You know that old saying, “You are what you eat,” I used to think that meant that if I ate fish, I would turn into a fish. This was partly appealing to me because, even back before little girls had shirts that say "I'm Really A Mermaid" or the awesome mermaid tail blankets, I really wanted to be one. I also didn't think anyone who said that I was what I ate had any idea what they were talking about. After all, I grew up in the 1980s and I am definitely not SPAM.
While I was teaching my students a couple of weeks ago, I happened to end up in a conversation with one of my boys about why he always has a stomach ache and is tired. He mentioned to me that he was trying to eat healthier and he knows that I am a health coach so I was thrilled with he started asking me questions about what was healthy that he should be eating and telling me what he actually eats.
I'll admit that I often take for granted that people know what is good for their bodies. What's crazy is that I base this idea on an outdated food pyramid, advertising, and the assumption that people just know whatever it is that I'm thinking. (What?) After all, if it says "Natural", "Contains whole grains," or "No High Fructose Corn Syrup" it must be healthy and if I know that's not true, then surely everyone else does too. Not to mention that you can easily buy organic pop tarts and cookies in the healthy section at Kroger. If I stop and consider the average person and how much time they have spend researching diets and food, it quickly becomes clear that people can not read my mind, are confused about what to buy, and choose foods that are well placed on the shelf and well advertised on the television.
When trying to help my student with his energy level and always feeling like he's about two seconds from throwing up, it's extra complicated. Food is double trouble for my students because many of them come from families that really struggle financially so I am always very gentle when approaching nutrition with them. I want them to be able to feel successful and capable, even on a tight budget. I want them to feel empowered to make healthy choices and make big changes wherever they can in their lives. By the end of the conversation, I was excited to hear how into eating better he seemed to be, but at the same time deflated at the thought of knowing that sometimes, you eat what you can afford.
It burns my butt that a bag of apples costs so much more than a box of macaroni and cheese, or that milk is three times as expensive as a 2 liter of soda. Talk about having the deck stacked against you! Nearly ten years ago now, Jamie Oliver started a Food Revolution that aimed to change the way kids eat through cooking, nutrition education, and experiencing new foods and instantly fell in love with the whole concept of nutrition way back then. It changed so much of my perspective on what my kids and my students eat and how foods really do effect their physical and mental health. No disrespect to the school lunch ladies here because they serve what the government funds and what is deemed healthy but give me a break.... Have you seen what counts as 'healthy'? If I had noodles, mashed potatoes, corn and a roll for lunch, I'd need a nap too! And no, applesauce doesn't make up for it and a corn dog is not a healthy protein option. Sorry USDA.
So, what do you do? How do you keep your energy up and your weight down when there is so much misinformation out there. How do you do it on a tight budget? The easy answer is to pack lunches but that leads to the next problem, what do you pack that's simple AND healthy? I've heard from my friends that their kids are picky or that they don't have time so let's get this all solved right now, shall we? Let's take back lunch and move forward from there. It's not as difficult as you think.
1. Read. The. Labels. This is assuming that you are using packaged foods. (Actually, step one is to not even need to read a label because there is one or maybe two ingredients avoiding processed foods all together but this isn't always possible and I'll address this in a bit.)
The first three ingredients are the most important and what make up most of what you are eating. If you have more than five ingredients on the package, put it back on the grocery store shelf. Look for peanut butter that contains peanuts and salt. Find lunch meat that doesn't contain nitrates or nitrites, or buy a turkey and cut off some chunks. (If you're really adventurous, you can boil the rest after you have carved it and make your own broth!). A simple rule of thumb is, if you can't pronounce the ingredients, don't eat it! The easiest way to find these foods is to shop the outside of the grocery and DEFINITELY check out your local farmer's market. Not only is the produce there cheaper but it is often organic and certainly local so, DOUBLE BONUS!
If you picture your grocery store, the produce, diary, bread and meat are, nine times out of ten, along the outer perimeter of the building. If you do venture down the aisles, keep your eyes open for nuts, spices, whole grain pastas, simple cereals that aren't in rainbow colors, canned foods that are in cans that don't contain BPA and organic options when possible. Sure the boxed stuff and the canned fruit is cheap, but the sugar, chemicals, and lack of nutrients will leave you craving more, and thus spending more money, than starting with the healthy, whole foods that your body needs. (You can learn all about that in a one hour Ditch the Diet Breakout session with me.)
A word about organic and GMO foods - this feels like a dangerous topic. I live in Indiana where many of my friends are hard-working farmers. They truly supply all of us with the food we are blessed to have and I appreciate every second of the work they do. Now, all that being said and with all due respect, I also highly encourage you all to buy organic on certain products. I know, I know, big name businesses (read:Monsanto) will swear to their graves (and maybe ours) that Glyphosate is totally safe. They lobby Congress and pay big bucks to influence what information is shared. I don't believe them and I have to wonder why the rest of the world doesn't use it if its harmless. You are, of course, free to make your own choices but if you're wanting a good starting point on what foods have the most pesticide/herbicide exposure, you can grab my Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 Sheet with a special bonus on Seafood. (For more seafood information and sushi info, click here.)