Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
When someone talks about “eating healthy” it can mean different things to different people. I thought I’d take some time to share how I define “healthy eating” for me and my family.
We are constantly inundated with messages about what it means to eat healthy. There are so many types of diets and supplements that it can almost be paralyzing when trying to figure out what is best. Should you be avoiding gluten, other grains, and dairy? Should you focus on getting a lot of protein with each meal? Or should you decrease the amount of animal protein in your diet? Should you be taking this or that supplement that you’ve seen everyone talking about on social media?
I’ve read Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and several Paleo books. I’ve also read books about the dangers of sugar and how to cut it out of your diet. And most recently, I’ve read quite a bit about what too much animal protein does to your body. I’ll be honest, at times I’ve been down right confused about what is fact or fiction and what is/isn’t healthy. What do our bodies really need? Over time and after doing much of my own research and reading, I’ve decided that the answer is different for each person. We each have to learn to listen to our own body and how we feel after eating certain foods and figure out what makes us feel our best. I truly believe there is no one size fits all when it comes to a healthy diet.
I know quite a few people who have gone gluten/grain free because of certain health issues and they feel better than ever when those things have been cut out of their diet. I know others that get headaches and dizzy when too much sugar is consumed so they are careful of how much sugar they eat. After completing an elimination diet (similar to the Whole 30) myself a few years ago I have found that I feel best when I eat a varied diet and watch the amount of processed foods and sugar I eat. Too much junky eating disrupts my sleep and makes me lethargic.
I have found diets that are restrictive, require constant counting and measuring, or require cutting out entire food groups are difficult to stick with long term. Sure, most people lose weight on these types of diets but many are not successful at losing AND maintaining that weight loss. For me it has been much easier to just adopt a healthy lifestyle. Something I can stick with long-term. I try to eat healthy 80-90% of the time and not worry too much about the other 10-20% of the time. (I realize there are always exceptions. Some people really do better with strict guidelines. Like I said, we each have to figure out what works for us.) I do think counting calories can be helpful no matter what type of diet you eat. If you are struggling to lose weight or struggling with portion control it might be of help to you. I’ve used the MyFitnessPal ap on my phone and found it very easy to use.
So, what do I mean when I say “eat healthy food”?
To me, healthy eating is eating a variety of real/whole foods in their most natural form. This means food that hasn’t been overly processed and stripped of its nutrients. I think the term variety is what needs to be emphasized. The SAD (standard American diet) consists of way too much sugar, processed food, unhealthy fats and salt and not enough emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Most people just don’t get enough variety in their diet. There has been a major increase in diet related diseases over the last 50 years and I believe that is directly related to the way (and the amount) many people eat. Too many of us are relying heavily on fast and convenient foods and it’s wreaking havoc on our health.
In addition to eating a varied diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, I believe one of the most important steps we can take to improve our health is cooking and eating more at home. The second step we can take to ensure we are eating a healthy diet is to be mindful of how much we are eating. Portion sizes at restaurants are much larger than they used to be and Americans are struggling with portion control more now than we ever have. Learning to listen to your body and making portion control a part of your diet is an essential part of being healthy.
You will notice recipes on my blog with ingredients such as heavy cream, bacon, cheese, butter, sugar, etc. But the thing is you won’t see them every day and in every meal. What you will see on a daily basis in our house (on most days) is fresh fruits and veggies, healthy fats, whole grains, etc. It’s all about finding a healthy balance. A lot of the good stuff and just a little of the not so good.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: We try to eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible. I try to eat a variety instead of sticking to the same ones day after day but I do try to emphasize green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale, etc. When possible, I buy organic to avoid pesticides. Because my budget doesn’t allow me to buy everything organic I try to be mindful of the dirty dozen when choosing which to buy organic and which to buy conventional.
Nuts, Nut Butters and Seeds: We eat a lot of nuts and seeds. I buy all types of raw nuts in bulk. We stick to raw nuts because roasted nuts are often roasted in unhealthy oils. We eat cashews, walnuts, almonds, pecans, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pistachios, peanuts and macadamia nuts. Peanuts are not technically a nut; they are actually legumes. But most people think of them in the nut category. We love peanut and almond butter as well.
Legumes, Lentils, and Peas: This category includes all types of beans, lentils, and peas. We love black beans, pinto beans, great northern beans, garbanzo beans, lentils, black eyed peas, green peas, and many more. I love lentils and beans because they are a great source of fiber and non-animal protein.
