Nope, not the grocery store chain.  Today we’re talking about what makes a food “whole,” and why that makes it good to eat.

A whole foods diet contains foods that are not very far removed from their natural state.  This includes foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, milk, and whole grains.  Our bodies are designed to digest food as it’s found in the world.  Our guts know how to digest and utilize an apple; they’re not sure what to do with an apple-flavored pop tart.

The opposite of a whole food is a processed refined food (like that apple pop tart).  These are foods that have been broken down to the molecular level, isolated, thrown back together with other stuff, had other things added back in, messed with so much that our bodies can barely recognize them as food!

Here are some guidelines to help you find whole foods at the grocery store:

Shop the perimeter of the store.  Whole foods are easy to find in the produce, bulk, meat, and dairy departments.  Venturing into the inner shelves of the store will probably just lead you to items like sugary breakfast cereal.

Buy foods with no packaging.  Whole foods usually involve little or no packaging.  Examples are: apples from the produce department, whole chickens from the meat department, brown rice from the bulk bins.

If you are buying a packaged food, check the ingredient list.  The ingredient list should be short, and you should recognize what each of the ingredients is.

If you don’t know what an ingredient is, don’t buy it!  If a food has long complicated chemical names, those are food additives and preservatives.  If you don’t know what something is, do you really want to eat it?

Consider how many steps it took to make that food.  If you can imagine making the food in your own kitchen it is most likely whole.  If you can’t imagine making the food but you feel like you might need a Hadron Particle Collider to do it, it’s probably not whole.

It’s important to remember that the value of a food is not just the sum of its nutrients.  We get more from carrots than just a big dose of Vitamin A.  Whole foods are a complete package of nutrients, antioxidants, water, and other components that are balanced in just the right way for our bodies.  We were born to eat this way!

I know we weren’t talking about Whole Foods the grocery store, but I really enjoy this song about the trials and tribulations of shopping there so I’ll leave you with this video.
 
Today we’ll discuss what the current research says about the effectiveness of taking a daily multivitamin.  Keep in mind that vitamins and supplements are just as serious as prescription drugs; so don’t take anything new without talking it over with a healthcare professional!

Many people like the concept of a multivitamin.  It seems like a good idea to take a pill to make up for any nutritional gaps in one’s diet.  But does it actually do your body any good?

One 2011 study looked at the multivitamin use and health issues of 182,099 participants over the course of three years.  They found no difference in cancer risk, heart disease, or mortality between the persons who used multivitamins and those who didn’t.

On the other hand, some studies have found that people who use multivitamins have lower rates of disease.  Another study from 2011 found that breast cancer patients who took a multivitamin after treatment had higher survival rates.  These studies also find that people who take multivitamins tend to eat more plant foods and exercise, so it can be hard to tell if the vitamin is adding any additional benefit.

Based on the current research, it appears that a multivitamin does no visible harm or good.  Some people with specific health needs may benefit from a vitamin or herbal supplement.  It’s important to discuss supplements with a Nutritionist, Dietitian, Naturopathic Doctor, Herbalist, or Pharmacist before trying anything new.  For the most part, your dollars will be better spent on wholesome fresh foods instead of pills!
 
Sometimes packaging and labeling can make cruddy food appear wholesome.  Food manufacturers know that you want healthy food, and they’ll use clever design to make you think their product fits the nutritional bill.  Here are some foods that are often perceived as healthy, but don’t quite have the right stuff for a nourishing diet:

Flavored yogurt:  Plain yogurt provides a healthy dose of protein, fat, and beneficial bacteria for your intestines.  However many flavored yogurts contain a ton of loaded sugar and artificial additives.  Kraft Breyers Smooth & Creamy Lowfat Strawberry Yogurt contains 39 grams of sugar in one 8 oz container.  That’s more than a Snickers candy bar!

Try flavoring plain yogurt with your own favorite fruits and honey; you’ll probably be more moderate with your added sweetener than Kraft Breyers was.

