Thursday, February 16, 2012

Making the Switch: Moving to More Natural Eating

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In my acupuncture practice, I advocate eating food in as natural a state as possible.  Many patients will nod vigorously and say, "Oh, I know. I eat very healthfully. Everything at our house is all-natural, and we're very careful when we eat out." I used to smile happily, and left the treatment room optimistic about their health prognosis. Then I noticed how they came into the office--with diet sodas, packages of protein bars, or fast food bags.

So I started asking more questions to find out what "healthy eating" meant to them.
I discovered most people think they are eating healthfully if they cook at home using prepackaged ingredients, eat protein shakes for breakfast, and use artificially sweetened sodas. All of these practices make your body work harder to get fewer nutrients than simply eating real food, simply (and, one hopes, deliciously) prepared.

When I challenged the idea that chicken and frozen vegetables with a preservative-laden can of mushroom soup on top constituted healthy food, my bewildered patients asked me what they should eat instead. They didn't have time or know how to make gourmet meals at home and create all the fancy flavors they could buy in pre-made sauce mixes. But cooking healthy ingredients doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, you can still use some premade ingredients. Simply reading the labels as you go will help you avoid the chemicals so prevalent in most processed food. I have some recommendations below that have worked for me.

But first, what's the big deal about processed food?  In Dangers of Processed Food, the website All Natural Healthy Life lists several reasons that processed foods are harmful, including:
  • The use of genetically modified ingredients (with a link to an article reporting on doctors recommending you avoid genetically modified foods)
  • The use of ingredients that adversely affect your endocrine system, such as high fructose corn syrup, ingredients that can cause brain damage or neurological problems (such as MSG and artificial sweeteners) 
  • Ingredients that contain xenoestrogens, which can wreak havoc on your hormonal system. These ingredients are in almost all pre-packaged, non-organic foods to some degree. 
In my practice, I have seen patients greatly reduce symptoms of everything from chronic pain to painful digestive symptoms by greatly limiting their intake of processed foods. So let's figure out how to eat naturally without spending hours in the kitchen!

1. The Better Bad Habit
If you are eating almost all of your food out, or microwaved, this is a way to immediately improve your health by simply shopping differently.

Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green
Most stores now have a  natural section that stocks more natural versions of the processed food you eat now. There are organic frozen pizzas, organic chips made with less salt, no artificial color and flavors, canned and boxed soups in similar flavors to the ones you have been eating. . .even natural soft drinks without high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors.

These foods usually are still higher in salt and sugar than foods you make yourself, and will not be as fresh.  They are not the ideal substitution for the majority of your food, but are certainly an improvement over their less natural counterparts. Even if all you do is have a natural frozen pizza instead of one full of artificial flavors and preservatives, you are giving your nervous and digestive systems a break and getting fresher food, since there are not artificial flavors designed to hide the taste of stale ingredients.

2. Making Good Substitutes 
When you are first doing things more naturally, you don't want to serve radically different food to your family. Continuing to make meals with similar tastes to what you are used to will help ease the (possibly reluctant) family into more healthy eating.

Casseroles: If you eat a lot of casseroles, you probably use a cream of mushroom, or chicken soup as a base. Instead of buying it premade, make it yourself. It's not that difficult--here's the recipe:
  • Equal parts (depending on the size of your dish, up to 1 cup of each) homemade or natural mushroom or chicken broth and some heavy cream (or whole or skim milk mixed with a tablespoon of corn starch or arrowroot per cup of milk), 
  • 1 T butter
  • salt and pepper to taste
Whisk these ingredients together and add to the casserole just before putting in the oven. When making the rest of the recipe, add 2 cloves of garlic and 1/4 cup more minced onion to your recipe than it normally requires. If you're worried about the fat, remember that naturally occurring fat has health benefits over chemical-laden low fat foods (even dairy fat). If that recipe seems too bland, add some thyme, sage, basil, or oregano.

