Why Whole Foods Matter

We are so excited to bring you this new series by RCM contributor Ashley Sparks on eating healthy on a budget. Look for it every other Wednesday over the next several weeks.
If you own a TV or computer, you have most likely heard the buzz about eating “whole foods” lately. No, I’m not talking about the grocery store bearing that name (which rocks, by the way) but the food philosophy that is finally breaking through and challenging the “by the numbers on the box” approach to nutrition. If you are not sure what exactly the whole foods movement is, you may recognize some of the buzzwords associated with it. There are those indicting conventional eating and farming, such as GMO, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Preservatives and Hydrogenated Oils, as well as those promoting whole foods eating, including Organic, Paleo, Real Food, Raw, Green and Eco-Farmed.

© Whole Foods

However, it’s not the wordplay that matters, it’s the philosophy behind them. If you are like me, you’ve seen trend after trend in ‘healthy eating’ come and go, and therefore might start out skeptical. The truth is that this is not a trend, a fad, or a diet. This is returning to our roots as humans and approaching food the way that our species has for thousands of years. If you have been considering this, you may be aware that cost can quickly become an issue. The goal of this series is to acknowledge the importance of real food, understand how to best change our diets to primarily include real foods, and to afford them on a shoestring budget. (My husband is a teacher, and I stay home so that we can home school our kids, so trust me when I say I know what living on a super tight budget is like!)

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that this is a major, even radical, change for most people, and it can be a bit intimidating. Remembering these three things can help you keep calm as you transition to a new way of eating:

  1. Don’t try to change everything all at once.
  2. Strive for improvement, not perfection.
  3. Focus on learning how to make real food work for you and your family.

This is certainly a lot of information, but diving into it and starting to make changes will reap lifelong rewards for you and your family. I will share what I feel to be the most vital tidbits of information about eating whole food. This is by no means a complete resource, but I am including some links to excellent information sources where you can continue to learn about truly healthy eating.

Know your source.

We are going to discuss this more in depth over the next few weeks, but this is possibly the most important point I can make. An apple is not just an apple, a burger is not just a burger. Not every apple is truly good for you and not ever burger is inherently bad for you. It’s all about the source! Your best source is almost always a local farmer or farmer’s market, though there are a growing number of excellent sources in grocery stores, particularly those like Earth Fare.

Processed foods can, and will, steal your health and even your life.

This, thankfully, seems to be slowly evolving into common knowledge. Processed foods are loaded with everything that is not only unnecessary, but incredibly unhealthy. I will list the worst offenders that plague processed foods, with links to more information on exactly why they are so dangerous.

  • Hydrogenated Oils: This includes any type of margarine (butter is always better!) most commercial peanut butters and an astonishing number of canned goods, dry packaged foods and even seasoning packets.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup: I know by now everyone has seen the commercial put out by the corn growers that says “You body doesn’t know the difference between HFCS and sugar!” Bull snort. The science says otherwise. This stuff is terrible for you!
  • Artificial Sweeteners: If HFCS is a hand grenade for your body and health, artificial sweeteners are the atomic bomb. Your best bet is to avoid refined sugars and sweeteners altogether and try to stick to natural products, like honey, molasses, agave nectar.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): No doubt you have heard about this one at some point. Many people still primarily associate it with asian cuisine, however, it can be found in nearly everything from Ramen Noodles to frozen meals to conventional lunchmeats.
  • Chemical Preservatives: The list of foods that include these harmful ingredients is enormous. Just check out the article for great information.

We NEED good fats!

Yep, I just said we need fats. And more specifically, we need the fats that we can get from wild caught fish, pastured livestock and their eggs and milk. Without good fats, our brains cannot function. Guess what controls our whole bodies? You got it: our brains. Plus these good fats, in the correct ratios, are critical to a plethora of other body processes. So yes, we absolutely need animal products, but it is critically important to know that not all animal products were created equal! The beef you buy at the grocery store is typically grain-fed, loaded with antibiotics and hormones, and robbed of all its core nutritional value. In a grain fed cow, the ratio of good fats to bad fats is completely out of balance, which in turn can wreak havoc on our bodies. When it comes to eating products from pastured animals, it’s not just beef. Eggs are chock full of critical fats and nutrients as well. Your best bet is buying from a local farmer, and avoiding pasteurized store eggs altogether, but we will talk about that a bit more next week. Also it’s important to look at your dairy sources, because the cows are being treated the same way for milk as they are for beef, and if those methods are the ones used in conventional farming, it completely defies nature, which in turn harms our bodies when we consume it.

Check out this article on the benefits of eating pastured meats, eggs, poultry and dairy. When it comes to fish, the most important thing you can do is make sure you are eating wild caught fish, particularly salmon. The benefits of wild caught over farm raised fish are enormous! Another excellent source of fats are raw nuts, avocados and other plant sources. We’ll discuss this more in depth next week. Some people may be able to obtain enough fats from these types of foods (I know of people who do, but the more research I do, the less I believe this to be truly healthy). However, most of us desperately need nutrition that only animals can provide us.

Grain, yes even whole grains, can be damaging to our bodies.

I’m not going to tell you to go completely grain-free, because I don’t find that to be realistic, but when you start evaluating the Standard American Diet, you will quickly notice that grain makes up a huge portion of our caloric intake. The idea here is to reduce the amount of grain you consume, most importantly processed grains, and replace those calories with vegetable or fruit based calories. The Nourished Kitchen has some excellent information on why grain is not truly necessary, and can even be damaging.

Fresh is best.

This goes for everything – fruits, veggies, meats, dairy, eggs, poultry, fish, etc. If it is possible to get it fresh, it’s best to do so. Of course, since this series is about affording to eat well on a tight budget, we will discuss how to do “the next best thing” when fresh is cost prohibitive. However, you will see that most often, fresh is actually quite affordable!

If you are interested in doing further research on this topic, and I highly recommend it, I recommend checking out the following websites, including the Amazon booklist I have created for this. However, this is by no means an all-inclusive list! There is a wealth of information out there, just go Google it!

Last, but not least, I am going to share my favorite food blogs for preparing healthy, whole foods. Some are more “extreme” than others, so just take what works for you, whatever you are ready to dive into, and bring it to your table! I promise you won’t regret it!

After your eye stops twitching, take a deep breath and take a look over all that I have said again. It seems like an awful lot to take in, I know. I’ve been on this journey for four years and yet here I sit shoving Cheerios at my kids so I can finish this article. Nobody is perfect, and therefore our diets won’t be either. The most important thing we can do is start making small changes consistently, which will add up to big changes over time. Next week, we will be talking about prioritizing your grocery budget to include the best real food possible, as well as finding great sources for real food. I look forward to taking this journey with you. If you have any questions during this time, feel free to email me aensparks@gmail.com. I’ll do my best to answer your questions, or find someone who can!