Flavored oatmeal:  Just like flavored yogurt, this food has a healthy base with loads of sugar and additives on top of it.  Quaker makes “Dinosaur Eggs” oatmeal, which is marketed towards children, that contains 19 grams of added sugar per serving.  Along with that it’s got partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and a whole host of artificial coloring.

Add your own spices and fruit to rolled or steel cuts oats, and leave the dinosaur eggs out of it.

Breakfast cereal:  I’ve found that most breakfast cereals contain more bad than good nutritionally speaking.  The best cereal option is really no cereal at all.  From Cocoa Puffs to Fruity Pebbles to French Toast Crunch, it’s just all a hot mess!

As an example of tricky packaging, Cocoa Puffs advertises very loudly on the front of the box that it’s made with whole grains.  However it’s also made with flour and modified food starch, and only contains 0.7 grams of fiber per serving.

All of these foods are often eaten at breakfast.  Instead of a sugary breakfast that will make you feel like you need a nap, why not have a wholesome savory breakfast instead?  I like a lightening-quick breakfast taco with:
  • 1 corn tortilla
  • 1 egg, scrambled
  • ¼ of an avocado
  • Handful of spinach
  • Hot sauce
 
We discussed last week how mineral-rich plant foods like leafy greens can be a good source of calcium.  Today we’ll uncover which plant foods are high in iron, and how you can increase the availability of that iron to your digestive tract.

First let’s talk about how iron functions in the body.  This mineral is necessary for consistent energy, normal immune system function, and healthy red blood cell production.  Remember that red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to all of your other cells, so their sustained health should be of great interest to you!  Iron is also necessary to make collagen, the protein that gives structure to our hair, skin, nails, and organs.

The iron that is found in animal foods is in a slightly different form than the iron in plant foods.  Animal iron is easily absorbed, but you might absorb as little as 2% of the iron found in vegetables.  If you consume a mainly vegetarian or vegan diet, it could be challenging to get the iron you need.  Before we talk about how to increase iron absorption, let’s establish some good sources of iron:
  • Almonds
  • Beet greens
  • Brazil Nuts
  • Cashews
  • Molasses
  • Nutritional Yeast
  • Parsley
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Raisins
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Swiss chard
  • Wheat germ

To increase the absorption of iron from these foods, there are two main nutrients to consider:

Vitamin C:  This nutrient can free iron up for absorption into the gut.  Try preparing your iron-rich food with lemon or other citrus fruits.

Cysteine:  This amino acid can also help increase absorption, so try eating it at the same meal as your iron-containing vegetables.  Good vegetarian sources of cysteine include:
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Garlic
  • Oats
  • Onions

Cooking your food in a cast iron pan can also add to your intake.

Try this Fiery Tofu Marinade with iron-rich molasses from The Ordinary Vegetarian.

 
Yogurt is a fermented milk product that is a great source of protein, calcium, and probiotics.  Yogurt has long been identified as a “health food,” but not all yogurts are healthy.  Some processed yogurts contain more sugar in that little cup than a candy bar!  Excessive added sugar and artificial flavorings are not part of a nourishing diet.  Here are some guidelines for avoiding the junk and finding a wholesome yogurt:

Buy plain yogurt.  Because so many flavored yogurts contain a large amount of added sugar, it’s best to buy plain yogurt.  You can flavor and sweeten yogurt on your own by adding fresh fruit, or maybe a touch of honey.

Check the ingredient list.  Yogurt is pretty easy to make (as we’ll discuss below), so it shouldn’t have a very long ingredient list.  Ideally your yogurt will only contain milk, milk powder, and active bacteria.  The bacteria names will be spelled with a large capital letter, followed by a period and a lower case word.  As an example a common bacterium found in yogurt is Lactobacillus acidophilus, which would appear on a nutrition label as L. acidophilus.

Look for the words “live and active cultures.”  Speaking of bacteria, these words on a yogurt label let you know that the healthy bacteria inside are still alive.  They have to be alive to be helpful!  Beneficial bacteria, also called probiotics, help keep your gut functional and strong.

If you want to avoid the label game altogether, make your own yogurt!  All you need is milk and a yogurt starter culture.  You only need to buy the culture once (or get one from a neighbor), after that you can make new yogurt using a small amount from your previous batch.

