You may be eating unhealthier than you think.
If you are on HelathierlifeMD and reading this blog then more likely than not you are interested in eating healthy. Most of you try to eat healthy, but if you are anything like my patients and people I have counseled, chances are you are struggling. Not because you are not trying or lack motivation, but because the food industry has become so good at selling you unhealthy junk wrapped in healthy packaging and advertising that your chances of succeeding are slim. Here are a few examples I have seen:
Commercial juices: sold as 100% from real fruit, organic, no artificial or added sugar and many other healthy sounding slogans, are all unhealthy. Why? because juicing takes out most of the fiber (the healthy part) and concentrates the sugar (the unhealthy part). Yes you get some vitamins, but you are mostly drinking sugar and water.
Nut mixes: you most likely have heard that nuts are good for you. True. But, most of what is on grocery store shelves is nut bags with added ingredients to make it tastier: salt, brown sugar, maple syrup, M&Ms are just a few examples. In addition, nuts are full of calories, so a handful is all you need, not a large bag or box that you snack on all day.
Yogurts: next time you go to grocery store pay attention to the yogurt section. Most of what is displayed are yogurt fruits, it's much harder to find plain yogurt. Now, what is wrong with yogurt fruits? Nothing except they are loaded with added sugar. Here are a few examples: Yoplait: 13g added sugar, Fage: 11g added sugar, Chobani 14g, Noosa 18g added sugar. Ouch!
Oats: oats are healthy, but most of what is advertised are the instant flavored oats like cinnamon, maple syrup and blueberry. Problem? you guessed it, they are loaded with sugar.
Pre-made frozen foods: most are loaded with salt, preservatives and sugar, but even the ones that are low on these ingredients are made from poor quality ingredients. The meat is most likely low grade and quality meat, the oil used is most likely low quality. After all, if the producer uses high quality ingredient the cost per unit will be much higher.
Protein bars and shakes: almost are loaded with sugar. In addition, most have synthetic ingredients instead of fresh natural ingredients. Unless you are a professional athlete that needs lion size protein intake, there is absolutely no reason to eat these awful products (and even if you are on your way to become the next Arnold, there are healthier ways to eat protein than protein bars).
Salad dressing: salads are great, but adding pre-made dressings like Ranch, Italian and Thousand Island not so great, most are rich in unhealthy fats and sugar. And most pr-made salads are loaded with low quality bacon or bread crumbs. Make your own salad and dressing. A simple dressing example we use all the time is olive oil, apple vinegar, lemon, a spoon of greek yogurt, salt and pepper.
Frozen foods: high in salt, some high in sugar, and almost all made of low quality ingredients. So, even if the total calorie per serving is low, you are still cheating yourself by not eating better quality ingredients. Make your own food, and if you are short in time make extra and freeze it for later use.
These are just a few examples of unhealthy food disguised as healthy options. Unfortunately the grocery stores are jam packed with many other unhealthy products disguised as healthy. In addition, most restaurants, fast foods and food makers are focused on making a profit, which means they use lower quality ingredients.
So, stop staring at the pretty pictures of fit people on the cover of food boxes or catchy advertising like made from organic, all natural and wholesome. And just because you shop at a "healthy store" like Whole Foods or Sprout does not mean that everything there is healthy, in fact most of it is not. Instead learn to use your own knowledge to eat healthy food. Visit HealthierlifeMD for a comprehensive education on how to shop, make and eat healthy. Meanwhile, here are a few quick tips on how to get started.
The only way to take complete control of what goes in your body is to make your own food using fresh high quality ingredients. And this is much simpler than it sounds: a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner using fresh ingredients and healthy homemade sauces is really all you need. Here are some tips on how to get started.
Try and use raw ingredients for your food. Avoid canned products as much as possible. You will have better quality and better tasting food. Here are a few common examples of ingredients you can start making at home instead of buying tasteless canned products: beans, lentils and beets. Buy your bread from local bakery and avoid the store brands (or make your own if you are up to it), store brands are mostly high in sugar and have preservatives (ever wondered how fresh bread lasts few days before molding but store bread can last for more than a week, or how you can bend a store bread and it bounces right back (elastic preservatives) whereas the bakery bread breaks and crumbles if you bend it). Make your own waffle or pancake mix using healthy and nutritious flour like whole wheat, oat or almond with much less sugar per serving, instead use fruits like banana for sweetness (click here for a sample recipe).
For any meal, you need good amount of vegetables, a small amount of carb (your vegetables already have carbs in them), and a good source of protein. This is the opposite of most American diets, where our focus is first on a large serving of protein and carbs and a small amount of vegetables. Make vegetables the main start of your dish.
Get your vegetables, carbs and protein in the unprocessed raw form. Farmers market is a great one stop shop for highest quality and in season products. For grocery stores, get all your fruits and vegetables raw from the produce section, avoid canned products. Get your meat from the butcher (grass fed, and organic if available), fish from the frozen section (unless you live in coastal area and have access to fresh fish), milk and yogurt should be plain form (avoid the fruity ones). Your carb source should be your fruits, vegetables, grains (quinoa, farro, barely, oats, brown rice or whole wheat pasta) and unflavored beans. If you are a regular consumer of rice and pasta, then transition to whole wheat, but if you eat them occasionally then you can do the white rice and pasta (lets not kid ourselves, the whole wheats are not as tasty as the white products).
