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It’s the beginning of the year again. A time of snow days, hot chocolate and for many of us, resolutions. If you’re like millions of Americans, some of these resolutions revolve around healthier food choices.
Media is full of recommendations to guide us in the right path. We are bombarded with articles about paleo diets, vegan lifestyles, detox cleanses, blah, blah, blah. Much of this information is well-meaning, but it is often biased and may not be right for you.
I work with people who get caught up in this advice and decide it’s time for a diet overhaul. Honestly, I sometimes feel this way too. Yet, these big changes often don’t last long, because they do not fit our own lifestyles. Before making a change, I suggest you take a step back to understand your food priorities.
Food is at the core of our entire life – our culture, family, beliefs – not just our weight. What we eat also has an impact on our bodies, animals, the environment, and other humans. I challenge you to think about how your lifestyle and values intersect with the food you choose to eat or not eat. This is called your food philosophy.
While a personal philosophy may be defined as your approach to life, a food philosophy is your approach to eating. This is different than a diet. A diet implies a rigid set of rules. This is often unsustainable, boring and may even leave you missing out on important nutrients.
On the other hand, a food philosophy allows you to think through the effects of your food purchases and what you put in your body. Once you’ve determined these basics, you’ll be much better equipped to plod through those diet articles and pick out the pieces that work for you.
Are you ready to start? Grab a cup of coffee and a journal, it’s time to get real with yourself. I’ve outlined some of the essentials to think about when creating your own food path. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will get you headed in the right direction to become your own nutrition detective and food philosopher. I’ve also included resources to help you fine-tune your new food approach.
Taste: First things first. Food should taste good and be enjoyable, always! If this is not the case with your current diet, something needs to change. With very few exceptions, there are always delicious alternatives to meet your dietary needs. Do you hate oatmeal, but eat it every morning to help lower cholesterol? Instead, try incorporating other foods high in soluble fiber like beans, lentils, pears and oranges.
Check it out: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers a wealth of solid nutrition guidance and recipes at http://www.eatright.org/
Health. “Let food be thy medicine,” Hippocrates had it right thousands of years ago. The most important role of food is creating healthy and strong bodies. There are a few non-negotiables here. First, we all need to eat vegetables and fruits (5-8 cups per day), there’s no getting around the need for these nutrition superstars. Second, we need a variety of foods in our diet to make sure we’re covering all our nutrient bases. Third, if you have a specific medical condition like diabetes, renal disease or a food allergy, then please follow trustworthy medical advice to stay healthy.
Other than those basics, there’s a whole world of delicious and nutritious food out there. Do your research to find out what fits best with your health goals and lifestyle.
Check it out: The World’s Healthiest Foods offers a tremendous website and book with in-depth food facts and research at http://www.whfoods.com/
Budget. We can all learn to eat healthy on a budget. Many nutritious whole foods are less expensive than their processed counterparts. There are also tons of smart ways to shop frugally by implementing meal planning, couponing, and cooking in bulk.
Yet, some foods just cost more than others. Diets centered on meat are more expensive than veggie-centric meal plans. Eating an entirely organic diet is an expensive endeavor, even if that’s where your heart is. Be real about what you can afford and take baby steps toward new diet goals.
Check it out: Take a peek at the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list to learn which produce items to prioritize buying organic at https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php
Time. How much time do you currently spend shopping for and preparing your food? It’s likely that you won’t be able to invest much more time than this, at least right away.
If you rely mostly on prepared foods now and are transitioning to cooking your own food, it’s going to take time, and that’s ok! You’ll be eating your whole life, no need for an abrupt one-eighty. Start by cooking one or two more meals each week. This will help you build confidence so you’re motivated to keep this awesome change going!
Check it out: The blog 100 Days of Real Food has great simple cooking tips, recipes and meal plans at http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/real-food-resources/
Flexibility. Your food philosophy isn’t a research project, it’s a way of living. What we know about food and nutrition is constantly changing and our food system is just as fluid. If a diet plan suggests a drastic or restrictive change, this is a red flag that it might not be right for you. Commit to knowing and understanding your food, not adhering to rigid set of rules.
Check it out: The Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source is an excellent website for accessible information at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/
Values. Whether we think about it or not, our diet has an enormous impact on the environment, animals and other humans. You likely already have strong opinions about these values in other parts of your life. Take the time to find out how your food choices affect the rest of the world. Below are three (of the many) important values to consider:
1. Human Labor – The impact our food has on human lives may be the most important of all, yet it’s often ignored. Agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries due to exposure to pesticides, heavy machinery, and low wages. Learn about the human cost of food and how to make ethical decisions with your food dollar.
Check it out: The Fair World Project has a great resource to understand some of the fair trade labels on your food at https://fairworldproject.org/about/movements/fair-trade/certifiers-membership-orgs/
2. Animal Welfare – There are humane ways to produce meat and animal products. However, often in our industrial food system, these methods are sacrificed in favor of efficiency and profit. When buying animal products, it’s important to research and ask questions about how the animals were treated.
Check it out: The Sustainable Table offers a good overview of animal welfare issues at http://www.sustainabletable.org/274/animal-welfare
3. Environment: Everything we eat has an impact on the environment. These effects are not written on our food labels, so we have to do some digging. Think about important issues such as air and water pollution and wasting of natural resources like water and land.
Check it out: The Eat Low Carbon website is a great tool to learn how your food choices affect the environment at http://www.eatlowcarbon.org/
There you go! Create your personal food philosophy so you can make the best diet decisions for your healthiest body and soul.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag is a registered dietitian with a Masters degree in Public Health. Through her writing she teaches people simple, approachable methods to lead healthier lives.