Flavor blends: If you make tacos or spaghetti using "flavor packets," making a substitute is incredibly easy. Simply buy spices and mix them yourself, either with fresh herbs each time you make the dish, or make them ahead with dried spices:
  • Taco: 4 parts cumin, 1 part coriander, 2 parts basil, 1 part oregano, 1 part masa flour (you can find masa in the same section as ingredients for Hispanic cooking), and 1/2 part unsweetened cocoa. If you like your tacos spicy, add a little cayenne pepper to the mix, or chop some or all of a jalapeno pepper into your meat or veggie mixture about 5 minutes before you finish cooking it.
  • Italian:  I use fresh garlic, but if you want to use dried garlic in your spice blend, I would recommend 2 parts garlic, 1 part oregano, and 3 parts basil. If you want a more complicated taste, you can add one part sage and/or thyme.
  • Indian: Indian cooking is one time I would use a pre-made spice blend of curry powder, but be sure all the blend contains is spices. If you can't find a dried spice blend containing just spices, here is a blend to try: 6 parts cumin, 2 part coriander, 1 part turmeric, 1 part ginger, 1 part cinnamon, 2 parts raw or organic sugar, 1 part cayenne (I leave out the cayenne because I don't handle spices well).
You can mix these blends ahead using a teaspoon as a 1 part measure, and bottle up your spice mix.  When I use these blends, I cook it in some olive oil for 30 seconds before adding the veggies and other ingredients.
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Sodas: I like the occasional fizzy drink, but traditional sodas, even the natural versions, usually leave me jumpy from either caffeine or sugar content. I make a soda for myself using 2 parts sparkling water, and 1 part juice, slightly sweetened herbal tea, or white wine (if I make a sangria, it makes a truly memorable soda!).

3. Doing Something Completely Different
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  • New foods and lots of veggies. Sometimes going natural means finding new ways to eat. Before I started really concentrating on minimally processed foods, I had never eaten millet, and thought of vegetables as accompaniments, lending color to casseroles or parceled out as tiny side dishes. When you eat organic, healthy food, you discover how much taste you can find in vegetables. Now, I will steam some broccoli raab, toss it with some feta cheese, garlic, olives, and cooked pasta for a delicious main course. Creamy Brussels sprouts almost never turn up in pre-cooked bags, but are delicious.
  • Eating more homemade food allows you to be more creative. You learn to take things you make at home, and use them in different ways. I made hummus because I'm too cheap to pay store prices, and then found it made a great sauce for chicken. I have atypical food combinations that turn out to be yummy, like Hamburger Sliders, Yellow Squash with Feta, Cannellini Beans with Spinach because I'm not tied to what I can find in frozen bags.

You also learn how to decide when to use some pre-made ingredients. I use pre-made polenta because it has no artficial ingredients or chemicals, and can be pulled out for spur-of-the moment dishes. I don't press my own olive oil, and when my basil crop peters out too early in the summer, I'll use an organic bottled pesto--and I use it to flavor my homemade sauces.

Eating naturally may sometimes take more planning than eating from boxes and bags, and may even cost a bit more. Some of that time can be minimized by cooking staples, such as rice, millet, or beans ahead, making sauces in large quantity and freezing the rest, or using very few ingredients so a few quick chops makes your dish. And you can save money by recycling leftovers.

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But even if it takes more time and money, the results are worth it. How much time does it take to feel bad? How much does it cost have low energy, digestive disruptions, and allergies? Any improvement towards a less processed lifestyle is helpful. If you double the amount of natural, whole food you eat (especially vegetables!), you have doubled your antioxidants, probably your nutrition, and given your body something it can digest. After the first possibly puzzling weeks of reaching beyond your comfort zone, you'll find you don't like the chemical taste in the processed foods nearly as much as food you've made with your own two hands.

For more information, see 6 Dangers of Processed Foods for Your Kids and The Hidden Danger in Your Food.

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