I eat pretty healthy. In fact, I don’t think there has been a time I didn’t consider myself a healthy eater. The strange thing is that despite consistently applying that label, my diet has changed a lot over the years. What I once considered healthy, I now wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Thinking about this has helped me be a little more understanding of those with less healthy eating habits … and it also made me curious about the “eating journeys” others take. So, here’s my food story. What’s yours — and do you consider it healthy?
Growing up, I always thought the unhealthy (i.e., sugary) food was expensive. In my mind, the reason we didn’t get Lucky Charms was because it cost too much, not because sugar is a horrible way to start the day. I applied the same reasoning to explain why the sweets we did have seemed to be either hidden or off-limits. Ready-made cookie dough balls were in the freezer at times, my mom’s two-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper were always in the fridge, and peanut M&Ms frequented my dad’s top dresser drawer. (I occasionally plundered each of these.) And there was ice cream that we would eat together as a family while we watched Star Trek: The Next Generation once a week or so.
Looking back, though, it’s clear my parents were making an effort to have treats be just that – treats. Not meals. Our meals were much different.
Breakfast consisted of generic Cheerios or raisin bran – no Fruit Loops, Choco Puffs, or candy-bar inspired varieties. We took our lunches to school, and I remember a good amount of sandwiches, carrot sticks, pretzels, applesauce cups, etc. (supplemented with an ice cream cone if I could bum 35 cents off of someone). Dinners were almost exclusively home cooked, typically of the spaghetti / stroganoff / goulash / taco stack variety. (My favorite was always orange chicken.) When we did go out (once a month, at most), we hit up El Chico … and if we were really lucky, we got to share a sopapilla or flan.
On the whole, it was a decent food foundation for life — especially when I compared what we ate to many of my friends. (One of my high school buddies ate a Snickers bar and a can of soda for lunch … every day.)
Unfortunately, when I transitioned to making (and, perhaps more importantly, buying) my own food, I realized healthy food was not cheaper. My breakfasts (cheap cold cereal) and lunches (PB&J sandwich, ham/cheese sandwich, cheese crackers, carrot sticks, pretzels and an apple1) remained about the same. The differences came at dinner and in my beverages. There was lots of hamburger/chicken helper, Totinos pizzas, Eli Mac,2 double-decker tacos, and the like, and I drank obscene amounts of generic Kool-Aid.
Clearly this influx of cheap meats and refined sugar wasn’t healthy … but, at the time, I rationalized it away. I was living on money made as an intern over the summers, so I thought that was all I could afford. Plus, I would open up a can of green beans fairly frequently and eat them cold with dinner. That counted for something, right?
Married and working
This continued until I graduated and got married (at about the same time). I had new income to buy better food and my wife wanted to try her hands at cooking, so we made some changes.
First, the quality upgrades. For breakfast, I moved up to all of those cereals I had only dreamed about in the past. You know, the ones with almond slices, granola clusters and/or even name brands (gasp!). Out were the cheap cheese crackers and in were Sun Chips and Baked Lays. Heavily processed lunch meats were replaced with stuff that at least wasn’t pressed into forms. That sort of thing.
Second, I cut out the (manually) sugared drinks and stuck to water and some juice. (Seeing Supersize Me had a lot to do with this.3)
Third, we changed our dinners from being meat-centered to having meat as an accessory. This would save money and make room for more healthy grains and vegetables. It weirded me out at first (how could it be a meal without meat?), but that in and of itself was an incentive for me to try. (I fancy myself of the open-minded variety.)
Ingredients list discovery
I came to an “ingredients list awakening” at some point during the next couple of years, instigated (I think) with the discovery of “natural peanut butter” (i.e., peanut butter made with just peanuts).4 After a very positive test run, I began to seriously question the value of all the extra things peanut butter typically contains.5 Yes, the non-peanut ingredients does allow a longer shelf life, make it sweeter, and maybe even bring down the price (via subsidies?), but I liked the taste of the natural variety better and didn’t have a spoilage issue. That left paying a little more and having to stir the jar after first opening, both well worth doing (in my mind) for the simplicity and health.
