I first thought about what I was putting in my body at the ripe old age of fourteen when some friends of mine came over to the house after swim practice one day, rummaged through my fridge and found nothing but fruit, vegetables, lentils, nuts, and pasta salad. Not exactly the type of snacks a bunch of hungry teenagers were looking for after a tough workout. Because of this, they quickly dubbed my mom the “Veggie Mom” and began giving me grief about not eating “normal.” As most teenagers do, I wanted so much to fit in with my peers that I quickly flipped the switch by consuming junk food, soda, and fast food lunches whenever they were around. What I didn’t realize or value though, is that my mother was ahead of the health-food curve and was actually setting me up to make healthy food choices for the rest of my life.
Like many people, even though I was exposed to good eating habits from a young age, I haven’t always maintained a healthy diet. Even after my teen years, there were times I lived off of fast food burgers and tacos, Top Ramen, and Red Vines. However, as the hands of time moved forward and I wanted my body to continue to look and feel a certain way, I became more and more conscious of the importance of the types of food I needed to put in it.
To make it easy on myself, I started by following some of the pop-culture trends of the time, I switched out my diet soda for bottled water, traded the fast food burgers and fries for dressing heavy chicken salads, and reduced my daily candy intake to once or twice a week. While these choices were all steps in the right direction, part of me knew I still wasn’t ‘hitting the mark’. I knew I needed to make better food choices for optimal performance, but convenience and breaking old habits were keeping me from fully committing to my own health.
For me, getting pregnant with my son was the game changer, as I was no longer just making nutritional choices for my own health, I was making them for him too. It was then that I buckled in and began the doing the hard work. Because I was already living a fairly eco-friendly lifestyle, I thought what better way to start this next chapter in my life then by going green on the inside.
While it was great that I had reduced much of my soda intake for bottled water, and that I was diligent about recycling, shortly after I made the decision to go on this quest into going green with my dietary habits, I heard a news report about a certain company repackaging tap water, which didn’t have to meet Federal standards, and selling it as premium spring water. In that same report, I was also reminded that most plastic bottles aren’t recycled and will end up sitting in our landfills for at least 1,000 years—talk about a wake-up call.
I can’t remember a time when recycling wasn’t part of my lifestyle. You can blame that on my mother too, who in addition to being a veggie mom, was also concerned about conservation and our planet. So, I felt that if I wasn’t getting a better product by drinking bottled water, which also hurts the planet, and I was hesitant about drinking plain tap water, what were my options?
As I began to research alternatives, I learned that while public water treatment facilities do their best, they cannot protect our overall health. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found contaminants such as rocket fuel, arsenic, lead, fecal waste and chemical by-products created during water treatment in several city treatment centers. A 2003 study by the NRDC also determined that due to a combination of pollution and the deterioration of equipment and pipes, the public water supply in at least 19 of America’s largest cities deliver substandard drinking water, containing contaminant levels that exceed the EPA limits (either legal or unenforceable suggested limits) which may pose health risks to residents. What this means is that even though the water may test fine at the source, it can still pick up contaminants along the way to your home facet.
What I learned about tap water was more than I wanted me, or my unborn child, to swallow, literally. All the information I had acquired was pointing towards purified water, but I still wanted to know the benefits of implementing a purification system in my home. I discovered that besides keeping plastic bottles out of our landfill, water-purifying systems remove chlorine and a large majority of bacterial contaminants, which in turn protects the body and greatly reduces the risk of disease, not to mention providing better tasting and smelling water.
Once I had made the switch to a better quality of water, it was time to take a closer look at the types of foods I was putting into my body. At that time, outside of the occasional junk food binge, I considered my diet to be better than our current SAD diet (Standard American Diet), which contains an excess of foods such as meats, fats, and sugar, is highly deficient of fresh fruits and vegetables, and don’t even get me started on the additives and preservatives meant to increase production and shelf life. My diet revolved around yogurt, cereals and breads for breakfast, salads, sandwiches and crackers for lunch, and usually vegetables with pasta or rice, and chicken or fish for dinner, as well as the occasional trip to the local fast food drive thru or treat to satisfy my sweet tooth.
You’re probably thinking, “That doesn’t sound that bad”, but when I learned that over 70 percent of the food produced in America is processed or refined, and no longer contains the necessary nutrients that were there when it was harvested, it made me “SAD.” For example, if you’re like I was, you believe you’re eating right when you consume your instant oats in the morning, but by the time they’ve made it to the packet and into your bowl, they usually contain more processed chemicals and sugar than whole grain oats. Also, I took for granted that foods like white rice and pasta, sourdough bread, and crackers had whole food value in them, when in reality they are mainly just empty calories. It is the blind consumption of these types of processed food that leads to the 1.5–2.0 million heart attacks, strokes and other degenerative diseases that Americans suffer from every year.
So, I’d been hearing about the benefits of eating natural foods and figured that it if it’s natural it has to be good for you. In theory, this is true. However, “Natural Foods” is a claim that food manufactures can make very loosely. While the term Natural Food is suppose to mean that the food came from nature, once the food is harvested they can process it however they choose and still make that claim. For example, you may buy a peach cobbler that has a ‘Natural’ label on it, so you believe that it’s a healthier version of the dessert than the one sitting next to it that doesn’t have the label. In truth however, the peach itself has still lost significant nutritional value since it was harvested and has most likely undergone a process that contains modified food ingredients, sugar and fats, in addition to the baking process, which also removes many valuable nutrients.
