As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many of us have found comfort through food, while isolated within our homes. With food prices on the rise and financial situations changing, many of us have taken this as an opportunity to relax a bit, turning to sugary and salty snacks cheap, easy meals. As a balanced diet is vital for a healthy immune system, it’s important to use this time to take stock of what’s in our pantries and ditch the over-processed junk food.
Before we get started, the first step is to summon as much courage as possible. A change of this size requires a dramatic transition to ensure that you won’t be tempted to slip back into old habits. By educating yourself about healthy alternatives to processed foods, you can find options that will taste as delicious with the added health benefits.
The first course of action is to give your kitchen a fresh start. Go through your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, eliminating all the expired food. Anything that has developed any mold, freezer burn, or has a best by date that has passed, should be thrown away. Once those have been disposed of, focus on throwing out your over-processed snacks – cookies, candy, soda, sugar-laden fruit, chips, etc.
With the obvious culprits out of the way, now it’s a matter of looking through nutrition labels. If you don’t often read the labels of the food you buy and eat, it’s important to start now. Use the labels to decide what to keep and what to throw out. The USDA’s dietary guidelines and the FDA’s recommended daily intake of calories, fats, vitamins, and sodium can help you decide how much of what you should be eating. Alannah DiBona, a Boston-based nutritionist and wellness counselor, has specific tips on how to read nutrition labels:
- Read the ingredient listing. Ingredients are listed in order of decreasing volume. Whichever ingredient the product contains the most of will appear first on the list, and so on in decreasing order. If you see fat, sugar, or salt listed first, you can safely assume that food in question isn’t one of the healthier options for you.
- Check the serving size. Note the size of a single serving compared to how many servings are in a package.
- Look at the total calories per serving. Think of the serving size and how many servings you’d actually be consuming.
- Limit everything listed between Total Fat and Sodium. Most people require no more than 56 – 78 grams of fat per day. This includes no more than 16 grams of saturated fat, less then two grams of trans fat, and less then 300 mg of cholesterol (for a 2,000 calorie diet).
- Get 100% of everything listed between Dietary Fiber and vitamins. Make sure that you are getting enough of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that you need each day.
- Percent Daily Value: The %DV section explains the percent of each nutrient in a single serving, in terms of the daily recommended amount. As a guide, if you want to consume less of a nutrient (such as saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium), pick foods with a lower %DV (5% or less is low). If you want to consume more of a nutrient (such as fiber), choose foods with a higher %DV (20% or more is high).
- Think about the amount of calories in a food per serving. Remember that for a 2,000 daily calorie diet: 40 calories per serving is considered low, 100 calories per serving is considered moderate, and 400 calories or more per serving is considered high.
As you start to familiarize yourself with the nutrition labels, start tossing foods that you know aren’t good for you based on their ingredients and nutrition facts. Start by going through your freezer, as most frozen foods have a high sodium content. If you approach your food with a new eye, you may be surprised by what’s hiding in the nutrition labels.
Now it’s time to start thinking about everything that’s left. This is when you have to concentrate on the difficult foods that you want to keep but realize probably aren’t good for you. It’s a challenging choice to make, especially if there’s no one there to hold you accountable. However, you will be more likely to stay with the healthy food choices you’re getting ready to make if you don’t have old staples to fall back on.
It’s painless to get rid of candy, cookies, and soda. However, it’s harder to toss out those frozen meals you rely on for a quick meal after a long day of work. Don’t attempt to convince yourself that you can keep those unhealthy options if you modify your habits. Even if you promise yourself you’ll only have one frozen pizza a week, breaking old habits isn’t that easy. Keeping any junk food around when you’re trying to avoid it is a recipe for failure.
As a simple list, get rid of foods in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry that contain any of the following:
- Vegetable oil (corn, soy, canola, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower seed, etc)
- Wheat, wheat gluten, or anything derived from wheat
- Sugar (high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, rice syrup, aspartame, sucralose, Splenda, or any other unnatural sweeteners)
- Processed foods
- GMOs (The top 10 GMOs are soy, aspartame, inorganic meat and dairy, zucchini and squash, papaya, cotton, corn, canola, alfalfa and sugar from sugar beets. If any of these are in your fridge or pantry and are inorganic, they are likely genetically modified.)
- Ingredients you don’t recognize or cannot pronounce
- Fake, processed ingredients (like monosodium glutamate (MSG), sulfites, sulfates, carrageenan, food dyes (like red #40), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), splenda, low-fat ingredients, fat-free ingredients, guar gum, modified food starch, “natural and artificial flavors”, soy lecithin, malt extract or yeast)
While this may seem like a daunting task, it’s a vital process to ensuring you have a nourishing, balanced diet. To help motivate yourself, take any of the unopened food and donate it to your local community pantry or soup kitchen. That way you can know that you’re doing good for both yourself and others. It’s important to set yourself up for success and this process is developing the foundation for a healthy, nutritious diet.