The best thing about the old adage "You are what you eat" is that it's so empowering. By providing your body with the best food as it replenishes cells, you can literally build good health. This time of year, many of us are looking to improve our health, make new choices and stick to our New Year’s resolutions. While there's a lot to know about nutrition, you don't have to delve deeply into the science to take advantage of the opportunity. Here are some basics:
Pump the Produce
More is better when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Studies show that a diet rich in produce (in particular green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and citrus fruits) can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. Harvard University researchers found that people who ate more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day had about a 20 percent lower risk of heart disease and stroke compared with people who ate less than three servings daily.
Eating plenty of produce may also help control blood pressure. In one study, people with high blood pressure who followed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and low in saturated and total fat were able to reduce their blood pressure by amounts that you'd expect with blood pressure medication.
Studies also suggest a strong link between a diet high in produce and protection against cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research report that fruit and non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, garlic, onions) probably protect against certain cancers. They also conclude that increased consumption of foods that contain lycopene (such as tomato-based products) may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
Produce is also credited for a reduction in the risk of diverticulitus (a painful intestinal ailment), and vision loss from cataract and macular degeneration.
So pile on the fruits and veggies every chance you get. Add an extra side of veggies with dinner, pile them on your pizzas and omelets, and slide them in your sandwiches. Buy easy-to-snack-on fruits like grapes and berries, and cut up fruits like melon ahead of time if it'll make you more likely to indulge. Use fruits to make smoothies and enliven salads, too.
To get the most out of fruits and veggies—and maximize your nutritional benefit—variety is key. So, fill your shopping bag with an array of colors from the produce section: red, orange, yellow, purple, green, and white. Your local farmers’ market or co-op is the perfect place to find a good selection. (For added health benefits, choose organic!)
Go with the Whole Grain
Choose whole grains over refined, processed products whenever possible. Whole grains, rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber (you need both), aid the digestive system and provide healthy carbohydrates to give your body energy. Studies show that whole grains can help you maintain a healthy weight (they keep you full longer), lower cholesterol levels, cut your risk of colorectal cancer, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by evening out blood glucose levels. (It takes your body longer to digest whole grains than processed grains, so your blood sugar levels don't rise and fall quickly.)
Opt for whole grain breads, bagels, and muffins (made with whole wheat, rye, bran, and corn flour, for example) over white bread, whole grain cereals over refined cereal products, whole grain pastas over white pastas, and brown rice over white rice. Explore other whole grain options, too, like barley, quinoa, and millet.
Be Finicky about Fats
All fats are not created equal (though they do all have the same high number of calories). A diet high in "bad" fats can raise your cholesterol as well as your risk of other health problems like cancer and diabetes, while "good" fats are credited with lowering your risk of heart disease.
"Good" fats are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils like safflower, olive, and canola oils; olives; avocado; and nuts and nut butters. "Bad" fats are the saturated fats (mostly from animals, but some plants, like palms and coconuts) and hydrogenated fats (trans fats), found in high-fat meats, tropical oils, butter, lard, whole milk, margarine, many fried foods, and commercial crackers, cookies, and chips.
Bottom line: It's best to limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats, replacing them with unsaturated fats in moderation. Some easy ways to accomplish this are to focus on low-fat dairy products and low-fat cuts of meat and poultry. (Also remove the extra fat from meat and the skin from poultry before cooking.) When cooking, rely on unsaturated vegetable oils rather than hydrogenated fats like stick margarine. Avoid fried fast foods and fat-laden snacks, and read labels. Choose healthful snacks rather than those made with hydrogenated oils.
Be Picky about Protein
Your body needs protein (amino acids) to build and repair itself. And there are lots of great sources of protein—from meat, fish, and poultry to nuts, seeds, dairy products, eggs and legumes.
Two things to keep in mind when choosing your proteins: First, eating a variety of proteins will help you get all the essential amino acids you need, especially if you don't eat animal products. And second, when evaluating proteins, be sure to consider what else the food is delivering along with the protein. With beans, nuts, and whole grain protein sources, for example, you're also eating vitamins, minerals, fiber, and—with nuts—healthy fat. With steak and whole milk, on the other hand, you're also getting saturated fat.
Fatty fish are currently in the limelight because they provide both excellent protein and those highly touted omega-3s. The American Heart Association and other experts recommend that you eat fatty fish twice a week. (When choosing fish, you'll want to avoid overdoing those that are high in mercury, like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.)
Excess body weight contributes to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke—so no matter how healthy the food, don't overeat. And while you don't want to eliminate them altogether, you'll especially want to take it easy on your fat, salt, and sugar consumption. Choosing less processed foods across the board can help you reduce your intake of these as well as artificial ingredients such as chemical preservatives. Most experts agree that, generally, the closer a food is to its natural state, the better.
The payoff for all this attention to what you're eating is a big one. You're likely to feel better, have more energy, maintain a good weight and reduce your risk of many diseases. And with so much many terrific, healthy foods to choose from, eating well and living well can be downright delicious!
About Willy Street Co-op
Do we offer classes in nutrition/healthy cooking?
Your Co-op offers a variety of classes about nutrition and healthy cooking, including preparing raw food, buying bulk products and individual nutritional consultations. We list classes in our newsletter and on willystreet.coop/calendar. We will not be having any classes at Willy East during the remodel project.
Do we have a dietitian/other knowledgeable staff on hand to answer questions?
Willy Street Co-op works with Katy Wallace, a Naturopathic Doctor and Certified Natural Health Professional, to provide individual nutritional consultations and classes.
Does our book section offer a good selection of nutrition books?
The book selection in both stores' Wellness departments has a variety of books about nutrition, from cookbooks to books about food allergies to the best-selling Prescription for Nutritional Healing.
Do we have signage that helps identify organic produce?
We make it easy to identify organic produce in our stores: just look for the color green on signs in the Produce department.
Do we have handouts or other written materials on key nutrition topics, such as choosing fats?
Both stores have brochures about food allergies, functional foods, oils, flours and more. These brochures are at the Owner Resources Area at Willy West and at the end of the Bulk aisle at Willy East (although they may move during the remodel).
Does our store offer healthy recipes?
We offer recipes in the recipe rack at each store (by the Produce department) and on our website.