things I have done to improve my nutrition - part one
In my pursuit of a more nourishing life, I decided that I wanted to try to establish some new habits and incorporate some real and lasting changes to my nutrition that would help support the sense of healthful vibrancy and energy that I want to feel everyday. Whilst giving up meat and dairy is to some extent experimental to see how this approach makes me feel, and how it affects my health, there are a number of other changes that I have incorporated into my nutritional lifestyle that are far less intimidating and which I know could have significant overall benefits to my health and wellness in the long term. In my next two blogposts I will set out some of the ways in which I am committing to this.
Reducing processed foods
This is a big one. Firstly, what are processed foods? Essentially, these are foods that have been added to, mixed with other foods or substances and transformed in some way to make them more quickly or easily prepared and served by the consumer. They may have been changed in nutritional composition with fortifying or preservative ingredients. Think packaged foods and tinned foods. The obvious ones are cereals, chips and similar snacks, canned foods, deli meats, ready meals and frozen foods. Right....so all the types of foods that many of us were brought up on!? And why are processed foods considered less healthful? Let us count the ways! The main culprits are hidden sugar, fat and sodium. Next time you are buying jarred pasta sauce, for example, check out the sugar content and catch yourself cringe as it dawns on you that some brands contain 10 grams of sugar in half a cup serving! Aaargh! However, beyond these hidden dietary villains, there are potentially many more nasties in the form of additives, preservatives and other unpronounceable chemicals and substances that get added to certain processed foods or, what some nutrition experts have disparagingly called "food like substances". I'm looking at you high fructose corn syrup and sodium acid pyrophosphate. What on earth is this anyway and how does it affect our bodies? I hate to think.
It's difficult to commit to eliminating processed food entirely. Bread, for example, is strictly classed as a processed food. Even if it is gluten free or wholemeal. There is clearly a processing spectrum and some foods are definitely worse than others. Frozen vegetables, for example, have been processed by....erm...being frozen, but are arguably a really great (and less expensive than fresh) way to get your veggies. I always keep bags of frozen organic spinach, kale, peas and berries in my freezer. Good quality frozen produce is packaged within hours of being harvested and so retains a lot of nutritional value. Also, some foods (like tomatoes and tuna) are canned at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness.
Choosing which processed foods to reject is therefore a matter of reading labels and common sense. The best approach is to try to choose minimally processed items. If a packet of food contains more than eight or ten ingredients, then I would personally categorise that as highly processed and would probably try to avoid it. Similarly, if there are any ingredients on the label that just don't sound like food but more like chemicals, then that's probably what they are. I probably don't want them kicking around my system.
So far, reducing the processed foods that I buy is going well. To be honest, I never purchased frozen ready meals (by all accounts the absolute worst) anyway, but I am certainly much more focused on label reading and looking out for weird sounding ingredients so that I can make sensible decisions for my family and I. You'll still find processed foods in my cupboards (if you are thinking of launching a covert operation to examine the contents of my cupboards*) but there is certainly a more consciously curated collection.
*If you ARE thinking of launching a covert operation to examine the contents of my cupboards can you give me a signal, as I'll need to tidy them.
Shopping for organic and local produce
It is generally accepted that fruits and vegetables that are grown locally will be fresher and therefore more nutrient dense than produce that has to be transported from another country. Whilst the complex logistics of moving produce around the world fast allow us all to eat fruits and vegetables out of season whenever we want to (which is pretty amazing if you think about it), there are inevitable downsides (not least the environmental effects). For example, produce may have to be harvested before it has reached its nutritional (and tastiness) peak so as to try to minimise spoilage in transit. Although buying only local produce is not really practical on a small island with limited variety, I do try to buy as much local produce as I can. I generally do a trip to the local farmers market once a week and lately have been buying really great quality tomatoes, egg plant, salad greens, bok choy, kale, swiss chard, purslane, sweet peppers, hot peppers and basil. It really is noticeable how much longer these last in the fridge than imported produce. And they are somehow tastier. I'm not sure if this is real or if it's an effect of the dopamine hit I get in the knowledge that I'm supporting our friendly local farmers as I crunch on my kale salad....
When I can't buy locally grown produce, I then consider whether to buy the imported organic version of the relevant fruit or vegetable. Since buying organic produce is undoubtedly more expensive than conventionally grown produce, I periodically check out the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists issued by The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), which rank produce based on the amount of pesticides they contain. The Dirty Dozen is the EWG's list of the most contaminated fruits (e.g. strawberries) and vegetables (e.g. spinach) and the Clean Fifteen are the EWG's 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables. These then help me to prioritise the organic produce that I buy. In practice this generally means that I try to buy organically grown fruits like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and apples as well as leafy greens like kale and spinach but I might worry less about buying a conventionally grown avocado, onions or cauliflower. I also avoid buying produce (and food generally) that is likely to have been genetically modified since the jury is still out on the long term health effects (and the effects on the health of the planet) of GMOs or "Frankenfoods". In the US the EWG states that the foods most likely to include GMOs are corn, soy, canola and sugar beets. No thanks, I'll pass.
Shopping for local produce is, as they say, a no-brainer. It just requires a little forward planning and flexibility as you won't always be able to get what you want. Or maybe you will...if you don't live on an island. I once went to an awesome farmers market in Marin County, California and I could honestly have spent an entire day there salivating over the fresh produce, breads, cheeses (this was when I ate cheese) and all manner of other goodies. Shopping for organic produce, on the other hand, is a matter of making sensible choices depending on your budget. I would not, for example, buy a punnet of organic strawberries for $12.99 (this pricing was recently spotted in a local supermarket). That week I decided that strawberries would not be featuring on my family's plates!
As a general source of inspiration when I'm thinking about what to buy and what to avoid, I remember Dr Mark Hyman's advice that spending a bit more cash on quality, minimally processed, nutrient dense, real food now, may save you a lot more cash later by helping to minimise medical expenses for managing long term chronic disease caused by a poor diet. Sound advice I think.
To be continued next week.....