Being Healthy – A Common Sense and Balanced Approach: Food, Part 1 – A General Overview

You would think that the discussion on food would be the most complicated one in this series because of all the conflicting information floating around out there about diet and diets.

In reality, this is probably the simplest of all our discussions.

Forget all of the statistics, the commercials, the articles, the books, and the hype. Just let them go for now. If you’re uncomfortable with doing that, make yourself a deal – let it go for just a bit, and if you don’t like what I’m saying, you can have it all back. No harm, no foul.

Common sense.

Think for yourself.

Draw your own conclusions.

These are the primary tools that you will use when it comes to selecting your food.

Current state.

Ingredients.

Color.

These are the primary things that you will look for in determining if you should eat what you have selected.

It’s that easy.

The first three – common sense, think for yourself, and draw your own conclusions – those should be employed in EVERYTHING you do, not just for food selection. As they apply to food, to use them requires you to see beyond packaging, read between the lines of labels, and to forget everything that you have heard and read related to individual products. If you are selecting a packaged product, make a concentrated effort to be devoid of any preconceived notions that have taken hold because of advertising (these often creep in and take up residence without you even realizing it, so be aware of that), and start from square one, asking yourself “should I actually eat this?”.

The second three – current state, ingredients, and color – those apply to the food product itself.

The term current state means, for our purposes, how close to it’s original form is the product? If you are visiting a farmer’s market, chances are that the tomato that you are holding is only one step removed from the vine on which it grew (this is good). By contrast, if you are choosing a can of stewed tomatoes at the supermarket, that same tomato would have endured any number of alterations before it’s arrival in your saucepan (this is definitely not as good). And if you are considering a flavored sauce that is tomato-based, there is no telling how far removed the stuff is from the tomatoes that were supposedly used to create it (this is NOT good). A good rule of thumb is to look at the product packaging – is it simple or complex? The tomato carries it’s own packaging – it’s skin. Fresh meats are in a minimum of packaging – usually a plain label on plastic wrap. Anything that has more packaging than that is definitely a processed food, plain and simple, and the objective is to stay away from as much processed food as possible.

See how easy that is?

As to ingredients, as a general rule, you want to opt for the least amount of ingredients possible. Going back to our tomato example, if you pick up the fruit itself and look for an ingredients label, you’re not going to find one, because it’s in it’s natural state. It’s just a tomato. If you look at the can of stewed tomatoes, you’ll probably find a label with anywhere from three to eight ingredients listed. By contrast, if you look at the label on the sauce, there may be any number of ingredients, some of which you can’t pronounce. Stick to single ingredient FRESH foods that come in their own packaging as often as you can. Avoid large ingredient lists and things you can’t pronounce.

And color – if you’re looking at single ingredient foods (i.e. – our tomato), go for the deepest, richest colors you can find. More color = more nutrition. For example, if choosing lettuce, you’d definitely want vibrant green (Romaine, etc) over Iceberg, which is light green to white, signaling a preponderance of water and very little vitamin/mineral content. If you’re looking at packaged foods (packaged foods = processed foods – keep that in mind!), for Pete’s sake, stay away from weird colors. To recap: in natural foods, more color is good. In processed foods, more color is bad.

Where to look for the best foods? Location, location, location … in your average supermarket, your best food choices are around the perimeter. This is where you will usually find fresh produce, fresh meats, and fresh dairy (and the beer section – this is also important).

Avoid the internal aisles as much as possible. That’s where the bulk of the fake foods are going to be found. Go there only for spices and single ingredient staples (such as natural peanut butter, almonds, seeds, and things of that sort), and be on your toes for advertising gimmicks. The creators of Frankenstein foods are savvy and sneaky as hell. They will use label colorings and buzz words to convey the image that they want you to see. Don’t fall for it! This is where common sense, thinking for yourself, and draw your own conclusions comes in. Do a little research on how food manufacturers get around labeling requirements and how those terms like “natural” probably don’t mean what you interpret them to mean. Look into this before you load your cart with conveniently packaged foods which you think are going to do your body good. For most of those, you’d probably be better off eating the labels than what’s in the package.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned any of the currently prevalent diet trends – Atkins, Paleo/low carb, low cholesterol, low fat, etc. There’s a reason for that. Diets that focus on a specified eating regime are a lot like religion – most of them have gotten SOME of the important stuff right, but NONE of them have gotten it ALL right. That’s because, at their core, all of these diets focus on one singular principle rather than a balanced approach. When this occurs, followers invariably go overboard in their zeal to adhere to the guidelines of the diet in order to see maximum results in the shortest period possible, which, of course, usually results in a really whacked out way of eating. Whacked out ways of eating mess with your body. Period.

However, I will say this: out of all of the “trending” diet regimes, the low carb way of eating (Paleo, etc) has the most merit, in my humble opinion. It provides plenty of fat and cholesterol (and despite what you have been told, your body NEEDS these two things, and it needs them badly – remember: think for yourself … do some research), plenty of vegetables, very few fruits, and no processed foods. This is pretty much the way I eat, but with more focus on veggies and less on meats than most other low carb followers.

However, the one trap that really should be avoided when exploring a low carb lifestyle is to resist the temptation to try to substitute low carb imitations of traditional processed foods and especially sweets. Whipping up a low carb chocolate mousse once in a while is fine, but to try and substitute breads, sweets, and other processed, grain based, high carb foods on a regular basis requires you to buy all kinds of strange (and very expensive) ingredients, and the results are usually really, really weird. Instead, if you choose to adopt a low carb way of eating, for heaven’s sake, actually do it, rather than trying to have your cake and eat it too.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves us with some pretty simple information:

  • First and foremost, choose foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Always choose organic if its available. Local foods are better than supermarket foods,  as a general rule.
  • Avoid the internal isles of the supermarket as much as possible, and be alert to marketing gimmicks. Don’t be a sheep – think for yourself and take responsibility for making common sense choices rather than relying on what the labels say (or rather, what they want you to THINK that they say).
  • Eat simply. Don’t buy expensive ingredients, don’t make complicated dishes, except perhaps on special occassions. Blueberries and fresh cheese are a great breakfast, a strawberry spinach salad (complete with pecans, crumbled goat cheese, and an EASY homemade poppyseed dressing) is a delicious and satisfying lunch, and chicken breasts marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and italian seasoning with some steamed veggies (adequately buttered, of course!) is a great supper.

This article is just a basic starting point for others in the series – look for more in the upcoming weeks!

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