I am going to begin what will be a series post on why I believe in “whole food” eating. I will explain my opinion in regards to various topics, including but perhaps not limited to disease prevention and management, mood balance, psychological health, and mental wellness, digestive care and bowel habits, and body image. This will be an opinionated series that is meant to help others move towards whole food eating for health and wellness purposes. Living in America can be tough when it comes to making balanced choices, but it is not as hard as we think it is. I counsel individuals on a daily basis regarding how they can begin to make changes in their own dietary habits to move towards a more balanced way of eating. If you are currently regularly consuming fast food and processed food-like products, I would not expect you to eat a completely whole food-based diet right off the bat. But rather, this series of posts, and this blog in general, is meant to make you and everyone take a look at their eating habits, their mental health in regards to their food relationship, and learn to make some changes that would better themselves and their well-being. And lets face it, there is truth in supply and demand—so if more of us demand availability of whole foods, we might just see the supply. So here goes…
Let me begin by stating: I’m not a fan of the “clean eating” trend that has swept across our country, globe, Internet, and blogosphere. That being said, I am obviously a fan of whole food eating. Please refer to blog title. Is there a difference, you ask, between “clean” eating and “whole food” eating? Well, by George, yes, I answer! Personally, I equate “clean” eating with “good” eating. If your food is not clean, then it must be dirty in some way—or bad, wrong. I disagree with labeling food as good or bad, so that’s why I tend to disagree with the clean trend/fad. I believe that it can make one think a little too hard about their food choices—is this product clean, clean enough, too many ingredients, too few, too many carbs, too little protein, too much sugar? I think that when we place a heavy emphasis on a weighted word, such as “clean,” we inadvertently place a moral connotation to the word, the food, and more importantly and dangerously—ourselves. Now, I also don’t want you to think that I believe we need to eat “whole” food 100% of the time, so don’t get me wrong there, either. But, I do think that we should strive for more of a whole food based diet. This is for maaaaaaany reasons. So, let me get started on my ‘splanin!
In this first post, I would like to speak to the mental health aspect of whole food eating. I think that we rely far too heavily on food labels. When everything we eat has a label, how can we resist reading it, especially when we are told that we ought to be reading and scrutinizing the label of every product on the grocery store shelves? And yes, some people do need to pay attention to food labels, if they are buying food that has a label. However, if we choose foods that don’t even have a label to begin with, then perhaps we are altogether better off. For example, if you buy canned beans, you should read the label to ensure that you are purchasing a lower sodium or no-salt added product. On the other hand, if you purchase dried beans and you cook them yourself, there is no need for a label at all. In fact, most people who regularly look at food labels are often looking at (and obsessing over) calories, fat, carbohydrates, and sugar. And that, my lovely readers, is just not necessary.
“Oh now wait,” you proclaim! “What about those who are overweight or obese or who have high blood pressure and need to watch sodium intake or whatever else?!” Well, truthfully, if you eat a whole food diet and you understand serving sizes and portions, you don’t need to read labels—you don’t need to count every calorie or gram of fat. For those of you who obsess over each calorie and gram of fat, I very much think you could benefit from letting go of that obsession, as well. I certainly don’t mean that in a harsh way; on the contrary, I feel for your struggle and I relate in many ways.
Many of us scrutinize labels–which product has more calories, fat, sugar, sodium? If you’re comparing two products, sometimes it’s hard to not scrutinize the labels, and we’re taught that this is what we ought to be doing! The government has placed a great emphasis on label reading, and they have recently made nutrition labels larger and bolder. They have been successful in moving label-reading into the restaurant world, as well. Now, not only are we label-reading in the grocery store aisles, but when we’re looking at menu labels while trying to enjoy an evening or lunch out with friends/family. We have placed such an emphasis on labels that we have forgotten that labels are VERY new in the world of nutrition and eating. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed. This act required that all packaged foods have nutrition labels. It also stated that all health claims must be consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, such as “low fat” or “low sodium.” And in 1991, the act further explained that the labels must list the “most important” nutrients in an easy-to-follow format. And here is when we really began scrutinizing food labels. Truthfully, the move toward more food labeling began in 1980, when the USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC) published the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines emphasized various “healthy” behaviors, such as maintaining an “ideal” weight. Also, these guidelines stated that we ought to avoid too much dietary fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium.
According to NationalEatingDisorders.org, the incidence of bulimia in women aged 10-39 tripled between the years 1988 and 1993. According to TheEatingDisorderFoundation.org, in 1970 the average age a girl started dieting was 14; however, by 1990 the average age dropped to 8. Hmm, that seems odd now, doesn’t it? During the years that we began emphasizing “healthy” eating habits and label reading, we saw spikes in dieting behaviors and eating disorders. So maybe label-reading isn’t the healthiest practice, after all.
A whole food diet will absolutely still contain some food labels, but it will contain many less. Eating carbohydrates in the form of starchy vegetables, fruits, fresh dairy, and products purchased in bulk (rice, quinoa, barley, millet, polenta, rolled oats, buckwheat groats, etc.) allows you eliminate MANY labels from your home cabinets. Purchasing animal proteins from local butcher shops, fish markets, and eggs from neighbors with hens or local farms eliminates more labels. And eating more plant-based proteins also eliminates labels, such as beans, legumes, and hemp seeds. Consuming fats in their natural form eliminates yet more labels—nuts, seeds, flax, chia all from the bulk bins, and olives from the olive bar, fresh nut butters, avocado, and fresh whole milk cheese and yogurt from local farms.
By getting the labels out of our homes, we establish a healthier relationship with food and its nutrients. The human body needs macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) to survive, along with many vitamins and minerals. When we spend so much time evaluating whether a food has X number of calories or X grams of fat or sugar, we are completely forgetting about what is in the food that we truly need. For example, what do we know about peanut butter right away without even referring to a label? That per 2 tablespoons, there’s roughly 190-200 calories and probably 15-16 grams of fat. If you’re a young female, I can almost guarantee that you knew that answer right away. But what nutrients are in the peanut butter that your body craves and needs to live to its fullest potential while fighting off early aging and disease? How about vitamin E, niacin, choline, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, and omega-6 fatty acids.
THIS is what whole food eating does. It helps us to nourish our bodies and minds while working towards letting go of unnecessary obsessions over grams and calories. When we feed our bodies right, we are not deprived or over-indulged. Your body can give you more information than any food label ever could. Living without the label is a great step toward intuitive eating and the mind-body connection. Whole food eating forces us to eat natural foods while letting go of obsessions over counting what’s in the food, such as carbs, fat, and sugar. I urge everyone to get rid of as many labels as you can. If there a no-label option, choose it. Try it out and see how it effects you and your mind-body connection.