The Ultimate Minimalist Health Guide

[Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Matt Madeiro of Three New Leaves, a writer, traveler, and health geek. Matt talks about all three of these things in a way that inspires people to change their lives for the better. Does it always work? Please and let him know one way or the other!]

Minimalism is mindfulness.

Mindfulness of who you are, and mindfulness of what you need — the simple desire to think about what’s important to you and work to incorporate that into your life. That’s the main appeal of the approach, I think, and why we’re seeing those core ideas spread to so many different aspects of life.

Like health! But strong, healthy living, ladies and gents, is hard. That’s a sad thing to say, but it’s pretty obvious, too, to anyone unhappy with the number they see on the scale. Somewhere, somehow, a basic desire for food became a great big problem, turning what should be a basic process into a health crisis of catastrophic proportions.

Let’s slow it all down. Let’s take a step back, breathe deep, and think it through. Health doesn’t have to be hard. Good health can be as simple as breathing, I promise, but you have to decide, right here and now, that you’re not going to ignore your body anymore. You’re going to have to decide that you are important to you. You’re going to have to decide that you’re worth the effort and attention, and you’re going to have to decide that your health is one of the most important things you own.

And, lastly, you’re going to have to make a few changes to your usual routine. But don’t worry! Here are a few tips on how to do that, coupled with a brief look at how some guy got in way better shape by following them — me!

My Story

Over the last six months, I’ve dropped about twenty pounds. That’s pretty decent, right? Okay, sure, the numbers aren’t that incredible. What is pretty fascinating, however, is how I did it — or how little I did to do it, if that makes sense.

I never stepped on a treadmill. I never ran a mile, and I never spent more than twenty minutes on any given workout. You know those people who spend the better part of an hour huffing away on the elliptical machine? Yeah. That was me. But I haven’t been near one in over half a year, and yet I’ve lost more weight than when I hopped on one daily.

What did I do? I ate different. I changed my diet and became an avid Primal/Paleo eater, meaning I’ve cut out grains, sugar, and every single one of the processed foods you find on grocery store shelves. I won’t talk about that diet too much here, as it’s far beyond the scope of what I’m hoping to be a simple, streamlined guide, but I will say this: find what works for you. If you burn fat on it and aren’t lacking for energy, then stick with it! And supplement with moderate exercise, too, for best results.

My weight loss, in any case, proves two things: that 80% of your health is diet, but also that — when it comes to exercise — a little can go a very long way.

Step 1: Think!

I’m serious. Think.

Want to be in great shape? Start thinking about what you eat. Start thinking about how food interacts with your body, and start trying to understand why you feel like you’re about to pass out thirty minutes after eating a bowl of pasta.

I can’t stress this enough. In a perfect world, sure, everything that passed our lips would strengthen our bodies in some way. This is not a perfect world. This is a world where you can chug a bottle of soda to wash down your candy bar (guilty!), unleashing all holy hell in your body and inching you just that much closer to Type 2 Diabetes.

So: start thinking. I’m not joking in the slightest when I say that your health depends on it.

Step 2: Diet!

1. Sugar is the devil.

I know, I know. That’s dramatic.

But here’s the thing: sugar, in the quantities we consume it today, is not good for the body. Sugar in most quantities is not good for the body, though you could argue that it’s usually offset by the nutritional benefits from chowing down on something like fruit. But candy bars? Cupcakes? Dr. Pepper? Cereal?

They’re not good for you. We all know that, deep down, but it’s easy to gloss over that fact when eyeing the dessert tray at a local restaurant. The fact that sugar tastes so good is just – pardon the expression – icing on the cake, here, since it’d be a whole lot easier to ignore otherwise.

But what does sugar do, exactly? Quite a bit (and none of it dedicated to making you look better naked). The effect we’ll focus on now, however, is in fat storage. Ever heard of insulin? Rather than going into the nitty-gritty, let’s just say that insulin’s job in the body is to regulate your levels of blood sugar. Simple enough, right? Eat something sugary, insulin gets released, and your blood glucose level settles down to normal.

