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How to Eat Healthy – Buy Your Own Foods

In an ideal world we would pick up our food directly from nature and eat it. Grab the apple from the tree and eat it – that simple. Not worrying about quality, pesticides, price, or overeating. Nature makes sure we have the right balance of nutrients and energy, eating foods directly from nature would allow us to reach a balance – physically and mentally and with nature.

Most of us cannot live in this world as there are few places on planet Earth where this is possible and have the ability to earn a living. Most of us live in big cities or small towns where the closest we can get to nature is a garden or park.  So, how can we have access to the best foods possible?

Start simple.

Start buying and preparing your own foods. Here the rule is simple – try to buy as much as you can following these basic principles:

 1.  Local – Buy from local farmers markets or from a local small-scale farm

This ensures you are supporting local producers and are getting the freshest, most nutrient dense foods. Foods that haven’t been traveling halfway around the globe, exposed to many harmful agents on the way, which has a big impact on the environment, and very low quality to support your health.

Reasons to buy local1,2,3:

  • Helps local community connection, economy and wealth
  • Promotes small scale farmers, that generally use land more productively and sustainably
  • Foods from local growers and small farms may contain less (or no) pesticides, and you can confirm with the producer (some small-scale farmers use organic methods but cannot afford certification fees; even if not organic, small producers tend to use fewer chemicals than industrialized farms)
  • Local produce is allowed to ripen naturally
  • Trusted sources of locally grown produce, fresh, not scrubbed off or sanitized, contain naturally occurring soil-based microorganisms, natural probiotics. Fruits and vegetables grown in native, nutrient dense soils are richer in these probiotics (live microorganisms that are essential to gut health, help support immunity and overall health).
  • Get really “fresh” produce. Most produce at local markets is picked within 24 hours of the market, or even in the same morning
  • Fresher foods have higher nutrient density (especially when local and in season)
  • Fresher food tastes better
  • Reduce environmental impact. Less use of fossil fuels and plastics, with less processing, packaging and transportation (reduce the so called “food miles”, the distance food needs to travel from producer to consumer)
  • Overall safer and much less risk of contamination
  • Know the origin of the food and meet the producers

2.  Organic – Buy Organic!

For those who still ask why it’s better to buy organic, here is a list of good reasons:

  • Safer – Less chemicals in general (free of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides) and reduced exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria4,5,6,7.
  • High in nutrients – multiple studies have concluded that organic produce has significantly more vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and micronutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts8
  • Better taste – Organically amended soils are richer in nutrients and the produce tends to taste better, although the appearance may be odd. Organic producers also use more heirloom varieties, typically cultivated for their superior taste rather than their looks.
  • Non-GMO – Organically grown food cannot be GMO (genetically modified organism). However non-GMO foods are not mandatorily organic.
  • Nature and ecosystems preservation – Organic growing methods like soil amending and crop rotation are more in harmony with nature.
  • Reduces pollution – Less chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizer help preserve cleaner water and soil.
  • The health of your children. Organophosphate pesticides (e.g., chlorpyrifos), used in conventional agriculture, are neurotoxic at high doses, and even low doses or repetitive exposure may be detrimental to the development of children. Several studies have examined the relationship between cognitive development and prenatal pesticide exposures. The results show that prenatal exposure to pesticides negatively affects neurodevelopment of children, namely intellectual and cognitive development, working memory and IQ7,9,10,11,12. A 2012 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics recognized that an organic diet reduces children’s exposure to pesticides and may reduce diseases associated with antibiotic resistance13.

3.  In-season – Buy products from your region, that are in season and ripe

If you cannot find a diversity of fresh products in season, buying flash frozen is one of the best options in terms of safety and nutrient preservation.

  • Food picked fresh and in season does not have to travel far to be sold (less “food miles” and contaminant exposure)
  • In season and fully ripe produce have more nutrients14,15
  • Imported foods, out of season, like tomatoes, bananas, and pears are often picked unripe, and then artificially “ripened” with ethylene gas (artificially ripening foods alters maturation process, color, flavor and nutrient content)

4.  Unprocessed – Buy unprocessed or minimally processed foods

A diet of minimally processed foods, close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention16.

Precut or packaged still counts as minimal processing, but ultra-processed foods are the concern here. Most of all, avoid heavily processed foods that have been chemically altered with artificial flavors, additives and other ingredients. To make it simple, buy 1-ingredient foods (nothing added), or those that use natural preservation methods and ingredients (reading labels is very important), and as little packaging as possible.

Many processing methods also remove nutrients, beneficial phytochemicals and the majority of beneficial components, such as phenolic compounds, found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables17. These include phenolic acid, flavonoids, anthocyanins, tannins, and carotenoids that are vital in defense responses, such as anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-proliferative activities17,18. Most ultra-processed foods are also very low in fiber, as natural fiber is lost during processing. Vitamin, mineral and fiber losses during processing have been identified and the negative nutritional impact is undeniable19. Therefore, the best way to get the full range of essential nutrients is to eat whole, unprocessed, or minimally processed foods.

What are processed foods?

There are many descriptions and “levels” of processing, but generally processed foods have been altered during preparation to make them more convenient, shelf-stable, appealing or flavorful.

If there is one piece of advice common to all “healthy diet” recommendations it is: avoid ultra-processed foods 16. Unfortunately, research shows that 61% of the food Americans buy is highly or ultra-processed20!

Ultra-processed foods were described by Monteiro et al., 2018 as “formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’) … they are energy-dense, high in unhealthy types of fat, refined starches, free sugars and salt, and poor sources of protein, dietary fiber and micronutrients. Ultra-processed products are made to be hyper-palatable and attractive, with long shelf-life, and able to be consumed anywhere, any time” and containing minimal whole foods21.

