Common Diet Mistakes Part 1

There are umpteen articles written about everyday eating habits that people regularly make that are sabotaging their health (or weight-loss efforts, or any other precise wellness goal).

Sometimes these articles include incredibly helpful information about easy swaps (or the new "it" term: diet HACKS. We seem to really love the work "hack" these days) that we can make to better ourselves without a lot of effort.

Lack of effort seems to be key.

While this makes perfect sense, with our busy schedules and complex lives, it sure does place our food and eating habits way down on the priority totem pole.

I'm all for easy and manageable, but I'm also for recognizing that a big part of how we got here was by turning what and how we eat into an afterthought or annoyance.

Food is a necessity of life. It is one of the things that connects all human beings. We have to eat. Therefore, I think it behooves us to concern ourselves with the quality of our food: how it is grown, prepared and the impact that it has on our health.

With that in mind, I'm writing this article in multiple parts. First, I will provide some easy steps/swaps that do make a difference without requiring much lifestyle change. Then I will talk about some actual lifestyle modifications that will really shape your relationship to your food.


PART 1: 5 Easy Diet Modifications

Healthy snacks, food swaps

USE APPROPRIATE FATS

Perhaps one of the easiest changes to make is to swap out any crappy oils and fats that you are currently using and simply use healthy, high quality ones that are meant for what you are doing. This means ditching trans fats and using only high heat oils when you are cooking at high temperatures. If you need a lovely list of oils/fats and their temperature range click here. Essentially there are oils you cook with and oils you toss with. These are what I recommend:

  • For heat: coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee or butter
  • For low/no heat: olive oil, walnut oil, almond oil, sesame oil, truffle oil

Pitch all of your ambiguous "vegetable oils" as they are surely trans fats. Say NO to stupid butter replacements, they are often full of rancid oils and trans fats. You are much better off buying real butter. Grass-fed, ideally.

Fat is important to do right. Most fat bypasses the liver and goes directly into our lymph after we digest it, meaning that toxins in fat are potentially more dangerous than water-soluble toxins. Buy organic as much as possible. 

In addition to cooking properly with fat:

DON'T BE AFRAID OF FAT

Quit buying low-fat versions of things. Buy the full-fat version. If something is meant to contain fat and a company is trying to reduce the fat content, it will replace it with sugar. It then becomes a double whammy because now you are consuming twice the sugar without the fat present to slow down the absorption rate. Hello blood sugar spike! Your poor body's insulin will be in overdrive.

Yes, the full-fat versions will contain more calories. Adjust your portion sizes accordingly. But you should feel more satiated and your blood sugar won't spike. Plus, I mean, come on- it will taste better too.

In case this needs repeating: the fat-fearful age of the 1980's and 90's needs to go away now! We know that was a big mistake. It skyrocketed obesity in this country. Go back to eating food in it's original form, not some bastardized low-fat version. Eat real food.

DRINK WATER

Seriously people. Cool it with the sugary sodas, juices and "coffee" that is really a milk shake. A soda is not a thirst quenching beverage- it is a dessert. Let's be clear: soda is terrible for us and offers absolutely no nutritional value other than containing calories. Diet soda is worse. While it may be low in calories, the effect of the chemical cocktail on our bodies is worse than regular soda. If you occasionally want to consume a regular soda as a treat, fine. But recognize that it is a dessert item, not a beverage akin to water.

Juices are pretty terrible too. Unless you are drinking freshly squeezed juice (ideally of a vegetable variety) then you are essentially just drinking sugar. Yes, freshly pressed green juices have a lot of nutritional value, but store-bought apple juice does not. The vitamins degrade over time and store juices are pasteurized. In other words: the vitamin content is low while the sugar content is high. Lose the store-bought juice; instead, drink water and eat a piece of fruit.

Oh, and moderate amounts of coffee and tea are great, but a frappuccino and chai latte from Starbucks are, once again, dessert items. If you drink coffee and tea daily, ditch the sugar, or at least reduce it. If you don't like coffee without a massive amount of sugar and flavorings, you don't like coffee. Choose an alternate beverage. And if you don't like coffee, but "need" the caffeine, then there are a few options: fix your schedule and get more sleep (sorry, I realize that falls under the lifestyle section), try tea (there are lots of flavored teas that are flavored with fruit and spices, not sugar) try a B-complex in the morning (but not 5 Hour Energy- that thing is full of crap. Buy an actual B-complex vitamin), don't have a sugary breakfast- that will prevent the spike and crash.

GIVE UP THE NOTION OF A HEALTHY BAGGED SNACK

I'm really sorry to break it to you, but none of the snacks in the processed snack aisle are good for you. None of them. I don't care what claims a box or bag are making, but the chips, pretzels, popcorn, crackers etc. are NOT health food. The only possible exception are kale chips and other raw food snacks that are very expensive and only in health food stores. If you have the funds, then sure: buy containers of raw kale chips. But any classic processed-grain-based snack is not healthy for you. Act accordingly. 

