[Little did I know that a simple experiment in 2012 would change my life. After blogging about this diet, it turned into something much bigger. This year (2013) I launched a new healthy-eating movement and food blog devoted to unprocessed “one ingredient” foods. If you’d like to read more about The One Ingredient Diet, I’ve launched a new project called One Ingredient Chef where I show you how to cook the best food of your life while becoming healthier than ever before.]
This experiment is based on an eating plan I developed called The One Ingredient Diet. In my experience, this is the simplest, healthiest, and most natural way of eating.
Before we get too far, The One Ingredient Diet has nothing to do with eating just one food (like grapefruit) all day long. The name is based on the idea of eating whole, natural foods that contain only one ingredient. The plan can be explained with just one single rule:
Everything you eat must start as one whole ingredient.
You can combine ingredients to form meals, but everything must start out as one whole ingredient that is right in front of you as you prepare it. For example, you could make guacamole with an avocado, a tomato, a jalapeno, cilantro, and juice from a lime. But you could not buy a package of preservative-laden guacamole.
Or, you could make a bowl of oatmeal with rolled oats, raisins and walnuts, but not a packet of instant Quaker oats with sugars, salts, preservatives, etc.
This rule is very simple to follow. When you scan food labels at the store, it should have just one ingredient or you don’t buy it. The label should look like this: “Ingredient: Almonds.” and nothing else.
This diet is also 100% vegan and plant-based as I have been eating for over 3 years. So no meats, fish, eggs, or dairy products. Specifically, the diet consists of the following:
- Whole fresh vegetables
- Whole fresh/dried fruits
- Whole grains (wheat, oats, quinoa, etc.)
- Whole legumes (beans, lentils, etc.)
- Whole nuts and seeds
There are two exceptions that I am going make during this experiment:
- Sea salt. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy some items without sea salt. I’ll make every effort to buy the salt-free version of foods, but this isn’t always practical. For example, every can of beans contains water and sea salt. Refined sodium chloride (table salt), however, is not allowed.
- Oils. Oils are not a whole food, but I am making an exception for the rare teaspoon of canola oil to sauté vegetables or flax oil on a salad, but no large quantities of oil. Specifically, I am allowing canola oil, coconut oil, and flax oil. Again, only rarely and in small amounts.
I’ll be taking no medications (as normal), and no supplements other than a daily multivitamin.
Pop Quiz: Which one of these items would be allowed on The One Ingredient Diet?
See? This isn’t too complicated, is it?
I’m sure this diet is nothing new – this was the only way people ate until the last century – and there is nothing special about it. This version was simply developed through my own trial and error over the last several months.
There are two things that make this diet so powerful: 1) it automatically cuts out virtually all preservatives and processed foods. 2) Natural whole foods are packed with real nutrition that fight disease and promote overall good health.
Plus, without the preservatives and animal fats/mucuses/hormones causing blockages in your body, the nutrients are readily absorbable, giving you the energy you need to thrive.
To really understand the value of a diet like this, we must first take a look at the deplorable state of our food system…
Food Vs. Industrialized Food-Like Products
Imagine you go through the drive-thru at McDonalds and get a Big Mac, french fries, and a Coke. How many ingredients would you imagine you’re eating in this meal? Well, there’s a bun, some veggies, cheese, beef patty, potatoes, and a Coke. So maybe… 15 ingredients?
There are about 103 distinct ingredients in that one meal, many of which are chemicals or preservatives, and it contains virtually no whole ingredients. I was planning on listing them all here, but it is simply too long. You’d be scrolling for 5 minutes. Note: I didn’t count water and tried to cancel out a few duplicates, but my count is just a rough estimate. [source]
“But wait!” you say. “Everyone knows that McDonald’s is bad for you, so I’m not surprised…” Do you think it would be a healthier idea to skip McDonalds and drive across the shopping center to Subway?
Nope. In fact, it would be worse. A Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sub on Italian Herb bread with Doritos and a Coke has 151 ingredients! That’s more than the Big Mac Meal! Again, there are too many to list here, but the source is linked. [source]
Why is no one talking about this? The fat and calorie content of foods get all the publicity. You’ll hear outlandish comparisons of how many grams of fat are in this item compared to that, or how many calories are in a Big Mac.
Sure, those things are important, but what about the dangers of eating 150 distinct ingredients within the span of 20 minutes – most of which are genetically modified, chemically engineered, and then processed? We can only imagine what kind of havoc this wreaks on our bodies.
In fact, with the advent of heavily processed foods (or more accurately, ‘food-like items’) in the middle of the 1900’s, there has been a correlating rise in diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and dozens (hundreds?) of other negative health risks like obesity. See the study linked below.
