Monday, September 8, 2008

How Clean Are You Eating?

A few nights ago, my husband and I were headed out to dinner and a movie, and he asked: "Knowing what I know, and that I think we currently eat pretty 'clean', could we possibly eat any 'cleaner'?"

Though I know my personal definition of clean eating or eating clean, I dug a bit to see if there was a general consensus. Obviously, there is no Merriam-Webster definition for the term or concept, however, generally speaking around and about the Internet and health & fitness magazines & industries, clean eating represents a lifestyle of making the most wholesome nutritional choices for you and your family. I wouldn't say that it encompasses supplementation of any sort, because if you are eating clean, you are ATTEMPTING to get as many essential and beneficial nutrients needed by your body from whole foods.

But what exactly are "whole foods"? Good question. Based on each individual's level of education about food & nutrition, your definition will vary. You can't achieve a higher level or more healthful level of eating if what you don't know what that consists of and what the underlying science behind it is (again, I warn against magazine snippets that say "STUDIES SHOW:..." - what study? how big? how long? blind, double blind? controlled? who funded it?...), and the more you know, the more you will be aware of what "the masses" don't know. You can't eat healthier if you don't know what healthy is.

For example:
If you don't know that Crisco or lard is a saturated fat and that it's inferior to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (if you even know what these are), you can't make the proper selection.

If you don't know how many calories are in the foods you prepare, you can't say "I eat 1200 calories per day".

If you don't know the definition of processing and refining, you can't say I eat all natural, unprocessed and unrefined foods. Heck, cheese and milk are refined (cultured and pasteurized, respectively), as are vinegar and ketchup, and I wouldn't say they are excluded from someones diet who is a clean eater.

We probably do need to break down each of the components of clean eating, which, stepping backwards for a second, would consist of consuming whole foods. I like the definition Wikipedia provides for whole foods:

Whole foods are those that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed
and refined as little as possible before being consumed. They typically do not
contain added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, or fat. Often confused with
"organic food" (i.e., organically-grown food), whole foods are not necessarily
organic, nor are organic foods necessarily whole, although they do share a
number of traits, such as an avoidance of chemically-assisted agricultural
techniques. Because of the lack of basic processing, many whole foods have a
very short shelf life and are not easily sold outside of farmers' markets.
Examples of whole foods include unpolished grains; fruits and vegetables;
unprocessed meat, poultry, and fish; and non-homogenized milk.

For some, it is preferable to eat whole foods raw to obtain the maximum nutritional benefit, although this raises concerns of food poisoning. Whole foods are easily assimilated and absorbed readily by the body. Whole foods are nutrient rich and are thought to promote health because they are a natural source of vitamins and minerals. The term “Whole Food” has been known to describe any food that offers a complete balance in nutritional value while in its natural state. Whole foods typically include any raw fruits and vegetables, as well as nutrient-dense nuts, seeds and sprouts. Some contend that it is preferable to eat whole foods raw in order to obtain their maximum nutritional benefit.

Now, specifically speaking about each of the major components of our diet, let's take a look at what eating clean in each of these groups would entail.

Specifically, lean protein in it's most natural state, meaning minimally processed, without chemical fillers, preservatives, etc. I say minimally processed versus processed here because most all animal proteins are processed to some extent. I suppose if you kill your own chicken, pluck it, skin it, wash it and then cook it - yes, chicken can reach your plate unprocessed - but how often are many of this doing it ourselves? Because it has to go from the farm to the factory where it's "processed" from it's live state into that which we consume, it is processed. What we strive to achieve is minimally processed here. Lacking preservatives and fillers, injected water and salt, and definitely without breading, coating, seasoning, etc. We want to do this part ourselves so we can control the components of the flavor, versus succumb to whatever stable chemicals the manufacturer uses to flavor it. When shopping, this would exclude pre-packaged deli meats, although there are a few, Boars Head for one, that claim no nitrates, sulfates, etc.

Let's prioritize within this category with this in mind: "the fewer the legs the better" - in other words, fish, shellfish, beans/legumes and eggs are tops (no legs). The healthy fats in the seafood, the added fiber and nutrients in the beans & legumes, the high quality protein in the egg white and the high quality protein and the vitamins & minerals in the egg yolk (just watch the quantity of yolks if you have high cholesterol) make these rank at the top of the list. Chicken and other two-legged protein rank in second place, with the leaner options being better choices. And, finally, our standard four-legged beef, pork, etc. are still in the mix, just try to plan for them less frequently than the others. Don't get me wrong, I love beef, and think it's an essential part of our diet - but I choose grass-fed, lean cuts, and / or go for bison or other free-roaming rumen.

