He asserted, “This is something that just happens. And I’m sorry it happened to you. I know you’re just 20, but you have the spine of an 80-year-old person. We’re going to get you some medication to help you manage the pain. But, I’m sorry, son, this is just something you’re going to have to live with.”
I left there with my head down, feeling completely deflated. I was trying to process what had just happened and make some sense of it. Little did I know the biggest test was to come. And I was totally unprepared for it.
Starting from the Bottom
Over the course of the next two years, I went from having pain that was sort of a nuisance to chronic, debilitating pain. Even though I was on a slew of different medications, nothing seemed to help. And the sciatic pain was absolutely terrifying. Every time I’d stand up after sitting or lying down, it felt as if I was being electrocuted. A powerful, sharp pain would shoot down my leg so strongly that it would make me physically jerk back. It was painful and it was embarrassing. And since it only happened when I stood up, I subconsciously relented to stay sitting as much as possible.
Sitting or lying down for 95 percent of my days and eating what I affectionately call the T.U.F. Diet (Typical University Food) was definitely not a power combo for maintaining a sexy physique. We’ll just say I got fluffy, real fluffy. I ended up gaining about 40 pounds in those two years. And even though I had always been the skinny kid in my family, my fat genes kicked in with a vengeance.
Overweight, in chronic pain, and really lost, I was hanging on with my university classes by a thread. I went from a full credit load to barely scraping by with one class. Mustering up the energy to get there, plus the embarrassment of being seen, was just too much mentally. So, most of my days were spent sitting on my couch in my tiny college apartment playing video games and watching TV. The pros: I became awesome at video games. The cons: My condition just became worse and worse.
I continued to seek out help from different doctors. Unfortunately, they all told me the same thing. This condition is incurable. I’m sorry it happened to you so young. Here’s some medication to help you deal with the pain.
I felt so incredibly lost. My biggest struggle was sleeping at night because the pain would wake me up, so I was put on other medications for that, too. But it was really just pseudo-sleep because I never actually felt recovered. It was a battle to pull myself out of bed and I spent most of my days in a brain fog that I couldn’t snap out of. I needed help and I needed it fast because I was falling apart. And that light at the end of the tunnel would come in the most unexpected way, which brings me all the way back to the beginning of my story.
During the entire duration of this battle with my health, my grandmother would call to check in on me from time to time. I’d usually just brush her off and tell her that everything was fine. But it was not fine. And in her heart, she knew it.
She hadn’t given up on me, and her persistence led to an experience I’ll never forget. I was sitting on the edge of my bed one night, pill bottle in my hand, ready to knock a few back to hopefully help me sleep. I stared at the bottle for a while, and my grandmother came rushing into my mind. Even though my well-meaning physicians had given up on me getting better, she never did. From an early age she made me feel like I was going to do something special with my life. Now, here I was ready to throw in the towel just because things had gotten too hard.
I realized that it wasn’t just my hopes and dreams on the line, but it was the hopes and dreams of my grandmother and the rest of my family that I was sacrificing by not standing up for myself. Their hopes and dreams lived in me, too. And for the first time I realized that I had been giving my power away.
Even though my doctors had my best interests at heart, they did not walk in my shoes. And they did not have the final say about what was possible for me. What I had not done all of this time was get educated. I had no idea what was going on in my body, and I lived with my body all the time! It hit me like a ton of bricks how crazy that was. I had been passing the responsibility of my health off onto other people. Yes, they can be a valuable, supportive force, but the way I lived my life and how I took care of myself was up to me. And in that moment, everything changed.
I decided that I was going to learn everything I could about human health and wellness. In my university classes we learned a lot about disease, but there was very little discussion about what creates a vibrant, healthy human being. We had the typical items tossed at us in a very general way: Eat healthy food and exercise. But the details were dryer than wearing sandpaper nipple pasties in the Sahara Desert.
The legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “It’s the details that are vital. Little things make the big things happen.” And I was dedicated to uncovering the details. I became obsessed with understanding the intricacies of the cellular communities that make us up. I asked important questions like: If my bones and spine are degenerating (losing cells) what are those cells actually made out of? What is all of this extra weight I’m carrying made out of? And what can I do to positively influence what all of these cells are doing?
What I didn’t realize at the time was that questions really are the answer. On an anatomical level, there are specific regions of the human brain that are driven by questions. In fact, questions trigger a mental reflex known as instinctive elaboration. When your brain is posed a question, it instantly kicks into gear to find an answer to it (whether you realize it consciously or not). Your brain wants to find the answers to questions (which you can use to your advantage—and we’ll talk more about this later!). But the basis of it is asking the right questions which will guide you to where you want to be.
I asked, “What are my bones and spine made of?” and that sent me searching down a familiar tunnel that I had only peeked into before. Looking in, you get a glimpse that your bones are made of the nutrients you take in, but only one is standing close to the doorway because it’s being pushed there by marketing. If I were to ask you which nutrient do you need for strong bones, you’d probably say, “Calcium!” with great confidence like I did. But I found out that bone formation requires a constant supply of other key nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin D, and potassium. Even omega-3 essential fatty acids have been found to contribute to bone mineral density, specifically in the hips!
I was hardly getting any of those things on my drive-thru window diet. My eating habits that were established as a kid were now taking a serious bite out of my bones. How on earth could my body regenerate those tissues if it doesn’t have the raw materials to do so? Our bodies are resilient and will do a patchwork job, but without the right materials, your physical building will fall apart. And that’s what was happening to me.
Not only that, emerging research has shown that the overconsumption of sugar is a huge contributing factor to bone degeneration. Ever since I was a child, my one consistent food relationship was with sugar. We were together through the good times and the bad, but it had stabbed me in the back like a cellular episode of Game of Thrones.
Even though the physician who gave me the initial diagnosis said that changing my diet didn’t matter, what I was eating did matter. And it mattered more than anything I could’ve imagined.
Every single cell in our bodies is made out of the food that we eat, and, more astonishingly, what we eat largely controls every action that our cells take. There was an entirely new field of science that was soaring to the forefront called epigenetics. I first learned about it through a lecture from renowned cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton, and it just about knocked my socks right off my feet. The prefix epi means “above,” and epigenetics is the study of our cellular function above genetic control. I was led to believe that I was simply the victim of some bad genetic cards, and that my health problems were something that “just happens.” But, in reality, I had elicited the function of several epigenetic factors that were causing my DNA to “print out” lower quality copies of me.
We all have genes for things associated with health (like optimal blood cell function, the production of healthy myelin in our brains, and adequate bone mineral density), but we all also have genes correlated with what we refer to as disease (including abnormal brain cells, dysregulated blood sugar, and suppressed immune system function). What I learned from my conversations with Dr. Lipton was that our environment, our lifestyle factors, and even our diet are controlling how our genes are being expressed every moment. And, today, there are blossoming fields of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics that are showing us how every bite of food we eat can impact the function of every cell in our bodies. The power isn’t just in our hands, it’s also at the end of our forks.
Results Speak Louder
After that moment of decision while sitting on the edge of my bed, my life has never been the same. Eating smarter and making some powerful changes to my lifestyle resulted in losing nearly 20 of those unwanted pounds within just a couple of months, I was sleeping better without medication, my energy levels skyrocketed, and—most important for me at the time—I was able to get out of pain.
Within the year I had some new testing done that revealed my bone density had normalized and my two herniated discs had retracted back into their proper position. Where there was once degeneration that caused my discs to look like two crispy slices of poorly cut bologna (weird, but true), the light from the scan now shined through them beautifully. It illuminated my heart and I left there with my head held high and a new mission in front of me.
The transformation I experienced led to a deep passion to help other people experience the same things that I had. I switched all of my studies in college to health and wellness and set off to work with thousands of people over the following decade. To respectfully paraphrase the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I didn’t see the whole staircase, but I took the first step. And each successive step led to new things and greater impact. From clinical and corporate work, to writing bestselling books, to speaking on some of the biggest stages, to launching a #1 health podcast. The journey has been out of this world for me, but it all started out of my greatest challenges all of those years ago, sitting alone in the dark. Little did I know that those challenges were there to bring out the best in me. And thankfully I had someone there to remind me of that.
So, today, I want to remind you of that. No matter what you’ve been through, no matter how things might have gone in the past, today marks a new moment in your history. You are powerful beyond measure to affect change in your life, and the power of food is one of the greatest tools to help you do it. Here in these pages you will discover how food impacts your life in a myriad of ways that will change your life forever. You will learn how food affects your body composition, your relationships, your cognitive health, and more. But, most important, you’ll learn how it all works in a way you never have before. This is a new way, a smarter way, to become the best version of yourself. The journey awaits, and all you have to do is take the first step.
EATING FOR FAT LOSS
Make the Connections
I’m allergic to food. Every time I eat it breaks out into fat.
~Jennifer Greene Duncan
Food and fat have an interesting relationship. In fact, you could even say they’re besties. Our body fat has evolved over countless millennia to take what we eat and store it away for safekeeping. And it’s really, really good at it.
Your body fat’s number one concern is to keep you alive. So, trying to get rid of it can be the equivalent of trying to jump out of an airplane. Whether you have on a parachute or not, your fat is going to be fighting you to stay where it is. Even though it might be OK to take the leap and let go, why take the risk if it doesn’t have to?
- "If you have been looking for an owner’s manual for your body, if you are looking for how to make sense of the latest science of nutrition and how to Eat Smarter, look no further than this comprehensive book that provides a clear roadmap for eating well, feeling well, and thriving for life."—Mark Hyman, MD, author of Food Fix
- "Shawn has a way of writing that fuels your desire to learn and better understand food and nutrition. Eat Smarter is the perfect balance between science and what to actually do with the science! I feel like I went to college again and took a course with my favorite professor. This book is a game-changer and a must-read! You'll close this book and feel like the most intelligent person at your next dinner table.”—Shaun T., author of T is for Transformation
- "Eat Smarter offers an empowering and relatable compilation of personal stories deftly interwoven with informative science that is sure to awaken young and old to the miraculous health turnabouts available to us if we choose to take responsibility for our health."—Cate Shanahan, MD, author of The Fat Burn Fix
“Eat Smarter is a critically important book that shows the connection between food and overall mental, cognitive, and physical health. It is well-researched, easy to read, and will help you be smarter, healthier, and happier.”
—Daniel G. Amen, MD, founder of Amen Clinics and author of The End of Mental Illness
- “In Eat Smarter, Shawn Stevenson brings his unique blend of authenticity, passion, and command of cutting-edge concepts to show you how to use food to impact your life — from your metabolism to cognitive performance, and even your relationships.”—William W. Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease
- On Sale
- Dec 29, 2020
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Little Brown Spark