We have to ask ourselves… what changed? The fats and carbohydrates were still there. People still ate french fries and hamburgers. The difference is, the world has undergone a massive process of industrialization over the last 100+ years that has affected every area of our lives – especially food.
Now, we don’t merely grow our food, we engineer it. Between genetic modifications of plant species, synthetic chemical additives, and tremendous processing, food is no longer food. The stuff we eat is engineered to give us the calories needed to survive, but is it giving us the nutrition we need to thrive?
See the research paper: Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet. It says: “In the United States and most Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality.”
Quite simply, our diets are the primary cause of sickness and death. Something so simple and easy to prevent is killing all of us! Think of all the billions of dollars that go into cancer research when cancer prevention can be as close as a few smarter dietary choices.
The incredible medical advances are offset by our horrendous diets that literally rip our bodies apart, cell by cell, decade after decade. There is now plenty of research to show how switching to a whole food, plant-based diet can not only prevent diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but it can also permanently reverse their effects.
The research is secondary to me, though. My personal experiences are enough to show me that eating processed food actually lowers my energy levels and lowers my quality of life. In contrast, whole foods (free from processing and additives) make me feel absolutely fantastic.
A century ago, food was simple. This experiment is designed to take my eating habits back to that kind of simplicity, where food is once again food.
What I’ll Be Eating
The first question you might be thinking is, “what exactly am I going to eat on this diet?”
The short answer is the stuff in the picture above. Again, the diet is also completely vegan/plant-based and most of the calories come from fruits, grains, legumes, and nuts. Here’s a long and random list of some of the things I’ll be eating:
Various fresh vegetables, leafy greens, apples, bananas, citrus fruits, tropical fruits, almonds, edamame, peanuts/peanut butter, dried goji berries, raisins, black beans, pinto beans, Garbonzo beans, brown rice, oats, whole wheat, quinoa, and much more.
I will NOT be eating the following:
- Processed foods
- Fast food
- All packaged foods with > 1 ingredient
- Baked products & breads (unless I find a whole ingredient recipe)
- Refined sugars, chocolate, and sweets
Having been a vegan for over 3 years, food preparation probably won’t be too big of a challenge. This diet includes basically the same things on any plant-based diet, without anything complex or processed.
My breakfast will likely be the same each morning throughout the experiment, including a green smoothie (spinach, banana, strawberry, flax seed) and a monster bowl of cereal (rolled oats, wheat berry flakes, walnuts, raisins, and soy milk). I have actually been eating this breakfast for over a month already and I love it. It keeps me full all morning, gives me tons of energy, and has over 30 grams of protein.
For lunch today I made a black bean dip with a can of mashed black beans, a few spices, cilantro, and avocado. Then, I wrapped them in romaine leaves. I also had a handful of almonds and goji berries. This meal was about 450 calories with 27 grams of protein. It’s now a few hours later and I still feel full, clear-minded, and energetic.
One thing that presents a challenge is milk substitutes. Store-bought soy and almond milks contain more than one ingredient, so I have been experimenting with making my own. I’ll probably make a 3-4 day batch of one and alternate back and forth. These are super easy to make with a good blender and there are plenty of great recipes online if you’re interested in trying it yourself. [See Soy Milk Recipe or Almond Milk Recipe]
Over the next few weeks, I’ll compile an article with some of my favorite whole food and one ingredient recipes that I have been experimenting with. Stay tuned for that.
Why I’m Doing This
It seems like I’m a pretty healthy eater on the surface. And it is true that I eat a healthier diet than 95% of the western world – I get plenty of fruits and vegetables, eat primarily whole grains, no animal products, etc. Yet, I felt like it wasn’t enough to simply eat plant-based foods, there were still too many processed multi-ingredient foods in my diet that often made me feel tired and unhealthy.
On the other side, whenever I ate a meal that aligns with The One Ingredient Diet, I would feel an immediate and lasting surge of energy, creativity, and happiness. It affected my body, mind, and mood. The effects of natural foods were too strong to ignore.
That’s why I am taking whole ingredient foods to the extreme for the next 30 days. Not only will it be an eye-opening experience, it will instill a deeper habit of staying away from complex processed foods.
I don’t know how this experiment will turn out. I do expect to make long-term changes that will cut out virtually all multi-ingredient foods, but I might not continue it at such an extreme level after the initial 30 days. I’m still looking forward to a vegetarian burrito from Chipotle in June
Also, these last few days have made the importance of natural foods painfully obvious to me. To prepare for this experiment, I began eating every processed item in my house so that I wouldn’t have to throw too much food away once I started. This was the clearest evidence of why I should be eating one ingredient foods.
After enough tofurky hot dogs, processed soy products, preservative-laden foods, and 50-ingredient meals, I began to feel the effects. I was sluggish. My mental capacities were diminished and each of these meals lowered my overall energy. (Obvious tip of the day: when food—your source of energy—lowers your energy, stop eating that stuff!).
