There is so much confusion about what it is that we should and should not eat. We are the only species that exists in nature that find ourselves standing around and scratching our heads trying desperately to figure it all out. We are all exhausted trying to determine what it is that we need to do to be truly healthy, control our weight, have energy, clarity and focus and most importantly, simply enjoy the food that we place on our plates each meal. The truth is, food has become so complicated in the past 50 years that it is no wonder that we are feeling confusion and overwhelm each time we step into the supermarket.
In the past twenty-five to thirty years, the amount of overweight adults in this country has risen 30%, and obesity has quadrupled in children ages 6-11 and tripled in children ages 12-19. There has been a 10-fold increase in adult-onset diabetes in children as young as 7 & 8 years old, that’s adult-onset diabetes, which is not supposed to be a childhood disease; something is obviously wrong. Researchers estimate that nearly 15 million Americans have food allergies, further highlighting the need to truly understand how the food we are ingesting is affecting our body’s ability to maintain homeostasis.
Proper nutrition arms our bodies with an arsenal of what we need to have a strong and effective immune system, so when we are faced with illness, we are equipped to fight. But food has become very complicated. Much of what we consume is actually Un-Food. We need to set some guidelines to navigate the supermarket aisles, because it has become a very confusing place to be. Before we begin this conversation, remember that the most important rule to follow is that you need to focus on eating real single ingredient foods as often as possible. Foods that do not need a label because they are simply what they are, such as chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, for example.
Where do we start? We start by learning shortcuts that will help us make easy choices without bringing textbooks to our local supermarket. So, let’s focus on reading labels and try and set down some simple guidelines. We will establish some basic rules to follow to make things seem a little simpler.
Rule #1: Beware of the front of the package. The truth is that you should never believe anything that is written on the front of the product, under any circumstances. The front of the box is an advertisement. Although food companies cannot actually “lie”, they can play with the rules and the graphics to misrepresent what is actually being purchased. The front of the box is their commercial, and they invest a lot of money to make sure their product ends up in your pantry. That is their goal- to get you to put the item in your shopping cart. So when it comes to the front of the box- buyer beware!
Rule #2: Become an ingredient detective. If you do not have the time to read through a long list of ingredients, then simply make the decision not to purchase items that take too much time to decipher. The shorter the list, the easier it is to for you to make an educated choice. Open your pantry, and start reading labels. Do you feel comfortable that the ingredients listed are actually something you want to be ingesting? The term “natural and artificial ingredients” is meant to protect the recipe and so the actual ingredients are not individually listed. For instance, until recently, the ingredient carmine was undefined and simply part of the artificial/natural recipe. However, it is interesting to learn that carmine is derived from the cochineal insect, and its eggs are harvested for their bright red color because it is much less expensive than using, let’s say, beet juice. When many consumers experienced adverse reactions (not knowing the cause), some very serious and life threatening, the FDA stepped up to the plate, and required that it be listed as an individual ingredient. However, most people still will not know what carmine is unless they do a little research, and while many may not care, there are many of us that would rather choose another product. Note: Check your Activia or Dannon yogurt label. Of course, inserting the word carmine is only helpful to those of us that know enough to avoid it.
I determined a few years back, after doing an elimination diet, that I had a significant allergy to carrageenan. Carrageenan is a “natural” ingredient derived from a variety of edible seaweeds and is used as a gelling, thickening and stabilizing agent. I had been experiencing many inflammatory symptoms, from irritation in my mouth to severe pain in my digestive tract. After assuming I was allergic to just about everything I was eating, I determined that this ingredient had made its way into many of the products that I was ingesting and was the root cause of my discomfort. Unfortunately, Ben & Jerry’s recently added this to most of their products; no more New York Super Fudge Chunk for me!
Deciphering labels has become quite complicated. We must replace complacency with curiosity and concern when it comes to the ingredients that we are putting into our bodies.
Rule #3 -We are real, so we need to avoid anything that has the word artificial on the label. We are made from food and we build our body out of the food that we eat. Our physiology is designed to process and utilize the food that we eat to provide us with nutrition we need to live a log and healthy life. If it is artificial, it complicates our body’s ability to do what it is programmed to do with the “food” that we ingest. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Great Britain requires labeling on many artificial food coloring’s based on studies that indicate a link to hyperactivity and an inability to focus in a broad range of children. Unfortunately, here in the United States, the FDA denies any connection or concern and so they are still on the shelves without any such warning. There is also a lot of controversy surrounding artificial sweeteners and their link to obesity, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. Many studies show that these sugary substitutes are not benign and may actually be detrimental to our health and well-being. The bottom line: if your goal is to be the healthiest version of you, then eliminate anything that is not real from your daily intake.
Rule # 4: Shop the perimeter of the store first. In most stores you will find the produce on the left side, the meat and animal protein along the back and the dairy and egg products occupying the right wall. Although you still need to be somewhat cautious (more about that next time), this is where your “real food” is mostly located. The only products that should be on the perimeter and are not, are nuts and whole grains. Brown rice, quinoa, and whole oats, for example, are seriously missing in the Standard American Diet (also known as SAD). Once you get to the middle aisles, you need to get out your reading glasses or magnifying glass, and proceed with caution. This is where the trouble starts; these are the aisles that have your health in their hands, do not take that lightly.
The most important point that needs to be made is this: there are no labels in the produce aisle. The more time you spend in this section of your supermarket, the happier and healthier you and your family will be! Of course, we could start the organic/GMO conversation but I’ll save that for the next article. For now, eat more veggies and eat less processed foods with long and complicated ingredient labels.
If we all start by paying attention to what we are placing in our shopping carts, then we are all walking in the right direction. We owe this to ourselves, and we owe this to our children.
Of course, there is so much more to this conversation but I thought I would keep it simple and just touch on a few basic principles to get the conversation started.
Questions? Feel free to comment and I will respond as soon as possible.