Healthy Food, Simplified

In the first part of this series, I offered a personal story about how my path finding holistic health and fitness began with a rocky ascent. One of the four foundations I learned in my recovery from disordered eating was how "certain foods create vibrancy, and how other foods create toxicity." 

Broccoli in a Pan.jpg

This second part in the series will take that foundation and expand on the concept of a "vibrant" diet. I'm not a nutritionist. What I'm writing here is for a layman, by a layman.

There's a plethora of literature explaining micros and macros, fats, sugars, and proteins. I spent a month tracking my food on MyFitness Pal, and although the information proved revelatory, (i.e. seeing I didn't get enough iron or calcium), I chose not to continue that number-centric relationship to food. Below is an overview of how I try to simplify the often overly-complicated topic of food.

For me, food serves three basic purposes: nourishment in daily functions, (work and staying alive); energy for physical pursuits, (exercise/play); and pleasure, plain and simple.  

eating healthy mindful eating

I have tried many of the diets out there, mostly because I'm always curious to learn more about food and how it affects the body. I've dabbled in vegetarianism, gone a month eating only raw foods, spent a summer as a paleo enthusiast, and completed a "detox" diet three times. I've been gluten-free, (doctor’s orders), since 2009.

Typical meal in the paleo days

Typical meal in the paleo days

Cultivating a diet for vibrancy looks different for everyone. For example, when I ate vegetarian, I gained weight and always felt tired. My ultra-runner friend, though, thrives off a meat-free diet. I have another friend who eats vegan because it suits her genetics. I felt best on a high-protein, paleo regiment, but found the lack of grains in my diet didn’t serve one of the three purposes: pleasure. I have cookie monster genetics, so no flour made me an angry monster.

In all seriousness, I think restrictions on what we eat should only be in place if they serve all of the three purposes. Eating highly processed foods, say, cheetoes, may push the pleasure button, but will most likely leave the body feeling malnourished. I thus opt not to eat "junk food." And though I aim to eat mostly paleo, as I know it best serves the nourishment and energy purposes, I still eat cookies and breads because pleasure, plain and simple. 

Lots and lots of pleasure

Lots and lots of pleasure

Beyond those three purposes, we also know there’s an ethical aspect to food. What we eat and how directly affects the planet and our fellow humans. I thus try to make consumer choices that help support local farmers and reduce harmful byproducts, (mainly plastic and pesticides).

Food ethics can be a charged topic, as money comes into play and environmental issues in general can be triggering. I just try to do my best, especially with choosing ethically-raised meat, because it serves that third purpose: pleasure. It makes me feel good when I know my food choices helped our earth and its people in some small way. 

support local food

Alrighty, here are some ideas for how to simplify food. 

A Grocery List

I spend between $300-500 a month on food for my household. (My husband buys food, too, so between the two of us, we probably spend about $400 per person a month.) That being said, I did go a time in graduate school, when I lived alone, where I still ate most of what is listed below on a $200/month budget. I spend a large percentage of my income on food because I view it as the foundation of my health, happiness, and overall wellbeing. 

Vegetables and Fruits: I buy local in spring-fall; in winter, there's still plenty of spinach, carrots, and root vegetables (including onion and garlic) available from Montana farmers, but I also purchase cabbage and radishes, as they are usually grown in California. Yams and sweet potatoes don't grow this far north, but we still buy them often because they hit all three purposes with gusto. 

Yams for dayyyyys

Yams for dayyyyys

We eat bananas, though I know people are split on the ecological-cost and nutritional-value of this common fruit. Berries grow in abundance here in the summer, and in the winter I'll buy frozen ones once I run out of whatever we froze. (I like the Stahlbush brand, as they come in a biodegradable bag.) I eat apples in the fall and winter, but usually opt out in the late spring because they tend to be mealy, coming from the southern hemisphere. We buy citrus and avocados from time to time. 

Meat and eggs: We are blessed in Montana with lots of affordable, delicious local meats. For one, my brother usually kills an elk or deer and generously gifts us some. There's plenty of free-range beef for sale, and eggs from happy chickens are easy to come by. A farm down the road from our house sells pork from ethically-raised pigs.

eat simple ingredients

Chicken is bit tougher to buy local without breaking the bank. We don't have a farm that focuses solely on raising chickens; (in my understanding, to be cost-effective with birds, a farmer would need to be raising many of them). I do spend extra on organic, "free-range" chicken and ground turkey, knowing the word free-range may not mean in practice what I wish it would.

In short, we always have eggs and blocks of cheese for a protein fix, meat in the freezer to thaw for dinner, and we'll occasionally splurge on salmon when we're feeling fishy. I eat meat at least one meal a day, but never all three. As the meat industry accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, reducing my meat consumption is one of the largest individual impacts I/we can make in our daily lives to alleviate climate change. 

Canned goods: There are some things I buy canned, including tomato sauce, peas, pumpkin, and tuna. Having these ingredients on-hand proves useful in a pinch, but I try not to eat from a can more than once a week. 

Canned pumpkin FTW. Photo by Blair Speed

Canned pumpkin FTW. Photo by Blair Speed

Bulk goods: The things I buy in bulk I take home in durable plastic bags and place in glass jars. I then wash the plastic bags for reuse. I buy dates, nuts (walnuts, cashews, pecans, and brazil) and seeds (pumpkin, flax, chia, hemp and sunflower) for snacks and recipes. I also buy all my gluten-free flours in bulk: sorghum, tapioca, and brown rice flours and potato starch. Spices and cocoa, too, come home from the bulk section at our local health food store. We don't often eat grains or legumes, but there's always rice, quinoa, and lentils in our pantry for the rare occasion we do. You can buy regular oats in bulk, while gluten-free ones usually have to be bought in a bag. We alternate between almond butter from the fresh-pressed machine and buying it pre-ground in a jar. 

Photo by Blair Speed

Photo by Blair Speed

Packaged foods: For daily cooking, we use coconut oil; olive oil is only used on salads as it has a low burning point; and I prefer canola oil for baking. Honey and maple syrup are essentials. I can't drink cow's milk without discomfort, so I buy a coconut-almond milk blend in a plastic, recyclable bottle. (The ones that come in cartons are usually not recyclable. I do splurge on a coconut creamer in a carton for cappuccinos.) We alternate between organic butter and Earth Balance, depending on how my stomach's doing with dairy. 

I'll sometimes buy Applegate sliced turkey or ham, or smoked salmon, but find that if I cook extra meat for dinner, I can save both money and packaging waste. We always have a box or two of pasta for a quick meal. Dark chocolate is a must, as is coffee. I also have one herbal, one black tea at any time, and we're suckers for La Crack. I alternate between buying snacks, like bars, and making them (recipes below). 

Homemade protein energy bars

Homemade protein energy bars

Meal Ideas

Breakfast: Protein is Key

Lunch: Fat-rich salads and veggie dishes

Dinner: Pregame Carbs


Food Sources

The holistic health & fitness series