Back in the day, our grandmothers made food from scratch. Today, most of us eat food made by food manufactures. While that’s really convenient, the downside is it’s often loaded with additives, preservatives, artificial ingredients, fat, salt, too much sugar, and “natural” made-in-a-lab flavor. Yet true health and proper nutrition requires that we avoid overly processed food containing ingredients we can’t pronounce. A healthy diet is simple. Really simple. Here’s a guide to help you figure out which foods to avoid and which foods to buy to keep your body healthy and strong.
FOODS TO AVOID
Sugar and artificial sweeteners
Read food labels carefully because sugar and sugar substitutes show up in strange places, like soup, deli meat, chicken stock, salad dressing, and in many of those “healthy” protein bars. Start by cutting sugar out of places it doesn’t belong and choose natural sweeteners, like raw honey and dates, instead of sugar.
Most humans stop producing the enzyme (lactase) necessary to digest the main sugar (lactose) in milk by age five. When someone is lactose intolerant, the undigested sugar sits in their colon and begins to ferment. It can cause a whole range of unpleasant digestive issues, such as bloating, cramping, and/or diarrhea.
Technically speaking, we aren’t meant to drink milk as adults. The fact that some can is considered a genetic mutation.
Being able to digest milk is so strange that scientists say we shouldn’t really call lactose intolerance a disease, because that presumes it’s abnormal. Instead, they call it lactase persistence, indicating what’s really weird is the ability to continue to drink milk. – ABC News
If you’re lactose intolerant or lactose sensitive, limit dairy or better yet, avoid it completely. Nut milks (such as almond or cashew) are great non-dairy alternatives to cow’s milk. If you choose to go with a nut milk, make sure it’s carrageenan free. Carrageenan has been linked with gastrointestinal inflammation.
In addition to lactose, some people are sensitive to a protein in milk called casein. Casein can trigger inflammation throughout the body, which can lead to sinus congestion, acne, rashes, and migraines.
There are some concerns that a diet high in calcium from cow’s milk (this includes cheese) may increase the risk of prostate cancer. That should be reason enough to avoid it.
Goat’s milk is a healthier alternative to cow’s milk because it contains less lactose, which can make it easier to digest, and it has fewer allergenic proteins. But goat’s milk has a much stronger flavor.
If you drink milk, make sure it’s USDA certified organic, and free of hormones and antibiotics.
If you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, IBS, or digestive issues, obviously avoid wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye).
If you can tolerate grains, but you want something healthier, try organic ancestral or heirloom grains, like farro (which is either einkorn, spelt, or emmer), kamut, or Turkey Red wheat. U.S. wheat has been hybridized and it isn’t quite as nutritious as the wheat our grandmothers ate. Give some new and unusual grains a try because they tend to be much more delicious and nutritious.
Beans and legumes
If you have serious digestive issues, such as IBS, bloating, gas, or any kind of digestive pain, you may want to limit or avoid beans and legumes because they can be difficult to digest. Tip: if you soak beans overnight, they are a little easier to digest.
Artificial colors like red #40, yellow #5, and yellow #6 contain benzidine, a likely carcinogen for both humans and animals. There is evidence linking food dyes to behavioral problems, including hyperactivity in some children. Foods that contain artificial colors must contain warning labels in Europe, but not in the U.S. Be sure to read labels if you want to avoid them.
Avoid plastic – both BPA (Bisphenol-A) and BPA-free
What does plastic have to do with a healthy diet? Most of our food and water is packaged in plastic. And research shows that the harmful, estrogen-like chemicals found in plastic can leech out of containers and into our food and water, especially when really hot or cold. Research from the University of Texas at Arlington found that BPA “could well contribute to [breast cancer] tumor growth.”
BPA-free (or BPS) isn’t much better. BPS may harm brain function and reproductive development in fetuses, infants, and children. If you have to use plastic, do not expose it to hot or cold temperatures. Use glass food storage containers and drink water out of glass bottles. Avoid canned food, even if it says BPA-free on the label (BPS may be just as harmful as BPA).
Junk food and overly processed food
Avoid eating fast food and prepared or frozen food that contains too many artificial ingredients.
