Whole Foods Healthy Cooking: How Big Is Your "But?"

At some level most of us are aware of the impact our dietary and lifestyle choices have on our health. Centuries ago, the Greek physician Hypocrites taught that the best medicine available is self care — basically, to exercise and eat right. Nothing has changed; the advice is still the same. Leading authorities like Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., the Mayo Clinic, and many others have given the same advice for years. So, how come as a nation we’ve become the sickest we’ve ever been? By the time most people reach 50 years of age they’re taking prescriptions for conditions that could be controlled by diet. We’re seeing 10-year-olds with the arteries of 45-year-olds and 70% of kids at age 12 show signs of heart disease. We truly are what we eat and the Standard American Diet (SAD) isn’t working.

We’re aware that excessive eating and drinking packs on the pounds. We’re aware that making healthy choices results in improved health. We’re told to aim for eating at least five fruits and vegetables a day. We’re asked to walk 10,000 steps a day. So why don’t we take this good advice and make better choices? What is it that stands in the way of taking control of our health? Take a minute to think about how big your “but” is and answer the following questions:

  • I know I should eat more vegetables, but…
  • I know I should exercise more, but…
  • I know I should prepare my own food more, but…
  • I know I should eat less processed and fast food, but…
  • I know I should cut down on salt and sugar, but…
  • I know I should make better dietary and lifestyle choices, but…

There are dozens of excuses for not doing the things we know we should be doing. The key to success is not about what you don’t get to eat or what you have to give up. It’s all about what you choose to include in your everyday choices. Set yourself up for success. Start by making small changes; make one small change each week so that it’s not overwhelming and you’ll increase the odds of making the change permanent.

Read Labels

A good first step is to read the label on all packaged and prepared foods before choosing to use them. Ask for nutritional information at fast food restaurants. Log on to sites like calorieking.com to access databases on the nutritional content of a number of foods. Some chain restaurants have nutritional information listed on their website. Some grocers have books listing nutritional information for their prepared foods and bakery items. Ask to see them. Utilize your resources.

Track Sugar, Sodium and Fat

Start by focusing on three ingredients that have a significant impact on health: sugar, sodium and fat. An interesting and helpful exercise is to track the amounts you typically consume in a week. Without changing anything in your diet, commit to recording how much you consume. Use this information to make decisions about where to focus your attention. A simple way to record how much sugar, sodium and fat you consume is to list each meal’s worth on a sheet of paper and add the totals each day. Review your week’s information and look for patterns. Discover where you are most challenged.

How Much Is A Spoonful of Sugar?

whole-foods-how-big-is-your-but-smallAt the turn of the century, Americans consumed about 5 pounds of sugar annually. Today, the average is about 150–170 pounds — that’s 3 pounds or more a week! Recommendations for a healthy diet call for no more than 10% of daily calories from sugar. Why is this important? Studies have shown that sugar impacts the immune system and nourishes cancer cells. Basically, sugar raises insulin levels and depresses the immune system. Weight increases along with triglyceride levels and cardiovascular disease. Sugar significantly impacts health in a negative way.

Watch for the sugar content in all foods. Read the ingredients listed on the package. Search for where sugar is listed in the ingredients. The closer to the top of the list, the greater percentage of the product is sugar. Any ingredient ending with “cose” — glucose, sucrose, etc., is sugar. Check the label for the number of grams of sugar. A teaspoon of sugar weighs four grams. If you want a visual of the amount of sugar in the product, get out your sugar bowl, a teaspoon, a small, clear glass and your calculator. Read the number of grams of sugar in the product and divide by four. That gives you the number of teaspoons of sugar in the product. Now, place that number of teaspoons of sugar in the product in the clear glass and see how much it really is.

Here’s an example: I saw a container of fat free fruit yogurt in the dairy case at a local supermarket. The label lists 46 grams of sugar. If we take the 46 grams and divide by 4 we get 11.5, meaning that the yogurt contains the equivalent of 11.5 teaspoons of sugar. Put that amount in the glass and see how much it really is. And, that’s only for one cup of the yogurt. It adds up fast throughout the day.

You don’t need to be eating doughnuts, cookies, ice cream, etc., to rack up the sugar. Look at the labels for things like breads, cereals, peanut butter, pasta sauces and salad dressings that you have in your cupboard. Which will put you over the top of recommended amounts? Look at your tracking sheet at the end of the week. If the recommended amount is 10% of your total calories, how did you do?