Most pre-made foods get their taste from sugar, salt and other unhealthy ingredients. For your healthy food, the juice from your vegetables, meats, healthy oils, herbs and other healthy ingredients like garlic and ginger will create a delicious and rich taste. Deglazing can also give you a rich and delicious sauce from the food you just cooked.
In addition, learn to have a repertoire of healthy homemade sauces in your fridge for your main dishes (see below for a few references).
Use healthy fats such as olive oil or avocado oil for cooking. For salads, extra virgin olive oil is your best option.
Avoid salads for a meal, they sound healthy, but unless your salad is rich in fats, carbs and protein you will be hungry in a short time and that is when unhealthy snacking will hunt you down. Now, I have to admit that we eat salads for lunch 2-3 times a week, but our salads are loaded: besides the usual salad greens, we add a fruit like sliced apple or tangerine, some crushed nuts, a healthy source of carb like quinoa or beans, healthy source of protein like quinoa, beans, eggs, fish or chicken and a healthy source of fat like olive oil, nuts, fish, or avocado. So, it's much more nutritious than a regular salad with lettuce and tomatoes (in fact, maybe we shouldn't even refer to them as salads).
Avoid snacking, unless you are a super athlete, you do not need to snack, you can get all your calories from your main meals. So, eat a healthy rich and filling breakfast, lunch and dinner and avoid the snacks. Snacking is really where most bad habits come from, but they make the most money for the food companies, so they are highly advertised and displayed in stores. If you must snack, use a handful of nuts, fruits and vegetables.
Leave fast food for those emergencies where you are busy and cooking is not an option.
Reduce your eating out: anything you eat outside is not as healthy as what you make at home, and most likely more expensive. Keep your outings to 1-2 times a week for socialization or special occasions.
If you are buying a canned or boxed food, always read the label and ingredient list. Pay particular attention to amount of
sugar added per serving: avoid products with more than 5g sugar added per serving.
types of fats: avoid products with hydrogenated or trans fat, or mostly saturated fat.
other ingredients listed in fine prints: avoid products with a laundry list of products you have never heard of before (these are usually preservatives and artificial ingredients to add taste and texture to the product). If you have never heard of it, can not pronounce it, it sounds like something you may have used in your high school chemistry lab, then it is most likely unhealthy and should not be consumed. Here are a couple of examples:
And always look at the serving size. Do you really eat one serving size? If the sugar is 5g per serving but you eat 2-3 serving per meal, then you are really eating 10-15g of sugar. Reducing serving size to make food appear healthier is one way some food products appear healthier than they really are.
12. And if you are like me, no meal is complete without a dessert. But while in past I would down a box of ice cream or eat a donut mindlessly and then feel bloated and sick, I have now learned to appreciate desserts in a small amount for its taste and richness. Here are a few examples:
Citrusy fruits like tangerine and orange, or berry mixes make a great end and palate cleansing dessert. If you want a little more sweetness you can add a tablespoon of cream, honey or chocolate to it.
Pastry: a small portion (2-3 bites) of pastry bought from a local pastry shop (not the sugar loaded grocery store brands) or homemade pastry is a perfect finish to your meal. Focus on high quality and SMALL portion. Savor the taste, don't just down a a large portion for the sugar rush.
A handful of nut mix with dried fruit. It is filling and has a satisfying sweetness to it.
Ice cream. Yes, I know, it's not good for you. But having a little ice cream once in a while is perfectly fine. In fact my wife, who is thin and healthy by all medical biomarkers, eats a little ice cream 2-3 times a week after dinner. But she eats 2 little scoops, not a big bowl. In addition, she eats healthy the rest of the day. What is the point? Eating unhealthy in moderation is ok if you eat mindfully the rest of the time. And this brings us to the last point:
Eating healthy does not mean you can never have unhealthy food. That is cruel and unsustainable, and it makes me a hypocrite. The goal is to eat healthy and mindfully most of the times; the every day normal routine breakfast, lunch, dinners and mindful occasional snacking. But do I promote never going to an ice cream store, eating burger and fries at the local bar, eating pizza at a party? Not having a bee or glass of wine? NO. Not at all. I do all of that. Just be more mindful; choose when and what unhealthy foods you eat and limit it to just a few times a week.
I hope this serves as a good starting point to start your journey to healthy eating. I started mine about 10 years ago and have lost more than 30 pounds. Cooking and shopping for healthy in season food has become my second hobby besides swimming, biking and running and I have learned to appreciate food for its taste, smell, texture and history. And as someone who survived on pizza pockets and instant rice with pre-made chicken, I can assure you that learning to cook is much simpler than it sounds. There are really a few core skills that you will easily master once you cook for few weeks. Here are my favorite and go to cooking books for simple, time efficient and delicious cooking:
Cooking for Dummies: a great start to learn basics cooking skills. It also has some awesome simple recipes.
Run Fast eat Slow: originally written for athletes, this book is full of healthy recipes for busy families, whether or not you are an athlete. The intro section also has great tips on how to become an efficient cook.
Keepers: quick, healthy and very flavorful recipes written by former food editors.
Just Cook It: quick and flavorful recipes, not all recipes are totally healthy so pick and choose, but most are great.
Good Food, Good Life: when you are ready to take it to the next step, Curtis Stone has a nice collection of overall healthy food recipes that require a little more time and skills. Perhaps a great choice for days off when you can cook, socialize and have a drink.