Start Here: Just the Basics!
First off, I want to start with the disclaimer that I have written this article for the average-healthy person, not for those with diagnosed or undiagnosed health issues. However, if you do have a health issue, you may want to read this and see if you are in need of some changes. It doesn’t help to try to cure one issue if you aren’t doing things to support your body in every way you can. Supporting your body as a whole is the goal.
This is not a research backed article. There are countless books written, supported by current research, but come to conflicting conclusions. My goal is to try to guide you through some basics and help direct you in areas where you may want to do more research. Your health is in your hands, I am just here to provide information and support where I can.
Are you new to eating and living healthy?
Have you just started and already feel overwhelmed?
Are you confused about all the conflicting information, or you just don’t know where to start?
You have come to the right place, this is the place to start.
My goal for you is to transition to a healthier lifestyle that will establish a baseline for health. Then you can have the strength and vitality to work on your life’s goals or primary mission.
The Baseline: Eating Healthy
The simplest way for me to explain how to eat healthy is to say:
“Eat as close to the tree as possible”.
This means, if you are going to eat an apple, eat the apple, and not the apple bran muffin. Although an occasional apple bran muffin isn’t so bad, the apple will provide wonderful nutrients, fiber and satisfaction, but there will be very few nutrients from the apple in the muffin.
Another example is orange juice. Many people think they are getting lots of vitamin C from a glass of store-bought orange juice. Next time you pick up a bottle, read the label and see how many grams of sugar there are in your orange juice, then pick up a can of any soft drink and compare them; they are about the same! You are getting as much sugar from your orange juice as you are from a soda! If you want orange juice, buy a couple oranges, cut them in half and squeeze them into a glass. Now you know you have fresh orange juice, without additives, and it tastes amazing! Better yet, eat the orange, then you'll get the fiber, too.
These are just a simple examples of what I mean by "eat as close to the tree as possible". Another thing some people say is “just eat real food!”. So what is “real food”? This is the question I want you to think about when you are choosing food to feed your body and perhaps your family.
You have heard that “processed food” is bad for you. Do you understand why? I could throw out terms like rancid oils and bleached, pulverized flour, but I want you to understand the ideas behind it, so you can be confident in your food choices and why you make them. Even if you choose to eat a store bought chocolate chip cookie.
Keep it in Balance: This is a transition
I am a big proponent of keeping things in balance, probably because I love to get totally immersed in something, then I get thrown out of balance, but then come back to balance it out with what I call “real life”. The reason I say this is because I see many “health experts” tell people how to eat that just isn’t in balance with real life for most people. I get frustrated when an "expert" tells you to not eat breakfast, but you get up and make breakfast for your family and you are starving! They can't take your life into consideration, because they don't know you. Maybe you could just lighten up your dinner? You have to adapt your habits with the life you live.
Or they tell you not to eat any flour or sugar, just take it all out; but leave you craving anything to fill that need. We need to balance where we are with where we want to be. Getting rid of sugar and flour are great goals, but what often happens is we fail once, give up, and then go right back to our old habits.
I would rather we transition to better habits. It’s just hard to make huge changes in our lives quickly, they can take time.
Ready for Change? It’s not just about food!
If you are reading this, my guess is you are ready to make some changes, and want to know where to start.
The reason I talk about balance, right after I talk about eating real food is that it can get overwhelming. You can read my blog to find out more about different areas you may want to work on, but change in life is not just about food. Often food is just one of the many symptoms in a life that needs to turn a corner. Here are some other areas that I want you to think about. See if any of these are areas you may want to address, in addition to changing your food habits:
- Social life
- Movement/physical activity
- Home environment
- Gut health
So what do all these things have to do with eating healthy? Everything. I find that most of us know we shouldn’t eat cookies at night while watching TV, but we still go to the pantry and pull out the cookies (or go to the kitchen and make them). What could that mean? It could be that we are just bored, and maybe that means we just need more creativity in our lives. If baking cookies is your way of expressing creativity, perhaps you can just find some healthier versions of cookies, or spend that time making a fabulous soup for the next day.
Or maybe you have always wanted to learn to knit, or play the piano; perhaps your lack of creative expression is causing you to “feed” it in all the wrong ways. Do you see how things can be connected in ways you never may have thought about?
Have you found yourself eating because you were upset at something, or someone? Instead of trying to deal with the situation, which you may not feel you have control over, perhaps you are looking for control by eating whatever you want. There may be better ways to address your relationship issues besides eating. Sometimes we just have to pay attention to ourselves and try to be a detective to find out what we are really missing. We don’t have to “fix” everything, but sometimes it just helps knowing where we may be out of balance.
