"How am I supposed to get the rest of my family on-board with this?"
"I'm too busy to think about all this, much less cook anything!"
"If we don't eat processed food, then what in the world DO we eat?!?"
These questions and comments have been directed towards me several times in the last few years, as I shared with others how we have changed our diet... and most importantly, our lifestyle. I feel your pain. Remember, I was the Diet Coke addict who loved frozen pizza and Hamburger Helper, and fed my toddler pudding cups, Lucky Charms, candy and Pop-Tarts on a regular basis. I know how lost, confused, frustrated and overwhelmed you feel by the simple question "what should we eat?" And I have to ask the question, when did it get so darn complicated to EAT? Good grief, we have to do this 3-5 times a day - it shouldn't be so hard!.
When people ask me where to begin on the quest for healthier eating, my first suggestion is: READ. Read labels on food. Read the ingredients. Read the nutrition information. Read books about food and the way it is processed/created, not about specific "diets" (Atkins, South Beach, Mediterranean, etc.) - we're not going on a "diet" here, we're talking about a complete lifestyle change. To see the list of books I have read that influenced our lifestyle changes, click here. Read blogs. Read on-line articles. Read everything critically, but with an open mind. Yes, there are a lot of crazy ideas out there, but there is often some merit to unconventional thinking. As a side note, be careful when you read the phrase "studies show...". Many scientific studies are funded by major food/agriculture big-wigs, like Kraft, Con-Agra and Monsanto. Of course those studies are going to point favorably to their products. Unfortunately, science is not immune from the sway of politics and money. Sad, but true. On the other hand, "alternative"or "natural" health claims often have little to no solid scientific basis. But if we can't fully trust the scientific community because it's backed by huge corporations, then who CAN we trust? Arggg! I don't have an answer for that. What I'm trying to say is that it's extremely difficult to find trustworthy information. Sift through information carefully and critically. Use common sense and trust your instincts.
My second suggestion is: FORGIVE. As you read, you will discover some startling truths, such as the fact that Yellow #5 has been proven to cause cancer, yet it's still rampant in our food supply... and you have been feeding it to your kids. You will learn about the dangers of hydrogenated oils, GMO's, high fructose corn syrup, BPA in plastics (like your children's baby bottles) and the plethora of chemical cocktails that are found in processed foods. Your anxiety level will rise, you will be overwhelmed by fear, betrayal and anger. You will beat yourself up mercilessly. STOP. Just stop. Take a deep breath. You cannot change the past. What's done is done. From this point on, promise yourself that you will not look back. Keep moving forward. Forgive yourself for the mistakes you didn't know you were making and decide that you will be an agent of change from now on. Instead of letting your new knowledge paralyze you, let the knowledge empower you. And remember - our mighty, wise God created our bodies with the ability to heal itself. All is not lost.
Now you are ready for step three: ACTION. This step is going to look different for everyone, since we're all at different staring points. Also, the "action" step is a long step, perhaps never ending. You will need to make conscious decisions about your food 3-5 times a day, every day, for the rest of your life. And if you are a parent, you need to make the decisions for each one of your kids too! Yikes. It's a big responsibility, but you can do it! Sometimes I comfort myself with the thought that every female mammal (and some males) in the animal kingdom also has this job - to feed and nurture our young so that they grow up healthy and robust, so that someday they may do the same for their offspring. Feeding our families is a big deal! It SHOULD require time and energy. I know many of you are busy (who isn't?!?), but I was always taught if something is important to you, you WILL find the time for it. Maybe you do all your meal prep on the weekend, or one week night. Cook dinner the night before busy days so you can just heat it up when you get home. Dig your crockpot out of the cupboard and use it. Delegate your spouse or children to be in charge of cooking a few nights a week. Find a way. The health and well being of your family is too important to NOT make healthy eating a priority!
