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Strategies for Healthy Eating When Organic Isn’t an Option

BY ELIZABETH BORELLI

Pesticides in produceFast fact:  nearly one half of people polled in a 2012 survey believe it’s easier to do their taxes than it is to eat healthfully.  I’m guessing there are some stellar accountants comprising the other half, because on this processed food planet, healthy eating really can be intimidating.

Truthfully, after scrutinizing enough health news to warrant a certificate in Plant Based Nutrition to keep it all straight, I’m still slightly confused by tofu.  In our information-overloaded society, the last thing we need is more nutrition nuance to sort through.

The good news is when it comes to healthy eating, you don’t need to stress over every detail.  While a perfect diet is a noteworthy goal, the mere concept is so out of reach for many of us (hello parents!), it’s tempting to tune out entirely.  But please don’t, because whether its availability, time or budget you’re challenged by, you really can keep your food rules simple and still stay healthy.  Your version may look different than organic, home-made perfection, and that’s perfectly okay.

Recently I found myself facing this very dilemma. I count myself lucky to live in Northern California, a health food nirvana by most standards.  Local, organic food prices are only slightly higher than conventional, and we’re never far from a health food store.

When I visit my parents in small town Rhode Island each year however, the reality is very different.  Organic food prices there are double or triple the cost of conventional, and they’re not necessarily even local.  Much as I wanted to, I found I just couldn’t pay up for organic when it was overpriced and over-packaged.  So inspired by the challenge, I left the organic section and scoured the grocery store for my go-to travel foods; beans, grains and the makings for fresh cabbage slaw.

As I’ve learned from my years of rural summer vacations, when organic isn’t an option, healthy eating simply requires a little extra creativity.  So don’t let a lack of access to organic or even locally grown foods stop you from enjoying a delicious, healthy diet.

Here are a few simple strategies for healthy eating when organic isn’t an option:

Know which foods don’t need to be organic:  Two-thirds of produce samples in recent government tests had pesticide residues, so it’s important to know what you’re eating.  In independent consumer group EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce lists the cleanest and dirtiest conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables to help you make informed choices, including avoiding over-paying for organic if you don’t have to.

Buy local and eat in season.  This may be a given, but also a good reminder that the more recently harvested the food, the tastier and more nutritious it is.  Visit farm stands and markets, or frequent grocers that carry local goods.  You may pay a bit more than you would for mass-produced monoculture foods, but for flavor and nutritional value, it’s worth it.

Go for Frozen.  When fresh organic fruits and vegetables are too expensive or unavailable, frozen makes a great option.  Conventional berries, especially strawberries, retain high amounts of toxic pesticides.  Frozen organic berries are loaded with antioxidants and wonderful in smoothies, oatmeal or baked goods.  Frozen organic corn is wonderful added to rice dishes and steamed green beans are a great alternative out of season.

Read the label!  Polls show that most people find it easier to do their taxes than to read nutrition labels!  Yet at the same time, studies show that women who read labels on a regular basis weigh an average of 15 pounds less than people who don’t.

Bottom line; although the print is tiny and it’s annoying to take the time to try to decipher it, you’ll probably be surprised by what you’ll find, even on products that say “healthy” or “natural”.  And you only need to do it once to know whether that product belongs in your kitchen.

Be on the lookout for high levels of sugar, more calories than you expected or chemical preservatives you’re better off avoiding.  The important thing is to weed out the bad stuff; high fructose corn syrup, transfats, food dyes, unpronounceable ingredients.

You don’t have to know what all of the numbers mean, just checking the ingredients, sugar level and calories counts should tell you all you need to know.

Can’t find Grass Fed?  Go for plant based proteins.  Most animal products sold in the US contain growth hormones, which are administered to animals to cause them to grow faster or produce more milk.  This practice frequently causes them to get sick more often and need antibiotics.

These hormones and antibiotics are passed onto us through the meat and dairy products we consume, and the results of these fairly recently introduced practices are still largely unknown.

Fortunately we have plenty of options to hormone and antibiotic-laden meats.  Beans and lentils are an excellent source of protein, with added fiber and no saturated fat.  They also contain key nutrients like zinc and iron in a nutritional profile similar to seafood and poultry.  But that’s not all, beans are an excellent sources of dietary fiber and other key nutrients such as potassium and folate, so in that way they rank among vegetables.

But the best news is, beans are simple to make, incredibly versatile and very delicious.  So start whether you jump right into bean-based cooking using the Bean Cooking Chart and Guidelines below,  or begin with programs like Meat Free Monday and work your way up to the four servings recommended per week from there.  However you decide to do it,  start today!  Your body will thank you for it!!

Cooking dried beans from scratch is easy! Refer to the handy chart below for cooking and soaking times for your favorite beans and legumes:  Click here for a handy Bean Cooking Chart

Sprout it! Sprouts abound with antioxidants; they’re full of protein, chlorophyll, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. And talk about good for you:  ounce for ounce they provide more nutrients than any other whole food known.  Sprouts also contain beneficial enzymes, requiring less digestive energy so they actually invigorate you while your body processes them.

Your home grown sprouts are up to the minute fresh (they grow until ready to eat) and delicious.  Grow them right in your kitchen using just seeds, jars and screens, here’s how!

Avoid processed meats  More than just the nitrates used to preserve them,”Multiple studies have found a relationship between processed meat intake and increased risk of colorectal cancer,” says Amanda Cross, an investigator at the National Institute of Health. One possible explanation: “In addition to nitrate and nitrite, it is possible that there are other components of processed meats that are responsible for the associations observed with colorectal cancer.”

What can you do?  Opt for a non-meat alternative.  Avocado, grilled eggplant or baked Portobello mushrooms make wonderful sandwich fillings.  Otherwise look for meats labeled “preservative or nitrate-free” and avoid cooking nitrate-dense foods like bacon at high heat, which can cause form carcinogenic nitrosamines to form.

In short, enjoy the season’s abundance! When you rely upon fresh, whole foods and avoid those too heavily sprayed or chemically enhanced, you can’t go wrong.

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