Hall et al. also describes how ultra-processed foods may facilitate overeating and obesity, since they are engineered to have supernormal appetitive properties that may result in pathological eating behavior22. A 2019 study reported that processed foods compromise the fidelity of gut-brain signaling and the resulting representation of food value. This may influence food reinforcement and overall intake via mechanisms distinct from the palatability or energy density of the food23.

Scientists alert that the displacement of minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals by ultra-processed products is associated with unhealthy dietary nutrient profiles and several diet-related non-communicable diseases21. Researchers suggest that decreasing the dietary share of ultra-processed foods is a rational and effective way to improve the nutritional quality of diets, contributes in reducing the excessive intake of added sugars and harmful trans-fats24,25,26. This reduction might be an effective strategy for the prevention and treatment of obesity and several lifestyle related illnesses22,24.

Dangers of highly or ultra-processed foods:

  • Highly or ultra-processed foods tend to have higher saturated fat, sugar, and sodium content than less processed foods20, with associated higher risk for health issues like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. A USA cross-sectional study found that ultra-processed foods comprised about 60% of energy intake and contributed to almost 90% of the total calories obtained from added sugars25.
  • Often high in harmful trans-fats, such as refined seed or vegetable oils. A 2019 study showed that a 2% absolute increase in energy intake from trans-fat is linked with a 23% increase in cardiovascular risk. Trans fatty acid intake has been associated with increasing the risk of coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, diabetes and cancer26.
  • Often high in refined sugars and grains (high-glycemic index carbohydrates) which increase the risk of type-2 diabetes and its related risk factors and comorbidities (overweight/obesity, dyslipidemia, hypertension, and physical inactivity)27.
  • Low in nutrients and fiber. Many processing methods remove the majority of beneficial compounds found in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains. These include flavonoids, anthocyanins, tannins, and carotenoids, with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic effects. The best way to get the full range of essential nutrients is to eat whole, unprocessed, or minimally processed foods.
  • May disrupt gut-brain signaling23.
  • Ultra-processed foods are calorie dense and addicting, causing excess calorie intake and weight gain22. Manufacturers make processed foods easy to chew and swallow. With less fiber, these foods also take less energy to eat and digest, making it easier to eat more in shorter periods. Consuming more calories, in less time, and spending less energy to digest them, can easily lead to unhealthy weight gain.
  • Full of artificial ingredients and food additives, namely preservatives, artificial colorings, emulsifiers, chemical flavorings, thickeners and texturing agents.
  • Synthetic chemicals used as food additives may contribute to disease and disability. Children may be more susceptible to potential adverse health effects. Potentially harmful colorings, flavorings and chemicals are deliberately added to food during processing (direct) or used in materials that may contaminate food as part of packaging or manufacturing (indirect) – more than 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food in the United States, either directly or indirectly, under the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act – Public Law 85-92928!
  • Food packaging is often made with hazardous chemicals (e.g., fluorinated compounds) that may migrate to food and have been associated with cancer, developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and other negative health effects29.
  • Packaging negatively impacts the environment.
  • Recent studies found an association between increase in ultra-processed foods consumption with an overall higher mortality risk30,31.
  • Associated with a variety of poor health outcomes, including hypertension, overweight and obesity and related cardiometabolic outcomes32,33,34
  • Eating highly processed foods may raise cancer risk33,36. In an April 2021 article published on Clinical Nutrition, researchers reported an association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and drinks and colorectal cancer35.

 

It is currently acknowledged, both by the World Health Organization and the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, that one of the most important causes for the current pandemic of obesity and related chronic diseases, namely cancer, is the increased consumption of convenience foods, including ultra-processed and pre-prepared foods37,38.

As Monteiro described it in its 2009 article “Nutrition and Health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing”, “the best dietary advice is to base diets on fresh and minimally processed foods, and on dishes and meals made up from such foods with the addition of refined ingredients extracted from whole foods.” The author explains that in order to prevent disease and enhance well-being, the best advice on ultra-processed foods, irrespective of their nutritional profiles, is to avoid them or at least minimize their consumption. However, Monteiro highlights that “this approach implies systematic revision of current official and authoritative dietary guidelines and graphic guides to food, nutrition and health” 39.

Our advice for a healthy life: Stay as close to nature as possible!

5.  Hormone Free – Eat mainly plant-based whole foods, which are inherently free of added animal hormones

If there is a nutritional need to supplement with meat, buy organic, pasture-raised and grazed throughout the grazing season. Organic meat has no antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, GMOs, or pesticides, and organic production may improve the nutritional value of the meat (more good omega-3 fatty acids, less cholesterol, and more antioxidants)40,41,42.

Are you ready to start changing your life and health for the better?

Start simple! Follow our list and buy your own food! 😊

  1. Local
  2. Organic
  3. In season
  4. Unprocessed
  5. Hormone free

 


References

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Vanessa Pinto graduated with a degree in Biology and Masters in Ecology from Lisbon University. After graduating, she underwent a series of professional and personal growth experiences, including being an officer in the Portuguese Army, working in countries as diverse as Iceland and Costa Rica.  Vanessa became certified as a Yoga and Meditation teacher in rural India.

Being a compassionate person by nature, Vanessa is able to bring her connectedness when working with others while enhancing the importance and practicality of a pragmatic evidence-based approach to facilitating lasting and permanent change. Vanessa is a certified health coach whose specialties are nutrition, exercise, and mind/ body connection.  She works both in Portugal, Thailand and USA, where she develops her work closely with people diagnosed with cancer, mainly in the areas of nutrition, movement and health education.

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