Regular table sale
Instead of using regular table salt, go pink! Pink Himalayan salt is minimally processed, doesn’t contain additives or anticaking agents, and has more trace minerals than regular salt, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Himalayan salt has a little less sodium than table salt, too. Celtic salt is another good option.
LIST OF FOODS TO AVOID
Fish that isn’t wild-caught or sustainably farmed
Large fish, such as tuna (including tunafish), ahi, swordfish, orange roughy and king mackerel because they’re high in mercury (see NRDC’s “The Smart Seafood Buying Guide“ or the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Seafood)
Meat that isn’t organic
Red meat (limit it to a few times a month or avoid it entirely)
Gluten (if you have digestive issues)
Dairy (if you have digestive issues)
Sugar and artificial or processed sweeteners
Grains (if you have digestive issues)
Bean and legumes (if you have digestive issues)
“Natural” flavoring as opposed to natural food flavor
Anything you can’t pronounce
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) because they are typically sprayed with harmful pesticides/herbicides
Soy or corn that isn’t organic (both are in a lot of processed and prepared food) because they could be GMO crops sprayed with toxic pesticides or herbicides
Anything packaged in plastic
Cans lined with BPA
Fruit and veggies that aren’t organic (or aren’t on the EWG’s list of “Clean 15”)
This list may seem extreme, but the average American grocery store is full of food that contains ingredients we can’t pronounce, additives, preservatives, artificial ingredients, food with cancer-causing pesticide residue, too much sugar, salt, and fat. How extreme is that?
FOODS TO EAT
USDA certified organic, biodynamic, or regenerative
When you commit to buying from local farmers that use USDA certified organic, biodynamic, or regenerative farming practices, you reduce the amount of toxic chemicals sprayed on our food and the environment (which impacts butterflies, birds, and bees). You also support healthy soil, the humane treatment of animals, the health of the people who pick our food, the local economy, and the reduction of chemicals in our water supply.
When you buy organic, biodynamic, or regenerative food, you say no to GMO crops and the toxic chemicals that are often sold with them. (For example, Monsanto’s Roundup-ready crops are genetically modified to withstand Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup.) But buying organic is about so much more than pesticides. It’s about supporting a healthy world. If you do one thing for your health and the health of the environment, buy USDA certified organic, biodynamic, or Regenerative Organic Certified food from small, local farmers.
Wild-caught or sustainably farmed small fish (large fish have high levels of mercury) and seafood (see Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Recommendations)
Organic chicken or turkey (if you eat meat)
Organic raw honey or dates as sweeteners
Organic herbs and spices
Bottled or filtered water in glass bottles, not plastic
Extra virgin olive oil
Pink Himalayan salt
Organic herbal teas
Ancestral or heirloom grains (if you eat grains)
If you want a diet to follow, The Mediterranean Diet is an excellent and well-researched diet for good overall health.
This guide does not substitute for medical advice. If you have health concerns, talk to your doctor before starting a new diet.
Time – “Why ‘BPA-Free’ May Be Meaningless”
Environmental Working Group’s “Clean Fifteen”
Harvard – “Calcium and Milk: What’s Best for Your Bones and Health?”
Livestrong.com – “Beans and Digestive Problems”
Authority Nutrition – “6 Reasons Why Gluten is Bad for Some People”
Sunrise Flour Mill, LLC. – “Turkey Red, A Heritage Wheat”
Center for Science in the Public Interest – “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks”
National Institutes of Health – “Diet and Nutrition: The Artificial Food Dye Blues”
Environmental Working Group’s “Consumer Guide to Seafood”
Science Daily – “BPA linked to breast cancer tumor growth”
Scientific American – “Plastic (Not) Fantastic: Food Containers Leach a Potential Harmful Chemical”
NPR – “Study: Most Plastic Leach Hormone-Like Chemicals”
Scientific American – “BPA-Free Plastic Containers May Be Just as Hazardous”
Harvard Health Publications – “Microwaving food in plastic: Dangerous or not?”
Mayo Clinic – “Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan”
Voice of America – “Oceans Could Hold More Plastic Than Fish by 2050”
Harvard Health Publications/Harvard Medical School – “Adopt a Mediterranean diet now for better health later”
NPR – “Farro: An Ancient and Complicated Grain Worth Figuring Out”
Feature Image Knape @iStock