I have done enough experimentation and research to determine that food deeply affects every aspect of our lives. Whole, nutrient-rich food raises the quality of life. Processed, nutrient-deficient food drags down the quality of life. I have found diet to impact everything from physical energy, to creativity, to mental outlook, to work ethic/discipline, to relationships, to overall happiness and beyond.
Then there are the long-term effects of a healthy diet, like disease prevention, increased lifespan, reduced healthcare costs (for individuals and governments), dramatically lower environmental effects, and so much more.
Update: Day #8
This is day #8 on my 30-day experiment of The One Ingredient Diet and I wanted to give you an update on my progress and share some of my favorite recipes that I have been experimenting with over the past week. First, a quick recap of how this experiment is going:
Processed Food Withdrawals
Now on day #8, I feel pretty amazing on this diet. I experienced some withdrawal symptoms for the first 4-5 days, not as severe as something like giving up coffee, but still disruptive. I was more tired than normal, moody, and seriously craving a piece of bread or a brownie.
Even more severe than the physical withdrawals have been the mental/emotional habits. I never considered myself to be much of a comfort eater, but snap peas just don’t satisfy your cravings. After a meal, I would often have a piece of dark chocolate or a small ‘healthy’ dessert. No more of that.
It has been unnerving to finish eating a huge meal with plenty of healthy calories only to feel like something is missing. It’s not hunger, but more of a craving for something processed. I still feel this way, but it is getting better. I expect it to take another week or so before I break the habit and rewire my brain to be satisfied with healthy foods. This rewiring process is precisely why I committed to this plan for a full 30 days.
I feel like I have lived this last week in the kitchen. Much like when I switched to a vegetarian and then vegan diet, the question “what am I gonna eat?!” is constantly going through your mind. Sure, you can plan out 2-3 meals in advance, but when you have to eat this way for every meal, day after day, it can be discombobulating at first.
Fortunately, I am starting to get the hang of it and it’s not taking quite as long to prepare meals. Eating this way is already becoming normal to me and I can feel the positive effects.
I started off making my own soy and almond milks, which only adds another layer of difficulty. Luckily, a wonderful reader, emailed me that Trader Joe’s has soy milk with just soybeans and water. It was fun to try making my own, but being able to buy it has saved a lot of time.
I am naturally very scrawny (6’1″ and about 145 lbs.) and I have been my whole life. It seems as if my body does everything it can to rid itself of all unnecessary weight.
Nevertheless, I went on a big push to build as much muscle as I could during the month of April. I started eating a lot of processed high-protein foods, stopped running so much, and lifted weights 2x per week. It was a struggle that took an insane amount of effort, but I was able to gain a whopping 4 pounds.
On this whole food diet, I have eaten just as many calories, but my body immediately stripped away that extra weight. By day 4, I was back to where I started at the beginning of April. This doesn’t bother me. I realized that trying to fight my natural weight is a losing battle. There is no reason to force myself to bulk up when my body will do everything it can to stay thin. If you’ve read my blog for long enough, you’ll know that I’m not one for coercing nature. Time to take my own advice and let my body do what it knows to be best.
Positive Health Benefits
It might be a little too early to tell how this diet has positively/negatively affected by life. After the first few days of withdrawals, I have noticed that I have a little more energy (mostly spent cooking. Ha!), and mental clarity/creativity. And despite the weird brownie cravings after each meal, I do feel happier and more content with the food I eat. However, these feelings are not too dramatic so far.
I was previously eating a fairly healthy diet and had no health problems. So, I’m not sure there is too much to be gained in terms of measurable health benefits for me. Since I’m still going through the adjustment period, I’ll save a full health update for the final 30-day post-mortem on this experiment. We shall see!
Final Update: Day #30
On May 31st I finished my trial of the One Ingredient Diet. If you aren’t familiar with this experiment, I set out to eat foods that contained only one whole ingredient for the entire month of May.
This experience was challenging, but very positive. It helped me gain an even better appreciation for health and nutrition on a deeper level. I covered some of the changes above in my mid-trial update, and this will cover a few postmortem observations now that I am finished.
In terms of health benefits, I didn’t see many changes from this experiment. I lost about 2 pounds (much to my dismay, as I’m trying to gain weight). I also had slightly more energy and more clarity, but nothing major. This is probably because I was already eating fairly healthy and at my ideal weight. In other words, I didn’t have a whole lot to gain in terms of measurable results.
For me, the challenge was more about curiosity and the inner benefits of eating a diet that is more wholesome and natural. In those terms, I definitely noticed an improvement. Food was more enjoyable and by eating a more natural diet, my body and mind felt more “wholesome” as well.
“Food preparation won’t be too big of a challenge.” Ha.
