The advice to eat whole real foods for health is ubiquitous and seems like it should be straightforward. Like many things in life, it’s both simple and complicated at the same time. On the one hand, it can be simple to give the advice to shop for ingredients and to cook every meal from scratch, and on the other hand people might feel like that is an impossible standard to meet with the pace of modern life, and give up before they even begin. Sometimes tips and recipes for healthy meals fail to include a wide variety of ethnic and cultural recipes. Sometimes financial constraints or distance from grocery stores with healthy options present challenges to people who want to make a change. Within everyone’s life is space for compromise, personal choice, financial considerations, and food traditions, alongside healthy, whole food options.
Quantity AND Quality
Both quantity and quality are important when it comes to nutrition. Having the right amount of calories to fuel the body for a day is an important part of losing or maintaining weight. Too many calories and the body stores the excess as fat. Too few calories can trigger metabolic changes that make weight loss even harder. There is a balancing act involved to make sure the body gets the N it needs to function well without adding excess energy that can’t be used (the phrase “empty calories” refers to this). This is where quality comes in. Choosing foods that are nutrient-dense means that the body gets what it needs in terms of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, carbohydrates, fat, and antioxidants in the calories that are consumed. Eating a variety of whole real foods is the best way to get all of those things.
Here’s a walk through the meals in a day comparing common choices with healthier alternatives. For some people, a dramatic change embracing all new ideas is the most motivating. For others, making small gradual changes that add up over time is a better approach. Every decision that shifts eating patterns into a healthier direction contributes to the journey.
Side note: the word “dinner” is used to describe the largest meal of the day. If the largest meal is midday, it’s called dinner and the evening meal is called supper. If the largest meal of the day is in the evening, lunch is eaten at midday and dinner is eaten in the evening. This is another example of how humans have varied how they meet their needs in order to fit those things into their lives. Healthy nutrition can be a goal for everyone, and everyone can choose how to prioritize that in ways that work in their lives.
Whether you eat right away in the morning or wait to break your fast after a 12 to 16 hour window, what you eat at that point is important. You are firing up and fueling your system for the day. The typical American breakfast based on cereal or white bread products or other highly sweetened foods overwhelms your system with a rush of simple sugars. These simple sugars cause a blood sugar spike, followed by a crash. Breakfast food can also be some of the most highly processed food of the day. Frozen waffles, pastries, cold cereals, and juices are all processed foods. Researching other cultural means of breaking the fast opens up possibilities like broths, breakfast salads, sweet or savory grain bowls, and more.
Instead of juice, choose a whole piece of fruit or a handful of berries. The sugar in whole fruit is consumed with all the fiber, which is more filling and also helps the body process that sugar. For example, it takes about three oranges to make one cup of orange juice. What is more filling? Would you eat three oranges in a row? The amount of sugar in three oranges consumed without the fiber of three oranges has a different effect on the body. Even smoothies can be difficult in this regard. Processing the fruit into something drinkable means that you eat more fruit than you would if you had to chew it all. While there are times that easily consuming calories can be beneficial (for example, when recuperating from illness), it helps to be aware.
If you love cold cereal, look for high fiber, low sugar options and add sweetness with a handful of pecans, a sprinkle of cinnamon, sliced fruit, or berries. You may choose to explore other grain options as well for morning cereals, such as oatmeal, multi-grain porridge, cream of wheat, rice pudding, grits, millet, quinoa, or chia seed puddings.
If it’s baked goods that sound the best, you can make ahead and freeze batches of whole grain or high-protein waffles or pancakes to be toasted on busy mornings. Muffins can be made with nut flours, fruits, vegetables like grated carrots or zucchini, or shredded coconut to increase the fiber and protein.
Egg and veggie scrambles are another quick and delicious way to add protein and fiber to a morning. Eggs can be prepared a multitude of ways, they provide a complete protein, and they are cheap, quick, and available.
The midday meal can be tricky to plan for, as it may need to be prepared at the same time as breakfast and then eaten quickly or on-the-go. Leftovers can be a great lunch plan, as well as soup, salad, or a grain bowl. One way to reduce processed foods at lunch is to make deliberate and careful choices about grain-products. Breads, pitas, tortilla wraps, crackers, and bagels can all be highly processed. It may be worthwhile to search out healthier options for these things, whether than means replacing your wrap wrapper with lettuce or a cabbage leaf or simply choosing a whole-grain or sourdough option instead. Read your labels with a careful eye. Three or more ingredients that you can’t pronounce, or a long list of ingredients, might mean you move on to another option. Try to include at least one fruit and one vegetable with your lunch.
Having a little snack on-hand, such as a bag of roasted unsalted nuts, an apple, or a plain greek yogurt, can help stave off the high-carb, high-sodium, no or low-fiber options than can present themselves when you are feeling hungry. Planning ahead for snacking is one of the most effective ways to prevent an impulse purchase.
Coming home after a busy day, filled with work, school, errands, and activities, to face down the stove and a hungry family, can be tough. When it comes to supper or dinner, a little planning goes a long way. Simplicity is key as well. Look to include a fruit and a vegetable or two, as well as a protein source and fiber, but you don’t need a main course with a half a dozen sides. A salad, a protein, a cooked vegetable, and perhaps a whole grain, with a piece of fruit for dessert is a perfectly adequate meal. Preparing something special on the weekends, with a little extra, can help those weeknight meals as well. If you grill steaks on Sunday afternoon, throw on an extra one or two. These can be sliced and added to a stir fry, or become fajitas, or top a salad.
Some processed shortcuts that really work: bagged salads, canned beans (especially if they are low-sodium), frozen fruits and vegetables, and good spices including garlic powder and onion powder. Bags of prewashed greens can be quickly added to up the nutrition of a stir fry, soup, or some scrambled eggs. Rotisserie chicken, while higher in sodium, has less sodium than lunch meat and no nitrates or nitrites, and can add some protein easily to salads and stir fries.
How you plan and how you shop can help you choose whole real foods. Generally speaking, try shopping the edges of a store, where the fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy products are kept. The inner aisles mostly contain processed and packaged foods made with preservatives of one kind or another. Keep your shopping in the center of the store to a minimum and honor your list. It can be helpful to plan and shop in chunks, rather than try to plan and shop for a whole week at once, especially when it comes to keeping produce fresh and appealing. Try a farmers’ market as well. Farmers’ markets offer fresh local seasonal produce at prices that can’t be beat, and many have high-quality meat, dairy, and eggs as well.
Choosing healthy foods can sometimes be presented as a long list of DON’T’s. Dr. Traci Kiernan’s e-cookbook, Eating on Purpose: Proven Strategies for Sustainable Health, contains recipes and preparation techniques for eating real whole foods that taste delicious and satisfy the body’s nutrition needs, and can help you shift that perspective to a list of DO’s instead. Eating whole real foods is possible, healthy, and delicious. For one-on-one support, TruBalance offices are equipped for both virtual and in-person appointments. At TruBalance, we focus on the lifestyle changes, including meals full of a variety of real whole foods, in order to create sustainable change in your health.