Many times when I am asked for advice on how one goes about eating healthy, my automatic reply is “Eat Real Food.” Sounds too glib? It’s not meant to sound that way.
Allow me to give you a little history around my response. In the last 100 years or so, our food diet and supply has completely changed. Much of what we now eat is not real food, but a result of processed food stuff, made from food science and not from nature. We have become overly concerned with individual nutritional values of food, manufactured suggested limits, and the chemistry of it all.
Because we wanted to extend the life of food so we could ship it without turning rancid, we started to process it. We concentrated mainly on wheat, corn and soy as these three are easiest to grow, great at converting sunlight to carbohydrates, fat, and protein. We could even feed them to our animals. We learned to extract the nutrients from them (called refining) so they would be better preserved to travel long distances. Then we turned around and added chemical formulations of the nutrients back into them (called fortifying), and viola – we created new food products. In fact, the vast majority of today’s food products come from only these three main ingredients. Soy is now everywhere. Diversity seems no longer important.
Look what happened to wheat. What became most important was figuring out how to refine the wheat so it would not spoil and that it would be easier for our body to digest. Near the end of the nineteenth century, with the advent of metal rollers to grind grain, the wheat germ was easily removed and the remaining part of the wheat was ground into the white powder we call our modern flour. Flour became our first largely industrialized food. Unfortunately, this flour was now devoid of its nutrients. Health problems rose and scientists began fortifying the flour with vitamins, such as Folic Acid. In essence, scientists figured out a whole new method for processing grain, and also, by stripping all the fiber from it, increased the absorption speed. Unfortunately, the new fluffy white flour lacked many of the nutrients that scientists had not yet discovered. It also now lacked fiber, which slowed digestion and promoted satiety. As our body instinctively started looking for both the nutrients and that feeling of fullness, we began to eat more.
Around the same time, England lifted its tariffs on imported sugar and the marketplace flowed with the sweet white substance. And if that wasn’t enough, the scientists figured out how to create an even cheaper and much sweeter substance - high fructose corn syrup. As fructose is metabolized differently from glucose, it is usually turned into triglycerides by the liver and quickly converted to fat. This new high fructose corn syrup was used in everything and our bodies did not know how to get rid of it efficiently except by creating extra fat. We became addicted to the sweetness. The ballooning of Americans began.
All along, we called these new foods “healthy” as they met all the scientific food requirements. And we even added more formulated nutrients to these food products, and called them healthier. For many differing reasons, scientists approached food as being the sum of all its ingredients and sought to create food products based on this limited knowledge. The synergy created from all the various chemical compounds found in food was not taken into account. Even now, we continue to have much to learn.
We started to get heavier with our new diet. We became fatter. Heart disease became more prevalent. Then, scientists came up with the theory that it was the saturated fats in our blood stream that were causing problems with our cardiovascular system. Our food source was determined to be the problem, thus resulting in the call to remove fat from food sources.
Remember the low fat craze when fat was the bad guy? I certainly do. What happened was we extracted the fat from food, replaced it, mostly with extra sugar, and marketed the new food products as being healthier, since they were now low in fat.
However, the tides have now completely turned. We better understand the importance of fats, good quality fats, and even saturated fats. We have learned that omega-3 fats in particular protect against heart disease. And those saturated fats that circulate in the blood stream? They are mostly produced in the liver from eating carbohydrates and do not come from eating fat. What a turnaround! Now we are told that butter is O.K. and we that need to eat saturated fats. And there’s even more to add to the confusion.
Still looking at heart disease, we became overly concerned with getting rid of cholesterol in food, as if it had something to do with the cholesterol level in our blood stream. Remember all those egg white omelets? Science now tells us that cholesterol in foods contributes only a very small amount to blood cholesterol. Even the government’s new dietary guidelines reflect this news. It is now well established that we want to have the right kind of blood cholesterol which consists of high HDL (the good kind of cholesterol), low LDL (the bad or lousy kind of cholesterol, but only the one which displays the small, hard kind of particles – there are two kinds of LDL), and low triglycerides. For those who already have heart disease, medications have limited success. There are many side effects. The object is to keep from getting heart disease in the first place. This is best achieved through control of your environment (i.e. modify how you deal with stress, create a healthy diet, increase how much you exercise). Your whole body and mental health will benefit along with your heart.
Looking back on all these conflicting reports, it is no wonder everyone is so perplexed. And now the newest bad guy is sugar and high glycemic (refined) carbohydrates. (I am going to refer to the two of these simply as "sugar" since high glycemic carbohydrates act the same as sugar by converting into glucose at the same high rate as sugar, thus spiking insulin levels.) Personally, with the focus on sugar, I think we are finally on to something. But we have been on the dietary see-saw for so long that it may take a while to make the swing.