Since we are not yet into the lifestyle section where I can talk about snack preparation at home, let's focus on what you can just buy that is a healthy snack:

Crunchy

  • Vegetables and hummus
  • Pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Edamame
  • WHOLE FOOD fruit and nut bars. (No crazy additives, just whole food ingredients.)
  • Kale chips or other raw food snacks (generally pricey)
  • Dark chocolate (in moderation and I'm talking 55+% cacao)

Creamy

  • Fruit and nut butters (I guess this can be crunchy or creamy)
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese (REAL cheese only. No weird ingredients.)
  • Applesauce (No sugar added)

I doubt many of those were particularly new, but tough poo. If you are looking for snacks without the prep, then you already know the deal: fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are the main thing. Snacking can be a great opportunity to up your veggie and fruit intake, or to eat a bunch of crap. Either make the swap or consider limiting your snacking.

WHOLE GRAIN OVER WHITE

I'm guessing you've already heard about this, but plenty of people still buy the white stuff so here I go:

BUY WHOLE GRAINS INSTEAD OF THE WHITE STUFF.

In general, Americans eat too many grains, so if you can back off of the grains and swap them out for vegetables, even better. But, in the very least, if you are buying breads and pastas etc. buy the whole grain version. Even better, buy non-wheat whole grains to add variety to your diet and up your overall nutrition. Try millet, quinoa, buckwheat (it's not a wheat), farrow, barley, oats, rye, spelt, brown rice, red rice, black rice, wild rice, amaranth, teff....I could go on. Swap out your same-old white rice or pasta for something else and reap the fiber and vitamin rewards.

continuing on with grains:

SWAP OUT YOUR BREAKFAST CEREAL

Breakfast cereals, even ones without marshmallows, are highly processed. But let's use the good, better, best model. Below is a spectrum of breakfast cereals on a list from least desirable to best.  These are just examples to give you an idea. Insert your current breakfast cereal choice as best you can. Then, no matter where you are starting from, swap your current choice for something at least one rung down.

  • Pure Sugar Cereal. (There are marshmallows, the theme is that it tastes like a chocolate candy, or everything is frosted.)
  • Highly processed cereal, but less added sugar (maybe it boasts being "whole grain" or having a lot of fiber but ultimately still super processed)
  • Quick Oatmeal (less processed than traditional cereals, but the quick version is still somewhat processed in order to cook so quickly.)
  • Slow cooking oats (Old fashioned or Steel Cut)
  • Chia seed "cereal" with choice of milk and other goodies (such as fruit, nuts/seeds, cinnamon etc.)

The last option is a great unprocessed breakfast that still has the classic "cereal" presentation. Of course, if you are also willing to think outside the bowl and work with eggs, smoothies, yogurt, my grain-free pancakes, fruit, vegetable scrambles, etc. EVEN BETTER.

I hope those swaps seem doable and helpful.

Although, to be fair, I think that lifestyle is very important. If you are always eating on the run, choosing a better option at the store is a good hack, but meal planning and prep are key too. Those are coming up in Part 2.

Label Overload

So many labels, what do they all mean?  

There are way more labels out there in food-world than I could possibly hope to go over, but I can at least hit some of the big ones.  The big thing to understand is the basic concept of what labels actually mean, and what they don't.

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Before you get completely overwhelmed by the vast array of tiny designs that can appear on foods, first understand this: descriptive words that are not an actual label are part of a marketing campaign. They are not well mediated or well substantiated.  For example: "made with whole grains" or "supports your child's immunity" don't really mean much.  There may be some whole grains in the product, or it may contain some amount of vitamin C, but the implication they are trying to give probably doesn't align with reality.  Bear in mind, they haven't actually tested whether or not eating their crappy processed food improves health.  They know that a particular nutrient is associated with health, so they pumped some of that one nutrient into an otherwise completely terrible "food" and are now using it to make a health claim.  DO NOT BE FOOLED BY MARKETING PLOYS.

An actual label, on the other hand, must be obtained through a certification process. Whichever certifying board is responsible for each label will have their own rules that must be met.  When a food or product has been validated, it will be able to display that label on its packaging (or as a sticker), thus informing you, the consumer, that the certifying body guarantees that the product meets their standards. 

And one more point before we get into some specific labels, the following are words that are not verified and therefore can pretty much be claimed by anything that isn't an obvious lie: Natural and Sustainable. Sorry folks, neither one of those words is truly regulated.  With that said, lots of products that claim to use sustainable practices actually do, so do your own research with those.  As for natural, companies seem to love that word a little too much for my comfort.  Get to know your companies!

