“My diet is so restrictive, I don’t know what to eat.”
I hear this often, from all angles: people trying to avoid meat, or starchy vegetables, or grains, or sugar, or fat — you name it.
As a nutritionist, my first questions to new clients always relate to figuring out why they’ve decided they can’t eat so many seemingly benign foods. When there isn’t a food allergy, what causes people to feel they shouldn’t eat things as simple and nutritious as a sweet potato, oats or cashews?
Most likely, the cause is confusion. And stress.
Countless diets tout their own distinct paths to health. Many plans operate on the notion that one specific food or type of food is bad for you and should be avoided. So when one expert says, “Grains are bad, meat is good” and the next nutritionist says, “Meat is bad, grains are good,” whom are you supposed to believe?
It’s an obstacle that other experts see, as well. Nurse practitioner Zendi Moldenhauer, a colleague of mine at Quality of Life Medicine in Rochester, notes that not knowing what’s healthy anymore adds to people’s everyday stress.
“It not only causes them to want the quick, easy fix when it comes to meals, but stress also triggers a physiological craving for sugar and salt,” she says.
Addressing stress is one of the primary things that I do in my nutrition practice. When Moldenhauer and I collaborate, she also sees the importance of stress reduction.
Once people take concrete measures to reduce or eliminate the sources of stress in their lives, we can find the time — and the mental capacity — to better understand and appreciate what food is healthy.
Healthy food is simply this: real food.
Real food is anything coming directly from a plant or an animal, unchanged in any way. That means unprocessed, or ideally processed by no more than three steps from its original form.
If you’re about to eat something and you can’t figure out whether it’s zero, one, two or three steps removed from its original form, then you can assume it isn’t real food and probably isn’t going to be good for you.
Pause for a minute. What have you eaten so far today or yesterday that would match that description? If you’re unsure, perhaps the answer is “Nothing.”
Here are some examples of real versus processed food:
- Real, whole, unprocessed food: a fresh, ripe, in-season apple with the skin on it (the way you bought it from that farm stand down the road)
- One step of processing: sliced apple without the skin
- Two steps of processing: stewed or boiled apples without the skin with nothing else added in (homemade apple sauce, for instance)
- Too many steps of processing to be considered real food: apple fruit leather that you find on the grocery store shelf that has sugar, color and citric acid added to it “to maintain freshness”
- Real, whole, unprocessed food: raw oat groat (sprouting, uncooked kernels)
- One step of processing: steel-cut oat groat
- Two to three steps of processing: steel-cut oats boiled in water or raw milk
- Too many steps of processing to be considered real food: apple-cinnamon flavored instant oatmeal ready to eat in about a minute
- Real, whole, unprocessed food: pig loin
- One step of processing: grilled pork loin
- Two steps of processing: pulled pork
- Too many steps of processing: vacuum-sealed lunch meat labeled “ham” with ingredients that can’t be found even on the manufacturer’s website
- Real, whole, unprocessed food: spinach leaf
- One step of processing: wilted or steamed spinach leaf
- Two steps of processing: chopped spinach leaves stewed with marinara sauce and spaghetti
- Too many steps of processing: spinach leaf dehydrated and pulverized, then mixed with potato starch, rice flour and other ingredients, then sealed and frozen in a plastic bag with potassium chloride (sold as spinach hors d’oeuvres)
- Real, whole, unprocessed food: raw milk from the healthy, well-fed cow, sheep or goat, or human
- One step of processing: raw milk kefir
- Two steps of processing: home-pasteurized milk
- Too many steps of processing: pasteurized milk made into yogurt with added fruit flavoring and artificial sugars, put into a sealed plastic tube (see sidebar for more)
So back to the original question: Why can’t you eat any of these seemingly benign foods? It’s not that you can’t eat these foods and still be healthy. It’s that you can’t eat the highly processed versions of these foods and be healthy.
A matter of taste
Once I’ve offered this view of healthy eating to my clients, a common for them to say that it’s too difficult, too time-consuming, or too expensive to eat real food.
Dr. Mary Coan, owner and practitioner at Integrative Family Care in Clifton Springs, says many of her patients feel it’s difficult to prepare a healthy meal for themselves while simultaneously satisfying the taste preferences of their spouse, children or parents. Dr. Coan’s reply is often, “But don’t you want your family to be healthy, too?”
Taste, though, can be the hurdle that trips up even the best meal-planning. Often, if I mention certain healthy foods, people will balk, remembering when they’ve had bad versions of certain dishes.
That’s why, when I ask my clients to add new foods to their diets — beans, for example — I always share recipes, most of them my own. I certainly understand, having tasted poorly cooked beans, and beets, oatmeal, fruit, kale — the list goes on. Real food prepared horribly will do no good. (See sidebar on ways to improve taste.)
When it comes to cost, these days, the notion that “eating healthy is more expensive” has been debunked. Land-grant universities across the country have published articles and research implicating that a planned, whole food (real food) diet can actually be less expensive than the alternative fast-food, snack-food diet.
