a personal guide for navigating today’s health food options
Wouldn’t it be great to know exactly what to eat to achieve vibrant health and also feel confident that you are making the right choices for your body on a daily basis? Understanding food choices is something we all aspire to achieve. However let’s face it, life just doesn’t make it easy on us.
With the myriad of choices available, knowing how to eat healthily these days can be downright daunting. In fact, “What should I eat?” is one of the most common questions asked of nutritionists today. Giving a simple answer is a challenge with so many different diets and eating patterns to choose from.
Adding to this difficulty is having to navigate a growing list of foods and ingredients being questioned either by science or the natural foods community such as saturated fat, trans fat, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and anything artificial. In addition, nutrition science is continually and rapidly evolving, prompting the media to report on new research that seems to completely contradict previous research. Combine all of these factors and it is easy to understand why people are confused.
The best practice for deciding what to eat to achieve vibrant health is to always take your own personal health, culture, religion, eating patterns and preferences into account. A Chinese proverb states, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This truism comes to mind when thinking about making better food choices. People can either follow one of the many conventional diet plans or better yet, learn to understand some of the basic, underlying principles of healthy eating that can help guide them toward a higher level of health.
Let Your Body Be Your Natural Guide
There’s no doubt about it, your body knows best. When it is cold out, your body senses this and begins the shivering mechanism to help keep you warm. When you’ve had enough to eat, the stretching of your stomach as well as the release of specific hormones sends a message to your brain and it quickly manifests in a conscious thought that tells you you’ve had enough. That is, if you’re paying attention.
The easiest way to recognize whether you’ve reached a point of satisfaction is to slow down. Our bodies are extremely smart when it comes to knowing when to start or stop eating or drinking, but we need to give ourselves ample time to react. When you start feeling satisfied toward the end of a meal, it’s wise to give your body about ten minutes to decide whether or not you’re satisfied. In so doing, chances are you’ll skip the second helping and the few hundred extra calories that come with it.
The Closer to Nature You Are, The Better You Will Feel
Natural foods are central to a number of different eating patterns. The classic vegetarian diet is based mainly on whole, natural foods. The traditional Mediterranean diet is rich with dark green leafy vegetables, fresh herbs, whole beans, omega-3 rich fish, all of which are natural foods. For that matter, any cultural eating pattern that stays close to its roots is typically based in an all natural foods diet. The closer a food is kept in an untreated state, the more nutritionally complete it typically is.
Grains provide a great illustration of the difference between natural foods and processed foods. Whole grains have their bran, germ and endosperm intact in the same proportion nature intended and offer a concentration of fiber, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and phytonutrients in different proportions from refined grains. Refined, enriched grains on the other hand provide mainly starchy carbohydrate that is more quickly converted to sugar in the body due to the lack of fiber. These refined grains are “enriched” with only four B-vitamins and iron as compared to the more than twenty nutrients and phytonutrients originally found in whole grains.
Choosing the right foods can be easy and fun, but it requires vigilant label reading. For pre-packaged foods, this means looking for foods that are minimally processed, free of any artificial sweeteners, colors and preservatives. Determining whether or not an item has been minimally processed isn’t always obvious.
It requires taking a close look at the list of ingredients as well as a simple observation of the food itself. For example, if an ingredient statement includes “sugar,” that means it contains standard white table sugar. White sugar goes through about twice as much processing as a natural sweetener like evaporated cane juice, which is made by essentially pressing the juice from the cane and allowing it to evaporate into crystals (a relatively simple process compared to traditional sweetener production).
Whole grain flours, although still whole, are more processed than rolled or steel cut grains, which you can see on both the label and in the food itself. Other ingredients such as oils are even trickier. If a bottle of oil is labeled “vegetable oil” without the words “expeller pressed” preceding it, then the oil was obtained by using chemical solvents and therefore doesn’t qualify as natural.