Also, animal related terms to know:

Cage free: There really isn't third party regulation.  The implication is that the birds are not in cages, but usually they are kept in extremely overcrowded, dark warehouses.

Free Roaming/Free Range: Defined for poultry meat only.  The USDA regulates that they must have access to the outdoors.  Of course, whether or not they actually go outdoors, and how much time or space they have is unregulated.  For laying hens (eggs) the term free range is not regulated.

Pastured: No legal definition or verification.  The implication is the animals were raised on pasture, but  the claim is unverified.

Grass Fed: There are multiple definitions. Note that the USDA grassfed logo allows cattle to be confined on feedlots with cut grass shipped in on trucks.  The American Grassfed Association logo verifies that the animals were raised on pasture, without confinement, antibiotics or added hormones.

Humane: It implies the use of humane practices, but it is completely unregulated.

 

Now, onto some Common Labels:

NonGMO.jpeg

Referring to Non-Genetically Modified Organisms (common ones being corn, soy, canola, beet sugar). Products must be deemed compliant with the Non-GMO Project Standard.  They require testing of all ingredients that are being grown commercially in GMO form. They have an Action Threshold of 0.9%, which is the same as laws in the European Union.

Certified_Gluten_Free_Logo.jpg

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that some people have an allergy or sensitivity to.  The Gluten-Free Certification Organization is an independent service that conducts field inspections to verify that products are truly gluten-free. 

 

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The Fair Trade certification is designed and audited to ensure equitable trade practices at every level of the supply chain. To earn a license from Fair Trade USA in order to use the Fair Trade Certified™ label on their products, companies must buy from certified farms and organizations, pay Fair Trade prices and premiums and submit to supply chain audits.

usdaorganic.gif

This is the major one so here's the story:

According to the USDA: Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Crop Farms:

(They must have 3 years with no application of prohibited materials before being declared Organic)

  • Implementation of an Organic System Plan, with proactive fertility systems; conservation measures; environmentally sound manure, weed, disease, and pest management practices; and soil building crop rotation system
  • Use of natural inputs and/or approved synthetic substances on the National List
  • No use of prohibited substances while certified
  • No use of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs)
  • No sewage sludge or irradiation
  • Use of organic seeds, when commercially available
  • Use of organic seedlings for annual crops
  • Restrictions on use of raw manure and compost
  • Maintenance of buffer zones, depending on risk of contamination
  • No residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5% of the EPA tolerance

For livestock operations:

  • Implementation of an Organic Livestock Plan
  • Mandatory outdoor access, when seasonally appropriate
  • Access to pasture for ruminants
  • No antibiotics, growth hormones, slaughter byproducts, or GMOs
  • 100% organic feed and approved feed supplements
  • Sound animal husbandry and preventative health care
  • Organic management from last third of gestation or 2nd day after hatching
  • No rotating animals between organic and non-organic management

Single Ingredients

On foods like fruits and vegetables, look for a small sticker version of the USDA Organic label or check the signage in your produce section for this seal. The word "organic" and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.

Multi-Ingredient Foods

Foods such as beverages, snacks, and other processed foods use the following classification system to indicate their use of organic ingredients.

100% Organic: Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal. 

Organic: These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the National Organic Program. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.

Made With Organic Ingredients: Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.

Other: Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.

 

Of course, here is the ultimate tip for avoiding getting overwhelmed by packaging: buy very few things that actually have packaging.  I get that some whole foods come in packaging: bread, eggs, spices, grains etc. But generally those packages are mostly transparent and therefore not quite as overwhelming as, say, a cereal box. Boxed, processed foods are a marketing division's dream.  The entire point of processed foods is to purchase large quantities of cheap commodity ingredients, process them in various ways, and then charge a huge markup for "added value."  How do they inform you of just how much "value" they've added? By plastering claims and cute cartoons all over the packaging.  These are marketing devices.  The claims they make are typically unsubstantiated and loosely regulated.  For the real story, read the ingredients list. Those are really the only words that matter.  But again, if you are buying, say, a squash, there isn't any packaging to be found.  Between a box and a squash: go with the squash.   

Yes, to further complicate things, if you are rockin' and simply want to decide between various good things: do you buy organic or local or fair trade? I say ideally buy as much organically grown food as possible.  Hopefully, it will be labeled, but if you know your farmer and he isn't certified but adheres to organic practices, buy it.  Aim for local and in season as much as possible.  (I love buying local, it's the easiest way to know your farmer. But if that farmer sprays lots of pesticides and plants gmo crops- no way! That means he's selling contaminated food AND contaminating my water supply!) For imports from countries with poor working conditions, buy fair trade.  But to be fair, as long as you are deciding between organic versus local produce instead of Lucky Charms versus Fruit Loops, you deserve a massive shout out because you are awesome and I'll call it a WIN either way!

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.