Honestly, we have enough things to stress us out these days. From finding the perfect glasses to watch the solar eclipse without getting blind, to everything that is going on in our country right now, the LAST thing you may want to be worrying about is what you're eating. I get it. Food is comforting and in times like these sometimes it's easier to just grab whatever is there without even thinking about added ingredients that may be harmful to your health. As my wise Grandmother often says, "You can have millions of dollars to do whatever you want, but none of it matters one bit if you don't have your health". And it's true. Being healthy and feeling strong is THE most important thing you can do when faced with stressful times. You need to feel your best to be ready to make sound decisions, provide emotional and physical support for those who need it, and be able to handle all the stress happening around you - all while being able to fall asleep at night.
I know it sounds daunting, especially if you have picky kids in the house. The #1 concern I hear from my clients when they start moving away from processed foods is "what will the kids eat?", or a frustration that they now have to cook two (or more) different meals. As you may know, I didn't always have a clean diet. We ate many foods that have unfortunately become a part of the Standard American Diet, with staples including foods like frozen chicken patties, hot dogs, pasta and pizza. As you can read in my story, when I cleaned up my diet and witnessed dramatic improvement in my own health, I felt stronger, more clear-headed, and was sleeping better than I had in years. I gained a much better understanding of food labels and potential hazards of some of the ingredients found in foods that I was eating and feeding to my family regularly. I knew drastic changes were in order. I don’t expect my family to be Paleo, or even 100% gluten-free, but we keep our food choices as healthy as possible by following a few simple rules. With these basic guidelines intact, we avoid the ingredients that are linked to a wide range of health issues, and I feel good that I am doing my part to keep my family as healthy as possible. While the US Food and Drug Administration continues to deem these ingredients "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS), in my house I don't take risks when it comes to our health. I choose to follow a "precautionary principle" and avoid chemicals and additives that MAY have a negative impact. We do our best to eat real food without any labels, but if food is packaged, I NEVER buy anything with the following ingredients:
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup. Used as a cheaper, sweeter replacement for sugar. Found in soda, many brands of cookies, breads and other baked goods, condiments such as ketchup and jelly, snack foods like granola bars and canned fruit, candy, and much more. Research shows increased risk of obesity linked to HFCS, especially in beverages.
2. Artificial Colors. Found in a wide range of foods from cereals, crackers and baked goods to cheese and flavored milks. Note, it won’t always say “artificial colors and flavors” on the label (that would be WAY too easy!). Look out for chemicals such as blue #2, green #3, yellow #5 and red #3. Several artificial colors have been banned in other countries, or they are requiring warnings on their labels. Research is ongoing about the connection between artificial colors and children's behavior (possible links to ADHD).
3. Artificial Flavors including MSG (monosodium glutamate). While the FDA requires that manufacturers include MSG on the ingredient label, they are not required to reveal all ingredients that contain MSG which include autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed protein. For some people, MSG can trigger migraines or other symptoms.
4. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butyl hydroxytolune). These synthetic compounds are used to preserve freshness in foods such as breakfast cereals and dried soups. BHA is classified as an endocrine disrupter in Europe, and as a known carcinogen in California. BHT has been also been linked to cancer and tumors in animals and the two are often used together in foods. These preservatives are banned in several countries, but here in the US the debate (unfortunately) continues.
5. Nitrates and Nitrites Often used to preserve processed meats. If a hot dog or salami isn't labeled "nitrate free", check the label closely for sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite. Nitrates can cause blood vessels to dilate, potentially bringing on a pounding headache or migraine.
6. Artificial Sweeteners including aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame and neotame. The FDA considers these sweeteners safe to use, and you may even find them in products labeled "natural", so read labels carefully. Research is mixed on whether or not artificial sweeteners in large amounts can cause any serious health concerns such as cancer, but they can trigger cravings for sweets and lead to weight gain.
7. Carrageenan and Methylcellulose. While both are deemed "safe" (GRAS) by the US FDA, carrageenan has been linked to triggering digestive inflammation and is banned in several countries It was recently decided that carrageenan can no longer be used in organic foods here in the US. Also used as an emulsifier, you may better recognize Methylcellulose as a laxative used to treat constipation. While it smaller doses it may not be enough to cause digestive issues, I choose to avoid it.
PLEASE don't get more stressed if foods that you've been eating every day contain ingredients on this list. It's all about making small steps that lead to big change. Use this as a guide to start removing processed foods from your diet and you're already ahead of the game.
It’s a learning process, but trust me, EVERYONE, even the pickiest of kids will adjust. When the rules are clear, there's less room for negotiation, and if it's not in the house it's much easier to say "no". Identify the foods that you are no longer going to buy. Show your kids the labels of these foods and have them read the ingredients. See how many they don’t recognize. I often ask something like “is this something we would use for baking? (YUMMMMmmmmmm Methylcellulose muffins!)” This often gets a giggle, or at the very least an eye roll. As their tastes adjust to eating real food, you will be surprised at what they will eat. I once overheard my son telling his friend about these pizza bagels that were made without real cheese, and my daughter has introduced many friends to her favorite snack of jicama with lime juice. It's never to late to start making changes that can lead to a lifetime of good habits and better health. For you, for your family, and for those around you that need support and strength now and for the future.