Sometimes I forget that not everyone has been on a food journey for as long as I’ve been on one. While I’ve been cooking, studying health and nutrition and battling my weight and eating issues for far more than a decade, the average person just doesn’t give it all that much thought. Maybe they do if they’re a big foodie, if they want to lose a few pounds or if they have a health scare where they need to change their diet to manage their condition. But for the average person who’s never been in one of these scenarios, convenience or preference often rules the day. My husband pointed this out to me recently as I went on and on about some misleading statements a commercial on TV was using to make their food product sound like a healthy choice. He said “Andrea you take it for granted that you know that, most people don’t. I don’t.”
Thanks to John bringing me back down to earth, I thought it might be a good idea to use today’s post to clear up some of the confusion that’s out there around “healthy” eating.
I follow these guidelines myself and find them to be the simplest “diet” (ahem, lifestyle!) to follow. I no longer have to worry about calories, fat or anything else. And I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been because of them. I feel like I can finally relax around food.
Forget about Labeling Claims
One huge problem with figuring out what is good for us is that we see labels in the store that say “heart healthy!” or “good source of whole grains” or “Natural” but those labels don’t necessarily mean that the food product is good for you. In fact, for some of these labels there is no strict definition by the FDA – foods can be labeled as “Natural” as long as the don’t contain artificial or synthetic ingredients and that leaves a lot of vague wiggle room. “Heart Healthy” labels mean a food is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. As long as it fits those criteria they can use whatever ingredients they want, including chemicals, preservatives and artificial junk. I could write 30 pages on misleading food labels but that would be overkill. The important takeaway around labels is this: Ignore food labels.
Most food label claims are there purely for marketing. They’re designed to convey information that will make us want to buy it. They are not designed with your health in mind. They’re there to make money.
You’ll notice as different food trends show up, new labels will appear. Gluten free is a big one right now and while avoiding gluten is incredibly important for many people, the fact that a product doesn’t contain gluten does not mean it’s good for you. It could still be full of refined grains, sugar and other stuff you don’t want to eat. If you’re going to look at packaging at all, focus on the ingredient list (what’s in it?) and the nutrition label (the part that lists the fiber, calories etc).
I wrote a blog post on this topic last year if you want to read a little more about label claims.
One easy way to avoid the confusion that food labeling claims make is to focus on what we call “Whole Foods”.
Focus on Whole Foods
I’m not talking about the grocery store by the same name. I’m talking about a group of foods that you can always count on to be full of high quality nutrition. There’s no standard definition for the term “whole foods”. Sometimes people also use the phrase “clean eating”. Some people are very strict in their interpretation of it and others are a little more forgiving with criteria. It’s up to you to decide what makes sense and will be easy for you to remember.
To me, whole foods are:
- food that is close to nature as possible
- foods that your grandmother and great grandmother would recognize as food
- grown or raised
- food that will rot or go bad
To me, whole foods don’t:
- have artificial sweeteners, preservatives, chemicals or food coloring in them
- need to be made in a factory. While some whole foods may be processed at a factory slightly (think canned beans or frozen vegetables) for convenience but they still resemble their original form very closely.
- have very long ingredient lists
Examples of whole foods are:
- vegetables & fruit
- meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy
- whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, bulgur, barley, teff etc)
- beans & lentils
- nuts, seeds, avocados & olives
- herbs, spices, vinegars, maple syrup and honey
What’s so great about Whole Foods?
Because they’re pretty close to their natural state and haven’t been refined or heavily processed, these foods have more vitamins, minerals and fiber than the majority of processed foods. They don’t have added sugar, added trans fats or refined flours that will spike your blood sugar. They don’t have chemicals or preservatives added. Nutrients have been stripped away or destroyed to make it taste better or last longer.
It’s easier to eat “healthy” when the majority of your foods fall into the whole foods category. Most are packed with nutrition. Healthy starts to get harder to figure out when we are buying a lot of convenient processed foods. That’s when we have to worry about the grams of fat, carbs etc as well as the ingredients.
While food processing started off as a way to feed more people, increase nutrition (in the case of fortified products), increase shelf life and portability, you only need to take a quick walk down the aisles of any grocery store to see that most food “products” are made to satisfy junk food cravings or convenience. We have whole aisles dedicated to “snack products” like chips and candy. Entire walls of freezer cases for ice cream and non dairy “topping”. Let’s not kid ourselves, today, the majority of processed food is not about good nutrition or far reach.
What’s not a Whole Food?
Aside from the junk foods I mentioned above, something else that doesn’t really fit into the whole food category – most breads, pasta and baked goods in stores. You may be surprised to hear this. Whole grains in their whole form are great but products “made with” whole grain can be a whole other story. They are often refined (meaning the outer tough fiber is removed). It really depends on the ingredient list and is a case by case basis (the majority of stuff in the market doesn’t count).
Again, ignore the labeling claims about whole grains and focus on the ingredients. It may be high fiber (thanks to added fiber for bulk) but when a sweetener made from corn is the second ingredient, stay away. There are some breads on the market that are made with great ingredients. You really want to play detective and read each label before you purchase it. Your great grandmother would have never eaten a loaf of bread with high fructose corn syrup, so why should you eat one?
How to make this work for real life
Obviously if you’re eating a diet that is low in whole foods making a switch may seem like a huge task. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. As I said earlier, I’ve been on this food journey for more than a decade. Don’t put pressure on yourself to change everything overnight.
A few things that can help:
- Make one change at a time and don’t make another until you are comfortable with each one. Perhaps you want to switch from a peanut butter brand that contains high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils to one that just contains peanuts. The taste will be very different at first but you’ll get used to it and over time begin to prefer it!
- Make your goal 90/10 each day. 90% whole foods and 10% splurge or processed! Right now you might be at 40% whole foods and 60% processed. That’s ok. Keep the goal in mind and aim for higher whole foods intake over time. It will take time.
- Cook / eat at home more often. It’s much easier to control the ingredients that go in our meals when we make them ourselves. I love a good restaurant meal like anyone else (maybe more than anyone else! haha) but we try to make eating out a special occasion. It’s possible to get whole foods at restaurants but it really depends on what you are ordering and where. In your own kitchen you know exactly what is in your food!
- Keep an open mind. Be willing to try new foods and experiment. There will be foods you don’t like. There will be foods your kids don’t like. Try things at least a couple of times and prepare them different ways. You never know when you’ll stumble on a recipe that changes how you feel about a food!
- Don’t deprive yourself. Eating well, eating clean, eating whole foods is not about depriving ourselves. It’s about doing the best we can for our bodies in any given moment. Sometimes, a piece of chocolate cake (or whatever your vice is) will fit the bill even if it’s not “clean”. As long as you don’t have a medical condition that makes that food dangerous, eat it occasionally and enjoy it when you do. Then go back to eating as well as you are able.
We’re in this for the long haul. I’m not sure who said it but . . . health isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. You don’t get up one day and finally reach “healthy”. You want to live well so that you can be your healthiest every day.
If you didn’t have time to read this long post, here’s all you really need to know:
1. Ignore label claims
2. look at ingredient lists
3. focus on whole foods as much as possible
I hope that cleared up some of the confusion around food that gets thrown at us day in and day out. There’s no need to follow trends or marketing campaigns if you listen to your body and stick to foods from nature.