By Dr. Mercola
What's the trick to healthy eating? I'm afraid there's no one magic ingredient, but if you view food consumption as part and parcel of a lifestyle that leads to health and well-being, a number of factors stand out that separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
For starters, you're more likely to eat a healthy diet if you carve out sufficient amounts of time for it. This could include any or all of the following:
- Growing your own food, and taking the time to tend your garden each week
- Culturing or fermenting fresh foods
- Preparing and cooking meals from scratch, using fresh, whole foods
- Eating at a leisurely pace, ideally together with friends and family. Although family meals are far from the norm these days, recent research suggests doing so can be important for your well-being.
It's particularly valuable for children. Research1 shows that children who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a healthy weight range and make better food choices.
They're more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to eat unhealthy ones, and also less likely to develop eating disorders
Food Preparation Is an Indicator of Healthier Eating
According to one recent study, aptly titled: "Time Spent on Home Food Preparation and Indicators of Healthy Eating,"2 people who spend the least amount of time cooking spend the most amount of money on food away from home, and are the most likely to eat fast food.
Besides costing you more in the long run when your health starts to fail as a result of your poor diet, those who eat out also spend an average of $7 more on food each week, according to this study.
Not surprisingly, those who spend the least amount of time cooking their own food tend to be working adults who place a high priority on convenience. Convenience has a price, however. As noted by the authors:
"Greater amount of time spent on home food preparation was associated with indicators of higher diet quality, including significantly more frequent intake of vegetables... The findings indicate that time might be an essential ingredient in the production of healthier eating habits among adults."
According to the lead author, "we should be aware up front that if we have intentions of having a healthier diet it might be the case that we just have to spend more time in the kitchen to make that possible."
I couldn't agree more. To make that happen, you need a plan. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and this certainly applies when it comes to cooking.
Planning Your Meals Makes Food Preparation Quicker and Easier
First, figure out a meal plan for the entire week, and prepare a shopping list of all the necessary ingredients. Consolidating all grocery shopping into a once-weekly trip can save a considerable amount of time over shopping for a few items every day.
Also remember that when your meals revolve around whole foods, you only need to go around the periphery of the store. This also saves you time.
Here are a handful of other suggestions that can help you streamline your efforts and maximize the productivity of your kitchen, while keeping your time spent there to a minimum. For a more comprehensive list of tips, please see How to Cook Whole Food From Scratch--and Keep Your Day Job, by Colleen Huber.
- One of the most efficient ways to ensure you have a home cooked meal each day is to cook in bulk, and then freeze suitable portion sizes. So cook all the meals for the week all at once, on your day off.
This way, instead of standing at the stove each day, you are there for one longer session during that week, and then you're done! The remaining days you simply need to defrost and reheat the various ingredients that go into your meal. Remember to include left-overs in your plan.
For example, left-overs from one day's dinner can be the next day's lunch. If you're a busy parent, recruit your kids to help with the food preparation and cleanup. This is probably the best way to instill healthy eating habits in your children.
- Take advantage of savings on seasonal produce, and buy organic whenever possible.
- Use a food processor to chop up vegetables that can then be bagged and frozen or kept in the fridge for snacking. Instead of buying pre-mixed frozen veggies, you can make your own.
For example, add pressed garlic to coarsely chopped string beans, which can later be sautéed in coconut oil. Chopped carrots, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and some caraway seeds go well together. Added to a cup of chicken broth, it will make for a delicious meal of balanced nutrients.
- A large crockpot can be an invaluable time saver, and is well suited to a whole foods diet. Simply place coarsely chopped vegetables and some organic beef round or chicken (whole or pieces), for example, into the pot. Add some water and spices. Set it on "low" in the morning, and it'll be done by dinnertime.
- To reheat precooked meals, use your oven, stove top, or a toaster oven rather than a microwave. When microwaving food in plastic containers, toxic chemicals are leached from the plastic into your food.
You're also exposing yourself to unnecessary microwave radiation. For re-heating food in your toaster oven, be sure to use Pyrex-type serving dishes, not plastic. Heating leftovers for two or three people in a toaster oven takes only 10 to 15 minutes.
Growing Your Own Ingredients
Keeping a garden can improve your health by providing you with fresh, uncontaminated, nutrient-dense food that is simply unavailable in your grocery store. It will also help you reduce your grocery bill.
You don't need vast amounts of space either. Even apartment dwellers can create a well-stocked edible garden. You can use virtually every square foot of your space to grow food, including your lateral space. Hanging baskets are ideal for a wide variety of crops, including leafy greens, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. You can also grow sprouts like sunflower seeds and reap a harvest in 7-10 days.