In the original post, I mentioned that “food preparation probably won’t be too big of a challenge.” I don’t know what I was thinking! I spent more time in the kitchen this month than I have in my entire life (not really).
After making homemade salsa… and homemade tortilla chips to go with the salsa… you only have 30 minutes to eat them and do the dishes before it’s time to make the next meal! It was totally overwhelming at times and it took a while to get smart, plan ahead, and simplify.
The positive side of this is that I feel like I went through a month-long intensive cooking school. By making all of my meals from scratch, I have an even better appreciation for cooking. My hippie loaf and dal bhat skills are now pretty formidable.
If you see the Moving Forward section below, this is one change I plan on making now that the experiment is over. I want to give myself the freedom to buy multiple ingredient foods, but where each ingredient is something I could buy and prepare myself.
The Adjustment Period
For about the first 3 weeks, I had major cravings for a piece of dark chocolate or a brownie. After each meal, I would feel like something was missing. Even though I had plenty of calories, I never felt full. But after about 3 weeks, those cravings went away and the diet became totally normal. Making this shift seem “normal” was the whole point of doing the experiment for full month. It gave my body and mind time to make a permanent adjustment.
This adjustment also extends to the outside changes as well. The diet reoriented everything from meal planning, to food preparation, to grocery shopping, and beyond. as I mentioned in the first update, you’re often wondering what you’ll fix for dinner and you quickly get sick of the same 2-3 things over and over again (I hate you, brown rice!). But after a while, it just becomes a normal way of eating and the permanent shift has been made.
Diabetes & The One Ingredient Diet
What I didn’t tell you in the original post was that I
asked forced my mother to do this as well. While there are some things I can learn from myself, I mentioned above that there wasn’t much to be gained for myself in terms of health benefits. I asked my mother to participate because 1) I knew she could really benefit from these dietary changes and 2) to give the experiment more contrast to see the results (if any).
She has type 2 diabetes and has long struggled with weight management and eating a proper diet. Although I coerced her to start eating a plant-based diet several years ago, we still had some room for improvement. The results of this diet were incredible.
We kept a log of her blood sugar levels during April (pre-diet) and May (One Ingredient Diet) and recorded the averages. Her average blood sugar levels dropped 10% in the mornings, and a full 15% in the evenings. This is without any changes to exercise or other adjustments. The diet alone cut her evening blood sugar levels from 180 to 161. The trend was getting even better towards the end of the month, and I expect these numbers to keep dropping as she continues the diet (which she will be doing).
Even more notably, her blood sugar levels spiked above 200 only one time during the entire month. This is contrasted with 7 200+ spikes during April. Not only has the diet lowered her average, it has also kept it far more steady, which is just as important.
Here’s a chart showing the pre-diet blood sugar levels in purple, and one ingredient diet numbers in green:
In addition, she lost about one pound per week, which would be a steady 30 pounds by the end of the year, bringing her close to her ideal weight. And of course, she has more energy and feels so much better.
While this is just one example and a month isn’t long enough for definitive results, it’s very encouraging. Other research also points that this type of a diet, combined with vigorous exercise 5-6 days per week, could prevent (even cure) the epidemics of diabetes and obesity. It’s frightening how simple these things are to prevent.
On that note, I watched an amazing video several weeks ago. It’s called How to Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind. It isn’t specifically about this diet, but very similar topics. Doug Lisle clearly lays out the reasons for obesity and the struggles of weight loss. This video is 70 minutes long, but highly worth the time. It is probably the single most powerful thing I have ever seen on health and nutrition. You can watch it below:
On June 1, the day after this experiment ended, I went a little overboard. I ate all the things I was dreaming about: a piece of chocolate, a burrito from chipotle, and some Japanese-style fried rice. I felt sluggish, drained, and had no energy. That contrast made it clear to me how effective this diet really is. I quickly realized the difference between eating junk food and one-ingredient foods.
After all that hard work to instill this new habit, I immediately cut off that pattern of eating junk food before it got out of control. I have decided to continue eating this diet for the foreseeable future with a few exceptions…
There are a few things that add convenience without stretching the rules too far. It seems reasonable to buy multi-ingredient foods that are made up of one ingredient foods. Like crackers with brown rice, quinoa, sesame seeds, and salt are perfectly fine. No need to spend 4 hours buying those ingredients and making them yourself. Same with tortilla chips, granola, tempeh, and soy yoghurt.
This month made it clear that this is the right diet for me. The process of eating feels much more whole, complete, and balanced – and so does my body and mind.
If you have the interest and courage, why not give this a try for a month? You’ll learn a lot about food and even more about yourself.
Again, if you’d like to learn more, please visit One Ingredient Chef with more information on the diet and plenty of deliciously healthy recipes.