(this is part 2, part 1 is here)
What does it mean to have a healthy diet? People change their diet for so many different reasons, it's difficult to know what "eating right" means anymore. When I ask patients to describe their diet, most people say something like "I try to eat pretty healthy." However, everyone means something completely different when they say that. Some people mean they are vegetarian, or vegan, or gluten free. Some people eat only salad, or only "lean meat," or they take a lot of supplements, or they avoid fast food but eat everything else. Almost everyone can agree that fast food is unhealthy, but there are so many other options, that's not a useful place to start.
I'm pretty sure that if you're here, reading an acupuncturist's lifestyle blog, you already know that diet is important, but the amount of conflicting information going around about diet is overwhelming. Everything seems like such a huge commitment. No matter why you want to improve your diet, here are 3 basic principles to start with:
1. Is this food actually food?
Food starts with ingredients, all of which are independently edible. If it has 3 components, 1 egg, ¼ cup of oil, and a tube of inedible paste (I'm looking at you, Pillsbury), that's not food. Nobody ever ate a bowl of sodium alginate for breakfast. If the ingredients list includes vague implications like "flavor" or "color," chances are one of those flavors or colors is not food. If you get rid of anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize, you're already on the right track. If you need some extra inspiration, here's a list of some inedible things you might be eating: http://www.babble.com/babble-voices/grow-your-own/the-10-scariest-ingredients-in-processed-food/
2. Do I know where this food came from?
I'm a big fan of the farmers' market. Not just because they don't usually sell anything with polydimethylsiloxane in it, but also because it eliminates a level of distance that I think is a big part of the problem with our modern understanding of what constitutes "food." When food comes from the store and not from the ground, it's easy to be convinced by the shiny packaging and well-researched marketing devices. An orange doesn't look as exciting next to a box of Super Orange Gummy Blasters. The problem with the Super Orange Gummies is that they are not actually edible and will eventually give you diabetes, but of course when your kid is throwing himself on the floor because you won't buy them, it's hard to think about that. If you're lucky enough to live in a place that has farmers' markets, take advantage as much as you can. Bring your kids, and teach them that food is something that grows and not something that is manufactured. If you don't have a farmers' market, try to think like one. Look for food that comes from the ground. Think about the fact that your steak was once a cow, and think about what kind of life that cow had. Buy the happy cow, even if you don't care about the cow's happiness. If the cow was miserable its whole life that meat is going to be full of stress hormones, and chances are we're already making more than enough of our own. If the cow was infected its whole life, the meat is going to be full of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Think about your food from the beginning of its life (vegetables, too), and if any part of that process makes you uncomfortable, there's probably a good reason. If you avoid thinking about where your food comes from, ask yourself why.
3. How hard are they trying to sell this food?
Avoid anything that's being marketed to you. If they have to make it extra shiny to convince you it's edible, it probably isn't. Nobody is marketing kale, because it's just food. The gluten-free, sugar-free, high-calcium, low-sodium chocolate chip cookies are being just as heavily marketed as McDonald's, the only difference is the intended audience.
Many of you are probably thinking that this advice is fine if you have time to go to the farmers' market, find a recipe that your family will actually eat, and then cook every day. Your life isn't set up for that, you get home too late to cook and your kids hate vegetables anyway and it's not worth the hassle. Try this: on your next day off, find one recipe that looks appealing to you that is cooked from ingredients. Double the quantity the recipe calls for, make it on your day off, and separate it into single-portion freezer containers. You now have easy food for the week, and you actually know what's in it. Don't worry so much about whether it has the perfect proportion of protein to carbohydrates, just make sure everything in it is actual food. If you can, make sure most of it is vegetables of some kind.
Forming habits is hard, and if you think you have to make huge changes in your lifestyle to improve your diet, it's never going to happen. Start by finding a way to make your own food, even if the recipes are simple and you only manage to do it twice a week. It's better than nothing, and it will build on itself. If you're still not sure where to start, or you can't find a recipe, email me, I've got tons of them.