You could say that I’ve been blessed with good genes. No cancer in my family, no history of diabetes. My body mass index is in the normal range, and I’ve never struggled with my weight.
So why am I giving my DNA all the credit? Well, you don’t know how I used to eat.
If the food’s been processed, packaged, dyed, or genetically engineered, it’s been in my stomach. My wife would browse broccoli at the grocery store; I was a 7-Eleven man.
I bought sugar stuffed in cellophane. I ate premade lunches that featured atomic-orange cheese. I would knock back a Coke Slurpee and be ready for action. I ate like a teenager for two decades because I never had to face the negative impact of my decisions.
That is, until last year. As I inched closer to my 40th birthday, the food I was consuming began to fight back.
It started this past spring with my stomach gurgling when I tried to sleep. It moved to the middle-of-the-night heartburn stage a few months later.
Most days I felt tired, lethargic, beaten. I’d sit in my office in downtown Denver and look at my preservative-laden lunch, wondering if that was the culprit.
“Why do I keep doing this to myself?” I asked the sandwich one time.
By November, after a particularly sleepless week, I’d had enough. I needed to change. That’s when I decided to give myself the most radical remake of my adult life.
One night after work I devised the plan: I’d live organically for 30 days—no breaks—and then see how I felt afterward.
But I’d also take this beyond food. I wanted to make it a lifestyle. That meant no artificial junk of any kind. Everything—the beef I’d ingest, the shampoo I’d use on my hair, the underwear that would cover my butt—would be 100 percent organic.
“You’re crazy,” my wife told me.
My two kids thought I was stupid.
I knew there’d be skeptics. I was one of them.
My decision to overhaul my eating was based on a common assumption about organic food: that the stuff is better for you.
As it turns out, the science has been a bit unsettled, at least until recently. But in 2014, the British Journal of Nutrition analyzed a whopping 343 studies and concluded that organic food generally had higher concentrations of antioxidants and a far lower incidence of residual pesticides than conventionally grown food.
Still, what really sold me was the anecdotal evidence. I have friends and coworkers who’ve gone organic and espoused the benefits. They told me their meals never tasted better.
They have more energy. They’re thinking more clearly. It was hard to dismiss their stories—or the sheer number of people making the shift.
In 2012, organic food sales in the United States hit roughly $28.4 billion. Last year that number was expected to reach $35 billion. And according to a recent Morgan Stanley report, the organic and natural food industry will continue to grow an estimated 9 percent a year.
Organic products, the USDA notes, are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and roughly three out of four conventional grocery stores. Places like Costco, Target, and Walmart are filling their shelves too, carrying a host of 100 percent organic foods ranging from salsa to whole wheat spaghetti.
Yes, even Walmart. But what did I do? I started with the Nordstrom of organic: Whole Foods.
As I walked the aisles, it was like my high school prom all over again: Me grabbing at stuff I didn’t know how to use, just because it was there.
I checked out deodorants, shampoos, toilet cleaners. I loaded up on organic chocolate bars, $15 facial scrubs, grated cheese, arugula. The packages were so enticing, so beautiful. I wanted it all.
After half an hour, I stared into my basket and realized I’d filled it with a bunch of unnecessary stuff. I’ve never used a facial scrub in my life.
Looking back, I see I made a rookie mistake. When you’re stocking your fridge and pantry and bathroom from square one, you need to think about staples and build from there.
(Add these 20 Best Organic Foods to your grocery list to upgrade your diet, strengthen your body, and help heal the planet.)
“You go for foods like rice, oatmeal, tomatoes, leafy greens, and citrus, all of which are readily available in good quality and can be used as the backbone of your diet,” says Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources at Washington State University.
“By expanding the percentage of calories you’re getting from those staples, cooked into various meals, you avoid the cheap, processed alternatives that make up such a big part of the average American diet.”
I reset and grabbed some bread, tortillas, milk, cereal–the basics.
Then I went home and plotted my next course: a new wardrobe.