Everyone likes choices. But sometimes too many choices when it comes to nutritional guidelines and eating lifestyles can leave you walking in circles on the verge of tears in the supermarket because you simply don't know what you should be buying. Full-fat yogurt? "Lite" yogurt? No yogurt at all? Grass-fed turkey? Or Tofurkey? Whole grains, no grains, sprouted grains?
No matter what your own take on good nutrition is, you can find a diet or, in the most current parlance, a "nutritional lifestyle," to suit your tastes. Nutrition experts and health practitioners are recommending options that are sustainable over the long run and focus on the types of calories consumed rather the just the quantity. Most of the approaches agree that an increased intake of fresh, whole, organic fruits and vegetables and a drastic decrease in the consumption of sugar and other processed foods are key to healthy weight and long-lasting fitness. But the way a diet is rounded out after that is something of a free-for-all.
ORGANIC (general definition)**
In order to be certified as organic by the USDA, raw or processed agricultural products must be produced without the use of genetic engineering, chemical fertilizers, irradiation or sewage sludge. Gradations of the organic label also exist.
• 100 Percent Organic: Processed products with 100 percent of ingredients and processing aids certified organic. Eligible to display the USDA organic seal.
• Organic: Processed products with 95 percent of the ingredients certified organic. Eligible to display the USDA organic seal.
• Made with Organic Ingredients***: Processed products with at least 70 percent of the ingredients certified organic. Ineligible to display the USDA organic seal.
NATURAL and ALL-NATURAL: Use of these terms is not regulated, so they basically mean very little and guarantee nothing.
MADE WITH NATURAL FLAVORING: Another unregulated term that can conceal any number of chemical ingredients. Considered trade secrets or proprietary information, manufacturers are not required to list ingredients that come under the "natural flavorings" umbrella.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS (GMOs): Plants or animals that have been genetically altered, creating species that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. Engineered mainly to be resistant to pests, herbicide-tolerant, to increase shelf-life, add nutritional value and finesse taste. Food manufacturers in the U.S. are not required to label GMOs in products.
WHOLE FOODS: Eating foods that are as close to their natural state as possible without processing. That includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables (preferably organic); and organic, humanely raised (free-range, grass-fed) animal products.
WHOLE FOODS/PLANT-BASED: Eating whole or minimally processed plants, primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, tubers and legumes. Excludes or minimizes animal-based foods such as meat (including poultry and fish), dairy and eggs, as well as processed foods like bleached flour, refined sugar and oil.
* Definitions obtained from professionals identified in the story, as well as outside research and sites such WebMD.com, ForksOverKnives.com, CivilizedCavemanCooking.com, OregonTilth.com and USDA.gov.
** Organic standards were established in 2000 following 10 years of development after Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
*** Multi-ingredient products with less than 70 percent certified organic content may neither display the USDA organic seal nor use the word "organic" on their principal display panel. They may, however, note as organic on their information panel list any certified organic ingredients.
Other Plant-Based Lifestyles
• FRUITARIAN: Eats only fruits and vegetables that are botanically classified as fruits, such as tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, avocados, and seeds and nuts.
• VEGAN: More of a lifestyle that just a diet, veganism eschews both consumption and use of all animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, honey, wool, silk, leather and any nonfood items made with animal byproducts.
Ashland nutritionist and herbalist Greg Gillette advocates adding more — yes, more — healthy fat to that foundation. Gillette, who runs Gillette Nutrition, admits that more fat seems counterintuitive and rather radical in a world that began vilifying fat in the 1980s.
But, he asserts, the fats he's talking about don't come from Oreos and ice cream.
"Most people just don't have enough good fat in their diets," Gillette says. "They're afraid of it. But eating good fats, lots of vegetable and a lot less starch will give your body energy, good hydration, lubrication, good digestion and increase your immunity. Getting most of your calories from good fats such as avocados, egg yolks, chia seeds, coconut and olive oils, pumpkin seeds and organic, grass-fed meats can balance your blood sugar and it just makes your brain happier. Our brains are 60 percent fat."
Certified Food for Life instructor Laura Gadbois, on the other hand, advocates a strict vegetarian diet. Because a vegetarian diet can allow for a host of eating choices that are far from healthy — even doughnuts and potato chips are can be vegetarian — Gadbois advocates a whole foods, plant-based approach. However, she acknowledges that it's human nature to want to personalize an eating plan.
"To me, semi-vegetarianism is not vegetarianism because you're still eating meat. It dilutes the meaning," she says. "But people like to have their own spin on things. Everybody is different, even when it comes to how and why they choose to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Some might see a video or talk to a doctor and from that moment on they completely change their diet. Others make small, incremental changes. For some it's easy and for others it's a struggle."
Either way, she says, it's worth the effort, since mindless, uninformed eating can lead to all kinds of health problems and shorten life spans. Still, it's not just the body's desire for Rocky Road that makes choosing a healthy eating plan tough.
It ain't easy eating clean
Annie Hoy, outreach manager at the Ashland Food Co-op, says we're up against it from all directions — starting with media outlets and advertising that push cheap/fast/processed-food agendas.
"People have forgotten the true value of food and gotten so far away from eating food that is really food," she says. "Science started tinkering with food and we got things like boxed mashed potatoes and Hamburger Helper and Cheez Whiz, and on and on for the sake of convenience. We don't digest those things properly because our digestive enzymes don't recognize them as food and we wind up with diseases that are directly related to our diets."
And as much as an advocate as she is for clean, whole foods, even Hoy concedes that it's an uphill battle. Take GMOs, for example. You'd be hard-pressed outside of the circle of corporations that make money off of them to find anyone who thinks consuming them is a good idea
But even if you do your very best to avoid them in your diet, you won't be able to avoid them altogether. "As prevalent as GMOs are now, I don't think it's possible to eat a completely GMO-free diet unless you grow your own food or buy all of your food from a local, organic grower and your meat from a local person that you know and trust. Even then, pollen drifts. Pollen knows no boundaries and that GMO pollen is drifting all over the country from those GMO corn, soy and sugar beet crops."
As discouraging as that may sound, Hoy encourages persistence. "I don't take that to mean we should just give up," she adds. "I just take it to mean that we start to take a stand and change things, right now, before they get worse."