A good rule of thumb to consider when reading ingredient lists is look for words that are easy to pronounce and are recognizable and familiar as food. But be warned, this technique comes in handy when deciphering natural ingredients, but it provides no guarantee, for some vitamins, minerals and other ingredients may be perfectly natural but are still hard to pronounce or may bear a complex name that sounds artificial. Also, be aware of the use of the term “natural” on packaging.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not formally defined the term “natural,” but rather uses an informal policy for enforcement purposes that allows some manufacturers to call a product “natural” when it may in fact contain processed ingredients. Seeking out genuine, natural foods is really a process of observing, asking lots of questions and then educating yourself along the way. It may require a little extra work in the beginning but it is well worth it and your body will thank you later.
Devise a Master Plan
Compiling lists can provide a great strategy in helping to devise healthy menus. Set aside a night to lay out your favorite cookbooks, magazines and recipe Web sites, identify the meals you want to make then build a weekly menu and shopping list around it. It’s also important to plan ahead for healthy snacking, which can help prevent poor food choices throughout the day. When you plan for healthy snacking, it’s like having your own personal shield from all the junk food you might encounter in a typical day. Keeping natural, whole grain granola bars, little baggies of your favorite whole grain cereal and pieces of fruit on your desk at work or in your car increases the likelihood of picking the right snack choices rather than reaching for something unhealthy.
It is usually easier to make food choices based on identifying ingredients that have negative health consequences rather than positive effects on health. Some of the most popular diets in recent history have played a major role in swaying the public away from certain foods and nutrients. The low fat fad of the early 1990s and the low carb craze of the early 2000s are examples of this. But if you really want to get healthier, you have to choose foods and ingredients that will promote well being and positive health.
Focusing on the positives aspects in your food arms you a very powerful tool that will yield smarter choices. Instead of reading a food label and making a decision solely based how much sugar it contains, taking stock of the more critical components will empower you to make an informed decision based on other factors such as the quantity of fiber, the grams of whole grains it offers or the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids (healthy fat) it provides.
The idea is that the more positive foods you eat, the more negative ones are forced out of your diet. A study published in Nutrition Reviews supports this idea where they observed that eating an additional fourteen grams of fiber per day reduced calorie intake by ten percent and resulted in significant weight loss1.
Enjoyment Is the Missing Ingredient
In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan attempts to answer the age old question, “What should I eat?” by stating, “Eat Food, a plant based diet, and don’t eat too much.” One important, little word that might make a good addition to that statement is “enjoy.” After all the time and energy we put into trying to eat the right things, the least we could do is have a little fun in the process.
A simple suggestion to help you enjoy food more is to turn off the “autopilot.” During your next trip to the grocery store, plan some extra time to peruse the aisles. Pick up something different, something that piques your interest. Read labels and learn about what you are buying. Savor the experience without rushing around.
Before digging into your next meal, pause for a minute before taking a bite. Look at all the natural colors and enjoy the wonderful smells. Think for a moment about the effort that went into making the food from its growth to its production and its delivery to your plate. Don’t forget to reflect on your own part in preparing the food. Savor the various textures and try to pick out the distinct flavors of certain herbs and spices. Resolve to make your meals an adventure for the senses.
Nature Makes the Best Flavors and Colors
If you think that eating healthy food tastes like cardboard, bite into a juicy piece of organic watermelon or mix brown rice with fresh basil, chopped heirloom tomatoes, fresh garlic, freshly ground black pepper and add a dash of extra virgin olive oil. With ingredients and flavors like this, boring and bland is nearly impossible.
One of the most common things used across food cultures is the creative use of fresh and dried herbs and spices to enhance the culinary experience. Curry powder, which is created with a base of bright yellow turmeric combined with other spices such as cardamom, coriander, cumin and various peppers, is the staple of most Indian dishes. Mediterranean food relies heavily on fresh basil, rosemary, oregano and thyme to create a rich flavor palette. Asian foods incorporate many different pungent spice blends and chili peppers.
Herbs and spices are praised for their medicinal qualities throughout the entire world. From a Western perspective, the use of fresh and dried herbs helps boost flavor and is a great way to reduce sodium intake, which may also reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Garlic has been found to potentially influence heart health and cranberries have been found to help to protect against urinary tract infections. And a review study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology found that ginger has the ability to safely reduce the severity of nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy.2
Colors occurring naturally in foods do two important things that contribute to vibrant health. They provide amazing visual beauty as well as encourage you to enjoy meals. The natural colors in plant foods, which are really just the food’s natural pigment, possess powerful antioxidants.
