New food habits and food shopping in the city

When it comes to food, I’ve been shifting towards a whole-food, plant-based diet over the past 3 or 4 years. The first few changes were to stop forcing myself to eat mean (or animal protein) when I didn’t feel like it, and to start eating more different types of greens than the ones I grew up with. Now that I’m in New York City for a few months, I’m also really excited to try local products like Granola Lab. There are so many cool things coming out of New York, Brooklyn especially!

What I have trouble with is how to balance all of the possible adjectives: seasonal, local, sustainably harvested, whole, unprocessed, unrefined, fresh aka not frozen or canned, non-GMO (genetically modified organism, usually corn and other plant products), no preservatives, organic, raw, natural

It’s overwhelming!

There are so many options, and incomplete information to boot. I’ve found that you have to choose your battles for the time being, until it becomes automatic, then choose some new battles. The one thing to be conscious of is that “natural” is not a regulated term in the food industry. Any ol’ company can slap that on a label and put it on the shelves! The term that is regulated, however, is organic (although it is not as chemical free as you might think, check the exceptions to the rules). Usually items will have the USDA organic label, or non-GMO labels from a third party certifier. I’m not going to get much into this here, since it could take an entire book to explain these things.

My current approach with food is to not put too much weight on any of those words, but mostly try to look at how fresh and what kinds of produce I’m buying and what ingredients are used to make a product. It is hard to get a sense for what process made the food that is packaged and put on the shelves, so I try to avoid packaged goods whenever I can.

Changes I’ve made

The major changes I’ve made so far have been:

  • more green leafy veggies
  • less animal protein (some poultry and fish; very little pork; virtually no beef)
  • less than 50% carbs or starches
  • more pulses and beans

Some changes that are harder to stick to, but I’m working on it:

  • less salt
  • fewer processed foods (trying to get it as close to zero as possible, but it’s hard!)

Current goals:

  • animal protein as 5% of food intake
  • at least 50 grams of protein per day


My current goals are to increase protein intake since I’m training pretty hard nowadays, but at the same time minimize animal protein. Sounds tricky, doesn’t it? I should ideally be eating about 50 to 100 grams of protein every day, but I want to keep my animal protein consumption to about 5% of my daily or weekly food intake. I don’t believe in cutting out anything from your diet (except, perhaps, for processed foods), which is hard to explain when people ask me if I’m vegetarian. Being mostly vegetarian, I still get protein once or twice a week from animal sources. It confuses people that I wouldn’t just go all the way vegetarian. At the moment, I still feel that I need animal protein a few times a week because of fitness and training activities, plus I still enjoy eating salmon. But, it is possible to gain muscle and be vegan at the same time, so maybe someday I will commit to taking animal products out of my diet completely just by progressing in the way that I am.

Changing your habits

If you are thinking about changing your food habits, think about what you can achieve relatively painlessly and aim for that first. It isn’t a race, but if it is, there are no shortcuts. Do what works for you at first, but with measurable goals in sight so that you can inch your way there. This doesn’t mean you have to measure the things that you eat to the last calorie or gram. You could do a rough measure, for example, only having meat one meal in a day, two meals in a week, once a week, etc.

Kale mac n cheese

Add kale to your mac n cheese for a burst of green leafy goodness!

Buying food!

For food shopping in New York, I tend to go to mostly go to Fairway, Whole Foods, sometimes Trader Joe’s, and the Union Square farmer’s market aka Green market. Fairway has nearly everything I could want or need, but also carries lots of tempting things like Triscuits and potato chips. Whole Foods usually has anything else I could want, including lots of dried beans and pulses in the bulk bin section. They also have a very large tea and coffee section that usually takes up 2 sections of shelves.

In general, when you are food shopping, try to buy fresh produce that you know you will use pretty soon, in order to avoid having things go bad in your fridge. If that means only one bunch of leafy greens for just that night, then that is ok! If you over buy, you will end up feeling guilty for not using it up and that won’t be helpful for meeting your goals. If you can buy for the week, great! Go for it! Dried products like dried beans or lentils will keep for a long time, so feel free to stock them in your pantry. If you like the convenience of frozen or canned, start with that, but know that you should be trying to move towards fresh whenever it is possible.

The farmer’s market is awesome for seasonal vegetables, fruits, fresh milk and milk products, and some special things like vegan baked goods, flowers and plants, jams, and others. I even bought specialty garlic powder once that was flavored with rosemary! It was great on everything! Stalls and stands will only have vegetables and fruits that are in season, so in the winter they mostly have apples, potatoes, and other root vegetables. It has been warming up now, though, so it should be asparagus season! Check out the Locavore app or one of the other apps for what is in season in your area!

Union Square Green Market

Union Square Green Market

How I do this (kinda) cheaply

I’m still on a graduate student budget, so I can’t make all of the changes or additions that I would like. But the changes that are affordable have been eating more leafy greens, and adding more pulses and beans to my diet. Not eating much meat or animal protein cuts some expenses, as does only buying produce that I’m going to use soon (prevents waste). Some stands at the farmer’s market will have markdowns towards the end of their day to get rid of stuff they haven’t sold yet, so I try to go for that. A last thing that I do that might now work for everyone is that I control how much I eat. I don’t have a very large stomach, so I eat small volumes for lunch and dinner and have some healthy snacks in between meals. I would say the volume for each meal is anywhere from 10 to 20 ounces. This means that things that I’ve cooked can usually last for a few meals.

Nut and fruit mix

Nut and dried fruit medley for a healthy snack!

Putting your food where your mouth is

I think the most important thing during this process is thinking about and learning what is actually food and what you are putting in your body. If you’d like to get more into food issues, I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan‘s books, and Barbara Kingsolver‘s book. Currently, I’m reading Whole by T. Colin Campbell.

In the end, eating is a cultural and psychological process. We’ve trained our tastebuds to expect certain things at the expense of our health, and it is up to us to change the signals.