I watched the Challenger disaster in elementary school and it made me too afraid to fly to the stars, which of course meant I would never get to eat the cool space food I saw on TV–shiny packages of nutritionally-packed, scientific food stuff. So, I find it ironic that, in a way, I did get to eat like an astronaut–shiny special, pre-packaged food, engineered to sit on the shelf. Instead of all the nutrients found in bags of dehydrated dinners, though, this Earth-bound space food was often full of sodium, added sugar, and artificial flavors. After years of buying into the processed, low fat, diet food hype, I realized that I wasn’t really eating food, and, as I got further into nutrition, I realized it wasn’t the way I wanted to eat.
As I started out on my new path, my point of view swerved to the notion that all chemicals and space-aged packages are bad and I should only eat what my grandfather grew or raised on his farm. Except, that as I learned more of the science, my nutritional point of view changed again and relaxed a bit.
First, the fallacies of my all chemicals are bad way of thinking:
- Everything is a chemical, even water, so chemicals aren’t inherently bad.
- Related to #1, a chemical used in a product, like say, a yoga mat, doesn’t mean that it is bad for you. That’s not how it works. Take acetic acid. It’s used as an industrial solvent, in some pesticides, and as part of perfumes and synthetic fibers. All things I wouldn’t want to eat; however, I put acetic acid (aka vinegar) in salad dressing and in sauces all the time. The uses of a chemical doesn’t necessarily define the edibility of it. (Is edibility even a word?)
- Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s good. Arsenic is natural. Ricin is natural. I don’t eat them. Natural is often a marketing term not a measure of health.
- Trying to live in a perfect way–no chemicals! no toxins!–can lead to a disordered view of food. If the food is not perfect, then you feel guilty and you failed. You are a failure. You have to binge or cleanse or purify which leads to more restrictions. Plus, what will you be able to eat after a while? Water and air? Water is a chemical…
So those are the fallacies when we think that all chemicals are bad. If chemicals are bad, does that mean food from a box is good? No, not necessarily. It depends on what is in that box. The basis of my nutritional perspective is to eat food that is as close to its source as I can. I want to eat an apple rather than an apple snack that contains some apple in it. I want to eat a stir fry I made from scratch with “real” ingredients rather than something that comes in a bag with a sauce. Bottom line, that’s the healthier way to eat–real fruits, real veggies, whole grains, and lean protein sources with YOU controlling what goes in. But I know as a person with a busy life and limited funds it is really hard to make everything from scratch. I’ve developed guidelines for myself to follow when I’m crunched on time or need a economical shortcut.
Look at the ingredient list and read the nutrition panel.
If I need to buy packaged food, I try to find the least processed of all the options. I turn the package over, ignoring claims of “natural,” “organic,” or “healthy part of your diet” found on the front. If the ingredient list looks like a chemistry experiment or is extremely long for no good reason, I put it back on the shelf. If the nutrition label lists a lot of sodium or added sugar, it again goes back. It it’s all that’s there and I really need that item, the I buy. I just don’t buy it often.
Find ways to cut prep time.
I make large batches of food and freeze half for a quick meal later. I also made friends with the slow cooker in the back of my cabinet. But be careful, many slow cooker recipes rely on processed, high-sodium ingredients, which sort of defeats the purpose. Buy pre-cut or frozen veggies to save time. Frozen veggies (without a sauce!) are just as healthy as fresh. Just make sure there is no sauce or added ingredients (e.g. salt/sodium). Canned veggies, while not as good as fresh or frozen because of the higher sodium content, can be rinsed before use to remove a lot of the salt if it fits your budget better.
Find a farmers’ market
My area has a plethora of farmers’ markets, which are a great source for incorporating real food into your diet and buying in season items can cost effective. I get overwhelmed at large markets with a lot of people and prefer to avoid them, but there are some great smaller markets that are easy to enjoy. Or don’t go to a farmers’ market. That’s okay too.
Take it slow
Change is hard and a complete overhaul of how you eat is overwhelming. Make one or two small changes during the week so real food habits are sustainable. Each change makes you that much healthier.
It’s not about being perfect or omitting everything. Sometimes, you don’t have the time or money. Sometimes, you have to drive 40 miles or walk past scary and unsavory people to get to the store and you just don’t want to do that! That’s okay! It’s about making changes YOU can make and sustain that cut down on the boxes and bags of “astronaut food.” Last night I used instant falafel (horror!) rather than make it from scratch, because I don’t have time and I really like the boxed kind. And it was yummy! And I’m okay with that!