For Blog Action Day (which coincides with this year’s World Food Day), I’d like to do something a little different. I’d like to talk about food. I spend a lot of time thinking about food, from planning meals to worrying about additives in processed foods, to trying to eat sustainably while struggling, at times, to find the money to make smart food choices. Heck, I spend a lot of time wondering what, exactly, smart food choices are. At times it seems that the more science uncovers about the human body and the way it interacts with food, the more questions arise about what that means when it comes to the dinner table. But while twelve different nutritionists will have twelve different opinions on something as simple as greek yogurt, there are a few simple food rules that (mostly) everyone can agree on – rules that I try to eat by.
Moderation in all things, as they say. I try to make this one a life rule, but especially when it comes to food. Now, note that I say moderation, not deprivation. So many diets and nutritional philosophies are all-or-nothing – whether it’s eating nothing but grapefruits or simply cutting out all sweets. But actively depriving yourself of anything – especially nutrients your body needs to sustain itself, or a food you really love – is tantamount to kicking your willpower in the knees. Any food that you make out to be the holy grail or forbidden fruit will seem a thousand times more tempting if you cut it abruptly out of your diet. Instead, gradually lower portion sizes and try to eat your “problem foods” more sparingly, rather than depriving yourself to the point that you cave, binge, and waking up with a sick stomach and a belly full of regret. Any food is okay in moderation – a small scoop of ice cream, a big, expensive dinner on a special night out, or even the occasional burger and fries won’t kill you, as long as you make them a treat rather than a habit.
2. The Fewer Ingredients The Better
Over the last century, the food industry has become increasingly commercial, turning food into what they think we want to eat: low fat, no carbs, sugar free! But this has become a terrible tug of war – in the process of pulling the bad-for-you stuff out of food that makes it taste good, processed foods lose their flavor, and have to be injected with chemicals to make them taste, well, the way they did in the first place, or at least something sort of like it. This means long, unpronounceable ingredient lists full of things you – unsurprisingly – wouldn’t normally find in food. They might not all be bad for you, but they’re anything but natural. Even if you don’t want to take the time to learn what every single one is, at least give the length of a list a glance, and eat simpler foods wherever you can. I don’t know about you, but I feel safer eating ice cream that contains just cream, sugar, and vanilla than one that has an ingredients list thirty or forty items long – even (or especially) if the latter is reduced fat, sugar free!
3. Eat As Close To The Source As Possible
In addition to foods with fewer ingredients, you want to buy food in the rawest possible form, from as near to home as you can. Fresh produce loses nutritive value while it’s being transported, handled, and shelved at grocery stores, and often meat, fruits, and vegetables come from a number of different sources, not even necessarily from within our own country. With food borne illnesses making the news every couple of months, it’s important to know where your food is coming from, and better yet, who’s handling it, and how. The best way to do that is to shop local farmer’s markets for seasonal produce. If you can, get in touch with co-ops or even local farmers in your community to buy direct from the source, and if you have to buy in bulk, try to get others in your community on board for a food-sharing network. And if you can’t? Buy from your local store only as much as you can use while it’s fresh, and buy in the least-processed form. Oranges are always better for you than bottled orange juice, and the fewer hands, labs, and machines your food has passed through to get into it’s current form, the better.
4. Cook For Yourself
The subset of buying raw, of course is that you have to do the cooking. Don’t feel like you have to make everything from scratch, but the more you can, the better. Baking bread fresh every day might be more than most modern lives can handle, but making a big batch of spaghetti sauce in a crock pot tastes better and will last as long as four jars of the store bought stuff. Pick and choose your battles, but the more simple, home cooked meals you eat, the healthier you’ll be… not the least because you’ll know exactly what’s going into your food.
5. Eat More Fruit, Seriously
They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But I’m not going to wax poetic about the health benefits of eating fruit – though there are plenty of them. Instead, I want to point out how sugar saturated the American diet is. Whether it’s aspartame, corn syrup, or plain old table sugar, almost everything we eat has some kind of sweetener in it, and often a LOT of it. But fruit sugars are the most natural, and the easiest for your body to process (plus lots of fiber, but we aren’t talking about that!), and if you simply swap whatever you would ordinarily have for dessert or a sweet snack with a piece of fruit, within a couple weeks, you’ll find your sweet tooth sedated. Eating an apple a day (and the occasional strawberry), I completely lost my taste for processed sweets. They seemed too sweet, and suddenly that apple was all I needed to kill my craving. As a bonus, apples are like celery, and basically “free” or nearly calorie neutral as well as filling, which makes for the world’s best guilt free snack. And if you don’t like apples, try a couple different varieties before you dismiss them – the taste and texture varies widely between types, and you just might find one you like.
6. Stay Balanced
No food can remove any one thing without a loss somewhere else. Whether it’s making up for “low fat” by adding lots of salt, or claiming “sugar free” by using lots of chemical sweeteners, there’s no easy way to change the nature of the food you’re eating. But that might not be a bad thing. No matter what the labels say, remember: there’s no natural nutrient out there that doesn’t do SOMETHING good for you. Protein – whether you get it from meat, beans, nuts dairy, or soy – builds strong, healthy muscles. Complex carbohydrates keep you energized, and fiber keeps your gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems clean and healthy. Even much-loathed fat is important for a healthy, balanced diet – if you don’t get enough, your body holds on to fat rather than burning it, which can make it harder to lose weight. Remember: it’s not just about the calories, it’s about what nutrients you’re putting into your body, and the best way to get a balanced diet is to eat food in its most natural form.
Ultimately, healthy eating is a journey, not a destination – it’s more about your lifestyle than what you wind up putting in your mouth. There are no clear answers, but there are smart choices and practical alternatives. Maybe the most important thing to remember, though? If someone says being healthy is easy, they’re probably selling something.