Humans eat for many reasons— food tastes good, we are stressed, tired, hungry, bored, mad, sad, happy… Certain foods remind us of home, childhood, or the best date we’ve ever been on. You name it and we’ve got a reason for eating. As intricate and diverse as humans may be, the body eats for one very crucial reason— to access the nutrients we need to fuel life, while ideally expending the least amount of energy.
What makes a food “nutritious” though? The food industry makes grocery shopping confusing. Clever marketing can have us thinking veggie straws are in fact, made of vegetables, not just potatoes. Fad diets can further complicate an already complicated experience.
Regardless of your current dietary lifestyle— whether keto, vegan, paleo, Whole30, etc. We can simplify shopping by focusing on a few key components.
Start with the ingredients.
It’s easy to overlook the entire nutrition label and get caught up in counting calories, fat, and carbohydrates, or become distracted by marketing callouts. Instead, focus on the ingredients. When the body cannot properly break down an ingredient, it can cause both short and long term side effects, including weight gain, aging, low energy, mood swings, acne, etc.
We can simplify shopping, by starting with these basic rules of thumb:
- The fewer ingredients, the better. Look at the nutrition label. I am not talking about the fat and calories per serving, but rather the ingredients. In this instance, less is more. Generally speaking, the fewer the ingredients, the less taxing it is for the body to metabolize and break down.
- Understand what you are consuming. What are you actually eating? If you do not recognize an ingredient, or cannot pronounce it, it’s safe to say that the body cannot properly digest and metabolize it. Additives, added color, “flavoring agents”and highly processed ingredients are added to food products to enhance flavor, texture and atheistic appeal without added expense on behalf of the brand. Bigger margins, create bigger profits and leave us with inflammatory products, void of nutrition. When food is void of nutrients but designed to be addictive, we not only tend to overeat, but we feel low energy and perpetually hungry.
- Eat organic. When it comes to certain ingredients and pantry items, go organic when possible. Many ingredients, like oats, grains and peanuts, for instance, can contain highly toxic pesticides that end up in the bloodstream and can weaken the immune system, cause digestive distress and alter hormones. If you are shopping locally, talk to the owners to find out if they are using organic ingredients. Smaller and more local brands cannot afford to obtain an organic certification but that does not mean their ingredients are not organically produced.
- Avoid genetically modified foods. Look for the NON-GMO certification, or a statement on the packaging that indicates the ingredients have not been engineered. Foods containing “GMOs” are not organic. Some of the most common genetically modified crops utilized in everyday foods are: corn, soy, wheat, potatoes, beets, apples and canola.
- Question marketing callouts on packaging. Brands love to jump on bandwagons and exclaim their product is “Keto,” “low carb,” “low fat,” “gluten-free,” “plant-based,” etc. As a consultant in the Natural Foods industry, I can safely say to always head back to the ingredients. A product can be “gluten-free” but made with GMO highly processed corn starch, potato, rice flour, canola, soybean oil and a list of emulsifiers and additives. The best practice is to always start with the ingredients.
While we cannot avoid every imperfect ingredient, there are several highly inflammatory and processed ingredients I like my clients to reduce, avoid and eliminate. By doing so, we naturally gravitate towards superior options.
Avoid, Reduce, Eliminate.
One of the most prolific ingredients in snacks, dressings, nut butters, deserts and condiments, is oil. Just by being wary of the types of oils in food, we can eliminate and upgrade a good portion of standard pantry and fridge staples that may be creating issues.
Below are some basic ingredients to avoid and upgrade.
Avoid, Eliminate, Reduce:
- Soybean Oil
- Palm oil
- Any oil that has “hydrogenated” in the ingredient label.
- Organic Safflower
- Organic sunflower oils
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Avocado Oil
- Coconut Oil
- Kerry Gold Irish butter, unsalted
- Organic butter, unsalted
Another common ingredient lurking in many food staples is added sugar. Added sugar can be found in everything from protein powder and bread, to marinara sauce. While all forms of sugar are not equally menacing, being aware of how much sugar is in a food, or serving. Understanding the amounts of sugar and what kind you are consuming can make a significant impact on your waistline, skin and overall well-being.
- High fructose corn syrup
- Inorganic sugar
- Artificial Substitutes:
- Sweet ’n Low
- Monk fruit
- Coconut Sugar
- Maple Syrup
Nuts seeds and Nut Butters:
Another American staple is peanut butter. Peanuts are not nuts. They are legumes. Peanuts can be highly susceptible to mold and difficult to digest. If you are going to choose peanut butter, make sure it is organic and only contains one ingredient— peanuts.
- Almond Butter
- Sun Butter— sunflower seed spread
- Tahini— sesame seed spread
- Nut or seed spreads should ideally contain one ingredient.
- When snacking, choose raw and un-roasted nuts and seeds. Heated fats are harder for the body to metabolize.
Milk and Milk Alternatives:
The protein found in cow dairy is designed to grow a 100 lb baby calf into a 1000-2000 lb mammal. It is unrecognizable to our system and slow to digest and metabolize. If consuming cow (or any animal) dairy, go local when possible.
Choose goat and sheep’s milk over regular cow milk. The protein found in goat and sheep’s milk is much closer in size to the protein found in human milk, making it easier for the body to break down.
When possible, make your own fresh nut/seed milks. When not possible, look for the following alternatives and apply the standard set of rules. Look for milk alternatives with fewer ingredients, better oils and no sugar.
- Soy milk
- Oat, unless homemade
- Pumpkin seed
When it comes to snacks, breads, baked goods and pastas, less is always more.
- Unbleached and bleached flours
- If choosing corn or wheat products, make sure it’s organic.
Choose sprouted grains whenever possible.
If choosing a gluten-free, or grain-free option follow the 5 basic rules.
Grocery shopping can seem daunting. Work with a nutritionist, or health care practitioner to better understand what ingredients you should, or should not be consuming. When in doubt, be particular about the oil in your food and stick with the 5 basic rules.