Lao Tzu said “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Whatever your nutrition goals are, it’s always important to start by taking a good, hard look at the foods that you typically eat – before you make your first move. This is one of the reasons that I encouraged you to keep a food journal – to examine WHAT you’re eating.
Have you ever thought about what percentage of your diet comes from processed foods? You’ve likely heard the term “processed food,” but it may not be obvious what falls into this category. Technically, food that has had anything done to it could be called processed, right? But when nutrition experts discuss avoiding unhealthy processed foods – they are generally referring to the more highly processed items that contain added sugars, sodium, and trans fats. You know, foods like crackers, cereals, baked goods, coffee creamers, snack foods, frozen pizza and refrigerated dough products, etc…
The current Dietary Guidelines (newsflash: 2015 guidelines are being released soon) suggest that adults should reduce their intake of trans fat, get no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day and should limit added sugars to no more than 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men. Added sugars should not to be confused with the sugar that naturally occurs in fruits and vegetables. This is an important distinction since these foods provide important vitamins, minerals, and fiber along with their naturally occurring sugar. After all, we’re supposed to be eating more fruits and veggies – not less!
Ok, so with your journal pages in hand, I want you to circle all of the processed foods and beverages that you consume for meals and snacks. Go ahead – grab a colorful marker or crayon and circle away! We’re going to take a look at some of the foods that you may have circled in your journal and come up with some healthy substitutions that you can make to eat closer to earth!
Cereal is a standard staple for breakfast but many boxed cereals are loaded with preservatives, artificial coloring and added sugar, salt and calories. If cereal is part of your morning routine, you want to skip the cartoon character cereals that dye your milk pink – and opt for a whole grain cereal with a short ingredient list. Many cereals that claim to be “whole grain” still include refined grains. The FIRST ingredient should be a whole grain. If the label reads milled corn, corn meal, wheat flour or rice, the cereal is a mix of whole and refined grains.
Scan through the entire list – if you see the words “partially hydrogenated,” put the box back on the shelf. You want to avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils (or “trans fats”) and some cereals are loaded with them. Once you’ve eliminated all the brands made with refined grains or partially hydrogenated oils, check for ADDED sugars (you want little or none) and fiber (you want lots!). One-ingredient whole grain cereals (i.e., shredded wheat, puffed wheat, oatmeal) are good bets.
Try steel cut oatmeal topped with nuts or raisins. OR as an alternative to cereal – what about egg on an English muffin; egg scrambled with spinach and mushrooms; egg, avocado, and salsa in a whole-wheat tortilla? Add a serving of fruit for added fiber and vitamins.
To keep your coffee as close to nature as possible (and I’m all about shade grown coffee that gets us even closer to nature by helping to protect songbirds!) consider what you mix into your brew. Swap flavored creamers (typically laden with colorings, artificial flavors, and high fructose corn syrup) for a splash of real cream, almond, or soy milk. Instead of adding flavored syrup to a latte, try sprinkling with cocoa, cinnamon or nutmeg for flavor. If you need to add some sweetness, I say forget the fake stuff! Use a packet of sugar in the raw instead.
Yogurt can be a nutritional champion – or not. On the plus side, it’s loaded with gut-healthy nutrients (look for varieties made with live and active cultures) and has an ingredient list you can actually pronounce. On the down side, there are lots of yogurts that are overly sweetened with added sugar – like syrupy fruit. Make a less processed choice and pick plain yogurt (Greek has more protein) and top with fresh or dried fruit for flavor and natural sweetness.
A salad can be a healthful choice for a minimally processed meal. Raw veggies are as natural as it gets, but be wary of processed salad toppings that add fat and salt and little nutritional value like crunchy noodles, bacon bits, and croutons. Instead, sprinkle your salad with nuts for crunch and dried fruit for sweetness. When it comes to salad dressings, less is more. In lieu of the multi-ingredient processed stuff, mix your own using a flavored olive oil and vinegar. Add your favorite herbs, a little lemon juice, and voila!
Sandwiches are a daily staple for many of us, but most luncheon meats are highly processed and loaded with sodium, chemicals and nitrates. Shop around for a deli that roasts their own turkey, chicken or roast beef. Of course if you have the time, a more cost effective approach would want to be to buy uncooked meat and poultry and roast them at home. Once the meat has cooled, cut it into slices and refrigerate (or freeze) in plastic bags for easy access.
Make delicious sandwiches with hearty whole grain bread. Avoid breads made with white flour (which is a highly processed version of wheat) that are far less nutritious than the whole-wheat or whole grain alternatives. The same guidelines for choosing cereals apply to bread as well. Instead of the typical lettuce, pickles, and tomato add-ons, think outside the box and try sliced cucumbers, shredded carrots, peppers, arugula, spinach, sprouts, or avocado to name a few!
Although pasta and tomato sauce is a family dinner favorite, it’s also highly processed. How to make it more nutritious? Instead of boiling up white pasta, try a whole-wheat pasta or spaghetti squash. Toss with olive oil, fresh minced garlic, sautéed fresh tomatoes, and fresh herbs to taste. Top with goat cheese or freshly grated Parmesan.
Other dinner swaps – brown rice for white rice; baked, broiled or grilled meats, poultry (remove the skin) and seafood instead of fried; and steamed, grilled or lightly sautéed vegetables instead of fried or covered in creamy sauces. In addition to more wholesome ingredients, when chosen wisely the preparation method you use can keep you closer to earth!
What kinds of snacks did you circle? This is where most of our processed food intake comes from. Eating more minimally processed foods requires some work on your part. Examine the labels of packaged cookies, crackers and other snack items carefully. Choose the ones that have five whole food ingredients or less – leave the others on the store shelves. Better yet, shift the focus to your refrigerator! Stock your refrigerator with unprocessed alternatives like fresh fruits, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, veggie slices and hard-boiled eggs, yogurt and lower fat cheeses.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The goal is to fill your journal pages with mainly whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, low-fat dairy products, seafood, skinless chicken and lean meat. Frozen and canned and packaged goods without lots of added preservatives, colors, flavors, sugar or sodium are fine too.
If you’re already eating few processed foods – congratulations and keep up the good work! If you’ve got more foods circled on your pages than you would like, it’s ok – you’re like most of us that need to take a careful look at what we’re eating and make necessary changes. The fun part comes when you tap into your creative side to figure out what substitutions you’re willing to make to eat more healthfully.
Start slowly. Each week, work towards swapping a couple of processed foods with less processed alternatives. As you begin to eat more unprocessed foods, concentrate on the flavors that you’ve been missing! In addition to enjoying your food more, you’ll reap the health benefits as well. And remember – it’s all about the process – one step at a time.
Next BLOG: Go green and go nuts!