Somewhere out there, holed up in the country’s laboratories, a fleet of scientists is busy trying to discern which foods and nutritional components provide the foundation for a long, vital, disease-free life. Every day, there’s new evidence about the role of this or that amino acid, fatty acid, phytochemical or antioxidant. There are zillions of vitamins, minerals, precursors and synergists, all being studied in minute detail.
Meanwhile, you’ve got a family to feed.
When you go to the market, you face a gamut of choices. You don’t have time (or available memory) to run a detailed nutritional analysis on each and every bag, box or handful of produce. And besides, day in and day out, your family probably eats mostly the same 10 or 15 foods – with you vaguely hoping that what scientists eventually identify as the good stuff is represented somewhere in the foods you’re putting on their plates.
Don’t just hope. You can make sure that you and your family eat a healthful diet without getting a degree in nutrition or even throwing your household into a big-transition tizzy. In fact, you don’t even need to scour the headlines for the latest nutrition news. Just employ a few time-proven, guiding principles. For example: Natural fats are more healthful than manufactured ones. Organic fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy deliver more essential nutrients than nonorganic. Whole foods are better than processed.
The tricky part, of course, is getting those concepts into your grocery cart, onto your family’s plate and, finally, into their bodies. Every step of the way, you’re up against a marketing machine. Snacks filled with fake fats have huge advertising campaigns. Cartoon characters hawk sugary, fiberless cereals. Beefy athletes push sodas. And calm, happy TV moms make salty, prepackaged meals look like the key to sustaining a satisfied family.
So it’s up to you to be the booster for better food. Luckily, you do have a support squad. Scientists researching health and obesity are getting a lot of free media these days, and much of what they are broadcasting concerns how and why people eat what they do, and to what effect. Big national grocery-store chains are welcoming smaller producers of natural products, bowing to consumer demand. And giant food companies such as Campbell’s and Frito-Lay are turning out revised versions of familiar snacks and staples, now remade with healthful fats, whole grains and organic ingredients.
Healthy foods are easier to find, and easier to eat, than they’ve been in a long time. But you can probably use more help. So we’ve rounded up food scientists, behaviorists, grocery manufacturers and a few families and used their input to create an eight-week makeover for your grocery cart.
After all, if you put good food in your basket, it’ll end up on your family’s table – and eventually, in every cell of their increasingly healthy bodies. Don’t worry, you won’t need to count grams or weigh ounces. And, unlike most eight-week- makeover magazine articles, this one has results that last.
Week 1: Get an Oil Change
Forget about all the fat-free talk. It’s flawed. Your body requires natural, healthy fats in order to manufacture nutrients, excrete toxins and sustain its mental and physical energy stores. Fat should account for up to 35 percent of your calories, and kids need even more, says Liz Weiss, RD, coauthor of The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers (Broadway, 2003).
Your priority here: Start eliminating unhealthy fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated are the worst) and start emphasizing the healthy ones. The trick: Load up on natural fats, especially monounsaturated fats, which are essential for brain function. Don’t worry about eliminating every last gram of saturated fat, particularly if it comes from healthy, whole-food sources. But steer clear of trans fats, the manufactured type scientists now know contributes to heart disease and cancer. When possible, seek out cold-pressed, expeller-pressed and unrefined oils.
“A small change in the type of oils you cook and bake with can really shift your fat intake in the right direction,” says Weiss. The best part: Your family probably won’t even notice a difference.
Opt out: Next time you’re at the market, skip over the shortening (typically partially hydrogenated and full of trans fats). Also skip the vegetable and corn oil (filled with pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, which we tend to get too much of in the standard American diet) and buy olive, nut and canola oils instead. Spectrum Naturals sells a variety of healthy oils in bottles and in sprays (great for misting cookie sheets, baked fries or oven-roasted veggies).
Choose flavor: If you’re eager for savory flavor, go for olive oil. Canola oil is fine for situations when you don’t want the oil to flavor the food. It’s also good for baking; you can substitute it cup for cup for vegetable oil. For adding flavor to Asian and Indian recipes, and for popping popcorn, try coconut oil, a medium-chain saturated fat that is healthful in moderate amounts. Nutiva makes an excellent unrefined coconut oil that’s nice for baking and good enough to eat on toast.
