In modern society, simply the act of eating can be a minefield. Scanning the symmetrical aisles, one’s eyes pick up brightly colored labels, all extolling the benefits of a product you didn’t know you needed. Reduced fat, 40% fewer carbohydrates, without refined sugars, etc…
Saying it’s occasionally confusing would be an understatement; however, it doesn’t have to be. Countless shoppers are left guessing between promising packaging, when all they really lack is information. It’s high time for people to take the initiative of seeking information on a topic that, in reality, is the most important topic for their well being. After all, you are comprised of what you eat.
What Is Healthy Food?
A simple question, with a simple answer. The reason this inquiry is so shrouded in speculation can be found in the food industries. The natural, healthier foods aren’t as flashy or shocking to the taste buds as the quickly processed, factory foods. This may sound skeptical; however, that is the nature of business, and we as consumers must find our way through it.
In its simplest form, healthy food is anything originally found in nature. A quote that can be easily understood, but very effective is: “If you can grow it or kill it, eat it”. Apologies to any non-meat eaters, but yes, many animal products can be healthy. If you choose to take the vegetarian or vegan route, simply remove the “kill it” portion and there you have it, healthy food in its most natural state.
Adhering to a healthy diet is quintessential to maintaining a good quality of life. The majority of times your body feels bad or off its rhythm are usually due to built up toxins. Everything we consume must be assessed, and processed by our bodies; therefore, if you want your body to feel and function its best, make it easier on your kidneys, liver, and intestines by choosing less-toxic options.
In the spirit of quelling free radicals, be mindful that not all foods are created equal (especially when created by humans). Vegetables should of course be a staple, providing vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Unless you are a college student, look to purchase organic when possible; this will reduce the amount of artificial substances found on the plant itself. Granted, these days it can be a losing (and expensive) battle trying to avoid all the hormones and pesticides; however, it’s worth a try.
Lastly for healthy foods, enter proteins, grains, and dairy. In short, proteins are essential to your bodies functions, but be watchful of very “discounted” meats. Animals that are housed cheaply and fed even cheaper can be a sponge of toxins waiting to be thrown on your grill. Don’t get the wrong impression, meat is not the enemy; however, grass fed instead of grain fed will pay off in the long run. If we are what we eat, then we are also what our food eats.
Grains and dairy are somewhat easier to maneuver. A quick word to the wise, darker bread will normally be a healthier option than bread that’s whiter than the aisle floor. Also, if consuming bread seems to not agree with your digestion, try sprouted bread. Allowing a grain to sprout does away with the tough, chitinous casing that is actually what your body struggles to digest. Let nature shoulder some of the work first. Finally, dairy can be a valuable source of slow digesting protein, calcium, and pro-biotics; therefore, consider adding some dairy to your day (if you’re not lactose intolerant of course).
The Problem With Sugar
Yes, there is a problem, and it may not be what you presumed. Sugar, most importantly refined sugar, is of course not the best option for your body due to what it can do to one’s insulin levels; however, this is not even the largest issue. It’s highly addictive.
Now, addiction in any form can be dangerous. Addiction is usually synonymous with drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol; but is sugar really any different? As it was mentioned before, the food industry thrives on garishly colored advertisements and allusions to pleasure or benefit; consequently, consumers try it. What most individuals don’t check on first glance is the amount of refined sugars inside, instead most will quickly check for fat and “total” carbohydrates, when these substances are not necessarily the enemy.
On a cellular level, the consumption of these quickly digestible sugars spikes insulin while simultaneously signalling one’s brain to release dopamine. Whenever dopamine is involved, addiction can follow. Most people do not register this feeling as a “high”, but that is exactly what it is. A concentration of a refined substance that was never meant to be found in that density or magnitude. Once consumers are addicted to the sugar, they are loyal customers.
It’s Not All Bad
Alright, the heavy truth is out there, but don’t sink into depression yet. Contrary to many biased advertisements and popular misinformation, healthy food can be, and is amazing. True, a bowl of fruit may not have the sugar kick of children’s cereal, but the feeling and benefits one receives from it surely outweigh the cons.
Let’s touch on the topic of nutrient density. The term nutrient density refers to how many calories or nutrients a food has, per gram or ounce. For example, a chocolate bar is significantly more dense than oatmeal, due to the fat and refined sugar content. How your body regulates satiety is based on volume of food in the stomach, and vitamin and mineral requirements. In light of this, you could eat an entire bar of chocolate or multiple bowls of sugary cereal and still feel the need to eat more; so why is this?