Balance is Key
Whenever I make changes in my life, I feel like I am playing Whack-A-Mole with my life. I focus perhaps on working out or taking long walks, but then run out of time to make healthy dinners. This is where coming back to balance works for me. After concentrating on the movement part of my life, I can eventually find out what and how much I can incorporate into my life without throwing everything else out of balance. I can try walking an hour a day for several days, then find I lost valuable work time. So I can work on a balance that works for me, perhaps a half hour a day and a long walk on the weekends. The goal is for you to settle into something that works for you in your life. This takes a willingness to change, and an awareness that you are experimenting in the beginning. The benefit is that once we find new things that work in our lives, we are set up for improvement over the long run, not just for a few weeks.
As I said, I want you to feel confident in your food choices, and know why you are making them. The confusion comes when ten different “health experts” cite scientific studies that support their health theory, but these studies seem to be in direct conflict with each other. That is because there is no one “right” way to eat. Our bodies are made to be adaptable, and they can eat just about anything to keep us from starving. However, just because we can eat it, doesn’t mean our bodies need it. Our bodies also need balance, and keeping them out of balance will cause problems.
Your body has a unique history and environment. Taking a study with subjects that are in college, or have a specific illness does not easily translate to your body. So when that 25 year old athletic male tells you what works for him, that really has nothing to do with what works for you. Your body, your history, your weaknesses are all unique to you.
If you find someone that seems to have similar issues in their lives and has resolved them, they may be good to learn from. Just remember, though, it is still your body, so listen to it.
Having said that, I can make some general statements regarding foods and what types of foods may serve you better than others.
Foods that work for most people:
The following is some categories of foods that have worked for most of the human race for centuries, and should be of benefit to you, (unless you have digestive issues, then you can read some of my articles on gut health). Some of this may be considered a “gold standard” or what you should aim for. Think of all of these coming in a scale from where you are to where you may want to be, and your goal is to move up the spectrum toward the goal.
Also remember, the big difference in many of these foods are quality over convenience and price. Cheap and easy food has been the detriment of our health for the past 50 - 100 years; please don’t do more of the same!
The following I would consider a Gold Standard of foods:
Vegetables of all kinds, in their natural form, especially organic and in season, even better—locally grown.
Berries and fruits in their natural state, especially if they are in season.
Beans, grains and legumes as close to their natural form as possible (for example, cooked oat groats as opposed to microwaved oatmeal). All of these should also be soaked, to deactivate anti nutrients and activate nutrients.
If you want to know more about grains, read my article: Grains: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Dairy products from healthy animals, organic, from grass fed-cows, is best here, and even better if they are fermented or aged (kefir or aged natural cheeses).
Meats from healthy animals, without extra processing (such as bacon or sausage).
Eggs from healthy chickens (or ducks).
Fermented vegetables or dairy products, especially if you ferment them yourself.
Herbs and spices, preferably organic and have not been sitting on your shelf for years! (I throw mine out after a year or two.)
Oils from sources you recognize, fresh and as unprocessed as possible. Butter and cold pressed oils such as olive, coconut and sesame are good examples.
Limited natural sweeteners, such as dates and maple syrup, in limited amounts; stevia is a great alternative.
If you think about it, these foods are mostly the ones you find on the outer aisles of your grocery store. In fact, that is one of the first health tips I can give you:
Tip: Shop on the outer aisles of the grocery store.
Here is where your buying decisions come in, do you know where your food comes from? How close do your foods come to their original form? Are all your grains processed into breads and flours? Are your fruits made into jellies? Is your milk homogenized and pasteurized and “fortified” (with vitamin D and calcium added)?
Or do you know your farmer, where you get your eggs? Or do you ferment your milk to make kefir or yogurt? Do you buy aged cheeses, or do you get the plastic coated slices? Wherever you are, you get to decide where you want to improve, with the knowledge that you also need balance and creativity to do well in this life.
Foods that cause problems to most bodies:
Foods that are processed usually have questionable ingredients, and the benefits they have are usually stripped out. The other problem is what they put back in. In our culture of “better living through chemistry”, the chemicals, preservatives, artificial colors, and the questionable processing techniques should really cause us to rethink whether we should be eating those foods or not. That is without even talking about genetic modification of seeds. Basically, the safe rule is to avoid those boxed and packaged foods as much as possible.
Common foods that fall into the category are packaged cookies, pizzas, crackers, breads, microwave dinners and even many boxed grains.