Make it easy: If the recipe calls for margarine, you can generally trade it for canola oil. Add the same amount of oil if the recipe requires 1/4 cup or less of margarine; use 20 percent less oil if the recipe calls for more of these spreads. Example: For 1/2 cup (8 tbs.) of butter, you should substitute 6 1/2 tbs. oil.
What about spreads and butter? Butter, especially organic, is far better than highly processed, trans-fat-loaded margarine. Horizon Organic’s creamy European-style butter comes in a 1/2-pound package. “Choose a brand you love and put on a small amount as an accent rather than slathering it on your food,” suggests Weiss.
If your family prefers spreadable margarine, look for a brand such as Earth Balance that doesn’t contain trans fats (most no-trans-fat brands will say so on the label).
Week 2: Go Hunting for Good Meats
Here’s another change you can make without freaking out your family: Swap out conventional meats for healthier, more natural ones.
Opt out: Generally speaking, processed meats are not particularly healthy. Many conventional processed meats contain nitrates, a preservative that your body converts into nitrosamines, raising the risk of certain cancers. However, if your family demands hot dogs, deli meats and bacon, you can at least choose natural brands. Whenever possible, also consider buying organic meats, especially beef, to minimize exposure to antibiotics and the risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human version of mad cow disease. (Watch for more information on choosing safe, healthy meats and other foods in our upcoming feature, Food Fright, October 2004.)
Easy choices: Applegate Farms makes fabulous deli meats and turkey bacon without nitrates, while Hain and Coleman both offer nitrate-free wieners. A bonus: The natural brands generally contain less sugar and no monosodium glutamate (MSG), an additive linked to many health problems, including Attention Deficit Disorder. Pasture-fed meats offer a better array of healthy fatty acids.
Both light- and dark-meat poultry are also terrific choices to include in your family’s diet. “Dark meat contains a bit more fat, but it also delivers extra nutrients,” says Weiss. Look for organic poultry, too; if it’s not available, Bell & Evans chicken raised without antibiotics has won taste awards. In addition to chicken breasts and broilers, the company makes some great frozen convenience products, like all-natural chicken burgers.
Healthy variety: Include seafood in your family’s meals once or twice a week, because it’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids (good for your brain and heart), vitamin E and trace minerals. Vary the types of fish you serve and stick to sources that are as low as possible in contaminants (see www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp for guidance). Tilapia is a perfect fish choice because it feeds only on plants (cutting back on mercury exposure) and has a mild taste that kids love. Another great option: wild salmon, which has been shown to be lower in PCBs than farm-raised types. Omega Foods Salmon Burgers contain the wild version of the fish.
Portion control: When serving beef, chicken and fish, stick to a 3- to 4-ounce cooked portion for adults, 2 ounces for 7- to 10-year-olds, and 1 ounce for kids age 6 and under, advises Weiss.
Including tofu and meat substitutes in meals is a fine way to increase variety. Just look for brands such as SoyBoy Organic that contain more than 200 milligrams (mg) of calcium per serving (many have considerably less).
Week 3: Redo Dairy Foods
To get enough calcium and vitamin D, nutrition experts suggest three daily servings of dairy (for those who aren’t lactose intolerant). Some research also shows a connection between consuming dairy foods and maintaining a healthy weight.
Best choice: Whenever possible, go for organic dairy products. A recent British study has found that organic milk boasts up to two-thirds more protective omega-3 fatty acids than the conventionally produced kind. Both Horizon Organic and Organic Valley Farms produce a variety of excellent milk products, including cream, butter, yogurt and cheese.
Another key: Choose quality over quantity. “Select flavorful cheeses like Parmesan where a little goes a long way,” suggests Althea Zanecosky, RD, a Philadelphia-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Extra benefits: If your family likes smooth and creamy treats, keep your fridge stocked with organic yogurt. This dairy product has a benefit beyond calcium: live and active cultures of beneficial bacteria. Because of its cultures, yogurt can improve digestion, help stave off tummy troubles and reduce the risk of yeast infections. If someone in your family is dairy intolerant, they may do OK with yogurt: The active cultures in yogurt help break down the lactose.
