Do you know what a balanced meal looks like anymore? We used to in the good ol’ days when the food pyramid told us in simple terms. Then came a barrage of diets and studies, and more diets, and a new and different food pyramid, and then a food plate. If you are confused about what to eat to be healthy, start with the basics. I use simple geometry to make better food choices every day, and so can you.
What To Believe And The Art Of Denial
It’s no wonder Americans are obese. We think we’re a healthy Nation because there is so much attention paid to obesity, diet and exercise, what with TV shows and infomercials all over our flat-screen TVs, yoga studios and fitness gyms on every block, and so-called healthy foods in the markets.
Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports: “More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese.”
How is this possible? Aren’t we more health conscious now than ever before? Don’t we frequent markets like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Farm Fresh, where healthy is the name of the game?
The truth is even those retail outlets sell tons of stuff that’s bad for you. Yes, that includes genetically modified (GMO) fruits and vegetables, fattening carbs and cholesterol-laden meats.
An article that recently came to my attention sent shivers down my spine. The piece, published in the Akron Beacon Journal, described how Daniel Coudreaut, the senior director of culinary innovation at McDonald’s, stated for the record: “I don’t see anything on the [McDonald’s] menu that’s unhealthy.”
What is this guy smoking?
I don’t think I have to show the fat and salt content of McDonald’s food for all of us to agree that Mickey D’s gets a “D” for food healthiness.
Coudreaut denies that his employer is responsible for the obesity epidemic, even among children. “I feel that if we were to close the doors of all of the McDonald’s tomorrow, the obesity problem would not go away,” he says.
In one sense, he’s right.
It won’t go away unless we each individually, and as parents on behalf of our children, make changes in our knowledge of what constitutes a “balanced, healthy meal.” The food served at fast food restaurants is not generally a healthy way to go, even though they may have a few healthier items on their menu.
A Way To Better Choices
To help make better choices for yourself and your loved ones and to make it easy to do so, think about what is good in general. Here are a few things that are known to be healthy (and not based in fad-diet pseudoscience):
Organic Foods: These do not contain harmful chemical sprays or fertilizers that wreak havoc on the human body once consumed. Unlike the unqualified words “healthy” and “natural,” for a food to be labeled as “organic,” the farmer or maker of that food must comply with very stringent laws and methods of growth and production.
Whole Foods: Whole means, well, whole. These include fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins in their original or close-to-original states. They can be shredded or chopped, but the basic nature of the food is intact. In other words, whole foods do not contain fillers of any kind.
Protein: Protein breaks down in the body slower than carbohydrates and contains enzymes and other elements that are necessary for a healthy mind and body. Proteins are found in various forms, including:
- Meats: poultry, beef, pork, lamb; leaner cuts are better for you.
- Fish: salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, halibut, anchovies.
- Beans: lentils, black, garbanzo, kidney, lima, navy.
- Grains: oatmeal, buckwheat, quinoa, rice, rye.
- Dairy: yogurt, cheese, milk, eggs; low fat options are better.
- Beverages: purified water, green and white teas.
Complex Carbohydrates: They are generally whole or close to it, are not bleached to look pretty white, and do not generally contain added sugar. In contrast, simple carbs are so-called white foods, like polished white rice, white bread, semolina pastas and others. While simple, refined carbohydrates may be staples in world cuisine, they are not so healthy. Simple carbs break down in your body relatively quickly and turn to sugar, leading to weight gain and an insulin response that can cause blood sugar and metabolic issues. When possible, choose whole grain products and vegetables as your sources of carbohydrates.
Preparation Methods: Even the best foods in the world become unhealthy if prepared in a way that makes them bad for you. It is best to eat your foods raw, steamed, lightly sautéed until al dente, or, for meats, medium or medium rare (but cooked enough to be done, go here for cooking temperatures) so the enzymes are still there.
Unhealthy food preparation methods include:
- Overcooking vegetables until they are soggy and devoid of nutrients.
- Deep-frying proteins and vegetables.
- Baking fruits with loads of sugar (think compotes in pie).
- Adding too much oil, butter or salt while cooking.
- Adding cream and sugar to tea or flavor mix to water.
- Pulverizing grains that are also bleached and enriched.
Once you understand the general idea about what is healthy and what is not, it is time to think about making changes to your diet. And I am talking here of better choices in the moment and over time, not a radical diet shift. Radical shifts fail, as we all know.
First, consider your normal food choices and then think how to eat the same thing, or something similar that is better for you. I call this a “horizontal move.”
Examples of horizontal moves include:
- Move from your original food choice of flour- or batter-covered deep fried chicken to chicken covered with whole grain and flax seed breading, lightly cooked in olive oil for color and texture, then baked.
- Move from instant cinnamon and brown sugar flavored oatmeal with added milk to slow-cooking whole oats, sprinkled with real cinnamon and nutmeg, with a splash of rice or almond milk and a handful of blueberries.
- Move from flavored coffee with whole milk and sugar (or artificial sweetener) to half a cup of coffee mixed with half a cup of chicory or Teeccino, with stevia and almond milk. Or drink it black with a twist of lemon, which is alkalizing.
The secret of horizontal moves is that you can enjoy the same food options in a much healthier way. This is an easy way to begin making changes in your diet and overall health as it relates to the foods you consume.
Now let’s look at some even better food choices I call “vertical moves.” These are not just tweaks to something familiar, but perhaps choosing new items you have never before eaten:
- Move from General Tso’s chicken or sweet and sour chicken with white rice to sautéed chicken or tofu in black bean sauce with steamed veggies and brown or basmati rice.
- Move from potato chips and sour cream with onion dip to vegetable crudités with red pepper hummus dip.
- Move from pepperoni pizza to thin-sliced whole grain bread baked crostini style, topped with freshly diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro, low-fat cheese shreds, drizzled olive oil and a thin slice of organic chicken sausage.
Overall, there is no secret to losing weight. A combination of diet and exercise usually does the trick. However, we are talking about more than mere weight issues here. Being overweight or obese also correlate with heart disease and diabetes. Poor food choices also can lead to toxic overload in the body, which may result in autoimmune diseases, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia and other chronic, painful conditions.
The gist of how you should look at food is in terms of health, in all its aspects. Weight management is one consideration, but healthy eating helps with blood sugar maintenance, sustained energy, disease prevention and an overall sense of well-being.
Try to keep in mind just the very basics of which foods and preparation methods are good and which are bad. Then consider how to begin making better horizontal and vertical choices. In that way, over time, food will no longer weigh as heavily on your health.