But it doesn’t always work like that. The more often we flood our body with sugar — candy bar, soft drink, and just a spoonful of ice cream? — the more our body becomes insulin resistant, meaning our insulin can’t handle the sugar storm as effectively. So what happens then? Excess sugar in our bloodstream (which is toxic, normally) is diverted and stored in fat cells as an emergency measure to keep you alive.

Candy bars make you fat. Call that an over-simplification, if you like, and I won’t argue — the distinction between glucose and fructose (both of which are found in regular table sugar) is vastly important too, but wrapping it all up in “sugar is bad!” will have to do for the purpose of this guide.

Want to make a big, bold change for your body? Cut out sugar as much as you possibly can. It’s tough, in the beginning, but you’ll find that your taste buds change over the following weeks. It even becomes easy after awhile, and let’s not forget that the health benefits are enormous.

[Nina's Note: I don't eat a lot of sugary foods due to my falling into a slump soon after eating/drinking it. It also restrains me from having a maximum workout during karate training if I'm overly sugared up. Recently, I had one taffy apple and my teeth felt like they were disintegrating into an incomprehensible sugary mess. Same goes for a can of soda. Once in a long while, I'll "treat" myself to a ice cold Coca Cola. Regular, not diet. And even then, I can't finish the whole can.]

Here are a few tips on nixing the sugar from your daily diet:

  • Cut out fruit juice. Orange juice, apple juice, etc. have a pretty winning reputation amongst the health community, but it’s hard to imagine why — they’re pure sugar. Fruit sugar, yes, but sugar is still sugar, and your body suffers every time you give it a straight shot of the sweet stuff. Why not just eat a piece of fruit instead? You get all the nutrition, for one, but the flesh of the fruit will also dramatically slow down the absorption of the sugar.
  • Cut out the sodas. They’re hard to eliminate, but remember that the average can of soda combines sixty-plus grams of sugar with weird, freaky chemicals. The same point with the fruit juice applies here: your body is not meant to handle that much sugar in one go.
  • Go dark. It’s easy to fall prey to those bite-sized candy bars sitting on the counter. Kit-Kat bars are my personal nemesis, but you don’t have to give up chocolate completely — just go dark! Aim for 70% cacao or higher, as the sugar content there is dramatically reduced. You’ll find, too, that your sensitivity to sugar heightens the more you cut it out of your diet. That’s my sole explanation for why I find 99% dark chocolate too sweet.

Relevant Reading:

2. Keep an eye on your carbs!

Here’s something you might not know: carbohydrates — all of them — break down into sugar in the body.

It’s a natural part of the digestion process, and the reason why carbs are normally the first choice for energy. But what about refined carbs? What about refined flour, more specifically, and all of the products derived from it: white pasta, white bread, cookies, waffles, donuts, and everything else we enjoy in life?

They break down into sugar like all the rest. This means, in other words, that a breakfast routine of two waffles, syrup, and a glass of orange juice is pretty much pure sugar. Your body does not distinguish between flour and straight sugar. It can’t. What it can do, however, is struggle under this tidal wave of sweetness, following the same chain of events described in Diet rule #1 and eventually storing all that excess blood sugar in fat cells.

So what to do? Reduce your carb intake. That’s a bold move to make, though, and not something most people can do cold-turkey. Most people aren’t even willing! But understanding the mechanisms behind what carbohydrates do to your body, I hope, might be evidence enough to reduce your reliance on them.

Not sure where to start? Not willing to give up your pasta forever? That’s okay. You’ll still see significant changes in your body composition by shooting for moderation. Here are a few ideas:

  • When you go out to eat, don’t get the massive bowl of pasta. Get a much smaller bowl, if you can, and supplement with salad and some kind of protein.
  • When you go to the local burrito joint, pass on the tortilla and ask for your protein to be served on leafy greens. A white flour tortilla is pretty much empty calories.
  • Soda. Sugar is a carbohydrate, after all.
  • Load up on veggies and protein. Vegetables aren’t fan favorites for a lot of people, but reducing your carb intake isn’t easy without them. The majority of vegetables are low-carb, see, and an incredibly nutritious way to still get full at meals without having to reach for bread.

