Healthier Eating in 4 Easy Steps

After my last post, some of you asked for “baby steps” toward better health.  I thought these four steps might be helpful. Some of you said that cutting back on sugar and certain other carbs is tough.

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Biggest donuts I’ve ever seen: Bakery in Madrid

I battle the sugar demon on a daily basis, so I get it. We’re not in total control of our fate; but if we were, wouldn’t you choose health over sickness?

We have control over what we put into our bodies.

Let’s get started:

I. Shop the grocery store’s perimeter for colorful, local, seasonal, and organic produce.

You have control over this.

The perimeter — or areas against or near the walls — is where you find meats, fish, dairy, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. This setup is used by both mega-grocers and organic grocers.  You don’t even need to buy all organic produce.  Find the list of pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, known as the “Dirty Dozen,” here.

Farmer’s markets, community gardens, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions are great sources for diverse, colorful, and local produce.

Community garden in downtown Detroit

Community garden in downtown Detroit

What does it mean to buy local produce? The theory — and it makes sense — is that local produce may be higher in nutrients because it doesn’t travel far or spend time in a warehouse; meaning less time between harvest and when it comes home with you. It is likely to be seasonal. For instance, summer is the season for stone fruits, like peaches, plums, apricots, and cherries. You can still find pears and apples in some grocery stores, but they are probably not sourced locally. Their season is really fall and winter. Believe me, fruits eaten in their season even taste better.

(Speaking of what’s in season and where it came from, I bought an “unseasonal” butternut squash from Mexico in July. I really, really wanted  some butternut squash.)

II.  Be Discriminating! Read labels on packaging. 

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You have control over this.

Fats – Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. The right type of fat is, in fact, good for you. Check listed ingredients and avoid partially hydrogenated fats. Best fats are olive oil and coconut oil. I avoid products that list two or three different oils that might be in the product. Every time I eat a snack or meal, I make sure it has some good fat, along with protein and fiber. (Examples: nuts and 70% or higher dark chocolate.)

Sodium –  Good practices:  be aware of sodium content and taste food before reaching for salt. High blood pressure can lead to a lifetime of meds. Who wants that?

Restaurant meals, canned foods, soy sauce, miso, and cheese can be high in sodium. Bragg’s Amino Acids can substitute for soy sauce in stir-fries because it has a lower sodium content and it’s gluten-free.  At restaurants, you could ask for low-sodium entrees — that’s probably no fun — or ask the chef to dial down the salt.

Sugar –  Check for two specific things: the type of sugar in the listed ingredients; and the amount of sugar grams. Avoid a product that lists high fructose corn syrup, that being The Worst.  If food at home is sweetened with it, dump it. As for number of sugar grams, try to stay below double digits.

Yogurt is generally considered healthy. But, consider: a) the quality of the milk; b) the sugars already in milk; c) added sugar; and d) sugar in added fruit. All these things ratchet up the sugar grams. I think added sugar in yogurt defeats the beneficial value. You can retrain your taste buds for plain yogurt, which is supposed to be sour, anyway — and blend it with sweet, fresh fruit.

The Ingredients List – If you can’t pronounce the ingredient or don’t know what it’s doing in the product, leave it at the grocery store. Avoid products with coloring and flavoring ingredients. When I see words like “natural flavors,” I’m wondering, what the hell does that mean?  Answer:  lab work.

[Note: Local produce might not be certified organic or farmed according to organic and sustainable practices. Sometimes there’s a tradeoff.]

III.   Avoid Fast Food Restaurant Chains. If You Don’t, They Win — You Lose (with a notable exception)

You have control over this.

Be skeptical about food that is sold so cheaply and mass-produced.

Some great news here:  CHIPOTLE.

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Check out Chipotle’s philosophy.  The restaurant tries to source local and fair produce. (“Fair” means the agriculture workers are treated right with decent wages.) My sister, Cheryl, eats at Chipotle often and confirmed this: Chipotle won’t offer an item on the menu if it can’t find a good source for it.  I love that the company puts itself out there with its philosophy. Is that integrity, or what?! Clean Plates — a service that lists restaurants that provide sustainable and healthy food — endorses Chipotle, too!

Food for thought:  Convenience foods are about time management. Work on that concept and you might not need to stop at a drive-thru window.

