I was born in 1980 and growing up I just loved convenience foods like Top Ramen, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (now Totino’s Pizza Rolls), and sugary boxed cereals like Captain Crunch and Frosted Flakes. I mean, who could resist? They were SO yummy!
Unfortunately, I came to pay for my over-consumption of these tempting treats with excess weight by the time I was a teenager. In an attempt to lose weight throughout my twenties, I shifted my diet toward so-called “healthier” options like Slim Fast, 100 calorie convenience packs, frozen Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine meals, non-fat yogurt and Healthy Choice canned soups. I thought I needed to eat fewer calories than I was spending as the out-dated and totally incorrect adage tells us to do. Through my own health journey and nutrition education, I’ve discovered that calories-in, calories-out is a lie and that I was never really “fat”, nor are most Americans. Now how can I possibly say that when all the stats tell us that two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight?
Fat carries a connotation of laziness, or lack of willpower but I argue that we are actually inflamed. In our ignorance, we have been consuming a variety of chemicals, additives, and pesticides that have been harming our digestive tracts and creating stress on the body. Not to mention the high-stress lifestyles that most of us lead in modern culture. Stress creates inflammation and tells the body to store fat, as it becomes concerned for our very survival.
I’d like to talk about the Standard American Diet versus a whole foods diet and some improvements we can make.
There’s a reason we shorten the Standard American Diet to S-A-D. I did not come up with this, it’s a common term used by many doctors, nutritionists, holistic and alternative health practitioners. Unfortunately the food supply has been compromised and we can’t believe the health claims on labels or rely on the FDA to help us. There are synthetic and highly processed foods which are advertised as “healthy” because of very loose FDA “rules” around marketing. The body does not know what to do with these chemicals and additives which create a toxic environment within the body.
Our diets are sadly low in “whole foods” and very high in processed foods. Whole foods have not been processed, refined or had ingredients added. They include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, meat, fish and eggs. Think of a food and see if you recognize it as something that exists in nature... like nuts, a fish, or a carrot.
Processed foods have been altered. They are processed for a variety of reasons: extending shelf life, convenience, to alter their nutritional content and make them taste, look or smell different. Figuring out what is processed can be tricky – it’s helpful to think of processed foods as ranging from minimally processed to heavily processed. Prewashed or precut fruits or vegetables have been minimally processed, whereas turning a beet into a beet chip requires more processing – you may not realize the final chip began as a beet.
Our bodies need the vitamins and minerals abundant in whole foods to keep us healthy and to functioning well. Whole foods are considered “nutrient dense,” because they contain a variety of nutrients, while foods that are heavily processed contain “empty calories.” They may fill our bellies, but they leave our bodies starved of nutrition.
When our diets are mostly made up of heavily processed foods, or empty calories, we end up with excessive calories, sugar, fat and sodium but very little fiber and phytonutrients, setting the groundwork for the development of disease.
I understand that for most people, switching to a completely whole foods diet isn’t practical, especially when you want to have an active social life. And depending on where you’re at, eating minimally processed foods can help you transition to a healthier diet overall. BUT it’s important to look at the labels! Many of the foods Americans eat on a daily basis are banned in countries around the world or a different version is made to be sold abroad with more natural colors and flavorings. Since they can get away with selling us cheap and synthetic foods, they do it. It’s all about their bottom line and the FDA let’s them. It’s criminal!
If you don’t know what something in the ingredients list is, don’t eat it. If there is an acronym, be highly suspicious. Common yet toxic ingredients in American processed foods (which are banned in other countries around the world) go by names like TBHQ, BHT, BVO, yellow 5, yellow 6, red 40, BHA, azodicarbonamide (used to make yoga mats), potassium bromate...Sadly, I could go on. If you can’t picture what it was in nature, don’t eat it. If it doesn’t make sense to your mind, it won’t make sense to your belly.
These chemicals and additives are NOT real foods but you’ll find them in everything from packaged baked goods and breads like Jimmy Dean Delights Turkey Sausage, Pillsbury Breadsticks, Skittles, and so on. They are in foods like crackers, cereal, potato chips, chewing gum, and beer. These chemicals KNOWN to cause allergic reactions and hyperactivity, cardiovascular issues, cancer, and many other life-threatening illnesses. BUT they can get away with it in the United States because of loose regulations and since it’s cheaper and easier to produce, they do it. Again, we can not rely on the government or food manufacturers to have our health in mind. We need to look at the labels and understand what we are consuming.
