Earlier in the week, I visited my grandmother and chatted about the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner she would be hosting. Being conscientious, she stated, "I have an apple pie, but I know you eat healthy, so I wanted to get a sugar-free pie for you." Rather than try to explain a healthy diet, I simply let her know that there is no need to go to that trouble, the apple pie will be excellent. At the grocery store, while picking up a few items to make my contribution to the family dinner, I spot a woman scanning labels of a regular and a low fat product. She is obviously not concerned with the ingredients, but rather the fat content as she sweeps the low fat version into her basket …
The word "healthy" in America has become synonymous with diet food. Somewhere along the way, we dropped our penchant for real food believing that artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated oils in place of butter, and stabilizers in place of fat would lead to longevity. Completely ignoring how these so-called foods actually make us feel each day.
It has been a slow progression for my small household, and it wasn't made with the goal of longevity. We just wanted to feel good, every day. Six years ago when it was discovered that I hadn't outgrown my milk allergy, my husband decided that we would go dairy free together. This had a cascading effect on our diets that I never would have anticipated. I had to start reading labels, to check the ingredients rather than the fat content. I was shocked at what I discovered. Beyond the fact that every food seemed to have some form of milk in it, I was amazed to discover how little real food I had actually been eating. Fillers, sugars, and loads of ingredients I couldn’t even pronounce graced the labels of our “go-to” foods.
Yet, the dairy-free diet was not an automatic haven from processed foods. I searched the web, and all recommended dairy substitutes at the time seemed to be less healthy than the original dairy option. Many were loaded with hydrogenated oil, food concentrates seemed to be the norm, and few if any of the ingredients resembled anything I might find in my regular old refrigerator.
So, I made it my personal mission to discover how to go dairy-free healthfully. I learned what healthy really is. I had followed low fat fads in the past, but I was quickly learning that health has nothing to do with counting calories. Sure, you eat too many and you will gain weight. But, if you eat the right foods, the odds that you eat too much begin to dwindle.
The following is a list of healthy eating concepts that we have been working on incorporating into our dairy-free family diet, in order of our discovery:
No hydrogenated oils – Otherwise known as trans fats, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils emerged on the food scene when saturated fats became the enemy. Now rampant in our food supply, these altered fats can be easily spotted on ingredient labels whenever available.
No high fructose corn syrup – A lab created sugar that actually makes you more hungry. That sounds like a health and diet saboteur if I have ever heard one!
No artificial sweeteners – This issue could be hotly debated, but I am not a believer in artificial sweeteners. Fast-tracked to FDA approvals, these chemically created sugars have been shown to have many negative side effects in study after study. Go for the real stuff, but eat less of it!
Eat whole, unprocessed foods – Sure, we all like some indulgence now and then, and I admit to a few convenience foods in my cupboard that help get meals started. But these days, I choose much more wisely. Rather than Campbell's Soup, we have a few seldom-used cans of Amy's Organic Chili on hand for a meal in minutes.
Eat to feel good – My doctor once told my husband and I to see how we feel 30 minutes after we eat anything. If you feel like crap, then it probably wasn’t the best choice, but if you feel energized, then keep that one on the shopping list. At first I thought he was crazy, I really didn’t feel energized at any time of the day. But, as we cut the processed foods, my sensors seemed to perk up. Each day I seem to become a bit more in-tune with my body. This has led to one more major diet change for both my husband and myself. For fun (yes seriously, for fun), I decided to plan out a week’s worth of vegan meals to trial the diet. Though he had shown resistance to my little at-home experiment, each day my husband marveled at how good he felt. By week’s end, he decided that he wanted our household to go vegan. Because we both feel good eating that way, we haven’t had a bit of trouble sticking to it either.
Use healthy oils – Yes fat, the enemy, we now enjoy it, and don't seem to gain a pound from it. I use coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and peanut oil with great regularity. I even bake with oil, and find that it actually performs much better than butter or margarine in most cases. I also use avocados, coconut milk, and nuts/nut butters for richness. I now enjoy fat, and certainly have no intention of apologizing for it.
Cut the refined sugars and flours – For some, sugar altogether can be the enemy, but for a little dose of the sweet stuff, stick to evaporated cane juice (which still reportedly holds some minerals), agave nectar, or maple syrup. However, you will find that if you cut sugar completely out, your cravings will quickly dwindle. I actually use fruit as our primary sweetener and for a dessert-like treat. As for flours, try not to eat too much of the bready stuff, but when you do, opt for foods made with whole grain flours, rather than the overly-processed white flours.
Start seeking organic – The top twelve list of pesticide-loaded foods is a good place to start. However, take a look at what you eat most of. If your family goes through a jar of peanut butter a week, think about switching to organic. If tomato sauce is a staple in your household, then it warrants organic consideration as well. Try to evaluate where organic will make the biggest impact in your diet.
Avoid the GMO – Genetically modified foods are everywhere, and can be virtually impossible to avoid. But paying attention to your food will help to lessen the amount in your diet. Soy, corn, and sugar are three top GMO foods that are rich in the American diet. For the time being, if it says that the soy, corn, or sugar is organic or non-GMO specifically, then it can be considered non-GMO. While eliminating all GMO’s from our diets can be difficult, starting with these big offenders may prove to have the biggest impact.
Eating “real” food has become amazingly tricky, but the closer I come to it, the better I feel and the better my meals taste.