I think it is reasonable to assume that the majority of individuals want to be healthy. There is a great deal of interest in complementary health care approaches with Americans spend approximately 30 billion dollars annually on health products and services. So what is going awry? Why are we plagued with diseases, with 50 percent of US adults have one or more chronic health condition?
There are obviously many factors that play into the dramatic rise in disease rate, but two BIG factors are diet and stress, two variables that many people have a hard time managing. I am sure this is not a huge revelation, after all, most of us have been advised at some point to follow a healthful diet and try to decrease our stress load to help with various health parameters such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I feel a large part of the confusion lies in the fact that many people don’t know what a healthful diet is. A quick search online revealed so many diets it was overwhelming to even try and wade through. There was a fruitarian diet, where your diet consist mainly of raw fruits, a cookie diet, where you eat a low calorie diet with cookies used to quell hunger and sometimes used as meal replacements, and to many others to count. Although I know that seems a bit absurd, I am sure you can think of one or two fad diets that you have tried that in retrospect were not very healthy and balanced.
So how are we to know what is the best option for us? Well, I feel that there is not a one size fits all dietary plan. We are all unique and we must pay attention to our bodies to know what foods work best for us. There are, however, important guidelines that I feel are essential for optimal health. First and foremost, Base your diet on REAL foods, not highly processed factory produced foods, but foods that are provided by nature and pick organic options whenever possible. I often tell my clients to think of foods they could grow or they might find on a local farm. In nature you would find whole foods like greens, berries, tubers, and meats. You would also find some grains, but in small amounts and you would never find a bagel or loaf of bread growing on a bush. In reality, you would have to put a great deal of effort into growing enough grain to make a loaf of bread and you defiantly would not have enough to be eating it every day with every meal. Look at your ingredient list….if you can’t pronounce the ingredient there is a pretty good chance your body doesn’t need to deal with it.
Second, eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. The compounds that give vegetables and fruits their colors are powerful antioxidants that help with many metabolic processes including our immune system and detoxification. The vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients found in a colorful varied diet cannot be replaced with synthetic supplements. We rely on these micronutrients for our bodies to function properly so taking a daily multivitamin at breakfast with a donut and coffee just is not enough. I do think supplements can be a complementary health practice, but should never take the place of eating a healthy micronutrient dense diet.
Nutrients are generally classified into two groups, macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein), which provide the bulk of our energy (calories), and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients) that are essential in metabolism and other bodily functions.
Both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential for optimal health and survival, but we often focus more on the fat, protein, and carbohydrates in our diets instead of micronutrients. This mental paradigm needs to shift. We need to start focusing more on the micronutrient content of our foods to help us determine if they are healthy choices. As a society, we are overfed and undernourished and our bodies are constantly trying to get the micronutrients needed for optimal health, which is reflected in frequent hunger and cravings, which causes us to consume more calories than we really need. Think for a moment what your knee jerk reaction would be if you were trying to make the healthiest choice between the two options below.
Option 1: 250 calories, Fat: 6 grams, Carbohydrates: 40, Protein: 11 g
Option 2: 300 calories, Fat: 18 g, Carbohydrates: 26 g, Protein: 10 g
When looking at the macronutrient breakdown you would see option 1 has less fat and fewer calories than option 2 and you might think it was the healthier choice. However, what we should really be trying to determine is which is more micronutrients dense (which option has more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients per calorie.) Unfortunately, the micronutrient content is not available on most food labels (except for a few vitamins and minerals such as vitamin c and iron) so you must make an educated guess. Look at the ingredient labels of both options and try to determine which would be more micronutrient dense.
Rice, Oats, Soy Protein, Sugar, Roasted Soy Beans, Rice Flour, Cane Syrup, Oat Fiber, Soy Flour, Sunflower Oil, Molasses, Soybean Oil, Salt, Vanilla, Soy Lecithin, Natural Flavors.
Peanuts, Dark Chocolate Chunks, Dried Cranberries, Cashews, Almonds, and Dried Tart Cherries.
So which is the healthier option? Although higher in fat and calories, option 2 (trail mix) would be a healthier option than option 1 (granola bar). Most all the ingredients from option 1 are derived from grains, soy, and sugar in various forms, whereas option 2 has dark chocolate, cranberries, cashews, almonds and cherries that are all nutrient dense and most are still in their original WHOLE FOOD form. Also, option 2 has a much better fat to carbohydrate ratio than option 1 which is preferred for many reasons including blood sugar regulation.
The take away message is to not only look at the nutrient facts of a food. Look at the ingredients and make sure you are getting the biggest bang for your calorie by choosing foods that are high in micronutrient density.
Sarah Burnett obtained her M.S. in foods and nutrition and is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. She lives with her family on a small pasture-based farm in the mountains of north Georgia. Working directly with her food has profoundly effected her views on nutrition and solidified her feeling that REAL, whole foods are essential in nourishing and repairing our bodies. You can read more about her nutrition journey here. Best of luck on your whole food, whole body, approach to health! something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.