[Nina's Note: Okay. I'm Asian. I eat rice. Lots and lots of it. So how do many Asians seemingly never gain a pound yet eat bowls of rice all the time (and white rice, at that!)? Not too sure about the exact answer but I do know that eating a ton of veggies, protein, and fruits helps. In addition, in most Asian countries, one needs to walk/bike everywhere in order to get from point A to point B. Sometimes, the distance is quite great. That's why when I lived in Beijing, I ate a ginormous amount yet actually lost weight. Weird. But very cool.]

Relevant Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Insulin

3. Hydrogenated oils are the other devil.

And, by extension, trans fats. Neither are well-regarded in health communities, and just a cursory look at their health implications fully justifies California’s decision to ban them. The issue, however, is in location. It’s easy to say “no trans fats!” and cut margarine out of your daily routine, but you can’t stop there — trans fats have worked their way into the vast majority of products we consume on a regular basis, especially those that you’d never expect to have them.

Potato chips. Cereal. Granola bars. Fast food. Frozen dinners. Microwave popcorn.

The list goes on. And that’s another issue: an exhaustive list of every food containing trans fats doesn’t exist. Why? Because the majority of processed foods have them. Legally, food manufacturers are allowed to label an item as “0% Trans fat!” even when that’s not the case, meaning the only way to know for sure is to start digging into the ingredients list yourself.

Here’s a rule of thumb I like to operate by: if it has more than five ingredients, put it back. The longer that list runs, the worse it is for you.

4. Eat natural!

You have two categories of food.

The first category is fruits, vegetables, and meat. They are — or were, before the food industry started tinkering — natural food, the kind that comes straight from Mother Earth.

The second category, which we’ll over-simplify to “chemicals,” is just about everything else. Soft drinks loaded with chemicals and sugar. Boxed products that line the interior of the grocery store and have an ingredient list a mile long. Common foods that seem healthy, but often are loaded with every kind of chemical stabilizer or preservative possible (hello, ketchup!).

I won’t say that the second group doesn’t have nutritional benefits. But, when choosing between the two, wouldn’t it be safer to stick with something that humans have been eating for a very long time? The chemicals might taste good, sure, but doesn’t it seem a little risky to put them in your body?

You’ll notice that the three previous diet points all feed into this one. That’s the sad truth about the modern food industry: we don’t know what we’re eating anymore. Even common foodstuffs carry high fructose corn syrup on their label, and even things we’ve been told are healthy — hello, fruit juice! — might prove otherwise. What we do know, however, is that our constant consumption of these products is having a dramatic effect on our health.

We’re still getting sicker, folks, and our diets aren’t helping.

Step 3: Exercise!

1. Sprint!

I’m a huge fan of high-intensity interval training, which is basically a geeky way of saying “go hard, go quick.” The health benefits are tremendous: several studies show that interval training burns fat far more effectively than conventional cardio (and in far less time!). And what exercise better embodies this mentality than sprinting?

You don’t need much. Do some light jogging to warm up your leg muscles. Find 50 meters of grass, a good pair of running shoes — barefoot is best! — and just run. Run until you can feel yourself slowing down, stop, wait about a minute, and then do it again. Do this two or three times to start, if your body can handle it, and try to build up to five or six sprints per session.

It’s as simple as that. Do this once a week for a few weeks straight and I think you’ll be surprised at the difference it can make in your overall body composition.

Relevant Reading:

(midway down the page are several links to studies advocating high-intensity interval training’s benefits)

2. Lift heavy things!

You know the phrase “use it or lose it”?

Remember that one. Because that’s the simple, honest truth about muscles: if you don’t use them, you will lose them. I’m not speaking just to bodybuilders, either — whether you’re skin and bones or carrying a little extra weight, the amount of lean muscle mass you carry is directly connected to your health and longevity.

Muscle is good. Remember that too. And here again, a minimal approach works just fine. You don’t need a gym membership. You don’t need to hit the weights six days a week. You don’t need to pump iron for two hours straight, and you don’t even need weights in the first place.

Bodyweight exercises — think pushups as an example — win major points for accessibility. For one, you can do them anywhere. For two, the risk of injury is much reduced, as you’re not loading machines down with heavy weight and trying to force your muscles to cooperate.

So why not keep it simple and free? Try the Primal Blueprint Fitness program or Simplefit, for starters, and notice what both programs have in common: pushups, pull ups, and squats. These three exercises alone can pretty dramatically enhance your physique, and brief sessions — less than twenty minutes total — of each just two times a week can make all the difference in the world (I can vouch for that!).

