Proper nutrition can literally mean the difference between life and death. What does it mean to eat healthy? I’ll give you a hint...it’s not a million dollar question! Eating healthy nowadays has become incredibly complicated, but under all this complication lies the truth: you don’t need a food science degree to make better choices. You just need a few easy to follow rules and the awareness of how food marketers trick us into thinking foods are healthy when they’re not.
It’s a bad habit of mine to become distracted by what’s in other people’s grocery carts. I’m not looking with judgement, but rather sadness and even anger at the food industries that are misguiding people on purpose for profit, not good health. That being said, no one eats perfectly, nutrition experts included, and imperfection is part of a healthy balance when it comes to food. It only becomes a problem when you are making exceptions to these rules more often than not. So, here are five easy ways to get started without becoming overwhelmed. Start slowly and see what you can learn about your current habits when it comes to choosing food.
Rule #1: EAT REAL FOOD: This may seem blatantly obvious, but easier said than done. This could be the simplest, but most crucial rule of all. When you go into any mainstream grocery store today, what you will find are mostly “food products” which are highly processed mixtures of ingredients with added chemicals, stabilizers, preservatives, sugar, and salt. If you buy an item that doesn’t go bad in a few days to a week, chances are it contains the above ingredients to preserve it’s shelf life. Good for the food company’s pockets? Yes. Good for our bodies? No. The bottom line: Eat whole foods. A whole food has one ingredient and is not processed so it’s as close to it’s natural state as possible when you ingest it.
Rule #2: COUNT CHEMICALS, NOT CALORIES: We are a culture obsessed with numbers and statistics. We like to quantify things and our diet is no different. The problem with counting calories is that not all calories are created equal. One-hundred calories of broccoli works much differently in your body than one-hundred calories of potato chips. Those 100-calorie packs that you think are good for you? Get rid of them. They are processed sugar with added artificial ingredients and little to no nutritional value. There’s no cheating when it comes to what you put in your body. You will either benefit or be harmed by what crosses your lips. This rule, like the others, is very simple to follow. Look at the ingredients, not the nutrition facts (which are typically based on a 2,000 calorie diet). If there are items a third grader couldn’t pronounce, chances are they are chemicals or manufactured ingredients. Stick to ingredients you (and your third grader) can pronounce and identify as real foods.
Rule #3: CHECK THE SUGAR CONTENT: There’s no daily recommended value (DRV) for sugar so we tend to focus more on grams of protein, fat, and overall carbohydrate intake because we have targets for these. Sugar is listed on the nutrition facts under carbohydrates in grams. The key here is to scroll down to the ingredient list and see what kind of sugar it is. There are countless names that sugar can hide behind like fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and maltose, so be aware that it can come in many different forms. You can’t eliminate sugar completely because there are naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables, but the fiber in these natural foods allows our bodies to process them much slower. We need carbohydrates to live, just be sure to pick the right ones. If sugar is the first ingredient, definitely skip it, because ingredients are listed from highest quantity to lowest. Start by familiarizing yourself with how much sugar is added to common foods you buy. I bet you will be surprised to find that sugar is added to almost all processed foods. Don’t be fooled by “organic” or “gluten-free” either. These terms don’t always mean healthier. Go straight to the ingredients and see for yourself what’s actually in them.
Rule #4: AVOID FOOD PRODUCTS THAT MAKE HEALTH CLAIMS: There are a few exceptions to this rule because nowadays you may see a bag of avocados that has a nutrition label on it with claims to be a healthy source of fat or a good source of fiber. What you’ll want to look out for are food products with more than one ingredient, often in a package of some sort that say things like, “heart healthy, natural, low-fat, fat-free, light, and cholesterol free,” to name a few. These are mostly myths with no meaning at all or the food has been altered from it’s natural state to produce a product with a different nutritional profile. Every time a whole food is processed or altered with chemicals or heat, it loses vital nutrients and doesn’t work as effectively in our bodies when we break it down.
Rule #5: SKIP THE TRENDY “HEALTH FOODS”: Not all organic items or so called “health foods” are healthy. Sure coconuts have health benefits and so does coconut oil in small amounts, but coconut chips dipped in dark chocolate aren’t the best choice, especially if you eat the whole bag. Same deal with potato chips and popcorn. You’ll find rows and rows of different kinds of these foods in various flavors made with various ingredients. Sweet potatoes, blue corn, whole grains...all good as whole foods, but when you fry or even bake them in oil and add additional ingredients you are getting a different food altogether. Even if your favorite chip is made with avocado or coconut oil it can seem like a good choice, but it’s still a bag of chips and if you eat the whole bag, you’re not doing yourself any favors. To determine whether these “health foods” are healthy, go through the first four rules and you will have your answer.
To recap: Choose real food as close to it’s natural state as possible. A fresh mango is better than dried mango especially if it has added sugar or been processed. A baked sweet potato is better than sweet potato chips (even if they boast being made with a superfood oil). Check your ingredients. The fewer the better. Check the sugar content and note what type of sugar is in it. Be aware of the calories, but think quality over quantity.
For those of you feeling a bit of anxiety about making changes, relish in the fact that it’s okay to treat yourself. The key is MODERATION. Follow the 90:10 rule where you eat well 90% of the time and leave the last 10% for indulgences or “exceptions.” Just be sure that your indulgences don’t creep up on you. It’s easy to do. Remember, perfection is not necessary, and in most cases, detrimental to a healthy balanced diet, but be honest with yourself and if you fall off track don’t give up! Just pick yourself up and learn from where you went wrong. It’s a learning process so you will have your ups and downs. Go easy on yourself and have fun with it. After all, eating should be pleasurable and healthy can absolutely be pleasurable!
Shawn Clavelle holds a bachelor's degree in nursing and is a Certified Holistic Health Coach and Certified Yoga Instructor. Drawing from her clinical nursing experience and own personal journey, Shawn has a passion for identifying the obstacles to good health and guiding others in their own journey. She has created a yoga and nutrition program which is accessible and sustainable for those wanting to make changes that last. Shawn believes that what you put in your body and how you move it are crucial to living the most fulfilling life possible.