Do you ever get the feeling you could be trapped by a diet full of fast food, convenience dinners and sugary snacks? If you’re like many modern families, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Between work, school, soccer practice, ballet lessons and other extracurricular activities, it’s hard to find time to eat right.
Although the consequences of eating on-the-go might not show up right away, a steady diet of poor food choices eventually can lead to a host of problems, including obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and even some forms of cancer.
The good news is that cleaning up your diet doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything in your pantry or shop exclusively at the health-food store. Learning how to navigate the supermarket and make gradual changes will help ease you and your family into healthier eating habits.
Spring is the perfect time to fill your plate with brightly colored fruits and vegetables. And when it comes to piling on the produce, more is better. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Produce for Better Health Foundation are encouraging Americans to eat up to 13 servings—6 ½ cups—of fruits and vegetables each day in an attempt to reduce our risk of chronic diseases. That may sound daunting, but keep in mind that a serving typically is just 1/2 cup. You also can count juices, canned fruit, frozen veggies and dried fruit in addition to fresh produce.
Take advantage of springtime’s bounty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, like asparagus, artichokes, baby lettuces, berries, new potatoes, onions, spinach and Swiss chard. While you don’t need to fill up your basket with all things organic, it pays to buy organic fruits and veggies when you can. Not only will you avoid pesticides and other dubious chemicals, there’s proof that organic produce actually is better for you. A recent review comparing organically grown to conventionally grown produce found that the organic foods contained significantly higher levels of antioxidants—especially vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids—than their conventionally grown counterparts. What’s more, the organic foods also had considerably lower levels of pesticide residue, nitrates and heavy-metal contamination.
There’s an old saying that “the whiter the bread, the quicker you’re dead.” Unlike bread made with refined flour, whole-grain breads are packed with nutrients, including fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, copper, magnesium, selenium, zinc and antioxidants. A diet rich in whole grains helps protect against heart disease and stroke. It also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and possibly some cancers. And because whole grains are filling, they help control hunger.
Choosing healthful whole-grain bread can be tricky. The color, texture and even fiber content of a bread are not clues to its whole-grain content. You need to scan the ingredient list to find out whether whole grains are present. Although choosing bread that’s 100 percent whole-grain is best, at the least pick one that lists a whole grain first in the ingredient list. To get back to basics, select 100 percent whole-grain bread with the shortest list of ingredients you can find.
Other ways to add whole grains? Opt for whole-wheat or multigrain pasta. You also can find a wide variety of cereals made with whole grains. Just make sure these wholesome breakfast foods aren’t loaded with sugar or other additives.
Fat—of any type—used to be something to avoid at all costs. But new findings show that certain fats actually can be good for you. In fact, monounsaturated vegetable oils, like olive or canola oil, can lower elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels while protecting high-density (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol. The problem is that most of the vegetable oils you’ll find in the supermarket are refined (extracted with chemical solvents, then bleached and deodorized to remove aromas and color) or created from genetically modified crops. Guard against buying these adulterated oils by looking for extra virgin olive oil or organic cold- or expeller-pressed canola oil.
What about the fats you find in packaged and processed foods? For years these foods were rife with trans-fatty acids—exceptionally unhealthy fats formed when liquid oils are saturated with hydrogen. Numerous studies show that trans fats raise total cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol, increase LDL cholesterol, interfere with blood sugar and insulin, and decrease immune function. This deadly fat is so bad for your cardiovascular system that one recent study, which looked at blood samples from 166 women who developed coronary heart disease (CHD) and compared them to 327 healthy women, found that those with the highest levels of trans-fatty acids in their blood were three times more likely to develop CHD than those with the lowest levels.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates among U.S. children have skyrocketed. More than 13 percent of children younger than 5 are overweight. It’s even worse among kids between the ages of 6 and 11, with 18.8 percent considered overweight, up from just 6.5 percent in the mid-1970s. What’s changed since we were kids? Fewer family dinners, plus fast-food joints on every corner and an increase in sedentary activities like TV and video games.
When they do sit down to a healthy meal, children often turn their noses up at those good-for-you veggies and salads. Luckily, there are some tricks that sneaky moms can employ to get even the fussiest eater to chow down on healthy foods.
The Food and Drug Administration requires food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat on a product’s Nutrition Facts label. That, however, can be misleading—especially when the Nutrition Facts label lists zero trans fat. Federal regulations allow food manufacturers to provide the reference value of “0 g” of trans fat as long as there is less than 0.5 gram per serving. To make sure you aren’t getting stealth amounts of trans fat in your foods, check the ingredient label for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.” If you spot either of these terms, you can bet that food contains trans fat.
For some of us, nothing beats a nice juicy steak. But eating meat every day can boost your intake of unhealthy saturated fat, which can increase your risk of heart disease. If you eat beef, limit your intake to once or twice per week. And look for grass-fed beef instead of meat from cattle raised on a grain diet. According to Australian scientists, grass-fed beef contains higher levels of both omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid than grain-fed beef. (See Page 48 for more on grass-fed beef.) What’s more, meat from cattle raised on grain contains more unhealthy saturated and trans fats. If you do buy your beef from the grocery store, make sure you check the date on the package. An investigation by the Consumer’s Union found that factory-wrapped meat is packaged using carbon monoxide to extend the shelf life of the meat and give it a red color. According to the group, consumers shouldn’t use the color of the meat as an indication of freshness. Instead, check the package expiration date and buy meat whose stamped date is a couple of weeks away.
As an alternative to eating beef every day, opt for lean cuts of chicken or fatty, omega-3-rich fish like salmon. And try to incorporate vegetarian entrees based on soy foods at least once a week. Soy is high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, low in saturated fat and high in fiber. It’s also an excellent source of high-quality protein. In fact, soy is the only plant protein that contains all eight essential amino acids found in eggs, milk, beef, chicken and fish. Plus it’s packed with calcium, iron, zinc and B vitamins.
Every year, the typical American consumes between 120 and 150 pounds of refined sugar. Even if you don’t eat sweets, the amount of refined sugar you might be consuming would no doubt shock you. More than two-thirds of the refined sugar used in this country is hiding out in many of the foods we buy at the supermarket—much of it in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Bread, soups, cereals, cured meats, hot dogs, lunch meat, salad dressings, spaghetti sauce, crackers, mayonnaise, ketchup, peanut butter, pickles, frozen pizza, canned fruits and vegetables, tomato juice and a host of other products all contain added sugar. And this doesn’t even take into account the obvious, like candy, cakes, ice cream, cookies, doughnuts and soda pop.
So what’s wrong with all this sweetness? Research has linked refined sugar to tooth decay, obesity, diabetes and high systolic blood pressure. Instead of loading up on sugary foods, build your diet around an abundance of fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates. These foods contain unrefined complex sugars that need to be broken down before they enter your bloodstream. They keep your blood-sugar level on an even keel rather than creating an up-and-down “yo-yo” effect from sweets made with refined sugar. As your blood-sugar level stabilizes, you will find yourself craving refined sugar products less and less.
Kim Erickson, owner of Kim Erickson’s Everyday Organics (www.Everyday-Organics.com), is a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Revamp Your Diet for Spring,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at editor@HerbsForHealth.com.
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