As we approach 2015, millions of people will undoubtedly make resolutions to live a healthier life, mainly through diet and exercise. I applaud everyone who signs up at a new health club and makes a Christmas wishlist a mile long, filled with healthy cookbooks and new running shoes. The statistics in this country are dismal and through my research over the past 18 months, I’ve come to memorize every single one: 1 in 3 persons is obese, 1 in 10 Americans will have Type 2 diabetes by 2035, obesity and Type 2 diabetes (medical conditions that used to be almost exclusively limited to adults) now run rampant in our youth, and on any given day the average American eats 30% of their meals outside of the home. We’re talking restaurants and fast food joints that pack their menu items with added sugar, fat, and sodium so we keep coming back for more.
But while our sad statistics are certain, what is unclear for many is just what to eat and how. If the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, then perhaps why so many people ditch their resolutions by February is because knowing what and how to eat in this country has become somewhat of a jumbled mess, leaving the average person frustrated and confused. Figuring out how to eat healthy seems just so darned complicated, and chances are many people don’t know if they should be counting calories/carbohydrates or chemicals, following a Paleo diet or that of a vegan, or detoxing with a 7-day green juice cleanse or signing up for a colon cleanse. On top of this uncertainty, the amount of misinformation and conflicting information floating around online is enough to make a person’s head spin. Just Google, “Is brown rice or white rice better?” and you’ll see what I mean.
In June 2013, I decided to drastically change how my family ate and how I cooked. In the last year and a half, I’ve poured over tons of research, spent countless hours in the kitchen, and took an accurate account of how foods made me and my family feel. I’ve spoken to farmers and doctors, asked questions, sought out advice, and came to my own conclusions. I’m not a nutritionist or a scientist, a doctor or a chef. I’m just a mother with a regular family to feed and one child who happens to be really picky. I’ve also recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, therefore my views on what truly makes up healthy eating have evolved and done some flip turns over the last 18 months.
Through some obsessive research habits and plenty of self-experimentation, this is what I’ve learned about healthy eating — what it means to me and what works for my family. My hope is that some of my own experiences and advice resonates with you so that you can trudge on in the new year with some hope and confidence, and experience many more successes than failures when it comes to feeding your family well.
1. Be open to being a guinea pig.
There is a TON of information out there, much of it valid and credible, about how to eat well. Some swear by dairy elimination, while others insist raw milk is the best thing for your health. So how are you going to figure out what works for your family? Well, you can always just take your time and try out several different ways of eating and decide which fits best with your ideals, lifestyle, belief system, and budget. For us, it literally took almost a year of me trying out several different ways of eating, including vegan, simple vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free — you name it, before we found what worked for us. In the end, it’s a hodge podge of all different ways of eating, and some days we eat no meat while other days we eat tons. In the end, what mattered most to us was just eating real foods free of weird, unrecognizable ingredients.
2. Be patient; changing the way you eat takes time.
While mom or dad could do a quick 30-day diet and reset how they eat, if you’re trying to change the eating habits of an entire family, it’s going to take time. Unless you have very young babies who don’t know any different (if so, congrats to you on starting so early!), there will be push back by someone, if not all parties involved. We still have some push back on some of the food we serve our kids, even though they’re old enough to understand I’m feeding them this way because I want them to be healthy, not to torture them. The point is to stay strong, mama. Your role is not a restaurateur, attempting to please every picky palate, it’s simply to keep the kids from starving while hopefully feeding them healthy food in the process. Very few, if any, children or spouses have ever died from being malnourished because mom made green beans again.
3. Get your partner on board.
Speaking of spouses, try and get them on board, too, so they’re not sabotaging you every chance they get by bringing home processed junk or taking the kids for a joy ride to the local fast food joint.
4. Come to terms with the fact that you’ll be cooking a lot more.
There’s a whole lot of disagreement among doctors and health professionals about how to eat well, but they can all agree on one thing: the simplest way to eat healthier is to eat at home. That doesn’t mean every meal has to be from scratch; frozen veggies and store-bought sauces using quality ingredients are coveted staples in our home. But an easy to way to cut down on calories, preservatives, sodium and sugar intake is to cook it yourself and limit how much you eat out. So buckle up for the ride and get ready to up your cooking game, which will be greatly assisted by the additional practice alone.
5. Learn to read labels.
Unless you plan on cooking every single thing from scratch and avoid packaged foods for all eternity, you’ve got to learn to start reading food labels. While it’s a seemingly easy fix to simply avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce, some plant-based and natural food preservatives that are perfectly safe have funny names. So the biggies I avoid are MSG, high fructose corn syrup or regular corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial coloring, and artificial sugars. Here’s a great article which details how to avoid hidden sugars, MSG, and other artificial preservatives.
6. Drink water, not soda.
Plain and simple, the stuff is bad for you because of its enormously high sugar content that makes it devoid of any nutritional value. And new studies show that drinking the stuff on a daily basis can age you as much as smoking cigarettes.
7. Strive for better, not perfection.
Whenever I find myself feeling like I could be a doing a better job of eating healthier, I remind myself that we are not trying to be health family USA and that the way we eat now is monumentally better than how we used to eat. I strive for better, not perfection.
8. Do what works for you!
Health foodies can get a little territorial and defensive when it comes to laying claim to the “best” way to eat. I myself bucked a lot of food trends thinking they were just that and preached a doctrine of simply eating real food. But I’ve come to happily learn and accept that certain eating programs work really well for some and not others. While counting points may drive someone crazy, it may be another person’s saving grace. Some may hate the rigidity of an elimination diet like Whole 30, while others really need that structure to truly be successful and overcome some food addictions that have been haunting them for years. Bottom line: don’t be afraid to try out different things, and in the end, do what works for you personally, not what worked for your best friend’s sister’s cousin.
9. Ignore the naysayers.
Sadly, there will be naysayers. My father, about three months in to us eating differently, asked condescendingly, “So how long are you going to keep this up for?” He shook his head and laughed when I told him forever. Some may not believe you can change and some may not be able to change themselves. Some may be envious of your dedication or some may just feel your new way of life is cramping their style. Whatever the reasoning, you will most likely encounter negativity, so be prepared for it to come and be ready to just brush it right off. Good for you for making an attempt to change your health and your family’s. Stay positive, and if anything, just make a vow to prove the naysayers wrong.
10. Eat real food.
Whether you ditch gluten or bake bread every day, invest in buying a grass-fed cow or take a vow of veganism, it all comes down to mostly eating food that is minimally or zero-processed. Basically, whole foods that are devoid of additives and preservatives and are chockfull of nutritional value. It’s never been easier to jump on the health band wagon. As more and more folks across the country realize that our old way of eating is making us sick, more and more are turning to this way of eating, which means more support and resources to help you along in your journey.