If you look at a list of the leading causes of death in the US, metabolic related diseases make up 6 of the top 10. That means that 6 of the top 10 causes of death are directly related to the food we eat. There is a reason we abbreviate the way Americans eat as SAD (Standard American Diet). The pillars of this SAD diet are processed foods. The simplest way to become healthier is to avoid processed foods and eat a whole food diet. I know from talking with patients that this can be a very difficult shift – especially if you have been eating a primarily SAD diet your entire life.
Let’s first break down what a processed food is. Almost everything with an ingredient label is a processed food. I say almost because when you buy beans, grains, and meats in a package they do have a label, but of course that label lists 1 ingredient. Processed foods at best are stripped of their natural nutrients, such as white rice and bread, and at worst are completely unrecognizable as food, being manufactured in a factory. Processed foods are calorie dense while being empty in nutrients, which makes consumers overweight and undernourished at the same time. This is the basic problem in first world countries today.
A whole food is something that looks like it did when it grew in nature. Most of the time there is no ingredient label. You buy broccoli or an apple at the store and there’s no label because it is clear what you are buying. Again, the exception here is those beans, grains, and meats that they do package, but those foods do still look like they did while growing in nature. When we think of meat, my favorite example is a chicken nugget versus a chicken breast. When you cut a chicken breast in half, it is easiest to do it a certain way because there are striations in the meat. When you cut into a chicken nugget, you can cut it any which way because those natural striations are gone, the chicken was ground up and put back together, often with a lot of additives.
Now that we are clear on the difference between a whole food and a processed food, how can we begin to shift our diets away from processed foods and eat whole foods?
Planning is very important when it comes to eating a healthy diet, and that planning will become intuitive and a lot easier over time. Begin by making a meal plan, including all meals and snacks your family eats in a week. You could start by writing down what you are eating now and look for packaged foods that you can easily swap out for whole foods. Having a plan like this reduces the amount of times when you are short on time and ideas for what to eat, which often leads to grabbing the easiest (often less nourishing) thing to eat. Then create a grocery list off of this plan.
It is also important to keep healthful food on hand, rather than processed snacks. If they aren’t in the house already, you’ll eat fewer overall. Begin in the pantry. If you have a lot of processed snacks, throw them out. You don’t need them, your kids don’t need them, and they will just be too tempting if you keep them around.
Whole food pantry staples include:
Beans (either dried or canned)
Grains (all whole grains – think quinoa, brown and wild rice)
Raw nuts and seeds
Dried fruit such as raisins, mango, pineapple, etc
Seed crackers (yes, technically processed, but a better convenience food)
Nut butter (the ingredients should simply be whatever nut it is and salt, nothing else)
Whole grain bread (make sure the first ingredient is whole grain)
Now we want to plan what meals and snacks will be eaten throughout the week and stock the fridge accordingly. You don’t want to buy a bunch of fresh food and have it go bad because there wasn’t a plan of what to do with it. Meals should be made up of ½ vegetables, ¼ protein (this can be your meat, fish, or beans) and ¼ starch (either whole grains or potato).
Whole foods snacks are things like:
apples and peanut butter
grapes and walnuts
carrots/celery and hummus
sliced peppers and guacamole
whole milk cheese and a whole fruit
avocado and tomato on toast
cottage cheese or yogurt
When it comes to drinks, the only things you and your family should be drinking on a daily basis are water, tea, and coffee. And this is not premade tea with a ton of sweetener added, but tea bags (or loose leaf) that you steep in water. If you use milk or a milk alternative in your coffee/tea or to make smoothies and meals then make sure you are using whole milk, or that your milk alternative is unsweetened.
These are a few guidelines that can get you started on swapping out processed foods for whole foods and improving the health of you and your whole family.
If you need more guidance, check out our Pro Active Pathway, which offers 3 visits over 3 months with our Functional Nutritionist and Coach who will help you create a plan that works with your lifestyle.