It's one of those perplexing conundrums of our every day lives: the health industry in America is...almost terrifyingly enormous and in many cases, lucrative, and yet, our country is one of the most unhealthy in the First World. We are bombarded with "healthy" new products, "healthy" new diets, and "healthy" new foods left and right, but there's a disconnect, because upon inspection of the ingredient list, these foods aren't very healthy at all.
A lot of this happens with food that caters to an "alternative" diet. For example, if you choose to become vegetarian or vegan for environmental or health reasons, don't replace your meat with any of the most popular or readily available meat substitutes...they often contain chemicals for taste, for preservation, for color, and a number of other uses...combine that with the processes that have to be used to make the products and suddenly they aren't so 'green' or so 'healthy' anymore.
Meat substitutes are only one example. A great number of the products generally marketed to the public as being health foods simply aren't...and companies can put all kinds of things on the labels of their products without answering for them at all. What's important to watch out for is the ingredients list. You can be as careful with this as you'd like; depending on your personality an lifestyle it might be easier to practice "clean Eating" (For a fabulous Clean Eating resource, see The Gracious Pantry) or just try to incorporate more whole foods and less processed. What matters most is using a method that works for you.
Incorporating less "healthy" food and more healthy food into your diet can seem confusing at first, but there are a few key principles that can help you choose the best foods for yourself and/or your family.
I don't think that I can say this enough....when it comes to meat and other animal products, your very best bet is local, organic meat/eggs/dairy from the farmer's market, CSA, or purchased directly from the farmer him/herself. If you've chosen to be an omnivore, it's worth the extra money to eat clean, organic, grass fed, healthy meat. This way you are avoiding fillers, hormones, antibiotics, and animal cruelty in one fell swoop. Also, it's better for the environment!
If, for some reason, you are unable to purchase beef from local farmers, you can still by grass-fed, growth-hormone and antibiotic-free beef from high quality grocers. It can be more expensive than buying from the farmers, though, and it's not as green. Plus, by buying from local farmers, you are supporting your local economy...which is a definite plus. Nevertheless, things come up all the time and this makes a great alternative. If buying eggs from the market, make sure you are buying vegetarian-fed cage-free eggs...you will pay more for them, but they have higher nutritional value for their calorie content and avoid animal cruelty and potential health hazards from diet fillers.
As far as milk, I wrote at length about the different options in this post.
2) Fruits & Vegetables
It seems obvious that fruits and vegetables are the healthiest items in our diets...and the ones we seem to get the least of. But eating fruits and vegetables should be a part of your daily routine and your lifestyle, and the fresher, the better. Vegetables that are frozen retain quite a bit of their nutrition content, and are second in quality to fresh. I would advise not eating vegetables or fruits that are canned or otherwise preserved unless you are the one who does the canning and preserving.
As far as buying fresh veggies...buy in-season, local, organic produce. At the farmer's market you can ask the sellers about their methods and they can tell you if they are organic or not. If you can't buy local for any reason, try to pick produce that is organic at least. If you are having trouble incorporating vegetables and fruits into your diet, check out the recipes on this blog, the Whole Foods website, and other websites such as AllRecipes or KitchenDaily.
3) Whole Grains
Grains are probably the easiest of the foods to buy...you simply need to avoid anything "white", "bleached", or otherwise heavily processed. Buy whole wheat flour, white whole wheat flour, and whole wheat pastry flour. You can also use soy flour in small portions in certain recipes, quinoa or other gluten-free flours, and many of these tend to be readily available at markets. When buying products (such as sandwich bread or pasta) make sure to check the ingredient listing and avoid anything with too many ingredients or unpronounceable names. Your consumption of white flour should be as minimal as possible, and I would recommend not even keeping it around the house, honestly.
As always, moderation is key. But the majority of what you eat should be as whole as possible, as healthy as possible, and as home-made as possible.
The Calm Cook