Cultures for Health is a great place to mail order starter cultures, as well as find tips and instructions.
 
We learned from our discussion on bone health last week that calcium is one of the minerals we need to eat regularly for strong bones.  But did you know that you don’t have to drink milk or eat dairy products to get calcium?  Today we’ll discuss what other foods are high in calcium, and how to make that calcium readily absorbable for your gut.

The following plant foods are good sources of calcium to add to your diet:

  • Bok choy (Chinese cabbage)
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soybeans (and soy products like tofu)
  • Spinach
  • Turnip greens

As you can see I’m pushing those dark leafy greens again.  I can’t emphasize enough how much you can benefit from adding these to your diet!

How to increase the absorption of non-dairy calcium

Calcium from plant sources can be somewhat challenging for your gut to absorb.  This is because these plants contain other compounds like oxalic acid and phytates that bind to the calcium and won’t give it up!  For example one cup of spinach contains 25% of your daily recommended value for calcium.  However spinach is also very high in oxalic acid, so you will probably only absorb about one quarter of the calcium you get.  Here are some ways you can increase the absorption of calcium from vegetables:

Enjoy your leafy greens with some shiitake mushrooms.  These fungi are a good source of Vitamin D, which is necessary for calcium absorption.

Steam your greens.  Studies have found that steaming your vegetables can decrease the oxalic acid content by almost half.  Try steaming your vegetables until they are soft but still bright in color.

Researchers have also found that boiling vegetables increases the calcium availability much more, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  Unfortunately boiling vegetables gets rich of many nutrients, not just the oxalic acid.  And personally I think mushy boiled vegetables are gross!

Try your hand at fermentation.  The fermentation process breaks down many of the compounds that decrease absorption while leaving the calcium intact.  Here’s a recipe for Fermented Spinach Kraut from Gnowfglins.
 
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Today we’re continuing our discussion on healthy seeds with the sometimes-overlooked sunflower seed.  Sunflower seeds are less expensive and more widely available than the other seeds we’ve discussed, and they’ve got some good nutrients packed inside of them.  Here are some of my favorite things about sunflower seeds:

Good source of Vitamin E.  One ¼ cup serving of sunflower seeds contains 60% of your Daily Recommended Value for Vitamin E!  Vitamin E is the only antioxidant we eat that is fat-soluble.  That means it has the power to stop free radical damage in fatty tissues, where other antioxidants can’t reach.  You can read more on how antioxidants work here.

A good dose of other vital nutrients.  Sunflower seeds are also a good source of magnesium and several B vitamins.  Remember from our discussion yesterday that the mineral magnesium is important for muscle and nerve health.

Refined sunflower oil is safe for high-heat cooking.  Cooking at high heat with a low smoke-point oil can result in carcinogens in your food and maybe even a fire in your kitchen!  Refined sunflower oil is safe for temperatures up to 450 degrees F, so you can use it for frying and roasting.  You can find more information on choosing the right cooking oil for the job here.

Safe alternative for those with nut allergies.  If you have a nut allergy, sunflower butter is a yummy replacement for peanut butter.  I don’t have an allergy, but I like to buy sunflower butter sometimes just because it tastes good!  If you have a severe allergy make sure you check the label to see if the butter was made on shared equipment with nuts.

Buy these seeds raw, not roasted.  Roasted sunflower seeds have had oil and salt added to them.  Buy these raw and toast them yourself if you want to bring out more flavor without the added fat and sodium.  You can toast sunflower seeds in a dry pan over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until golden and fragrant.

Just like any other food, sunflower seeds should be part of a varied whole foods diet.  Eating several different types of fresh, seasonal foods on a daily basis ensures that you get the range of nutrients your body needs.

 
In continuation of our chia seed discussion from yesterday, today we’re talking about the equally intriguing flaxseed.  Flax fibers have been grown to make fabric for centuries, and now the nutritional benefits of the flaxseed are being explored in modern research.