And, now how do we prepare our lean protein? Like this: First, we cut the excess fat from it, because fat from meats, though it adds "some" flavor, is saturated. Period, end of story. You can criticize me for trimming every single piece of meat I buy and think "what a waste", but what I see landing on the cutting board is like a totally gross tub of Crisco or lard - greasy, white, thick saturated fat that never breaks down in your body and remains in that solid state forever...Lord only knows which branch of your arteries (legs, heart?) it's going to stick in today! Second, we choose natural, flavorful spices and herbs with which to season the mean to add flavor if we so desire. And third, we either bake it, broil it, pan sear it, roast it...whatever, but with healthy oils - no solid fats. Why in the world would you add back an unhealthy fat to something you just rid of it? And healthy oils are our friends! Olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil...all great ways to cook your lean protein and add healthy fats to your diet at the same time.

Again, in their most natural state. Frozen is great too, as the flash freezing process tends to preserve many of the vitamins and minerals. Just be sure to pay attention to the EWG's Pesticide List and choose organic when pesticide levels in standard grocer's chosen produce is high.

Also, use variety as a strategy in your planning. Variety will give you a more diversified blend of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and all the other healthful benefits of vegetables. Try new things, even if you don't know what to do with them. If you're reading this, you have a computer. Google your new vegetable's name plus the word recipe and you'll be flush with options! Tonight, for the fourth time, I tried to add butternut squash to our dinner. I have wanted to add it for a while, but couldn't find a way to prepare it that rocked my world. But I found a recipe in First Magazine, of all things - grocery store checkout line pick up - and there was a little snippet recipe for butternut squash fries. Tried it tonight and without telling my husband what they were, he guessed sweet potato fries and loved them. Hooray, squash now has a new place in my vegetable drawer! And it only took four tries!

Vegetables are carbohydrates, but their counts are very low, and they are good sources of fiber. Fill up on them. Try two sides of veggies with dinner versus the standard starch. I know people who blindly, because that what they've always done and that's what their mother did, will base a dinner on protein, starch,...and starch. No non-starchy vegetables! Make non-starchy veggies a priority with the dinner meal as opposed to other, higher sources of carbohydrates, especially if you tend to be sedentary after dinner. My least active time of the day is after dinner, and I don't "use" much energy during that time, so I load my carbs up during they day when I know I'll need and use the energy - find that balance!

And again, in their most natural state. This means not from a can, definitely not from juice and not from applesauce (no skin). Like with vegetables, use the EWG's Pesticide List.

I'm working on some research about the strategic timing of eating fruit, but available time's been low so I haven't finished it, but it is intriguing how the body breaks down fructose as compared to the other "-0se's"!

Always incorporate fruit into your breakfast. It's a great way to start the day, it always "goes" with breakfast, and you need that energy when you first wake up. It's a great snacking option, especially the portable types like apples, plums, peaches, pears, bananas...those that you can eat without peeling or needing a knife and cutting board. And many fruits fit into a light-style or spa lunch such as into any salad, on many sandwiches (apples compliment avocados and many cheese in sandwiches, wraps and on salads; mangoes blend really nicely with both sweet and salty).

Nuts are a snacker's heaven! It is easy to overindulge though, so for me, it's been good to learn how much 1 oz of walnuts looks like, or how many calories (average) in one almond (the answer is around 7) - this way, along with getting healthy fats, dietary fiber and seriously high quality nutrients, I control my calories. Just yesterday my husband and I were heading out to run some errands about 1/2 hour before I knew I was "due for food"...and I said, as I was grabbing a medium apple (not small- didn't have one- see "Fruits & Vegetables are Carbohydrates" on June 16, 2008 blog):

"Will you grab me seven almonds?".
"Seven?", he said? "Exactly seven?".
He smiled slyly, because he knew he'd done the very same thing at some point!

I chose seven almonds (@ 7 calories each = 49 (OK - about 50 calories)) because I knew the medium apple was around 120 calories, and I just needed about 200 calories as a snack to get me through till we could get home and I could make a good lunch. Why 200? Because I have spent (or "invested", is probably a better word) the time to understand calories - the calorie content of food and how many I need for meals and snacks. The great thing about this investment is that it's a one time investment. Once you know your main food choices, you don't have to re-invest, but rather, just use the information to make a lifetime of healthy, educated decisions! So, with my personal snack total at about 200 calories (2-3 snacks a day), my apple and almonds did the trick on the fly. Voila!

