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Archive for August, 2009

Everyone knows that “junk food” is bad for us. Many of us know that “processed food” is bad for us. But what really is the difference? Why do many health-conscious consumers shun potato chips but enjoy granola bars in abundance? Why do many health-conscious consumers refuse to buy soda for their child but purchase fortified “juice” beverages regularly?

Cereal

Processed food is food that has been heavily manufactured in order to be shelf-stable. Processed food rarely resembles anything from nature. Processed food fills the inner aisles of the grocery store; things like cereal, crackers, breads, bottled beverages, granola bars, and other snack foods. There is no question that these foods are not part of a healthy diet. When a food undergoes so much manufacturing, it becomes nutritionally devoid. An enormous amount of preservatives and other artificial ingredients are added to these foods to keep them “fresh.” In addition, a great deal of sugar and salt is often added to make these “foods” taste better. The healthiest foods are the ones closest to their natural state. Our bodies are not designed to consume these man-made concoctions that America has come to accept as food. When we eat shrink-wrapped, boxed, bagged creations, we will not reach optimal health and weight. Calories are irrelevant here; the food you eat is a lot more complex than calories. [For more on this, read my post Confessions of an Ex-Calorie Counter.]

There is rarely any dispute over junk food. The general consensus is that foods like twinkies, potato chips, and soda are not good for us. This is true, however, there are many foods just like these that the average family would consider a healthy addition to their pantry. Unfortunately, a great deal of marketing fools most consumers into believing items like granola bars or fortified cereals are a beacon of health, while in reality, they are much like twinkies in disguise. [See my posts The Truth About Granola Bars and The Truth About Vitamin Water for more specific info on this.]

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While these healthy substitutes may be certified organic and may not contain harmful ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or trans fat, they are certainly not the foundation of a healthy diet. Nearly all these foods are very high in sugar and are heavily processed. “Whole wheat” bread is one of the worst offenders; consumers think that a “whole grain” label is a sign of a truly nutritious choice. These breads are full of preservatives and often still contain refined white flour. [For more on this, read my post All About Bread.] While I recommend them over their more unnatural counterparts, I really don’t recommend them at all. A long ingredient list is always worth avoiding.

But perhaps the worst offender is functional or fortified foods. These are standard, processed foods that have certain vitamins or nutrients added to increase their marketability. There is always a new nutrient in the spotlight with incredible health claims and promises. Things like vitamin C, fiber, antioxidants, omega 3s, and probiotics are just some of the current health buzzwords. Food companies know that consumers are becoming increasingly interested in health, so they fortify their processed, cheap, junk food with these substances. These are healthy substances when found occurring naturally in whole foods. However, supplementing a nutrient-devoid, sugar-laden, chemically-ridden cracker with a certain nutrient won’t make it healthy.

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probiotics

Be a smart consumer. When considering your food purchases, don’t be enticed by health claims and packaging. Stick to foods that resemble something that may be found in nature and the nutrition will take care of itself.

Eat your vegetables,
Emily

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Herbs and Spices

Nearly all cultures incorporate herbs and spices into their regional cuisine. Unfortunately, American food culture focuses on heavily processed sugar, salt, and unhealthy fat to enhance the flavor of many of our dishes. Herbs and spices not only make food more palatable, but offer a wealth of nutritional benefits as well.

IMG_2428 (1)Fresh cilantro, basil, and home-dried dill.

During the warmer months, you’ll find a bountiful supply of fresh herbs at your local farmer’s market. Look for basil, mint, cilantro, rosemary, sage, and dill. You can easily grow your own herbs at home either in a garden or indoors in pots. You can also dry your own fresh herbs by hanging a bunch in a sunny spot for one to two weeks.

Don’t compromise quality when it comes to spices. An organic, high-quality spice will taste more potent and consequently last longer since you don’t need as much of it to enhance a dish.

Here’s a list of herbs and spices along with their respective health benefits and ways to incorporate them into your diet. This list doesn’t include everything… I encourage you to try any herb or spice that intrigues you! Many of these herbs and spices have a long list of health properties; I’m only highlighting a few. Remember when it comes to herbs, fresh is always best.

Fresh Herbs
Basil: Antioxidant, decreases inflammation. Use in home-made pasta sauces or pesto.
Cilantro: Antioxidant, digestive aid. Use in home-made guacamole or to add more flavor to any Mexican dish.
Dill: Antioxidant, antimicrobial, diuretic. Combine with greek yogurt to make a creamy dip or make Creamy Cilantro Dill Dressing.
Thyme: Antioxidant, inhibits bone resorption. Add to organic scrambled eggs.
Mint: Antioxidant, antimicrobial, stomach soother. Make your own herbal mint tea by steeping leaves in boiling water.

Spices
Cayenne Pepper: Boosts metabolism, decreases inflammation, improves digestion. Sprinkle on soups, stir-fries, or anything that could use a spicy kick.
Turmeric: Antioxidant, decreases inflammation, antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal. This Indian spice is being widely recognized for its astonishing health benefits. The taste is similar to mustard. Sprinkle on salads for flavor, or use in curry powder to make Indian dishes.
Cinnamon: Antioxidant, antimicrobial, controls blood sugar, boosts metabolism. Add cinnamon to fresh fruit or any sweet dessert to help manage blood sugar levels.
Garlic: Antioxidant, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, decreases inflammation, boosts immunity. Add to sautéed vegetables.
Ginger: Antioxidant, decreases inflammation, boosts immunity, digestive aid. Use fresh ginger in stir-fries or home-made vegetable juices.

This only skims the surface of what herbs and spices have to offer. Not only are the health benefits are astounding, but they’ll bring your cooking to life, too! What are your favorite herbs and spices and how do you use them?

Spice things up,
Emily

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