Clean Up Your Eating and Ditch the Diet Overwhelm
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
With the plethora of diets out there, it’s no wonder that the majority of people looking to lose weight or start eating healthier are overwhelmed. “Go vegan,” “go keto,” “eat meat,” “don’t eat meat,” “whole grains are good,” “all carbs are evil”… even us medical professions find our head spinning at times! The reality is, there is no clear answer to the question “What diet should I follow?” One of the terms that Jaci and I were taught during our time studying through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition was “bio-individuality.” To put it simply, bio-individuality refers to the fact that no one diet works for everyone. In the words of Joshua Rosenthal, the founder of IIN, “one person’s food is another person’s poison.” Each person has a unique set of needs and determining your own, personalized approach to eating is the key to optimal health. While it is impossible to sit here and tell you exactly what you should and shouldn’t eat, I CAN tell you that there are some general guidelines you can follow when looking to “clean up” your diet and transition to a healthier style of eating. I hesitate to call the following a set of “clean eating guidelines,” as the word “clean” automatically puts less-than-healthy foods into the “dirty” category- and food labeling is the gateway to disordered eating behaviors. But for the sake of this post, I am going to call it as such. And with that being said, here are some general guidelines and recommendations that you should follow whether you’re looking to lose weight, bounce back from a string of unhealthy eating decisions, or simply trying to make healthier choices in your everyday diet.
1) Avoid The Fake Stuff
Limit foods that have preservatives, chemical additives, and other fake junk added to them. Get in the habit of checking labels- if you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably not good for you! It may be arduous at first, but once you become familiar with what foods and ingredients to avoid it will be a lot easier.
Here are a few ingredients to really watch out for-
Trans fats– If there is only thing you should 100% avoid, this is it! Not only do trans fats increase your bad cholesterol, they DECREASE your good cholesterol (which acts like a broom of sorts to clean out the nasty cholesterol from your blood vessels). Essentially, it’s a double whammy. The end result is the closest thing you can get to plastic sludge running through your body. Trans fats are mostly found in foods such as butter replacement products and packaged goods (crackers, cookies, etc). You may not see trans fats listed on the label though. Instead, look for the terms “hydrogenated“ or “partially hydrogenated” and avoid foods containing either of these ingredients like the plague!
Artificial flavors– These are derived from chemicals made in a lab and have absolutely NO nutritional value. They show up in almost everything these days, including bread, cereals, yogurt, and soups. The safety of artificial flavors is also questionable so I make every effort to avoid them in my daily diet.
High fructose corn syrup– This stuff is nasty and causes everything from insulin resistance (which leads to diabetes) to weight gain and high blood pressure. It is manufactured from genetically modified corn and is also called “corn sugar.”
Artificial coloring– Food coloring, like artificial flavors, has zero nutritional value. There have also been links to cancer in animal studies. Quite frankly this alone is enough to scare me off of consuming it!
Nitrates– Nitrates are found in cured meats, such as bacon and salami, and most deli meats. They act as preservatives and have been linked to digestive cancers (1). A lot of deli meats contain something called “celery juice extract” which is nitrate in disguise-so don’t be fooled! There is some controversy about the safety of nitrates and some experts say that they are completely safe given that they occur naturally in some vegetables. At the end of the day I prefer to avoid added nitrates.
This list could go on and on, but I will spare you. If you want a more exhaustive list check out this resource from the Environmental Working Group.
One last piece of advice- Focus your shopping on the perimeter of the grocery store. Most unprocessed, fresh food is found on the outskirts of the store whereas the packaged and processed food are found on the inside aisles.
2) Eat Complex Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are one of the most controversial topics in the nutrition world as of late. With the crazy amount of diets out there these days, its easy to get confused! You have no-carb, low-carb, high-carb, and everything in between. Some say carbs are the devil, others say they are an important part of a healthy diet. So who is right?
The first thing to discuss is the difference between simple and complex carbs. Simple carbs include monosaccharides and disaccharides (one-unit and two-unit sugar, respectively). Complex carbs on the other hand include polysaccharides (multi-unit sugars) like fiber and starch. Monosaccharides are absorbed by the body directly without the need for further breakdown, whereas disaccharides and polysaccharides require breakdown by digestive enzymes. What does this mean when it comes to health? Simple sugars tend to spike your blood sugar while more complex sugars give a less dramatic increase and more sustained source of energy. Everyone knows that high you get soon after eating a bunch of candy or glass of soda, only to crash hard soon after and feel like a zombie. That’s the simple sugars talking.
Another equally important thing to consider is what food the sugar originated from. Complex carbs come from plant-based foods, which also contain a plethora of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It is important to note that fruit also contains simple sugars such as fructose. This is why drinking fruit juice is often frowned upon. However, whole fruits also contain fiber that counteracts the simple sugars, so to speak.
