What it Means to Eat “Healthy”

In the last couple of months, I’ve had to completely re-learn what it means to eat “healthy” foods. I’ve realized that for the past three years I’ve been in the dark — like many Americans — when it comes to the true meaning of labels like “organic” and “natural,” and how to determine whether or not a snack that claims it’s nutritious is, in fact, merely a glorified candy bar masquerading as health food.

I’ll be the first to admit that when Weight Watchers announced it was rolling out a brand new program, PointsPlus, I was less than thrilled. I had lost 90 pounds on the “old” program, and my first response was: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Plus, I thought I knew it all: I had devised a variety of schemes for getting the most bang out of my POINTS buck — like seeking out snack foods fortified with fiber, which lowers their value on the program — and I wasn’t ready to accept that fact that my beloved Kashi GoLean crunch was now 5 POINTS per cup, or that even good-for-you dinnertime staples like brown rice and whole wheat pasta were also increasing.

But in the spirit of fully embracing the new program — and taking the initiative to educate myself on nutrition — these last couple of months have been truly eye-opening.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far about some things you really need to do to eat “healthy”:

1.) Stop reading nutrition labels. Yes, you read that correctly. My first instinct used to be to check the calorie, fat, and fiber content on a food, and then immediately start estimating its POINTS value. Here’s why that doesn’t always work: a food can be low-fat and low-carb, which now ultimately makes it a POINTS bargain, but if you look at the actual ingredients list — a detailed outline of exactly what you’re putting into your body if you consume that food — more often than not you’ll find a long list of barely pronounceable chemicals, preservatives, and fancy words for “sugar” (e.g. sucrose, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, etc.). Meanwhile, snacks like nuts have a high fat content that scares most dieters away, but they’re a nutritional powerhouse of protein and fiber that keep you full and are great for your heart. These days I’m looking for products that, ideally, contain five or fewer ingredients, and I won’t touch it if that list includes anything I can’t even pronounce!

2.) Don’t believe everything you see. These days, many of the boxed, canned, and bagged items available at the grocery store have been stamped with claims like “all-natural,” “healthy,” or “organic.” But do a little sleuthing, and you’ll realize that these claims are, in many cases, a load of you-know-what. This includes the items at Whole Foods Market, which is just as guilty of selling junk food as your local grocery store. Other than “organic,” these food labels are not regulated by the FDA, and so manufacturers are taking full advantage of this to trick you into buying their product and thinking its actually good for you. If I see one more commercial from the Corn Refiners Association about how “your body don’t know corn syrup isn’t sugar,” or the ones from Frito-Lays about how only natural ingredients are used in their fatty, greasy potato chips, I’ll scream. Again, it comes back to scanning that ingredients list: lots of seemingly healthy boxed foods scream “good-for-you” — like the Fiber One bars I’ve touted on this blog more than once — but if you take a gander at all the added sugars, chemicals, and sodium, I might as well have been grabbing a Snickers bar.

3.) Remember what food looks like in nature. In a society where many of us spend 8 hours a day chained to a desk, and grabbing a bite on-the-go has become the norm for busy weeknights, it can be hard to recall what potatoes that aren’t deep fried actually look like. For example, I had been snacking on these “natural” pomegranate fruit bars. They almost taste like a pomegranate, they kind of smell like a pomegranate, but do they even remotely look like a pomegranate? I don’t think so. One quick glance at the ingredients list and it became abundantly clear that what I was actually consuming were 18 grams of sugar and 20 grams of sodium in a tiny, completely dissatisfying little snack. Why bother when I could just as easily eat a real pomegranate? Before I go to eat anything now, I ask myself just how far removed that food is from its natural state. You’re better off eating an orange than reaching for a glass of OJ, and throwing together your own mini pizza with whole wheat dough, cheese, and tomatoes than cracking open a box of DiGiorno.

Now, is this to say that I’m eating 100% “clean” all day, every day? Not exactly. While I eat fruits and veggies like it’s my job, have completely replaced most of my old go-to snacks with nuts and cheese, and won’t touch many of the frozen and processed foods I once relied on to lose my first 90 pounds, I’m still not willing to give up my Kashi cereal — a food that contains a long list of ingredients that I do actually recognize, but is still, nonetheless, a processed food. And, of course, it’s unrealistic to think that every restaurant or social gathering will be able to accommodate a completely processed-free diet.

But the bottom line is that I just can’t stop thinking about how, just three short years ago, I was literally poisoning my body every single day with nothing but highly-refined, overly-processed snacks and meals that were not only full of chemicals and potential toxins like MSG, but were also loaded with fat, sugar, salt, and oil. That’s why it so important to me to make up for lost time by educating myself on what’s best for my body, and to stop taking my health for granted. (Oh, and as a bonus: the scale is moving again, and I’m feeling better than ever!)

In fact, I just interviewed the woman behind the 100 Days of Real Food experiment for a magazine article, and I’ve signed on to participate in her blog’s “mini-pledges” to help further my commitment to ditching processed foods once and for all.

Kicking my addiction to Splenda and artificial sweeteners is next on my personal To-Do.

What are some of the ways you’re eating “cleaner?”

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