Get in those Omega 3 fatty acids!  Just like chia seeds, flaxseeds are a good source of Alpha Linolenic Acid.  The anti-inflammatory compounds in flaxseeds have been shown to be particularly helpful for irritated skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and dermatitis.  Read more about the benefits of Omega 3’s here.

Get a little dose of magnesium.  Many people I’ve worked with have diets that are chronically low in this mineral.  Magnesium is important for good nerve and muscle health.

Increase your daily fiber intake.  Two tablespoons of ground flax meal contains 4 grams of fiber.  Read more about the importance of adequate fiber intake here.

Get things moving.  Flaxseeds have been shown to relieve constipation in several clinical trials. However keep in mind that adequate hydration is the first step towards a successful bowel movement!

Tips for storing and using flaxseeds:

If you want to digest them, you’ve got to grind them!  Eating a flaxseed whole doesn’t do you any good, because it’ll just pass right through you (if you catch my drift).  The sturdy hull of a flaxseed is too tough for our digestive tract to break down.  Flaxseeds have to be ground into flax meal in a spice grinder in order to be digested.  You can buy flax meal already ground, but it’s more expensive and spoils much faster (see below).

Store these guys in the freezer.  The Omega 3-rich oil in flaxseeds causes them to spoil pretty quickly.  If you store them in the freezer they’ll last for months.

Works well as a culinary binder.  Flax meal turns thick and gooey when combined with warm water.  This can act as an egg substitute in baked goods or as a general thickener in other recipes.  I’ve used flax meal to make cookies, brown sushi rice, meat loaf, and other good eats.  It’s also tasty when combined with steel cut oats for breakfast.

There are two popular varieties of flaxseed: brown and golden.  Both have very similar nutritional properties, but the brown variety has a slightly more pronounced flavor.  Sometimes the golden variety is more expensive.  You can find flaxseeds at your local health food or specialty store, sometimes even in the bulk section!
 
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Today we’re discussing the uses and nutritional benefits of the chia seed, a plant native to Central and South America that has recently gained popularity in the US.  Yes, this is the same seed that you can smear on a ceramic animal to make a Chia Pet®!  Here are some of the benefits of choosing to eat your chia seeds instead of planting them:

Good source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids.  Chia seeds consist of a large percentage of Alpha Linolenic Acid, one of our heart healthy Omega 3’s.  You can read more about the benefits of adding these fats into your diet here.

High in fiber.  A one Tablespoon serving of chia seeds contains a whopping 4 grams of fiber!  That’ll get you moving towards your goal of at least 25 grams of fiber daily.  To read more about healthy aspects of fiber, check out this post.

They make a gel!  I don’t know that this is really a benefit, but it makes for a neat culinary tool.  I’ve used these seeds as a binder in place of eggs in several recipes, and it’s easy to make a pudding or gelatin-like dessert with chia.  Here are some chia seed recipes I’ve used before from other bloggers:


You can purchase chia seeds from a health food or specialty store.  If there isn’t a store nearby that carries them, they could also be mail ordered.  Chia seeds are shelf stable so they wouldn’t spoil during shipping.  I was happy to see that my local co-op has even started stocking chia seeds in the bulk section!


 
Keeping a diet diary is a great way to begin mindfully looking at your food intake.  I’ve found that most people modify their diet simply through the act of writing down everything they eat.  When you have to record everything that went on your plate, suddenly that second serving doesn’t feel so necessary!  Here are some different tools you can use to keep a diet diary:

Good ol’ pen and paper.  Try writing down everything you eat either in a journal, or use this template from Your Personal Nutrition Guide here.  After each meal jot down the following information:
  • Foods eaten
  • Approximate quantities
  • Your mood
  • Satiety level: from 0 (starving) to 10 (bursting belly)

Put your camera phone to good use.  If you don’t have time to write it down, just snap a picture of all your meals and snacks.  Scroll through your pictures at the end of each day and contemplate your choices.

Use some newer fangled technology.  There are a whole host of apps available for your smartphone or tablet that can help you keep track of your diet.  Some of them give you neat reports on your total caloric intake, nutrient balance, and other statistics.  There are a lot of these so I am far from familiar with all of them!  Here are some that I have checked out and enjoy: