THE BLOG
10/03/2013 11:27 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

How I Learned to Give Up Junk Food and Embrace My Kitchen

I officially hate the standard American diet, and yet I grew up eating the American way.

I consumed super-thin Pepperidge Farm bread, JIF peanut butter, and Welch's grape jelly. Goldfish crackers. A ton of whole milk. Kraft American cheese. Velveeta in dips. Cheez-its. DiGiorno pizza. Tombstone pizza. Pizza everywhere. McDonalds as a treat. You name it, and I ate it. And I would like to believe by the grace of my genes and unchanging teen jeans' size, I still managed to resemble a knobby-kneed colt.

Until I realized something was wrong. You see, whoever came up with that saying "you are what you eat" was right.

While I looked healthy on the outside, I was a mess on the inside. This went on for years. My cholesterol in college was 247. 2-4-7. In critiquing my HDL and LDL levels, my doctor told me that number was reserved for overweight men. At that point, the only thing that felt more overweight was my guilt. (My Vitamin D count was also super low, but that didn't worry me for some reason. As it turns out, many people suffer from that.) The thing is, I felt that I had no one to blame but myself. I had led myself to this point, and I needed to assess why I consumed such awful food for years -- food that I thought tasted so good but in fact felt so wrong hours later...

I felt tired. Sometimes I felt exhausted. My head was in a fog at the mere age of 24. My mood was one of apathy even though I had a full-time job, great friends, and shared a nice apartment. How did I know this dazed and confused feeling might be from my diet? Instincts, perhaps. I figured there had to be some correlation between my energy levels and the junk that I was consuming day in, day out. My lack of energy and slight listlessness was driving me crazy and emboldened me to reach out to a good friend who had quit smoking and gone off the nutritious deep end. "Have you ever tried to change your diet?" she asked me.

There was no need to rack my brain; I had never seriously considered it. She then gave me suggestions for what to buy at a local organic market the next time I needed groceries. I bought everything on her list: cold-pressed olive oil, grass-fed meat, organic vegetables and fruits galore, and my one saving grace/treat, PopChips. I reviewed the list and thought it was ridiculous, knowing most of the food would go to waste, as it just sounded so bland.

Needless to say, I bought the food, laid it out on the counter and sent a picture to my friend as proof that I was going to change my ways of having Dominos on speed dial and slowly morph into Grocery Store Girl. On that day in 2011, my diet -- and my mentality -- changed forever.

(Let me just say, this endeavor was far from easy. There were times where I was cooking chicken and really just wanted to throw it out and dial the Chinese restaurant down the street for some oh-so-satisfying crab rangoon. But I somehow refrained.)

Fast forward a few months, and I was cooking grass-fed bison and organic sweet potatoes with sauces that did not contain high-fructose corn syrup. My trips to the supermarket became enjoyable -- not the bane of my existence. I was excited to buy and try everything, provided I could actually understand the nutrition and ingredients labels. If I didn't understand one thing, I put the product down and moved on. I began to not just cook, but enjoy cooking. It enlisted all my five senses to the max: the sound of a crisp onion being chopped by a sharp knife, the texture of potatoes as you peel them for baking or frying, the smell emanating from baking berry scones, the colors of fresh bell peppers. I could go on. I finally was not inhaling food like a human trash compactor but savoring its tastes and flavors. I became obsessed with buying cookbooks and reading them for fun. Call it what you will, but I slowly began to love this plethora of good food.

I then began to wonder: Was I alone in this endeavor?

It took one Saturday morning earlier this year for me to find out. I went to my local farmers' market in Brooklyn, just to browse the different vendors. I was blown away by a massive column of carrots and rows and rows of bell peppers at one stand, while the aroma of fresh bread permeated the entire market.

It wasn't just this sight that consumed me with optimism about my new-and-improved eating habits. Everyone around me seemed to be jovial -- carrying bags filled with fresh root vegetables and their dogs in tow. The market was packed, and I realized that not only did this small community support local food, but the farmers supported the community in giving them food that was ethically raised (obviously in the grass-fed, cage-free sense) and not scientifically enhanced with antibiotics, hormones and/or other artificial add ons. Money wasn't just being exchanged here like in the massive convenience stores or supermarkets; the patrons seemed to care about what was going into their bodies all the while supporting their local producers. They engaged in conversations and asked questions about the products and each farmer's history.

I was in awe, and I realized that I finally had an answer to my question: I, thankfully, wasn't alone in wanting to feel good about good food.

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