A diet high in processed foods and sugar often leads to chronic disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and obesity. To avoid this, and to enjoy optimal health, a healthy body weight, energy, and vitality, avoid packaged foods as much as possible and buy real, whole foods. The less a food has been processed the more it benefits your health because none of its nutrients have been removed in processing.
To accomplish this, we need to cook and prepare our own meals and avoid “convenience” foods. The food industry has convinced us that we don’t have time to make homemade meals, or that it’s difficult, but we can eat well for less money by making simple, whole, fresh food. It isn’t difficult and doesn’t have to be time consuming. A simple dinner for a family of four consisting of roast chicken, vegetables, and salad can cost about half of what dinner out at a fast food restaurant costs and can take less time than going out or ordering in!
Helpful guidelines to follow:
- Read labels, not just for calories, but for the list of ingredients. There are 10,000 ingredients that can be added to our food. Eat food that’s just food. And buy organic whenever possible.
- Avoid foods with labels stating health claims, such as “no trans fats” or “reduced sugar”. These are often marketing ploys to make you think these foods are healthy.
- Focus on the ingredients list: the most abundant ingredient is listed first, the rest follow in descending order by weight.
- Stick to the 5 ingredient rule: Choose foods with less than 5 ingredients and all things you recognize and know are real food, such as tomatoes, water, or salt. Or if there are more than 5, make sure they’re all food or spices.
- Buy only packaged foods with ingredients you can pronounce or recognize. Avoid packaged foods that contain ingredients you wouldn’t have in your own kitchen.
- Avoid preservatives, additives, colorings, natural flavorings. Watch for ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce.
- Be aware that food manufacturers don’t have to list ingredients that appear in trace amounts, so be vigilant when selecting multi-ingredient packaged foods. Stick with organic brands or simple products.
- Limit sugar as much as possible. Remember sugar has many names, such as maltodextrin, xanthan gum, cane juice, honey, agave, maple syrup, and molasses.
- Avoid other sweeteners such as aspartame, NutraSweet, Splenda, sucralose, and sugar alcohols – any word that ends with “ol” such as xylitol or sorbitol.
- Stevia is better than aspartame but only in the form of a whole-plant extract, not Pure Via or Truvia, which are made by soda companies and are chemical extracts of stevia.
- Any sweetener can make you hungry, lower your metabolism, create gas, store belly fat, and can even change your gut bacteria from those that make you thin to those that make you fat. So it’s best to stay away from sweeteners altogether.
- Avoid bad fats such as hydrogenated fat (another name for trans fat) because they raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol levels which helps contribute to heart disease. Purchase healthy extra virgin olive oil, walnut, sesame, grapeseed, flax, or avocado.
- Buy organic as much as possible. When not possible, avoid the “Dirty Dozen” which include the following and buy these foods organically grown: apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, and potatoes. These are most important to buy organically grown because they have the highest pesticide count.
- If you can’t afford to buy all organic produce it’s okay to purchase “The Clean 15” conventionally, not organically, grown because these retain fewer pesticides: Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.
- Fresh Meats and Proteins: As much as possible, limit your exposure to excessive hormones, antibiotics, and grain-fed meat by selecting wild meat, grass-fed when possible, and organic poultry and organic, omega-3 enriched eggs. Since these are usually more expensive, eat smaller portions of meat and serve them with larger vegetable and side dish portions. If you have a freezer, buying organic meat in bulk is a big savings.
- Purchase wild or sustainably farmed low-mercury seafood such as clams, crab, flounder, herring, oyster, perch, pollock, salmon, sardines, shrimp, sole, squid, trout, and whitefish. Avoid high-mercury fish such as tuna, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass. Go to the National Resources Defense Council site www.nrdc.org for their Sustainable Seafood Guide to choosing fish lowest in mercury.
- Buy organic, whole forms of non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) soy food, such as tofu, tempeh, and miso.
- Buy nut butters such as almond, cashew, macadamia, or walnut; nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, and macadamias; seeds such as hemp, chia, flax, pumpkin, and sesame; and tahini (sesame seed paste) Apple cider vinega.
- For healthy homemade salad dressings apple cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar.
- For healthy seasonings try tamari (naturally fermented soy sauce); low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock; and dried herbs and spices.
- If you’re on a budget, buy frozen foods in large quantities. Frozen berries, cherries, seafood, and vegetables are far less expensive than fresh and have the same nutritional content. Or buy food in bulk from warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam’s. Just avoid the many processed foods there. Or you might benefit from joining a CSA or community-supported agriculture. These are usually small farmers that deliver often organic produce as well as meats locally and you might find prices lower. Go to www.localharvest.org to find a CSA in your area. Sometimes you can work a few hours a week in exchange for discounts and access to a variety of fresh, organic foods.
Here are some simple steps to begin getting more whole foods in your diet:
As you and your family get used to these, it will be easier to avoid processed foods more and more and enjoy a healthier diet and life:
- Choose products with 100% whole grains whenever possible rather than refined grains.
- Replace half the white flour called for in your baking recipes with whole-wheat flour. Also, use half the amount of sweetener when you can.
- Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits.
- Include beans in your meals and snacks more often. They are a great source of plant protein, fiber, phytochemicals, and other nutrients.
- Eat fewer convenience and processed foods. They’re often loaded with added fat, sugar, salt, and additives.
- Don’t forget your beverages. Go for unsweetened options such as water, mineral water, green tea (iced or hot), and low fat milk.
- Eat fruits, vegetables, and beans in place of supplements to provide the fiber and vitamins they contain.
Take It In Steps
This seems like a Herculean task. Lisa Leake from 100 Days of Real Food recommends eliminating processed foods in 6 weeks to make it easier and less overwhelming:
- Week 1: Eat no fast food or deep fried foods.
- Week 2: Focus on increasing fruits and vegetables
- Week 3: Eat 100% whole grain rich foods
- Week 4: Consume no refined or artificial sweeteners
- Week 5: Eat nothing artificial
- Week 6: Follow the five ingredient rule
- Hyman, Mark. The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet Cookbook: More than 150 Recipes to Help You Lose Weight and Stay Healthy for Life. Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
- LEAKE, LISA. 100 DAYS OF REAL FOOD: on a Budget. WILLIAM MORROW, 2018.
- Masley, Steven. Better Brain Solution. Random House Usa Inc, 2018.
- Hari, Vani. The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! Little, Brown and Company, 2016.
- Katzen, Mollie, and Walter C. Willett. Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less: a Flexible and Delicious Way to Shrink Your Waist without Going Hungry. Hyperion, 2006.
- Lair, Cynthia, and Peggy O’Mara. Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods ; Recipes for Babies, Young Children, and Their Parents. Sasquatch Books, 2008