There are literally thousands of phytonutrients (nutrients derived from plants) found in colorful fruits and vegetables such as polyphenols, carotenoids, proanthocyanidins, and flavonoids.3 Bioactive compounds are thought to play critical roles in promoting good health. Compounds found in grape seeds may help reduce LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind of cholesterol) from becoming oxidized, reducing the plaque build-up in arteries. Nature offers an amazing array of flavors, and you just have to be willing to get in the kitchen and give it a whirl.
Go Organic, Be a Local, Follow the Seasons
There has been a lot of debate over the merits of organic versus locally grown foods; why not combine the two to ensure you get the best of both worlds? Growing, choosing, preparing and eating as much organic and local foods as possible helps us to align ourselves with our natural environment. This means eating seasonally, supporting small community farmers, reducing exposure to pesticides, supporting safer environments for farm workers, healthier soil and as a result, enjoying some really beautiful and tasty foods.
Despite all the positive reasons to eat locally organic foods, there’s still a lingering debate in the scientific community about whether or not organically grown foods provide better nutrition than conventionally grown foods.
Numerous studies conducted over the last several years (although small and varied in design) have found higher levels of certain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in organic produce than in their conventionally grown counterparts. According to one such study conducted by the University of California Davis and featured on the Organic Trade Association Web site, organic fruits and vegetables “show significantly higher levels of antioxidants than their conventionally grown counterparts.” 4 Although people’s opinions vary greatly on this matter, there are many other benefits to eating locally organic. Just ask a local farmer the next time you’re at the farmers market.
Quality Is As Important As Quantity
Not sure how to get started?
Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). For a reasonable fee, you can get regularly scheduled pickups of fresh, organically grown, local and seasonal foods. Or you can also stroll your way through your local farmers market and sample the goods in the process. Visit localharvest.org to find a CSA or farmers market near you.
Fat is perhaps one of the most compelling and myth-ridden examples of quality versus quantity. Throughout much of the 1990s, fat was considered the root of all nutritional evil. That gave rise to the myriad of low and no fat food choices that filled nearly every aisle of our local supermarkets and over time, research has shown that not all fats are created equal.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are both plant and animal derived, play critical roles in every cell in our bodies and are linked to numerous body systems, including heart health and nervous system health. We also learned that monounsaturated fatty acids, found in foods like avocados, olives, olive oil, almonds and canola oil, have a neutral effect on our cholesterol levels and therefore may decrease the risk of heart disease.
Another great example of foods that are not created equal are carbohydrates. Due in large part to the low carb diet craze that dominated the U.S. from about 2000-2004, we witnessed what can only be referred to as the near eradication of carbohydrates from the American plate. Now that the low carb craze has ended, we can turn our focus to a healthier approach and focus on the quality of carbohydrates you choose rather than banishing them altogether. Whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are all high quality carbohydrates because they provide fiber along with a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Variety Is The Spice of Life
Incorporating a variety of natural food choices provides a tantalizing range of colors; textures and seasonality to your palate while ultimately helping you obtain more nutrients. If you eat a banana every morning, you’re getting a good supply of potassium, vitamin C and vitamin B6. But if you alternate mornings with blueberries, in addition to getting vitamin C, you’ll also be getting healthy amounts of antioxidants found in the skins that help neutralize free radical damage to cells.
Another great variety trick is to vary your cooking methods. If you typically steam fresh vegetables, try roasting them in the oven or even grilling them to bring out their natural flavors. Subtle changes to familiar favorites can also add a much-needed spark to a dull routine. You can also substitute almond butter or pistachio butter for peanut butter on crackers or try using whole grain toast. The possibilities are endless if you just keep experimenting.
The constant evolution of nutrition news and trends, along with our own personal health and lifestyle factors, all play an important role in the food choices we make and the health we create. Eating for vibrant health can be extremely simple for now more than ever before, there are so many positive things happening in the world of natural and organic foods. Decide on the path that works best for you and enjoy your way to better health.