One of the reasons these newer mainstream thoughts may take a while to catch on is that they require us to take more responsibility in our own lifestyle. There is not a magic pill to take that is going to cut down on our sugar intake, manage our stress, get rid of environmental toxins and create a healthy exercise plan. It's no wonder we look for a quick fix. It is so much easier to take a pill. Living a healthy lifestyle, even thinking about the whole self, can be overwhelming - or it can be liberating and joyful. I much prefer the later. It is easier to begin and focus on just one of these aspects. As I am one that enjoys teaching and cooking healthy, we’ll concentrate on food for now.
Remember my response in the beginning - “Eat Real Food”? Perhaps you can now better understand my message. By real food, I mean as close to its natural state as possible; the kind of food that grows in the dirt, that has a limited shelf life and will go rancid if not refrigerated. Food that is not wrapped in plastic. Food that does not have a label or that its label contains unrecognizable ingredients. Food grown locally by the farmer right down the road (or the garden in your yard). Food that is seasonal. Food that comes in all the different colors of the rainbow. You know what I mean - Real Food!
Humans have been around for a long time. The food supply, as we know it today, has dramatically changed in the last 100-plus years. The problem is that our body still only recognizes real, unprocessed, whole foods and has not had the time to evolve and assimilate all these new changes. The results have often been devastating both for our health and environment.
And now sugar is the bad guy. Let’s look a little closer at the path of sugar in our diet. Before the manufacturing of sweet products, the only sugars we ingested were naturally occurring: maple syrup, raw honey, sweet fruits. Now, we have manufactured sugar from everything: corn, beets, cane, monk fruit, cactus, coconut, fruit juice concentrates, sugar alcohols, dates, palms, barley malt, brown rice, stevia, and who knows what else. And we are not even talking about artificial sweeteners. Those chemical concoctions have no place in our cupboards. No question, they need to be removed.
This love of sweets, I get it. I struggle with it also. Our brains are hard wired to love the taste of sweet and our body and brain loves the quick energy burst from glucose. So this new trend to recognize the pervasiveness of sugar in our diet as being a threat goes against some of our natural instincts. Or does it?
Let’s try an experiment in the spirit of curiosity. Take into account that our bodies may not all react the same. We are all a little bit different. Though difficult in the beginning, the easiest way to recognize the effects of sugar in our body is to cut it out – that is to drastically reduce the amount of sugar taken in. To do this, it is best to go cold turkey and eliminate all sugar in the beginning. Before you attempt this, please get some support, cut down on outside stressors and be gentle with yourself. If the cravings are extreme (usually day 3 or 4), you can trick your body into thinking it’s getting some glucose by taking a little glutamine (a benign amino acid). Watch what happens. After a week or so of sugar deprivation, your cravings will subside. The big question now is “how do you feel without sugar?” Many of the people I have led through a sugar detox have reported more energy, greater mental clarity, and improved sleep.
Afterwards, if you do decide to taste a sweet food, it will taste much sweeter than you remembered. Then, if you decide to add some sweet back into your diet, make it a sweet that is naturally occurring so that your body can recognize and digest it with ease. This is one way to add “real food” back into your diet.
Another way to add real food is to learn to cook. It is easy and does not take the time you may think it does. An easy, time conscious way is to cook in batches – cook a larger batch once or twice during the week, making extra so you can put some aside - either in the refrigerator for the next couple days, or for portions to go into the freezer.
If you are looking for what to cook, look through some magazines like Eating Well or Clean Eating. If you are in the mood for chicken, use Google and search for natural or healthy chicken recipes. Google is my best friend when it comes to finding recipes or a little inspiration. Check out Pin It if you like to first see a picture. The choices are endless.
When you start out, keep it simple. Look for recipes with only a few ingredients. (i.e. Google: “healthy 5 ingredient chicken recipes” – you will get lots of ideas). Have fun. Experiment. Invite friends. Create a celebration centered on Real Food. That’s a great reason to throw a party!
Your body and mind will thank you when you Eat Real Food.
Fern Wilson is a Certified Coach Practitioner through the Certified Coaches Federation. She attended the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Intensive Chef’s Program in N.Y.C. Under the direction of the school’s founder, Annemarie Colbin, Wilson learned the basics and theories of whole foods cooking. She continued her education with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and became a Certified Health Coach. Through that program, she learned more than one hundred dietary theories and studied a variety of practical lifestyle coaching methods.
A former chef and restaurant owner, Wilson moved away from the restaurant industry to create her practice, HEN (Health, Energy, Nutrition) Coaching. In addition to dietary and culinary training, Wilson has also studied with numerous and various energy practitioners throughout the country.