Stonyfield Farm packs its organic yogurt with more active cultures than most competitors; in fact, it’s the only U.S. brand that contains L. reuteri, which inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. Coli, Staphylococcus and Candida yeast. Stonyfield recently redesigned its packaging to save 500,000 pounds from landfills annually. For superior flavor and texture, try Seven Stars Farm organic maple yogurt, made with real maple syrup.
Options: For those who can’t eat (or don’t like) dairy, soy products provide an excellent alternative. Because soymilk doesn’t naturally contain much calcium, it’s usually fortified with it. Look for a brand like Silk that contains vitamin D and at least 30 percent of the Daily Value of calcium (300 mg) per serving.
Prior to each use, vigorously shake the soymilk to make sure the calcium doesn’t settle on the bottom of the carton, suggests Robert Heaney, MD, an osteoporosis expert at Creighton University.
Two things to be aware of: Soymilk (even organic soymilk) is a highly processed food; and most soymilks do contain some form of sugar. However, WestSoy does make a tasty unsweetened product (available in plain and vanilla).
Week 4: Learn to Appreciate Produce
There are very few families getting enough fruits and vegetables these days. And even though you hear a lot about the importance of eating five servings a day, that’s actually the recommended minimum. Consume more than that and you’ll further drop your risk of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and stroke. You’ll also minimize your family’s risk of nutritional deficiencies and improve their immunity.
Cast a wide net: The key to eating a lot of produce is variety. Studies from the University of Illinois show that the more variety of a type of food you buy, the more you (and your family) will eat. A good rule of thumb: Pick up five to 10 kinds of fresh organic produce on each shopping trip (fresh and frozen are best) and keep at least a dozen kinds of fruits and vegetables on hand. A good cookbook will also help you make use of what you buy.
Go for organics: A handful of recent studies suggest that organic produce may contain more vitamins and phytochemicals (healthy plant compounds) than the kinds grown with chemicals. Organic produce reduces your family’s risk of exposure to dangerous pesticide residues and improves their nutritional intake. A study of 39 preschoolers last year found that those who got 75 percent or more of their juice, fruit and vegetables from organic sources had lower levels of pesticide residues in their urine than kids who ate more conventional produce. Organics also help preserve the environment.
Convenient: If food-prep time is at a premium in your household, Zanecosky suggests buying produce in the most convenient form possible, even if that means spending a little extra. Pick up bagged salads, pre-cut winter squash and baby carrots. Earthbound Farms and Dole both sell organic salad blends, and Earthbound also offers carrot packs and small boxes of raisins, which are great for lunchboxes. On the frozen front, Cascadian Farms has a wonderful line of organic fruits and veggies. Standouts include its honey-glazed baby carrots; green beans with toasted almonds; and sliced peaches. Whole Foods 365 brand offers a terrific jarred applesauce, and Muir Glen sells a tasty selection of canned and jarred tomato sauces.
Week 5: Go for Whole Grains
The majority of grains consumed in the United States are refined: During milling, they’re stripped of their outer layer, which contains many vitamins and minerals. Although a select few nutrients are added back in during the “enriching” process, it’s not a good tradeoff. Relative to whole grains, refined grains are nutrient-poor and devoid of fiber (essential to a healthy digestive system). Because they are rapidly digested, they tend to cause blood-sugar spikes, which can throw kids’ energy levels off-kilter, as well as increase insulin resistance and the resulting obesity risks.
Check the label: While it’s OK to have a serving or two of refined products daily, particularly in combination with other healthy foods, you should mainly shop for whole grains, which have also been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. When you’re shopping for bread, check the label to be certain that whole grains such as wheat, rye, corn, millet and barley are listed first. Sprouted grains and sourdough pack an extra nutrition punch: They contain health-boosting enzymes not present in most yeast-risen breads.
Try these: Natural Ovens and French Meadow both make excellent whole-grain loaves and buns. Beyond bread, there are plenty of delicious choices for whole grains at every meal (see “The Eight-Week Plan,” page 45, for tips on introducing whole grains and other foods). Try brown rice; Lundberg Family Farm makes an exceptional organic version. Barley is super in soups. Whole- or partially whole-grain pasta is better than white; look for Eden Foods varieties that are 60 percent whole grain. Wheatberries are sweet little whole-grain kernels that most kids like.