The bottom line when it comes to natural food, is that it’s easy to get fooled by marketing and labels if you’re not paying attention. If you want to make sure that you’re getting all natural foods, remember the closer your food is to the natural state it was in when it was harvested, the healthier it will be.
Lucky for me, I grasped the “Natural Foods” labeling concept rather quickly, not negating the fact that the apple that you buy from the local farmer’s marketing is indeed natural, and is best for your health. However, after several years in entertainment, marketing and public relations, I pretty much chalked up the natural foods trend as a marketing tactic meant to create a healthy illusion through pretty sounding words. What I took away from researching this is that I really needed to be on the look out for Whole Foods.
The term Whole Foods is meant to define those foods that are unprocessed, unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible before consumption. Whole foods typically do not contain added ingredients such as salt, fat, sugar, artificial ingredients or even vitamins. Examples of whole foods include fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meat, poultry and fish, unpolished grains and unprocessed dairy products.
Well, the basics of whole foods sounded simple enough, eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, freshly harvested beans (the dry kind in the bag), meat and non-homogenized milk. But, what about my bread, pasta, rice, and cereal, was I going to have to give all that up? The short answer is no. But, I did have to make some changes. Instead of my beloved sourdough, I began eating seven-grain and whole wheat breads. I then switched from white rice to brown rice and quinoa, and from egg pasta to vegetable pasta, and while I haven’t made it all the way to steel cut oats, I switched out my instant oatmeal for the kind that takes a while to cook, most mornings anyway.
Additional benefits to maintaining a diet rich in whole and unrefined foods like whole grains, dark green and yellow/red veggies, legumes, seeds and nuts, is that they contain high concentrations of antioxidant phenolics, fibers and numerous other phytochemicals that are said to be protective against chronic disease.
While I had pretty much used the terms Organic Foods and Whole Foods interchangeably, I quickly came to discover that not all whole foods are necessarily organic, nor are all organic foods necessarily whole, though because of the lack of processing, many whole foods have a very short shelf life, which was why I, along with the public at large, often believe they are organic. In 2000, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board defined the national standard for the term “Organic”. In order for a food product to received the “Certified Organic” label, it must have been produced without the use of pesticides, (with certain exceptions) synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, or growth hormones.
When selecting food, you have to remember that just because a food is organic, doesn’t mean it’s natural or whole. Organic only refers to how the food is produced or grown before it gets to the manufactures. Once a food manufacture has received the organic food, they have the option to process it or leave it whole.
So, besides it all sounding healthy in theory, why is it so important to eat all this natural, whole and organic food? Our bodies were meant to run on whole natural foods and don’t recognize the processed foods we consume, and therefore see them as toxins. The more toxins we consume, the more sluggish and less proficient our bodies will perform for us. I like to compare the human body to a car, if you want the maximum performance out of your car, you must put in premium fuel. The same is true for our bodies, if we want vibrant health, energy and performance we must give our bodies what they crave most.
Vegan, Vegetarian, and Raw Foods
On my quest to go green on the inside I also visited several dietary options or what I like to call lifestyle-eating habits. While I don’t have anything against eating meat, obviously I’ve consumed plenty during my fast food burger days, because I was basically raised a vegetarian, that’s where I started my exploration.
What many people don’t know is that there are a variety of plant-based diets that can provide you with all your dietary needs, including protein, and be quite satisfying. I’ve broken down the most popular versions, but if you’re interested, you can always create combinations of what works best for your and your family.
Vegans – Maintain a strict plant-based diet. Most vegans also avoid the use of all products tested on animals, as well as animal-derived non-food products, such as leather, fur and wool.
Lacto-vegetarians: Avoid meat and eggs, but consume plant-based foods, milk and milk products like cheese & yogurt. (Basically where I find myself much of the time).
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: Maintain a plant-based food diet, but in addition to milk and milk products they also consume eggs.
Flexitarians (semi-vegetarian): While flexitarians basically stick with a plant-based diet, they will occasionally consume, or consume in limited quantity, meat, poultry and fish.
Raw Foodists: Eat a diet based on unprocessed and uncooked plant foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, sprouts, seeds, nuts, grains, beans, nuts, dried fruit, and seaweed. Heating food above 116 degrees Fahrenheit is believed to destroy enzymes in food that can assist in the digestion and absorption of food. Cooking is also thought to diminish the nutritional value and “life force” of food. Typically, to be considered “raw” at least 75 percent of the diet must be living or raw.
While I don’t advocate for any particular diet for everyone, as I believe food is a very personal choice, as my quest demonstrated, I do suggest buying or growing as much whole, organic and sustainably conscious food as possible, as both are good for us and the environment.
Just in case you’re wondering that little baby I wanted so much to get healthy and go green on the inside for is now a high-energy, super healthy kindergartener that also happens to be a vegetarian (by his own choice). I had to laugh the other day as we were picnicking with some of his friends at the park and kids started asking him why there was no meat in his sandwich and he said cause I’ve got a “Veggie Mom.”