Beans and legumes are just simply smart, high quality food choices, and are so incredibly easy to add to your diet. And yes, you can use the canned kind for a time saver, but look for those with no salt added. Eden Organics has a great selection.

  • For breakfast, add them to scrambled eggs or omelets.
  • Lunch & Dinner, add to soups and salads, smash into paste and lather on sandwiches or in wraps, or create an entire side with beans or added beans.
  • Snacks - hummus! It's really catching on! And unlike Salsa, which some "profess too loudly" as being a "perfect food" for many reasons, you can eat hummus with crudites (raw veggies), whereas I don't see many people eating salsa with veggies as the dipper. What do they dip with? CHIPS! Ugh, don't get me started.

Whole grains are just that: the whole grain, which includes the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Can't picture it? Think of a whole kernel of corn. With it's outer hard "shell" (bran), it's inner "body" (endosperm), and the tiny little "seed" (germ) in the lower center of the kernel. This is an all inclusive grain! Common whole grains that you can find in your supermarket or better yet, your local health food store, would be whole or steel cut oats, brown rice, barley, bulgur, kamut, quinoa (although this is technically a seed), millet, and so forth. Many of these may sound Greek to you, but trust me, search them out and use them just like rice. Some of the larger kernels like kamut and whole barley (not pearled - it's got the bran removed) can take a good bit to cook, but it's worth it for the nutrients and fiber. Just manage your time well, take advantage of overnight soaking and make a large batch for the week so you always have a grain available.

So far I've only found one brand of processed or refined breads/wraps/muffins that uses no flour, but rather sprouted grains. I don't know how they do it, but Food For Life brand has wraps and bread that have the most incredible ingredient list - I couldn't make it more natural or taste better myself! I just pulled out the bread from my freezer and take a look at this: INGREDIENTS: ORG SPROUTED WHEAT, ORG SPROUTED BARLEY, ORG SPROUTED MILLET, ORG MALTED BARLEY, ORG SPROUTED LENTILS, ORG SPROUTED SOYBEANS, ORG SPROUTED SPELT, FILTERED WATER, FRESH YEAST, SEA SALT. I love this!!! I can pronounce every ingredient and see no chemicals!! (can you tell healthy stuff gets me excited?)

Olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, flaxseed oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil...all great sources of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Use them to cook with (pan saute), bake with (spray on meats to seal in juices), dress salads, add body to soups and salads. You don't need a lot, because at 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram for protein and fat, a little goes a long way in controlling calories. But use them - don't deprive yourself of healthy fats, but do deprive yourself of unhealthy fats!

You can also get good fats from avocados, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, and many of the fatty fishes.

Well, I've covered all the components of what I consider "clean eating", but what I didn't mention is the opposite. I always prefer recommending what TO DO versus what NOT TO DO, but I have to make a few mentions...

  • In restaurants other than health food cafes, you can bet that if you order a wrap of any kind, it's a flour based wrap with little nutritional value - and may be worse than bread. I'm not saying bread is bad, either. When we dine out at a nice restaurant, I will occasionally dip a lovely piece of bread in some olive oil, but it's not Wonder Bread and it's not butter. But back to the wraps - even if it's green or red (spinach or tomato, respectively), avoid it.
  • Choosing restaurants - choose wisely. Most chain restaurants and middle of the road restaurants order their food in bulk or from the franchise, and it is not fresh, it's not made to order, and it is full of unhealthy fats,'ll actually probably never know how bad it is for you. Rather, use eating out as an occasion versus something to do tonight because you don't know what to make for dinner. (Manage your time and plan, people!) Go to quality restaurants where everything is made to order, and where the restaurant gets is produce, meat and/or seafood locally. These tend to be the finer restaurants, but you can ask specifically how things are prepared and make requests that are honored, versus run through a cook line.
  • Boxed foods are typically over-processed, over-refined and contain way too many ingredients we can't pronounce! Mac & Cheese, cereal, pasta, crackers, cookies, most bread, most wraps, any meat that's pre-breaded or pre-marinated, packaged lunch and deli meats, and so on. Basically, when shopping at the grocery store, stick to the perimeter where you'll find milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, eggs, lean protein sources (beef, chicken, pork), fruits, and vegetables. Then, hit your local health food store for bulk grains, seeds, and beans.
  • Chips: Pringles, Tostitos/Doritos, cheese puffs (although I do think the leopard on the Cheetos package is enticing!) - take them out of your vocabulary.

And by the way, the movie we saw that night when I was asked the question about clean eating was Traitor with Don Cheadle - really intense, but really good, and I think we had sushi and wine for dinner.

Onward we go with healthy choices!

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