When it comes to grains including bread, rice, and pasta, be sure and choose ones that are made with whole grains. When reading the label make sure it says “whole grain,” “whole wheat,” or “sprouted grain” as the first ingredient. And don’t be fooled into thinking enriched wheat flour is actually whole grain or whole wheat. It is actually flour in which most of the natural vitamins, minerals, and fiber are removed, much the same as white flour. There are a ton of different grains out there to experiment with if you are tired of plain old whole wheat bread and brown rice! I personally love to use quinoa (which is also rich in protein!), millet, and farro as substitutes for brown rice. I do want to point out one thing: If you have metabolic syndrome (refer to our previous post on Metabolic Syndrome), diabetes, or are generally “carb-sensitive” (meaning you put on weight easily when you eat of lot of grain-based, carbohydrate rich foods), then you have to be cautious of your servings and portions. The pros and cons of low-carb diets, including the Ketogenic diet, is a topic far too complex to discuss in this blog post and is something I will save for another day!
3) Eat Lots of Plants
I think this is one thing that all of us can agree on! A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is full of disease-fighting antioxidants and gut-healthy fiber. Not only that, but most fruits and vegetables are high volume foods. This essentially means that they contain a large amount of water and filling fiber. Weight for weight, fruits and vegetables contain less calories compared to other foods. If you are getting adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables during the day, then you are less likely to get hungry and crave not-so-healthy foods.
Most people underestimate how many servings or fruits and vegetables they get in a day. I challenge you to measure them out one day and see if you are actually getting the recommended 8-10 servings! Ideally you should have a greater proportion of vegetables than fruit. This is due to that fact that fruit contains a lot of sugar. While this is natural sugar, it’s still sugar and needs to be consumed in moderation. That being said, I am a complete fruit addict and not the biggest vegetable fan, so this is a struggle for me. Other than the usual salads, I make vegetables more appealing and palatable by preparing them in one of the ways listed below. You can also check out our “Recipes” page for some delicious, vegetable-based meal options!
Roasted asparagus with olive oil, garlic, and parmesan
Steamed cauliflower blended with a touch of grass-fed garlic butter, parmesan, and nut milk
Roasted sweet potato cubes tossed with coconut oil and cinnamon
Baked spaghetti squash “pasta” topped with tomato sauce, turkey, goat cheese, and fresh basil
4) Focus on Healthy Fats
Fats have held the “bad guy” title in the diet world for a long time now. However, research over the past few years has shown that the RIGHT kinds of fats can increase good cholesterol levels and lower bad cholesterol levels. This can, in turn, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
So which foods contain these healthy fats? Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, olive oil, and many nuts and seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats are found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds. When it comes to how much fat you should consume, most nutritional guidelines recommend that no more than 20-35% of your calories should come from fat. This percentage obviously increases when you are following more of a low-carb or ketogenic style diet, but again, I do not want to get into those specifics in this post.
I personally don’t count calories or measure my food, but I do make a conscious effort at incorporating fats into my everyday diet. I cook my vegetables in a drizzle of olive oil, spread nut butter on my toast (and sometimes take a spoonful straight out of the jar…), and make sure that I get at least two servings of omega-3 rich fish (ie. wild-caught salmon, tuna, or trout) each week. I have a full-blown obsession with avocados, so end up getting a large proportion of my dietary fat from them. I also love coconut oil and frequently use it in my turmeric lattes and as a butter substitute on toast and sweet potatoes. Be sure and read our previous posts on Avocadosand Coconut Oil to learn more about their beneficial qualities. For a more in-depth look at dietary fat in general, check out our blog post titled “FAT: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
5) Limit Added Sugars and Processed Foods
I hesitate to say “avoid” these foods as I realize that life happens sometimes and it is not realistic to completely eliminate added sugars and packaged goods from your diet. I am fairly strict with my diabetic patients on this one, but if you are a healthy, normal weight, active individual you can probably handle a treat a few times a week. That being said, the majority of your diet should be based on whole, unprocessed foods. When I say “processed,” I am referring to anything that is not either grown in the ground, picked from a plant, or made in the kitchen using whole-food ingredients. Even packaged foods such as condiments should be minimally processed and have limited ingredients lists. For example, pasta sauce is technically processed, but a good-quality one containing nothing but tomatoes, onions, herbs, and spices can be considered as part of a healthy, whole-food diet. If the ingredient list on a packaged good is longer than a novel and contains items that you cannot pronounce, chances are it is heavily processed and should be consumed in limited quantities- or in no quantity at all. Added sugars and processed foods generally go together like PB&J. If a food comes in a package, chances are there’s some sugar in there!
I hope this set of guidelines will help you to make healthier choices without overwhelming you. As I alluded to in the beginning, each person is unique and what works for you diet-wise may not work for someone else. Bio-individuality is key and it is important to work with someone who can help guide you in determining the best eating approach for your individual makeup. While it is vitally important to collaborate with your healthcare provider on this subject (especially if you have a medical condition), a health coach can also be a wonderful resource in your clean-eating journey and can provide you with the support that you need to become your healthiest self.
Check out our previous post on the Importance of Health Coaching for more information! And, as always, be sure and contact us if you have any further questions!
Continue to Follow Your Gut,