For the last few years in our family we have been trying to develop a healthier diet. Almost all of us suffer from environmental allergies (whether the 3-year-old will follow in the family tradition remains to be seen), and one of us struggles with some challenging gastroinestinal issues. Even if we were not faced with those two facts, we could certainly all benefit from better nutrition. So in our pursuit of that goal we have been reading and studying and trying to learn as much as we can about the food we eat. As a result we have changed our dietary approach in several major areas, settling on some general principles that we don't follow "religiously" but which we try to incorporate as much as possible depending on time and finances.
1) We are trying to use more natural methods of sweetening. This means avoiding artificial sweeteners such as saccharin (Sweet & Low), aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) as well as processed sugars and corn syrups. We are doing pretty well with the artificial sweeteners, but cutting out the latter two is proving to be harder. Have you ever noticed how many products in the grocery store have high fructose corn syrup? Try it sometime--you'll be amazed. (Then, if you're like us, you'll start to wonder why, and you'll discover that it's because high fructose corn syrup is a much cheaper sweetener than plain old sugar, which is subsidized by the federal government. Problem is, high fructose corn syrup is a lot less healthy.) We have by no means eliminated this substance from our diet. It is just so pervasive--in our catsup and mayonnaise and salad dressings, etc.--but we have curtailed it. We now buy pure maple syrup instead of the faux stuff, peanut butter that only has peanuts in it, 100% juice, and jam that is 100% made from fruit. Gotta start somewhere, right?
2) We have completely changed our attitude towards fat. The science that has motivated us to do so is too complicated to go into here, but we have become convinced that much of what we have been told in our lifetime regarding fats is just plain wrong. So after years of eating margarine and vegetable oil, we have eliminated both of those in favor of real butter and peanut, coconut, & olive oils. We have learned that lard can be our friend!
3) We are trying to buy and eat more locally, having become concerned about some of the chemicals and processes associated with factory farming (e.g. pasteurization, genetic engineering, growth hormones, pesticides, and abuse of antibiotics). We recently discovered our nearby farmers' market and are making a visit there a regular part of our week. We simply can't afford the cost of many organic and free-farmed products, but have decided for certain staple foods it is worth trying to find room in the budget. For example, we now buy cage-free eggs, not so much out of concern for the chickens (although that is a nice side benefit) but because they are a lot less likely to make us sick. It's nice to enjoy a sunny side up egg once in a while! We are also investigating local sources of milk (more on that in a future post). Finally, for the first time we are trying our hand at growing some fresh herbs and vegetables in our back yard (can't get much more local than that!).
4) We are trying to replace at least some of the white flour in our diet with healthier whole grain products (whole wheat bread and pasta, long grain rice, steel-cut whole oats). Again, it is extremely difficult to avoid all white flour--it is pervasive, and I must admit I have a weakness for it. But the fact is it just does not have a lot of nutritional value (which is why my husband likes to call it "candy bread"). Of course, the whole grain products are harder to find as well as more expensive, which is one reason some of my friends make their own bread and pasta. This is something I can't quite see myself doing right now, but maybe some day.
We have never been much on "junk food" such as chips and pop, but what we have discovered of late is that much of the typical American diet has just about as much nutritional value as those kinds of things. We hope that the above changes in habit as well as a more concerted effort to cook from scratch will help us to move away from a merely "typical" diet and toward a truly healthy one.