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My neighbor across the street asked me about transitioning to more healthy food. Of course, I tend to get a little verbose on this subject, so I decided to write some of it out once and for all.

So. General guidelines to incorporating healthier foods.

The goal is to get closer to whole foods in their original forms. Aim for foods with single ingredients, identifiable as...food. Prepackaged and convenience foods are definitely convenient, but a quick look at the label will often reveal an endless list of ingredients that are unrecognizable as food. My rule of thumb is, if I wouldn't cook from scratch with that ingredient in my own kitchen, I don't want to buy it. So, for example, since I don't keep bottles of MSG in my pantry...I don't buy packaged foods with MSG on the label.

Gradual changes. I recommend choosing a couple of things and focusing on them initially. Decide what you care most about, and switch to a healthier or organic alternative. A lot of people start out by switching to organic milk. Another good place to start is looking at the Dirty Dozen list, for the top 12 most and least pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables. Choose one or two things per week, or per shopping trip. Remember, though, organic or not, fresher will always taste better, and produce that's in season will be cheaper. So look for local and organic and in season, ideally.

Personal health aside, there are many other reasons to switch to organic. This list briefly discusses some of those reasons, including why organic farming practices are better for the environment. In fact, that entire website has a lot of useful information about organic foods. This article offers advice on how to save money and decide which organic foods are especially worth buying. My personal recommendation for something to switch right away is eggs. I suggest buying pastured organic eggs fresh from a local farm. You will be truly shocked at the bright orange yolks and amazing taste. You'll feel like you had never really had eggs before. Farmers markets and food coops are great places to get eggs.

There's a lot more to healthful eating than simply organic foods. One of the first changes you can easily make is to switch from highly refined grains to whole grains. I swap out whole grain flour for white flour, brown rice for white, and have explored the man whole grains available in bulk at health food and grocery stores. There are great recipes out there for grains like quinoa (a favorite in our house), teff, amaranth, spelt, and the more commonly known wheat, oats, and barley. All of these are simple to prepare, and even easier using a rice cooker--or, I've been told, a pressure cooker. We recommend this rice cooker. I started out by using different grains where I would normally have just used rice. Here is a useful chart for cooking times of different grains.

Another simple step is simply adding an extra serving of fruits and vegetables every day. My kids prefer fresh fruit over anything else, and generally if I offer a cookie or strawberries, they'll choose the strawberries every time. Some especially sweet fruits, like bananas, raisins, dates, mangoes...all these can be given as snacks instead of candies or other sweets. Over an especially long winter, we discovered how many fruits are available dried, and the kids love to snack on banana chips, prunes (!!!), and figs. Fruit leathers are a big hit too, and contain no added sugar in most cases. These can also be incorporated into baking--dates can be pureed and used instead of sugar--to minimize less healthy ingredients.

On the subject of baking, lots of things can be done to add nutritional benefits to baked things. One day I ran out of eggs but wanted to make cookies. I found a mention online of replacing eggs with flaxseed meal, and had to try it. Now i do this all the time, even when I have eggs, just as a way to increase fiber and of course add some of the many known healthful attributes of flaxseeds. As mentioned before, I use whole grain flours instead of plain white, and put oats in a lot of my cookies and muffins. For sweet, I use something like turbinado sugar or sucanat, or maple syrup or honey, and now I'm experimenting with agave nectar. Date sugar is good too, and I've been meaning to try stevia in baking. I thought this was an interesting run-down of some of these alternative sweeteners. To be honest, for the most part I never even remember I've used anything other than plain white flour and sugar. Perhaps I've just gotten used to it, but I remember being surprised when I first made the flour switch, that it was just no big deal at all.

Also available in bulk, we buy a lot of nuts and beans and lentils. We keep a lot of these things in clear glass canisters in our kitchen, and they are very appealing to look at, all the different colors and shapes and textures. There are so many different kinds of beans and nuts and lentils out there, and they all bring something different to the meal. All of these foods have a high fiber content and are filling. Nuts have a reputation for being fatty, but overwhelmingly they are good fats, and it has been widely reported that moderate amounts of nuts are excellent for helping control appetite. Here is some info on the benefits of eating nuts. Since these foods are also high in protein, we have actually inadvertently found ourselves eating less meat, which is also good for the budget!

And speaking of meat. We've cut down on our meat consumption in the past year partially as a result of becoming aware of so many other sources of protein, but also because organic meat is fairly pricey. Or at least, more expensive than conventionally produced meat. And since I feel very strongly that grass-fed beef is healthier (for the animals and those who consume them), I am unwilling to compromise and buy regular grocery store beef. Because my concerns about food are farther-reaching than simply their nutritional composition, I prefer to buy only locally produced meats from people who I trust to treat the animals well and maintain high standards in all their practices. My philosophy is that if I can't pop in on a farm, I am not interested in buying food from them. Also, we avoid any processed meats, organic or not, that contain nitrates and nitrites, which are known carcinogens.

Which brings me to the really fun topic of things NOT to eat. Going back to the whole foods concept, we actively avoid artificial ingredients of any kind. Colors, flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, emulsifiers, fillers, all of it. So many of these ingredients are known to be unhealthy by varying degrees--many are linked to such illnesses as cancer, ADD, diabetes, and many others. I have a little guide I kept with me when I first tarted really reading food labels. I highly recommend something like this to consult while at the grocery store or even while examining your own pantry. One of the more controversial food additives is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I view this ingredient as unnatural, and that is reason enough for me to avoid it. It is worth learning about, as HFCS is unbelievably prevalent in our food system. Read your labels--it's in EVERYTHING. If you don't think it's worth the research, consider how much of it you are probably consuming without even realizing. You'll find that if you actively avoid all these food additives, you'll be well on your way to a very healthy, whole foods diet.

So, where to get all this stuff? Increasingly, I'm seeing organic and bulk foods at regular grocery stores. I buy a lot of grains and staples there. For the fresh stuff, produce and dairy and eggs, I try to get as close to the source as possible. Food coops are awesome for supplying often local healthy whole foods. When they are open for the season, farmers markets are undoubtedly the best source for local, fresh foods, and often organic vendors supply everything from fruits and vegetables to honey to meat and eggs. For the very freshest foods, and to learn all about what goes into your specific foods, make a visit to a local farm. It's exciting to take the kids, and you get a real, visceral sense of where your food is coming from and who is involved in its production. I find it so easy to be truly grateful for my food when I have a relationship with the people who made it happen. To find farms and farmers markets, check out Local Harvest.

Many books and websites address these issues and many more related ones. For an introduction to the concept of food as something worth paying attention to, I highly recommend starting with Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food; and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable Miracle. Michael Pollan's website also has a list of interesting references.

I hope some of this has been helpful and makes adding healthful foods to your diet seem simple and doable.

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valancystirling

December 2010

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