Now, there are some halfway decent products out there. Just as an example, I eat rice cakes which have one ingredient, rice, sometimes sea salt if I get the salted ones. I love them topped with avocado, turkey and onion or sunflower seed butter and raisins. But let’s take something a little more complex like a box of Mary’s Gone Crackers. The ingredients are organic whole grain brown rice, organic whole grain quinoa, organic brown flax seeds, organic brown sesame seeds, filtered water, sea salt, organic wheat-free tamari ~ a Japanese soy sauce ~ (water, organic whole soybeans, salt, organic vinegar). I know what all that is. A good rule of thumb is, the fewer ingredients the better, and be sure to know what they all are.
A quick note on conventional (not organic) wheat and corn. Most American wheat is treated with Round-up, a chemical pesticide known to cause cancer. GMO (genetically modified) corn has been bred to explode the guts of bugs so they stay away. If it does that to bugs, what do you think it does to us? Please buy organic corn and wheat, though even organic wheat can have high levels of glyphosate (a chemical in Round-up). Personally, I eat gluten-free and avoid all wheat products.
Regarding pesticides (which are toxic in the body), the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes two lists every year: the Dirty Dozen & Clean 15. The items on the Dirty Dozen list require the most pesticides to grow. Last year these were strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes. In contrast, the Clean 15 uses little to no pesticide to be grown. Last year they included avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, sweet peas, eggplants, asparagus, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, honeydew melon, and kiwifruit.
I strongly encourage my clients to buy organic whenever they can and I understand that money can be a factor when shopping but definitely buy organic from that dirty dozen list. One way to buffer the pocketbook is to buy frozen fruits and veggies. They can be cheaper and just as nutritious. Generally they are picked at the height of freshness and frozen immediately to preserve quality.
In summary, processed foods are harming us through chronic inflammation. To lose weight, I don’t personally believe that you need to count calories, you just need to stop eating the foods that are causing inflammation and ultimately you WILL develop a better relationship with food. Being heavy isn’t about laziness, you’ll never exercise your way out of a bad diet.
Being fat is also not about willpower. How could you possibly survive the onslaught of harmful foods when most of what our grocery stores carry are highly processed foods? A 2015 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that 77 percent of American grocery purchases consist of either moderately or highly processed foods. And a lot of them are supposed “health” foods or “diet aids”. Please also keep in mind that major food producers have food scientists who actually work to make these foods chemically addictive in the body.
Lastly, if you don’t already know how, please learn how to cook. It’s easier to make healthy and delicious foods than you think it is and it's the single biggest thing you can do for your health. Cooking is different than baking; you don't need exact measurements and you can taste test as you go along. It will be much easier to quit sugar if you can cook. I sweeten my porridge with dates, my cookies with maple syrup, and my gf pancakes with bananas. Honey and raisins are also great ways to sweeten food.
Crockpot and one-pan dinners are super easy and take very little time. You can also batch cook and plan to eat the same thing a few times that week or freeze some for a later meal. I batch cook and freeze kitchari (an Indian porridge), breakfast porridge, shredded chicken, meatballs, breakfast sausages, bean burgers, pesto, hummus, and dosas, which are a fermented cake made from lentils and rice but hit the spot when I want something bready.
I often hear that people don’t feel creative enough to cook. You don’t have to be! Google is your friend. Are you craving something? Chicken tenders? There are recipes for “gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free chicken tenders” online. Modify your searches to avoid your personal food sensitivities while still satisfying your cravings.
I know that a lot of people use processed foods to exercise portion control, like I used to. A better route, I think, is to put less on your plate than you think you want, eat slowly, and check in with your body. If you want more, have it. Get in touch with your body's natural full point and you'll come into a better relationship with food.
Eat More Whole Foods.
Lots of veggies and a little fruit
Healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, ghee, nuts, and olives
Grass-fed, pasture raised, organic meats
Fiber, like beans and whole grains
Shop the edges of the market where you’ll find whole foods like fruits and vegetables in the produce section, the bulk bins with grains, nuts, and legumes, meat and seafood, eggs and some organic dairy.
Stay Away from pre-packaged convenience foods, chemicals, additives, refined sugars & starches, processed meats, saturated fats, refined grains, alcohol, refined salts, syrups (especially High Fructose Corn Syrup).
Eat out less.
Learn to Cook.
These are a lot of changes and change takes time; you don’t have to do it all at once. Begin by crowding out your current go-tos with healthier foods. Just one extra fruit or vegetable per day can make a huge difference. This is about discovering what works best for your body. You don't have to change your diet all at once; small changes add up. This is about progress, not perfection.
If you need some assistance along your path, get in touch! I’d love to help you learn how to cook healthier meals at home, help give your pantry a make-over, or assist in whatever way you need. :)