IV. Cut out soda. Period.

You have control over this.

Here’s the real skinny on “diet” sodas:  they don’t help you lose weight. In fact, you may head in the opposite direction. Regular sodas have 65-77 grams of sugar in a 20 ounce bottle; and some are sweetened with corn syrup. There’s no good news on the soda front.

Learn to love water and drink it liberally. If you need flavored water, you can infuse filtered water with real fruit and save money while you’re at it.

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Sparkling mineral water – better for you than soda (or, pop, as we call it in the Midwest).

These four steps will make you more mindful of what you eat and what you might crave. Do you think these four tweaks to your eating habits could make you healthier? You’re not powerless; you have more control than you think. What are you willing to do?

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The Best Pork Comes From Happy Pigs

I stopped eating pork many years ago, and I can’t even remember why.  For the last six years, though, it’s because of my diet. Pork is on the “Avoid” list. My body has become very sensitive to pork, and reacts badly to it.

Before I left for vacation in Spain, my friend, Mazie, and I were on the hunt in D.C. for a special Spanish jamon (ham) called Iberico de Bellota. On a tip, Mazie found Iberico de Bellota at Canales Deli in Eastern Market. It cost $67 for less than a half pound.

I asked Mazie what was so great about this particular pork. She said the pigs are raised to forage on acorns, and the meat has an extraordinary taste. She insisted I try a piece of the precious ham. I agreed to taste just a sliver, and took a chance on the pig’s acorn diet. I ate the sliver and fully expected to suffer in short order.

Expected to bloat. Didn’t happen.

Expected severe stomach cramps. Didn’t happen.

Expected to become violently ill. Didn’t happen.

(I was both relieved and impressed!)

This is what I’ve learned about the pigs. “Bellota” means acorn. These pigs are raised in a region of western Spain on pastures with oak tree groves. Certain pigs are selected to finish their lives foraging a pasture for herbs, wild mushrooms, and grasses, and, especially, acorns. The pigs are allowed to do what pigs naturally do — dig, roam, and forage for their food. They are considered “semi-wild,” and the Spanish government strictly regulates the Iberico de Bellota bloodline for quality and integrity.

In contrast, pigs raised in crowded industrial livestock operations nose-to-tail with other pigs suffer. I’ve read that pigs raised in this unhealthy environment are so stressed they often eat each others’ tails. I’ve also read that these industrial operations often supply pork to U.S. supermarkets.

Know this, if you find Iberico de Bellota cured ham in the U.S., it came from a very special, healthy and happy pig.

Iberico de Bellota ham comes from the pig’s hind leg.  It is hung and cured for at least two years, complete with the pata negra, or black hoof. The black hoof distinguishes Iberico de Bellota from other hams, like Serrano. It has only been sold in the U.S. since 2008, sin pata negra (without black hoof).

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Carving slices of jamon Iberico de bellota outside a tapas bar in Madrid.

Jamon for sale at Mercado San Miguel (Madrid)

Jamon for sale at Mercado San Miguel (Madrid)

Jamon Iberico de bellota for sale at Mercat Central (Valencia)

Jamon Iberico de bellota for sale at Mercat Central – Valencia

Now, about the ham and its taste… The color is more magenta than pink, like the typical American ham. The meat is nicely marbled with fat. I rolled it around in my mouth before chewing and experienced an almost buttery texture. Instead of cutting away the fat, I ate it. As for the taste? It was sublime.

My first taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota was before I went to Spain. Madrid’s gastronomy is very pork-centric; so I was happy to know I could experience that part of Spanish cuisine, and easily find the ham there. From what I could tell, it is the most expensive ham in Spain, though it is still much cheaper there than here in the U.S. It is so precious, in fact, that a native of Madrid, now living in Baltimore, has a guy in Madrid who vacuum-packs his Jamon Iberico de Bellota so he can stuff as much of it as he can inside the clothes he packs in his suitcase when he returns to the U.S.

By the end of my travels in Spain, I *got* it.  This pork is special. It is the only brand I will eat, although sparingly, and on rare occasions. The exception was my last night in Madrid:  I was the happy pig. I tore up a plate of tomatoes and a plate of Jamon Iberico de Bellota meant for two to share!

No shame or consequences!

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