There are also many great whole-grain breakfast cereals available. Kashi recently introduced Cranberry Sunshine, a corn-based cereal, while Cascadian Farms and Heritage Farms both offer kid-friendly O-shaped oat cereals. But be sure that sugar or other sweeteners fall low on the ingredient list.
Wheat-free: If you’re sensitive to wheat, whole-grain rye or kamut are excellent options. Van’s All Natural offers five kinds of wheat-free waffles, including mini ones for kids. Lifestream Natural’s Wildberry Buckwheat Waffles are gluten-free and absolutely delicious.
Week 6: Reach for the Right Convenience Foods
Convenience foods, including everything from frozen entrées to canned soups, are a godsend when you’re rushing to get dinner on the table. The problem is, about 40 percent of all the foods in mainstream supermarkets (especially the convenience items) contain disease-promoting trans fats. Most also contain refined grains and sugars.
Options: Thankfully, a handful of manufacturers have come out with organic or all-natural trans-fat-free versions of the food your family loves. Keep in mind, these are not necessarily the very healthiest food options available, but they’re a great way to coax your family away from even less healthy fare.
Frozen and healthy: To get you started, Applegate Farms’s chicken nuggets are better than ever, while Alexia just added organic oven crinkle fries to its line of frozen potato products, including delicious Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and sweet potato fries. From canned soup to spinach pizza to pesto tortellini, convenience foods from Amy’s Kitchen are family favorites. Ian’s Natural Foods offers frozen fish stick, chicken nugget, pizza and pancake meals for kids, as well as fancier fare such as stuffed chicken breasts. A favorite of Liz Weiss’s family: Cedarlane Natural Foods frozen Mexican foods, like low-fat garden vegetable enchiladas and salsa burrito grande. Grocery chains such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Wild Oats have many private-label convenience foods that are all, or mostly, organic and free of trans fats.
Week 7: Put Healthy Drinks on Tap
Don’t waste calories on no-nutrient beverages. Besides milk (discussed in the dairy section), fill your cart with water, vegetable juice, 100 percent fruit juice and teas. “If your family really likes soda, save it for special occasions,” suggests Zanecosky. A better choice: Juice spritzers like those from After the Fall and Izze.
Travel well: For lunchboxes or travel, fill a Thermos or drink bottle with water, milk or juice (for milk, make sure to use a cooler or cold pack to prevent spoilage). R.W. Knudsen makes a delicious line of 100 percent organic juices. Apple & Eve also offers a line of organic juices, including such flavors as Cranberry Blueberry and Peach Mango. And Horizon Organic sells four versions of organic orange juice (including calcium fortified) as well as Orange-Carrot and Pineapple-Orange in half-gallon cartons.
Refreshment: Since tea is teeming with antioxidants, it’s another great beverage option. The Republic of Tea has a line of eight organic teas, such as Dancing Leaves Green Tea and Flowering Fruit Tea. Harney & Sons also boasts a great organic tea selection; Passion Plum tastes magnificent and Peppermint is great for children. And in January, Honest Tea’s entire line, including its delicious bottled iced teas, became certified organic.
Week 8: Scale Back on Snacks
Variety encourages us to eat. Want proof? When researchers at the University of Illinois gave adults and children M&Ms and jelly beans, they ate significantly more when there were more colors presented, even though they all tasted the same! That’s why stocking several kinds of cookies, crackers and chips is bad news for your family’s diet.
Simplify: To cut down on the desire for salty and sweet treats, limit your purchases to two salty snack foods and one sweet a week and encourage your family to consume them in reasonable portions. If they’re devoured after two days, don’t replace them.
Satisfy: With this strategy, you don’t have to opt for unsatisfying low-fat versions of your favorite indulgences because portion sizes will be tightly controlled. You still, however, want to avoid trans fats and stick to organic when possible. And these are becoming easier to find: Frito-Lay just introduced its natural line, which features corn chips and cheese doodles made with organically grown corn and no trans fats. Other mouth-watering munchies: Natural Choice ice cream, sorbet and fruit pops; Dancing Deer all-natural cookies (try Molasses Clove), Wholly Healthy cheesecake and apple pie (available in the frozen section). Annie’s, Our Family Farm and Garden of Eatin’ also make a wide range of snacks your whole family will love.