You’ve likely heard the recommendation to skip the middle aisles when grocery shopping—that is, concentrate on the fresh bread, produce, meat, and dairy sections, avoiding the processed foods in between. While there are certainly exceptions to this formula (nuts, oils, legumes and healthy grains for instance that can be found in middle aisles), by and large it’s a very helpful adage.
Based on similar principles, the Mediterranean diet has also recently become noteworthy, and it’s not a fad likely to disappear as fast as it gained popularity. Its basic concept is very simple—namely, to eat fresh, non-processed foods and healthy calories and fats. By switching from a very processed-heavy diet to the exact opposite, I’ve improved my health, energy level, and even learned to love cooking!
Eschewing the above advice for many, many years, I spent most of my 20s searching for the tastiest low-calorie options—baked chips, 100-calorie snack packs, diet sodas, etc. While I could often name the amount of calories I consumed that day, I rarely focused on the nutrients—vitamins, minerals, protein, etc.—I was (or, in reality, wasn’t) getting. I simply took a daily multivitamin and assumed I was covered. It wasn’t until recent stomach-related health problems majorly disrupted my life that I took a hard look at exactly what I was eating. While I understand the need for convenience—I previously worked an incredibly hectic full-time job in College Admissions while pursuing an on-campus doctorate on the weekends—so much of the pre-packaged food we eat is highly processed and low on the nutrition scale. For the sake of our health, it’s really not convenient at all!
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I’m very fortunate in that a job change has provided me with quite a bit more flexibility, and through this, I’ve been able to adapt a completely different way of shopping and eating—that of shopping the corners of the store and choosing fresh ingredients over processed. Sure, I’m still guilty of grabbing a frozen meal or bag of chips from time to time, but I’ve learned I feel much better when I eat well. It makes perfect sense, yet it took serious medical issues for me to really give much thought to the health benefits (or lack thereof) of what I consumed. Now, I grocery shop as often as I can (usually every 3 or 4 days), and I buy as many fresh items—produce, dairy, and meat—as possible. I don’t have time to prepare lengthy dinners every night, but I’ve learned to choose meals that are just as easy as mac-n-cheese but much more nutritious. This could be unsweetened Greek yogurt or steel cut oatmeal with fruit and honey, or a salad made at home. While I used to order restaurant salads at least half the time I dined out, you can make a healthier version quickly and for a much lower cost! I add fresh veggies, a protein—often hardboiled eggs, black or kidney beans—a little cheese, and nuts to lettuce with olive oil and vinegar.
Though my diet is far from perfect, and I’m proponent of cheating from time to time, I have more energy and significantly fewer health problems since I’ve starting eating fresh foods as opposed to convenient but unhealthy ones. While processed foods can make meals and snacks easier, try just a week of avoiding them as much as possible to see what effect it may have for you. The next time you’re at the grocery store, think hard about whether you really need that bag of chips or box of cookies or simply want it. Calories aren’t “just” calories; there are good and bad, and there’s not much good in most boxed sweets. Believe me, what I used to consider to be very time-intensive tasks such as peeling and chopping vegetables or boiling eggs is worth the time I spend and then some for the way I feel after eating well. As an added bonus, I’ve discovered I actually enjoy cooking and baking, two things I used to dread! Even swapping out one or two processed ingredients from favorite recipes can improve the taste and nutritional value. Think of eating fresh foods instead of processed not as a “diet” but as an improvement to both the way you eat and (hopefully) your overall health!