Instead of flowers, window boxes and flower beds can hold a variety of herbs and other greens. To learn more, please see my previous article on creating edible gardens in small spaces.
Before you know it, large portions of your meals could come straight from your own edible garden. I recommend getting your feet wet by growing sprouts, which can be grown at any time of year. And with fall descending upon us in the US, you can even create a winter garden.
What to Do with the Excess Harvest?
Food waste is a terrible problem in the US, and home gardeners are not immune to this wastefulness. In 2012, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) issued a report stating that 40 percent of the food in the US was wasted. This represents about 20 pounds of food per person per month. Fruit and vegetables account for 14 percent and 19 percent of the waste respectively. Nearly 18.5 billion pounds of fruit is thrown away annually, along with more than 25 billion pounds of vegetables. You can drastically reduce the amount of food you toss in the garbage or into your compost pile by:
- Planning your meals and using a shopping list
- Freezing or vacuum packing fresh vegetables
- Eating left-overs for lunch the next day
- Fermenting any vegetables you cannot prepare or eat while fresh. Not only is this an excellent way to avoid wasting food from your garden, it's also one of the best and least expensive ways to get healthy bacteria (probiotics) into your diet.
Fermented foods are potent chelators (detoxifiers) and contain much higher levels of probiotics than probiotic supplements, making them ideal for optimizing your gut flora. Just one quarter to one half cup of fermented veggies, eaten with one to three meals per day, can have a dramatically beneficial impact on your health. Aside from helping you detox, beneficial gut bacteria perform a number of functions that are important for optimal health, including:
- Mineral absorption, and producing nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin K2 (vitamin K2 and vitamin D are necessary for integrating calcium into your bones and keeping it out of your arteries, thereby reducing your risk for coronary artery disease and stroke3)
- Preventing obesity and diabetes, and regulating dietary fat absorption
- Lowering your risk for cancer
- Improving your mood and mental health
The Art of Connecting and Fostering Healthy Habits for a Lifetime
To those who are unaccustomed to them, gathering for family dinner may seem like an unnecessary component of healthy eating. But gathering around the dinner table once a day can actually exert a powerful influence on your overall well-being. Children especially tend to thrive with such a routine. According to professors Ann Meier and Kelly Musick,4, 5 it's the family connections that matter, not the act of eating with others per se. They identified the following critical requirement:6 "The effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives."
So, if your family dinner hour consists of nagging about chores and unfinished homework, or texting at the dinner table, it's unlikely you will see as much benefit. But if your mealtime is filled with sharing and genuine connection, then the benefits can be plentiful. As mentioned earlier, research7 shows that children who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a healthy weight range and make better food choices. They're more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to eat unhealthy ones, and also less likely to develop eating disorders.
Eating with others can also help you eat slower, and this can have a direct influence on your health. For starters, eating slowly and chewing more tends to reduce the number of calories you consume. It creates actual biochemical changes that make you less inclined to overeat. Inadequate chewing shortchanges your nutrition because digestion begins in your mouth. The chewing process (mastication) is actually an extremely important step in digestion, making it easier for your intestines to absorb nutrients from food particles as they pass through. Carbohydrate and fat digestion begin in your mouth. Inadequate chewing causes foods to pass through your GI tract without being properly broken down—so nutrients are simply wasted.
The benefit of the family meal comes not only from time spent eating together, but also from the time spent food shopping, preparing your meals, cleaning up, and tending the garden if you have one. Getting your children involved with the food they eat teaches them about nutrition, as well as how to work together as a family. Children will also learn environmental awareness and the importance of supporting organic and sustainable foods and farms.
Sharing meals also gives you an opportunity to pass along special recipes and family traditions that you may have learned from your mother or grandmother. You can teach your children the importance of traditional food preparation methods, such as fermenting, juicing, sprouting seeds, soaking nuts, and preparing raw meals. These lessons are invaluable for building a rich family heritage, as well as giving your children the tools they need to live long, healthy lives. In short, it can help build a solid foundation for a healthy lifestyle that your children can benefit from for the rest of their lives, and can pass on to the next generation.
That said, whether you strive to make family meals a reality on a regular basis or not, do consider the advice to avoid eating when rushed or stressed. When you eat under stress, your body is in the opposite state of where you need to be in order to digest, assimilate nutrients, and burn calories. You could be eating the healthiest food in the world, but if your body cannot fully digest and assimilate that food, then you will not reap the benefits from it, nor will you be able to burn calories effectively. So, whether shared or savored alone, one way to ensure healthier eating patterns is to make time for food. Make time for shopping, growing, and preparing it, and above all, enjoy eating it.