Sugar Tips

  • Eliminate sodas, both sugar and diet versions, and replace with seltzer water with a splash of 100% fruit juice.
  • Read labels and choose “no sugar” products.
  • Gradually reduce the amount of sugar you use in beverages until you’re drinking your beverages without added sugar.
  • Half the amount of sugar in a recipe.
  • Sweeten spaghetti sauce with grated carrots.
  • Choose canned fruit packed in water vs. syrup.

One Teaspoon of Sodium Per Day

The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 2,325 mg. of sodium daily. That means a maximum of one teaspoon a day. It doesn’t take long to max out. Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, kidney damage, heart disease and stroke. Excess sodium causes the body to retain fluid. The kidneys usually take care of any excess by excreting it in urine, but when levels are too high, it’s released into the bloodstream. The result is an extra demand on the heart to move fluid through the body. The Mayo Clinic estimates that 11% of sodium in our diet is from adding salt to our food and 77% comes from prepared or processed foods. The message here is to eat more fresh food. Cook it yourself. Control what goes into your food. The body needs salt and we can get all that’s necessary from amounts naturally occurring in whole foods.

Play sodium detective and look for the word “sodium” on food labels. To be labeled “low sodium” the product must have 140 mg. or less per serving. Watch for the word “sodium” in any part of an ingredient’s name. The key is to pay close attention to the listed serving size. If a serving is one burrito and you’re eating two, you need to double all the amounts, including sodium. When comparing products, make sure you’re comparing like amounts. One product may list a serving size as 1 teaspoon; the other may list it as 1 tablespoon. Foods to pay close attention to include soy sauce, canned vegetables, beans, soups, gravy, vegetable broth or juices, frozen meals, processed foods, bouillon cubes, etc. On average, how much sodium did you consume?

Sodium Tips

  • Remove the salt shaker from the table and replace with no-salt seasonings.
  • Gradually reduce the amount of salt you use in cooking.
  • Buy fresh or frozen vegetables instead of high sodium canned.
  • Be patient and let your taste buds gradually adjust to tasting the food vs. the salt.
  • Make your own seasoning mixes. Many natural foods stores sell spices in their bulk aisle. It’s a great opportunity to try out a variety of mixtures at a low cost. Start by selecting some of your favorites and experiment with various combinations. Here are two of my favorites.

Healthy Cheesy Seasoning Mix

I keep two small coffee grinders on my counter. One for grinding flax seeds each morning and one for making my spice mixtures. They’re inexpensive and a great way to make meal prep fast and healthy.

3 tablespoons mixed peppercorns
6 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon sea salt (gradually decrease the amount of salt as your taste changes)
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning.

Add peppercorns to grinder and grind until fine. Add nutritional yeast and sea salt and grind briefly. Add the Italian seasoning and grind briefly. Place in shaker and use to season rice, vegetables, soups, etc.

Healthy Savory Seasoning Mix

Mix any combination of the following, using 1 teaspoon of each: Onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, freshly ground pepper, dry mustard, cayenne pepper, cumin, oregano, basil, celery seed, vegetable flakes.

Fats — The Good, Bad and Ugly

Let’s face it, fats make food taste good, adds to texture and gives us energy. Fats are essential to good health, however too much, and from the wrong source, can have a serious negative impact on health. Limiting fats to no more than 30% of one’s daily calories is one way to help control cholesterol levels, prevent risk of some cancers, control weight and improve overall health.

According to Dr. Fuhrman, American adults consume an average of 350 calories per day from oil and 400 calories from animal fats. That’s a significant amount of empty calories. Try tracking how much fat you normally consume and from which source, then try substituting nuts and seeds as the source of fats you normally use. Include flaxseed, walnuts, almonds and pistachios and benefit from healthy nutrients.

Fat Tips

  • Use a well-seasoned cast iron pan and it’s like using non-stick, only it’s better for cooking.
  • Use cooking spray and watch the amount; one serving is about a third of a second spray.
  • Water sauté: use a few tablespoons of water or low sodium vegetable broth to sauté foods (add a bit more as food begins to stick).
  • Cook foods in foil or parchment pouches in the oven.
  • Broil foods: make your favorite veggie burger recipe and try broiling instead of frying.
  • Steam veggies and save the water for soup stock.
  • Use low sodium salsa on baked potatoes instead of butter or sour cream.
  • Replace half the fat in baked goods with non-sweetened applesauce.

Start out this new season with some new healthy eating habits and see what a difference it makes in how you feel. Each meal you choose is an investment. Give yourself every opportunity to get a great return on your investment.

Michelle Hirsch lives in southern NH and teaches whole foods cooking throughout New England. She is a graduate of the world-renowned Kushi Institute where she also worked developing curriculum. Michelle is the author of Venturesome Vegetarian and can be contacted at mphirsch@yahoo.com.