First of all, consuming dense foods such as chocolate or candy flood your body with far more calories per gram than most foods naturally occurring in nature; however, they are still lacking in what your body actually requires. On the other hand, consuming vegetables and lean meats will provide essential nutrients, but with half the calories; therefore, filling more of your stomach and keeping further, unnecessary hunger at bay with protein and fiber. As with most addictions, they seem like a great idea at the time; however negatively affect you later.
What Are The Benefits?
This clean eating seems like a full time job. Well, if you’re a professional athlete or aspiring fitness model you’d be right; however, for the average person, shifting into a state of nutrition awareness is not as difficult as it appears. Everything in moderation may be the most important phrase to keep in mind when thinking about your daily diet. Crash dieting and self starvation will get you no healthier than frequent binge eating. One’s approach must be a gradual lane change from ignorance to information, based on principles that have more longevity than a six or eight week sprint.
As we now know, you are composed of what you eat, and in its simplest form, this is plain to see in most individuals. Take a minute to think about differing demographics. Vegans and vegetarians survive off of a strictly plant based diet, and vegans especially, tend to resemble their eating profile, thin and lithe with normally a lower amount of muscle mass.
Contrarily, the average omnivore that maintains a decent level of diet awareness, will eat a variety of foods from meat to dairy; consequently, having a fuller form with more muscle mass. Finally, we have those that give little thought to their food choices and either fall in the category of overweight or “skinny fat”, both options no better than the other. When nutrition is a failed aspect in one’s life, normally exercise is forgotten as well, for in many cases the two go hand in hand.
Aside from the glaringly obvious benefits of healthy eating, there are micro changes one can experience, even on the cellular level. Toxins and free radicals were mentioned above, but the issue of “bad” or low density cholesterol is worthy of mention. Cholesterol cannot be dissolved in the blood; therefore, lipoproteins are required to shuttle it through the circulatory system.
In short, LDL’s (low density lipoproteins) contribute to the build up of plaque in your arteries, stiffening them and compromising their function. On the topic of atherosclerosis (the stiffening of arteries), triglycerides are also contributors. Elevated triglycerides are associated with inactivity, cigarette smoking, a diet very high in carbohydrates, and of course, obesity.
Now, as modern nutrition research and personal experiences are proving. fat is not the enemy. The various food industries have simply hijacked fat, delivering it in such a way that is destructive to the body; such as trans fats. The silver lining is, that fats naturally occurring in nature have the opposite effect, supplying your body with quality energy and in fact, aiding in the process of body fat oxidation (fat burning). A few of these are known as: Omega 3’s and 6’s, monounsaturated fats, and medium-chain triglycerides. Common sources of these healthy fats are: nuts, avocados, fatty fish such as salmon, and coconut oil. This is not an exhaustive list, but a good start when attempting to incorporate higher amounts of good fats to your life.
Bringing It Together
That’s a lot of information to say the least, but luckily, it’s not too complicated. The first, and simplest point was the avoidance of processed, unnatural products. Simple yes; however, easy is not a word I would use to describe this process. It is going to be a lifestyle change, not a diet; therefore, treat it as such and the benefits will be effective and lasting. The point is not deprivation, remember, everything in moderation will be your savior. Processed, enticing snacks do not have to be demonized and burned like suspects at the Spanish Inquisition; instead, allow for them on special occasion if necessary.
The second point was simply: what is healthy food? If it has existed before humanity it’s most likely healthy. When navigating the grocery store, ask the question - was this grown in the ground or born in the wild? If the product saw its first days in a factory then it might be a good idea to leave it on the shelf.
Next, sugar. Highly addictive and fairly destructive; refined sugar, that is. Commonly found in soda, candy, many cereals, and far too many other modern products, sugar can without a doubt control one’s life. Break out of the sugar stupor and try foods that are lower on the glycemic index. For those not familiar with the glycemic index, this chart refers to a food’s effect on one’s blood insulin levels. A product high on this index represents a “not so healthy”, insulin spiking substance; consequently, when a food is lower in number on the scale, it digests slower and provides more lasting energy.
Lastly, nutrient density and the benefits of a healthy diet. Instead of eating and fullness eluding you, try a less dense, vitamin rich option. The inclusion of more vegetables in the diet not only keeps you satisfied longer, but also delivers a better nutrient profile, working to eliminate strange cravings; because after all, cravings are simply your body demanding specific nutrients that it lacks.
And speaking of satiety, healthy fats play a large role in energy production, and keeping one full. Fat delivers significantly more calories than carbohydrates or protein, so used in the correct way, fats aid in brain function, nerve function, and even fat burning. Move to a lifestyle that paves the way to a longer, better quality of life. One step at a time.