This gradually escalated into a mission to seek out and trade-up for items with shorter ingredients lists — particularly those without added sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, and preservatives. Some things, like Sun Chips, still did pretty well (although there are better chip options). Others, like the cold cereals, didn’t. We started eating a lot of Kashi goods at this point – crackers, cereals, snack bars, etc. They seemed to be about the best healthy-but-not-crazy-expensive options, at least as far as boxed food went.
We also started using nitrate-free turkey for lunchmeat. I was anticipating an arduous investigation to find out which meats were “safe,” but it turned out all I had to do was ask at the deli. When we checked at our local HEB, they gave us a laminated list of which meats had nitrates and which didn’t. Easy peasy.
I don’t know why it took so long, but eventually I realized (with the help of Food, Inc.6) “organic” is the one-word way to summarize the direction I was headed. Take eggs, for example. I could see the benefit of getting eggs from chickens that roam freely and eat thier natural diet. Instead of trying to find cartons stamped with that information, I could just look for organic eggs and have my bases covered. Or, of I wanted beef from cows that are grass-fed and hormone free, organic beef would do the trick. And then, of course, there is the produce with no genetic modification, much less chemical involvement, and more nutrients.
We found some good lists online of where buying organic is most important (e.g., root vegetables) and least important (e.g., fruits you peel) and started making substitutions. It was expensive, but we were able to compensate somewhat by buying generic and participating in a local organic co-op.
Bypassing the factory
The latest step I’ve taken is to try and eat food that is “close to nature” (or, as my brother puts it, “God food”). The idea is to skip out on food that has been formulated in a lab or processed in a factory and substitute in food that’s straight from the ground (or as close as you can get).
This led me away from the Kashi products (and even some of the organic ones) and to the bulk foods section. Instead of cold cereal in the morning, I now eat organic raw oats (bulk), organic raisins (bulk), raw almonds (bulk), organic flax seed (bulk, ground), and organic rice milk (boxed). It’s dang tasty and obviously very healthy. (It’s not that expensive, either.)
My lunches changed, too. Out: Kashi crackers and a sandwich containing mustard, organic mayo, cheese, nitrate-free turkey and heaps of organic spinach. In: a huge salad with organic spinach, organic romaine lettuce, raw sunflower seeds (bulk), raw walnuts (bulk), organic red pepper, banana peppers, organic canned beans, and topped with balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil. The rest of my lunch stayed the same: a large organic carrot, a PB&J sandwich (with whole grain bread, natural peanut butter, and all-fruit jelly), vegetable chips, and a piece of fruit.7
What about dinner, you ask? Well, my wife cooks that most of the time (and does a fantastic job, mostly inspired by Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food magazine), so I leave that up to her. The great thing is, eating a breakfast and lunch this healthy everyday leaves me some leeway on the third meal. (Not that she cooks unhealthy food, I just don’t have to worry about making sure it’s uber healthy.)
That brings me today, wondering what will change next. We have an aboveground garden that is close to getting its first seed, so that will reduce costs and will be good for the environment. I’m also investigating different mutli-vitamins and fish oil supplements. Other than that, all I can tell you is my diet will continue to be healthy … as always. :/
1 Funny story: I ate the same thing for lunch every day. Eventually, it got to me and I decided I would try blending it all up and drinking it as a lunch shake. So, I made everything just like normal … and then dumped it in the blender (including the large glass of generic Kool-Aid). The shake was surprisingly runny, but not surprisingly tasted like vomit. I held my nose and chugged them to avoid the taste, but then I realized I had “eaten” my entire lunch in under a minute. Let’s just say my stomach wasn’t very fond of that.
2 Eli Mac is named after its creator: my twin brother, Brian Eli Hansen. It consisted of a couple boxes of the cheapest (or perhaps next-to-cheapest) macaroni and cheese we could find, a can of Rotel tomatoes, and a half link of sausage (sliced into half-moons and cooked up to the point of charring). Make the mac and cheese, mix in the tomatoes and sausage, and voila: cheap, high-calorie college food.
4 To be fair, there are some natural peanut butters that have added salt. I stick to those with one ingredient on the list, though.
5 “Normal” peanut butter usually contains hydrogenated vegetable oil (stabilizer), salt (preservative), and sweeteners. No butter, though.
7 Listed in the order I eat them. (That’s right.)
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