The simple act of eating has become a complicated endeavor. Friends often ask my advice; What should I look for on package labels? Does all my food need to be organic? How can I make better choices when food shopping for my family? Where do I start if I want to eat healthier?
The best place to start is to make your own food from the best ingredients you can find. The rest requires some real food knowledge.
1. Read Labels for Real Ingredients
We are so accustomed to looking for foods like skim-milk, canola oil, butter replacements, and whole grain cereals with synthetic vitamins added that we forget how processed these “health” foods are.
The first step to eating healthier calls for a paradigm shift to what we have been taught – stop analyzing worthless nutrition labels for calories, fat grams, and vitamin content. Ignore claims like”low-fat”, “low-cholesterol”,”natural”, “healthy”, and “low-salt”.
The only thing you need to read on a nutrition label is the ingredient list. Every. Single. Time.
Look for real food ingredients, foods you can pronounce and recognize.
Avoid all highly processed and artificial ingredients including; artificial sweeteners, trans fats, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, preservatives, MSG, powdered milk and eggs, soy proteins isolates, high fructose corn syrup, and vegetable oils.
Big offenders; salad dressings, canned soups, margarines, non dairy milks like soymilk, almond milk, and rice milk, sugar substitutes (Splenda, Nutrasweet, Equal), bouillon cubes, spice mixes (contain MSG), commercial breads (look for whole grain sprouted or true sourdough bread without additives), and salt (buy unrefined sea salt).
2. Know What To Buy Organic
Organic foods are produced without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides and have not been genetically modified. Animals cannot eat genetically modified feed or given growth hormones and antibiotics. Furthermore, organic products cannot be irradiated (exposing food to radiation in order to destroy pathogens).
Look for the USDA Organic label for the following foods; dairy, eggs, poultry, meat, and produce. And some additional considerations for fish and GMO foods.
Dairy – Raw dairy from from grass-fed animals is the best choice. But if you are getting organic pasteurized dairy it do not get homogenized or ultra-pasteurized. Some non-organic dairy labels will state “not treated with growth hormones or antibiotics” but it doesn’t guarantee what the animals were fed.
Avoid low fat dairy like skim milk, nonfat yogurts, imitation milks, non-dairy creamers, sweetened yogurts, margarines and spreads, and dairy with additives – they are all processed foods and we need healthy fats in our diet (read more below).
Eggs – from pastured poultry is best. Pastured indicates the chickens are on pasture – outdoors – and free to roam and do and eat what chickens are supposed to do and eat. Organic free range is a good second option but I recommend you read The Cornucopia Institute’s report on Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture to find the best option (includes many supermarket brands).
And eat the yolk!! It is full of nutrients your body needs!
Poultry, Meat – the best option is grass-fed meat and pastured poultry (more nutrients and better animal welfare). Organic is a good second option. Try to avoid animals raised in industrial farms but if you can’t find organic meat and poultry eat lean cuts and make sure you are getting enough omega 3 foods in the diet (like sustainable fish).
And eat like your grandma – the bones, fat, skin, and organ meats are full of nutrients. Processed meats should also be organic without additives like nitrates/nitrites and MSG.
Produce – local and organic is the best option. If you cannot buy all organic produce you can limit your exposure from the worst offenders listed at The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “dirty dozen” list of the most contaminated produce. Pesticide exposure has been linked to cancer, birth defects, Autism Spectrum Disorders, nervous system toxicity, endocrine disruption, and neuro-developmental delays.
We don’t know what the cumulative effects of even minute exposures over time are, especially for kids, so I would recommend buying organic or pesticide free as much as you can to reduce your toxic load.
Fish – Some species contain high amounts of mercury or other toxins and some are overfished or caught in ways that damage our oceans. Chilean Seabass, Swordfish, Bluefin Tuna, Atlantic Cod, and farmed salmon are some to be avoided. Best choices include Barramundi, Pacific Cod, Alaskan Salmon, Sardines, Herring, and Anchovies.
Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Pocket Guide for help on choosing other varieties or read The Dirty Dozen List of common seafood choices from Food and Water Watch. Also avoid canned tuna and sardines with soy or vegetable oil or hydrolyzed protein.
Beware of GMO’s – The FDA’s own scientists warned Genetically Modified Foods (GMO’s) could cause allergens, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. But there is no requirement to label GM foods. Avoid non-organic foods at a high risk of being Genetically Modified; corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, margarine, sugar, papayas, zucchini, and yellow crookneck squash.
I wrote a detailed post on Why You Should Avoid GMO’s and the health risks it poses.
For more helpful shopping guides read How to Buy Real Food.
3. Fats and Oils
Include high quality fats daily into your diet and avoid vegetable oils.
Heart disease was rare in the early 1900’s when our diets were much higher in animal fats and few processed foods. The diet-heart hypothesis; the idea that high cholesterol foods cause heart disease, has little evidence to support it. Striving for a low-fat and low-cholesterol diet replaces high nutrient foods with too many carbohydrates and processed foods associated with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Consumption of vegetable oils, high in omega-6 fats, from corn, cottonseed, canola, soy, sunflower, safflower, and grapeseed oils, increase inflammation in the body, damage our cells, and disrupt many basic cellular functions. They are extremely heat sensitive and undergo tremendous processing creating an oxidized toxic food that forms trans fats at high heat.
Use more stable and nutritious fats like extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, unrefined palm oil, butter, ghee (clarified butter) and animal fats (lard, tallow, etc).
Big offenders: mayonnaise, salad dressings, cereals, cookies, chips, crackers, and most processed foods. Margarines, partially hydrogenated vegetable shortenings, and trans-fat free spreads, should all be avoided.
For more on choosing healthier fats and oils read my Complete Guide to Fats and Oils with a user-friendly printable chart.
4. Minimize Sugars even Natural Sweeteners
Excess sugar consumption is toxic.
The process of digesting sugars depletes minerals and vitamins from the body. Sugar suppresses your immune system, feeds cancer cells, contributes to obesity, arthritis, tooth decay, digestive disorders, and other chronic diseases. Read Nancy Appleton’s 141 Reasons Why Sugar Ruins Your Health.
Avoid white sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave, and artificial sweeteners. Avoid fruit juices, sodas, and sport drinks. Excess fructose consumption is linked to diabetes and heart disease (fresh fruit in moderation is okay).
Use limited amounts of natural sweeteners like Succanat, rapadura, maple syrup, molasses, dehydrated sugar cane juice, coconut or palm sugar, date sugar, and raw honey.
Desserts should contain plenty of healthy fats like real cream and coconut milk (like creme brulee and ice cream) to help your body handle the blood sugar spike.
Big Offenders: most processed foods, flavored yogurts (buy plain and flavor it yourself), jams/jellies (look for brands without added sweeteners), nut butters, energy bars, rice/soy/almond milk, cereals, granola, tomato sauce (does not need sugar), condiments, and packaged desserts. Homemade is best.
“Buy natural; cook according to tradition; and eat mindfully.”
-Dr. Catherine Shanahan
What challenges do you face striving for healthier eating? Do you have advice for beginner’s searching for ways to eat healthier? What would you add to these four steps to healthier eating?
Book Giveaway of Food Rules by Catherine Shanahan
Catherine Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food (one of my favorite nutrition books) has written an easy to read handbook simplifying nutrition principles and the powerful role of food and nutrition in human health.
Food Rules: A Doctor’s Guide to Healthy Eating is broken down into short and easy to read sections, or food rules, that covers everything from what to buy, and how to cook, to her own “doctor’s orders”.
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