Bodyweight exercises are a great way to build lean and functional body mass, the perfect kind of muscle that everyone — of either gender! — should be sporting. Yes, ladies, there’s no excuse to skip out on the weights. Women don’t easily ‘bulk up’ in the same sense that men do, and the health benefits from moderate lifting far outweigh any concerns about bulging, rippling muscles.

3. Take a walk!

Simple? Yes. Effective? Very.

The nutritional benefits of a good walk are pretty well-established by this point, but stepping outside for a stroll tends to fall by the way side whenever we notice the weight creeping up. So try this: next time you think “I need to get back in shape,” do not go kill yourself in the gym. You don’t need to sweat bullets for an hour straight to improve your cardiovascular health. Go for a walk and make it last half an hour or longer, keeping good pace without ever exhausting yourself.

Your body will thank you. And if you find yourself itching to put in a solid hour on the track, think about it like this: what happens after you exercise like crazy? You eat. The average person goes home and chows down on bread, pasta, or something carb-heavy with the hope of restoring their energy for the rest of the day. Refer back to diet point #2 for why that’s something you want to avoid as much as possible.

[Nina's Note: From March until May this year, I walked the entire lunch hour during the workweek, 5 days a week. That's 5 hours of walking a week, on an average of 2.5 miles walked every hour. That's 12.5 miles a week, not including if I walked over the weekend. I don't need to lose weight but during that time, I needed to slim down in order to stay lighter and be faster for my karate tournaments as well as my Black belt exam (which I passed!). Believe me. Walking, along with conscious eating, really helps you slim down. I lost 7 lbs. during this time.]

Step 4: Think some more!


Think about what you’re eating. And then think some more, diving even deeper into staggering amount of good health information available on the internet. Remember, people, that even those you trust for sound nutritional advice — like doctors and government bodies, as an example — might not always be right. You might even find that they’re wrong. So think about what you’re eating, and do not accept nutritional information at face value without considering where that same advice has gotten us so far.

And that includes this guide! I don’t expect you to take my word for it — but I do expect you to take a new, voluntary interest in what you’re putting in your mouth. Just thinking about what two donuts can do to your body (sugar and trans fats!) is a huge change to start with, and probably the biggest factor in keeping off the pounds of fat we’re expected to pack on as the years go by.

Just think. And, like a proper minimalist, eschew the conventional weight-loss advice for just a few additional changes:

- Sprint once a week.

- Lift heavy things twice a week, with ample rest time before and after.

- Nix sugar and processed food where possible.

That’s it. Three changes alone can change your health so much for the better. I can vouch for it whole-heartedly, but don’t just take my word for it — try it yourself! What do you have to lose besides a few pounds?

Additional Reading:

9 Ways to Stay Fit and Healthy When You’re Stuck in an Office Job


If you enjoyed this post, please share with others! Thanks, my friends. See you next time!

View Comments

  1. Great post Matt. Way to pull from your story and put this thing together. Well done.nnp.s. NinanI’m calling your bluff on losing 7lbs. ou don’ have 7lbs to lose!nn

  2. Nina Yau says:

    Not anymore I don’t!

  3. Jbellinger says:

    Is the diet you mentioned (Primal/Paleo) best for people with Type O blood? I’m thinking of the book Eat for Your (Blood) Type. -Jean

  4. says:

    Hi, Jean!nnPrimal/Paleo would definitely work for Type O, though not for the reason you might think — Primal/Paleo is good for *everyone.* :)nnI’m not too familiar with the Eat For Your Blood Type movement, so I’m not the best person to ask, but I do know that Loren Cordain, the original ‘creator’ of the Paleo diet, isn’t convinced by the science behind it.nnHere’s his article:nn to dissuade you from something you believe in, of course! More to show that anyone who does Primal or Paleo will tell you that it works for every person (and every type of blood), so it might be worth trying for a month or two just in case. :)nnIf you’d like to discuss it more, please don’t hesitate to contact me at matt (at) I’d be happy to pull in some more articles we can discuss.nnTake care!

blog comments powered by Disqus