Processed oils fall into this category, as well. Did you know that “vegetable” oil comes from soybeans? Since when is a soybean considered a vegetable! Canola stands for Canadian oil, which was designed to be another WD-40. When people ask me if canola oil is better than soy oil, I squirm! Even so, it is often in the “organic” processed foods in Whole Foods.
It’s a transition!
Remember, I talked about real life and keeping things in balance. You cannot easily eat only “perfect” foods, we can only do the best we can from where we are. It needs to be a process of improvement. However, there are some inexpensive changes you can make to start with.
Tips for change:
When you are looking to change something in your diet, and you don’t think you can make a huge change at once, just take it one step back in the processing. For example, if you eat microwaved oatmeal, it is not that hard to buy Old Fashioned oats and cook them, and you will be surprised at how quickly they cook. The extra work added from stirring the oats, and washing the pan you can chalk up to extra workout for your arms. Once you find the step easy enough, you can select steel cut oats, which you need to soak overnight and take longer to cook, but add extra chewing and a better workout for your jaw. It is one step closer to the original state of the oats, which is oat groats. Oat groats are harder to find, (check Amazon.com), so if you don't feel you are ready for those yet, at least you have worked in that direction.
If you choose small things and get used to them, then work on another one and another one, soon you will find you are making healthy choices without thinking twice. It will also have been a journey where you have learned what works best for you.
“But healthy food is expensive!”
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Fortunately, the costs are coming down, but do what works within your budget. Then consider for a minute how expensive a trip to the hospital can be. If you can avoid even one trip to the hospital, you have saved enough money to eat organic vegetables for years!
Once you start eliminating the chips, cookies, crackers, pasta and questionable cereal, you can afford to buy organic vegetables, fruits, berries, and grains. You can upgrade your meat and dairy as you see the benefits. Grassfed beef is getting more available at many grocery stores. Organic-milk and milk products are becoming cost effective and more available, as Aldi and Walmart are catering to the demand of the consumers.
But what do I make?
My suggestion would be to keep it simple. Here are some simple ideas where you can start:
- Add in the vegetables. Steamed broccoli (even if not organic, local, or in season) is an easy addition to any dinner. Add real butter and salt to make even the kids love it, and you won’t have much push back. Gradually, expand to other familiar vegetables that many people can learn to love.
- Slowly reduce the breads and pastas, replace them with whole grain rice and experiment with quinoa. You can start with quinoa pasta or brown rice pasta, and you can try some of the sprouted grain breads. The idea is to reduce, not just substitute, though.
- Reduce or eliminate sodas. You can start by trading out the soda for a stevia sweetened soda, such as Zevia. Then you can work on things such as lemon and water, sweetened with stevia. Some people love simple water with fruit or cucumber slices added.
- Experiment with new recipes. Search in Paleo or Vegan cookbooks for new, fun recipes. Both of these “diet” approaches stress the quality of the ingredients, and have great recipe ideas. Check out these books at your local library and have fun trying all the new recipes.
Look for other areas to improve your lifestyle.
Review my list of areas that I mentioned before that may be lacking in your life. Find ways to incorporate some of those while you are working on the food aspect. Perhaps you can get the kids involved in your experiments, and be working on your home environment or family relationships at the same time. Instead of lecturing to them about health, make it a time of experimentation. “Let’s look for a new cookie recipe that has healthier ingredients!”, or “let’s try roasting some vegetables and see which ones we like!” This would also tap into your creativity. Don’t make it a drugery, make it fun!
Movement can also be fun and easy.
I am writing this in the midst of winter, so here are some ideas for cold winter activities:
Get out and rake the leaves, or you could bundle up and go for a walk.
Split some wood and build a fire inside or outside and roast marshmallows (you will have deserved it!).
Take your kids or grandkids to the park and play on the equipment with them.
If you think there are other health areas you need to work on, do some research or keep reviewing my articles and see what else you can be doing. I am a big proponent of working on our digestive health. Feel free to contact me and ask me what direction you should go.
This is just an overview with ideas to get you started.
Most people have many detailed questions on how to proceed, and some know what to do, but need motivation. My suggestion would be to find a partner who wants to go on the same journey, and hold each other accountable.
If you don’t feel you know anyone like that, or need more specific ideas of what can fit into your life, you can work with me. You can have a free one hour strategy session with me where I can direct you on a path specific to you. If that isn’t enough, and you want to work with me as a health coach, my rates are on my site. I would love to work with you, because I love to share the results of my years of research and work on myself. I truly believe you can have health at any age!
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Certified Health Coach
Institute for Integrative Nutrition