So many people I know are better than I am at this whole healthy eating thing, but other friends of mine are admittedly operating at a novice level in the food awareness department. They get lost in the “organic only-vegan-raw-gluten free-paleo-tojuiceornottojuice-dairy free” constant stream of information. Some people have an epiphany and literally overnight go into a flurry of pantry purging and start from scratch. For others (me) it takes years to arrive at a level of label reading at which they can feel 90% comfortable with the purchases they make (the problem is not knowing things farther up the chain that are not explicitly labeled).
I personally have always looked for trans fat. My father (who knows something about just about everything) somehow ingrained into my 10 year old mind the fact that hydrogenated oils in snack cookies were bad. He definitely still ate many cookies, but he was fairly stubborn about avoiding that one ingredient. So I would dutifully keep an eye out for it too.
Then, about 10 years go, my (boyfriend, not yet) husband and I had put on the 60+hr work week equivalent of the “Freshman 15” that accompanies the life of consultants due to the ’round the clock ordering in (and perhaps a few beers when you finally emerge at 9 pm into the warm Chicago evening after 17 straight hours of staring at spreadsheets in roughly 45 degree, recycled skyscraper air). We had a vacation planned and wanted to slim down. As a result, I must give credit to the South Beach fad of the early 2000s for getting me in the habit of looking at the back of the box, not the front, in making my food decisions, and to shop the perimeter.
The irony here, of course, being that the “South Beach” label then proceeded to be licensed out and placed on the boxes of highly processed fake sugar containing diet foods of the store … boo! hiss!
Once you’re in the habit of reading labels, you can make educated decisions about what you’re eating. In my case, I know what sorts of things are complete deal breakers (in my book, HFCS and trans fats because they are just plain insulting to their sugar, butter, and lard counterparts … and food dyes because they are unnatural, and neither add any meaningful flavor nor are good for you). Likewise, I can decide what foods are middle ground that can go on the 20% side of my 80/20 lifestyle. Yes, this includes the occasional Panera chocolate chip bagel for breakfast, because I really enjoy it. The good news here is that I have to plan it into my morning and go out of my way to get one … and buying more than one never makes sense because they just aren’t as good the next day (similar strategy = putting my chocolate bar in the freezer so it has to thaw before it’s edible).
Perhaps you already are the equivalent of a Label Reading Black Belt. Maybe you are just starting out. If you are the latter, and want today to be the day you get your white belt, and start practicing better shopping, your homework is twofold.
- Turn your boxes around and start reading the ingredients. Not the labels with health claims on the front. Not the nutrition box with the somewhat meaningless stats, but the ingredients list. Just read. Extra credit for actually using that information, plus your gut feelings, to steer your purchases.
- Start keeping track of what you buy the most of “down the aisles”… not only is this often the least healthy, but it’s often the biggest suck on the budget. You definitely are benefiting from economies of scale on the ingredient procurement, but packaged goods require not only the ingredients, but also the labor, packaging, shipping, warehousing, marketing, and transportation … So I will explore over time how to weigh your options here (sometimes it’s as easy as just choosing private label).
You know how in yoga or meditation the teacher will ask you to scan your body, and bring awareness to any area that feels discomfort? This homework is sort of the grocery shopping equivalent. Just be mindful.
Now, knowing what REALLY is behind each ingredient, and its impact on your health is way more complicated. But for now, keep it simple and stick to the great-grandma test. I like to think about whether a family in the early 1900s would have been able to somehow recreate it.
I truly am very grateful that, due to our country’s fantastic infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities, I don’t have to make everything from scratch (it allows me time to do so many other things I enjoy). Here is one example of an easy supermarket find. Scratch made pasta is delish and may be a fun kitchen experiment. But for a regular weeknight, you could easily buy a pasta from someone that has done the work for you, with just one ingredient. There are tons that fit the bill. Here are a few:
(I know, I know … there are some things that not only might be easy to make, but also taste better, are cheaper, AND are healthier. In this case I say do it. Win. Win. Win.)
Part of my motivation to co-create GNP was the desire to help my friends who wanted to eat cleaner food but didn’t know where to begin. If you are a “make a change overnight” type person, ready to more drastically dive in, that’s awesome! The homework above won’t even scratch the surface of ways you can shop smarter. Lisa over at 100 Days of Real Food is about as perfect as it comes in the Real Food department, and has some awesome rules to follow. She also has a 14 week mini-pledge approach that helps break it down into steps. If you’re slower to change, then still read it … bookmark it, and it can be a great goal to set for yourself … eventually.
Each person is different, and each has different tastes, different budgets, and different priorities. No matter what, if it is a priority to you to eat in a more healthful way, then it is very possible. Just start increasing your awareness, and the rest will follow.
What is something in an ingredient list that surprised you?