Meat: We mostly stick with beef, turkey, pork and chicken because those are the meats I’m most comfortable cooking with. We have actually decreased our consumption of meat because healthy meat has gotten very expensive. Plus, I just don’t feel well when I eat too much meat. When possible, I prefer grass fed and/or organic meats. Conventional meat is often from animals treated with artificial hormones and antibiotics and they are not usually fed their natural diet. When buying sausages, bacon, and deli meats I am careful to purchase uncured or nitrate free options.
Dairy: When it comes to dairy I usually go ahead and buy the full fat versions because I believe them to be the least processed. I also try to buy organic or pastured products when possible. Just like meat, conventional dairy can be full of artificial hormones, antibiotics, and often comes from animals that are not fed their natural diet. I have to admit, diary is a food group that I have to be careful with. I could eat cheese, creamy sauces, butter and ice cream every day. Yum! But it is heavy in calories and fat and really should be consumed in moderation. Organic cheese is very expensive so I don’t buy it as often as I’d like. I do try to stick with organic milk.
Seafood: We don’t eat as much seafood as we probably should. But when we do I try to buy the wild caught variety to avoid the pollutants found in farm raised varieties. Seafood is a great way to get lean protein and many varieties are full of healthy omega-3 fats.
Whole Grains: I could eat grains at every meal. I love just about everything that falls into this category. But I do try to keep myself in check and make sure I’m not overdoing it. I don’t have a problem at all with grains but I do think vegetables should take up a larger part of your diet. We eat all types of grains: whole grain flours, whole grain pasta, oats, quinoa, brown rice, corn, etc. I do try to avoid processed grains (think white breads, cinnamon rolls, cakes, cookies, white pasta, etc.) most of the time.
Healthy Fats: Fat is not the enemy! Healthy fats are actually an important part of any diet. Healthy fats include olives, avocados, nuts, healthy oils such as coconut, avocado, or olive oil, and real butter.
The problem with fat is that most people are eating too much processed and fast foods that are full of unhealthy fats (like soybean, corn, and sunflower oils). When it comes to processed and fast food, companies want to do everything as cheap as possible. And that means using cheap ingredients, including very unhealthy oils and fats. These unhealthy fats also increase the shelf life of processed food. These oils are one of the biggest reasons I try to avoid processed and fast food on a regular basis. They create an unhealthy balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats. This imbalance is one of the reasons so many diet related diseases are on the increase. If you want to learn more about this read here. It pays to be informed about your health.
Herbs, spices, and garlic: Fresh herbs, dried herbs and spices are a MUST if you are eating real food. Processed foods use things like artificial flavors, MSG and an abundance of salt to make their foods taste good. When you are cooking at home you will find that using herbs, spices, and garlic bring a lot of flavor to your dishes the natural way. There are a lot of health benefits to fresh herbs and spices as well. So load up!
Sweeteners: For most of my recipes I try to use raw honey and pure maple syrup as a sweetner. I do use white and brown sugar occasionally in baked goods and desserts. We also enjoy dark chocolate (70% or higher) on a regular basis as a treat because it actually has health benefits.
Drinks: We mostly stick to water at our house. I don’t buy juice or soda on a regular basis. Both are loaded with sugar and really don’t provide any nutritional value. I’ve always been of the mindset that I’d rather eat my calories than drink them. We do use milk for cooking but the boys don’t really drink it much anymore now that they are older.
A Few Notes:
Don’t worry if you are unable to buy organic. It’s still so much better to eat a wide variety of non-organic fresh, real, whole foods at home than eating out or relying on tons of super processed foods on a consistent basis. Don’t let your budget stop you from eating well. You can still eat a healthy diet on a budget. You just need to be informed, pay attention to sales, and eat at home as much as possible. Eating out will break your budget for sure!
We do absolutely buy packaged foods like cereal, crackers, chips, etc. But they don’t make up a big part of our diet. When I do buy those types of foods I look over the ingredient lists carefully. I try to avoid artificial flavors, artificial colors, and unnatural ingredients like MSG. I also try to avoid buying products with a ton of unrecognizable ingredients. So, instead of buying Fruit Loops I buy Multigrain Spoonfuls and instead of buying Cheetos I buy organic corn chips with 3 ingredients: whole grain corn, oil, and salt. You don’t have to completely avoid all processed foods. But when possible it’s nice to be able to choose the better option. And before you start thinking you can’t afford the better option let me tell you that I can easily buy the Multigrain Spoonfuls and organic corn chips for cheaper than the less healthy alternative when I buy them on sale. It can be done!
So there you have it! This is what my family considers “healthy eating”. Truth be told, my idea of what healthy eating means has changed a lot over the years. I have not always eaten this way. If you want to read more about my journey to healthy eating go here.