It seems like every food label, weight-loss article, or nutrition advertisement is offering up a solution to our health problems these days. Whether it be a new diet or a special product, we are bombarded with information telling us how we should be eating and taking care of ourselves. What if I told you it doesn’t have to be complicated? In fact, nourishing our bodies with healthy food can actually be very simple.
Why eat healthy?
What we eat plays a huge part in our energy level, focus, immune system, sleep, and the list goes on. By nourishing ourselves with real foods, we give our bodies the nutrients that it needs to fulfill its normal daily functions well. When we consume highly-processed food, our bodies will not receive the nutrients they need—which can lead to a long list of health related problems—and no one wants that.
A diet filled with highly processed foods has been associated with a damaged gut. Many people don’t realize this, but gut damage can lead to chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease. This is when the immune system is confused what to attack and begins attacking the body’s own healthy proteins and good bacteria. Artificial ingredients and processed foods have also been linked to obesity. I believe that if more of us actively avoided (or at least eat less) processed foods, many of the health issues that we struggle with would go away.
Eat Real Food
Often, when I use the words “whole foods” or “real foods”, people imagine of boring kale salads without dressing. This is not an accurate representation of a healthy diet though. In fact, a real food, balanced diet should not be restrictive or make you feel like you’re deprived. The key is to know the variety of choices out there and be educated in how to cook/eat the food.
So You Said This Was Easy?
What I am going to lay out for you is how to identify processed foods and what to choose instead. It will be your choice what you do with the information. Only you can take steps towards changing your diet and lifestyle, my goal is to help the process (pun intended) be less complicated.
Before we get started, let’s define “Processed Foods”…
In short, processed foods are foods that have been changed in some way from their original form. This definition is pretty vague and probably sounds like most of the food you (and I) eat. That is because processed foods fall on a spectrum, from very minimally processed to heavily processed…
Unprocessed Food:fresh fruit and veggies, fresh eggs, raw seeds
Minimally Processed Foods:cooked veggies, pasture-raised meat, toasted nuts
Processed Foods: convenience foods such as conventional crackers, brownie mix, cereal
Heavily Processed Foods: frozen pizza, microwave dinner, breaded/fried food.
When trying to clean up a diet, I think that focusing more on unprocessed and minimally processed foods is key—aka eating whole foods.
Choosing The Right Foods
When looking for unprocessed and minimally processed food at the grocery store, your first temptation may be to run to the “vegan, gluten-free, or natural foods section”… stop there. The boxed “gf, df, veg, nut-free” crackers may not be your best choice. Just because they support specific diets does not mean they are healthy.
Below are 6 steps I recommend taking when choosing unprocessed, whole food.
- How close is my food to how it looks in nature?Consider the difference between corn on the cob, popcorn and corn-syrup. Generally, the more your food resembles how it looked in nature, the better.
- How many ingredients are on the label? The fewer the ingredients on the label the better.
- Can you pronounce the ingredients on the label? If you can’t pronounce ingredients on the label, chances are they are harmful sweeteners, preservatives or processed fillers.
- Is the label making a claim such as “zero-calories” or “fat-free”? Unless it is a bottle of water, your food (and drinks) should have calories in them. Artificial sweeteners mess with your bodies gut flora and are considered worse than conventional cane sugar. Also, fat is not bad. In fact, healthy fats, like those found in nuts and seeds are necessary for a balanced diet.
- Can you make this food from scratch? A loaf of fresh, whole wheat bread?—sure you could make it, but you probably don’t want to take the time. Gummy worms with high-fructose corn syrup? or Diet Pepsi?—nope.
- Ask yourself: “How the food will make me feel after I’m done eating?” Are you going to feel sluggish because of all the processed oil? Or full of energy because of the fresh nutrients?
Feel Good About Your Choices
If this information seems like too much or this lifestyle seems too hard to handle, don’t stress. Instead, make small changes—they will eventually add up to large change. This could look like adding in one, completely un-processed meal a week. Instead of eating just to eat, eat to feel energized and replenished.
There are lots of blogs, cookbooks around resources available for cooking real, unprocessed foods—including my blog of course! A couple delicious recipes that I recommend if you’re new to the real-food word (or if you’re just looking for some yummy recipes) are my Southwest Sweet Potato Bowl and Sweet Potato Walnut Brownies. (Can you tell I love sweet potatoes?)
Everything Is A Balance
When we completely deprive or bodies of foods and treats that we enjoy, we end up dissatisfied with our new lifestyle and turn away from whole-foods and back to our unhealthy habits. So…
“Three words for you… Treat. Yo. Self”
Indulge sometimes. Eat the ice cream. And enjoy every bite.