Earlier this year both the Washington Post and Huffington Post published articles showing that, with a little bit of know-how and preparation, a healthy diet does not have to cost more than its unhealthy counterpart.
The general food “categories” that are needed to make a healthy, real food meal are:
A carbohydrate source: grain, bean or starchy vegetable
A protein source (note: all real food contains protein): grain, bean, starchy vegetable, nuts, seeds, or small portions of meat, fish or eggs
A fat source: nuts, seeds, avocado, olives
A non-starchy vegetable: spinach, kale, cabbage, broccoli
(optional) zesty flavor: garlic, onion, fresh herbs, dried spices, sea salt or Himalayan salt, lemon/lime or other citrus
In my view, you can’t avoid any of these hugely important food categories and still be healthy. In fact, real food is required by your body to achieve and maintain optimal health.
Natalie Thompson is a nutrition specialist at Dr. Leila Quality of Life Medicine and a nutrition consultant for healthy events and catering through Happy Belly Life. She can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A real food how-to
Here are a few ideas to make a real food diet easier, less time-consuming and tastier.
It’s going to be nearly impossible to make a habit out of eating real food if you aren’t prepared to do so. Being prepared involves, foremost, stocking your house with these real foods:
Fresh vegetables (especially onions and garlic)
A variety of nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds)
A well-stocked spice cabinet (including dried herbs like parsley, rosemary, plus sea salt and black pepper)
Whole grains (such as wild rices, buckwheat, millet and oats)
Beans and lentils (dried, as well as canned for last-minute situations)
Fresh and some frozen fruits
Fresh herbs when available
Something fatty: olives, artichoke hearts, avocado, fish
Plan ahead, even if just a little
Those dry beans aren’t going to cook themselves. Many of my clients choose a day of the week to be their food-planning and preparing day. They will make one or several meals that day, to have leftovers available for lunches and dinners throughout the week.
Dry beans are easily the cheapest way to buy beans, but rehydrating them at home is certainly an extra step. If you plan ahead, you will know that you need cooked beans on Sunday, so you set them up to soak on Friday or Saturday. Yes, this is arguably more time-consuming, but the more often you do it, the more habitual it becomes. And once it’s a habit, it’s easy.
Experiment, and don’t be afraid to fail
My mother didn’t cook elaborate, delicious meals every night while I was growing up. We ate plenty of Kraft mac and cheese, Bertolli spaghetti with Prego marinara sauce, and, yes, TV dinners. I didn’t go to culinary school, and I didn’t grow up gardening. Everything I know about growing food and cooking with fresh, real food, I learned as an adult.
I learned through trial and error. My best meals were made without planning, using whatever ingredients I had in my refrigerator and cupboards at the time. Some of my worst meals also began this way. But the worst meals quickly became infrequent as I learned what worked and what didn’t.
No one becomes a great cook overnight, but anyone can learn how to make some delicious home-cooked meals quickly if they put their minds to it. For starters, YouTube and celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver have excellent videos on how to master basic cooking techniques.
With preparation and planning, cooking a meal can take less than half an hour. For example, here’s how I made dinner last night, in about 10 minutes:
I already had rehydrated black-eyed peas (beans) and brown rice in my refrigerator (preparedness).
I used a large soup pot to sauté red onion in a bit of coconut oil (basic cooking technique).
I used my hands to pull the leaves of Swiss chard away from the stems; I chopped the stems and added them plus walnuts, the black-eyed peas, and the rice to the pot.
I then chopped the chard leaves and added them, along with fresh tomatoes and fresh garlic to the pot.
I served this topped with fresh parsley and avocado.
I seasoned with sea salt and black pepper.
Run & Supper Club: serving up good food
Nutritionist Natalie Thompson is also a runner in the specialty run industry. When she would lead group runs, she says she noticed a trend: People would go out to eat afterward because the runs usually started at 6 p.m., and people would come directly from work. The food of choice? Classic bar foods: burgers, chips, french fries, fried chicken, etc.
“Most of these runners,” says Thompson, “approach post-run meals this way: ‘Well, I just burned all those calories running, so now I can go eat whatever I want!’ It's true you can eat whatever you want, but it's false to think that eating burgers and fries isn't going to affect your waistline, even after a five-mile run.”
Thompson’s solution was to co-host a dinner with the Rochester Running Company at the end of group runs — a healthy (yet delicious) meal. The idea was to give the runners an opportunity to experience
what it feels like to eat a healthy meal after a run. Several area chefs have provided dishes for the meals.
The group dinners, capped at 20 participants, allow her to discuss the foods and why certain ingredients were used. Eventually, Thompson hopes to host the meals in parks and other natural settings.
“I was pleasantly surprised by everyone's reactions to the food,” Thompson says. “I heard many people chatting about the fact that they were eating foods they had never tried before, or thought they hated, or had never heard of.”
And that, of course, is the whole idea.
For more information on the Run & Supper Club, go to www.happybellylife.com.