Since small children usually don't make the wisest choices (HA!), it's up to us to protect them and make safe choices for them. Remember - YOU are the parent. Since when did a 3 year old (or 15 year old!) get to dictate what the family eats? Your child will not starve (I know from experience - I was a horribly picky eater up until a few years ago when I finally got so annoyed with myself for being picky. Sorry Mom!). Keep offering healthy choices. If you start feeding them healthy from birth, then you will have a much easier time. For those of you with older kids, the ones who crave junk food (did you know kids can actually get addicted to all the nasty chemicals in foods?), I'm not going to lie. It's going to be hard. May the force be with you.
So where to begin? Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
- Cut back your soda consumption to once a week. Perhaps it becomes part of your family tradition - pizza and pop night. Or better yet, eliminate soda altogether. Robyn O'Brien, author "The Unhealthy Truth" says that when she started calling soda "chemicals in a can" (which, quite frankly, it is), she found she could no longer bear to give it to her children... or drink it herself.
- Eliminate any food with high fructose corn syrup from your diet. This step alone will make a huge difference and force you to seek out better options. You will be shocked to discover how many foods contain HFCS.
- Ditch any foods that contain hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils.
- Cut out foods that contain a # in them, like Yellow #5.
- Skip foods that have"artificial" anything on the label.
- If you can't pronounce an ingredient on a food label (or know what something is), then don't buy it!
- Look for milk and dairy products that state "hormone free" or "rBGH free" on the label.
- If a food has more than about 5 ingredients listed on the label, you should be suspicious.
- Check out the "The Dirty Dozen" and try to find the organic variety of those fruits and vegetables.
- Start by cutting out one junk food snack option and replace it with something better - fresh fruits (we loves apples with peanut butter), veggies with dip (homemade is best and super easy! Just mix seasonings of choices with plain Greek yogurt - viola!), trail mix, nuts, homemade popcorn on the stove (NOT microwave popcorn -chemical fest!), a piece of cheese, small bowl of plain yogurt with honey and fruit, a hard boiled egg... get creative. Once, you've mastered snack time, maybe you're ready to cut the junk out of breakfast or lunch.
- Adopt a version of the 80/20 rule - 80 % of your diet is healthy and you cut yourself some slack on the other 20%. This is not "all or nothing". Don't let your perfectionism stop you - just because you can't do something "right" doesn't mean you shouldn't try at all! Maybe you start out with 20/80 and work your way up - hey, 20% of your diet being healthy is better than none!
I hope I gave you some concrete ideas and places to start. Pick one. Do it. Baby steps.
Get your kids involved. Have them read the labels to you and ask them "Does that sound like something we should put in our bodies?" Explain to them that you are making these changes because you love them and want to keep them healthy. You don't want to see them suffering. Kids will understand this, even if they still don't like the changes.
Rest assured that while it will be very hard in the beginning to change your diet and lifestyle, it WILL get easier. As your children learn what "real food" tastes like, their taste buds will change and the junk foods they used to crave will taste fake, artificial and chemical-y. Remember, some kids are addicted to the chemicals in the foods and you may notice some withdraw symptoms as you remove the offending food from their diet. Be strong. You are doing this because your love them.
Step four is: SHARE. Share what you have learned with other people, in an open, non-threatening manner. You cannot force people to change, but actions speak louder than words. People will notice a change in you and wonder what is going on.
Sharing your new knowledge with others must be done with tact and respect. Remember, no matter how strongly you feel about a food issue, ultimately people and relationships are more important than food. It IS possible to agree to disagree. Many people will not want to hear what you have to say. Hearing what you are doing makes them feel inadequate, or that you are telling them they are doing something wrong. NO one likes to hear that. Some people simply have no desire to change. That is ok. You cannot control people, so stop trying. Some of your friends and family members may become angry and disgusted with you, or ridicule you. This is normal. Stand your ground and trust your instincts - who knows better than you what is best for your family? No one. I love this quote I found in the book "Urban Homesteading" by Rachel Kaplan:
"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice." -Mary Oliver
The road to a healthier lifestyle and diet is long and complicated, with many unexpected twists and turns. It's not easy and sometimes you will wish you didn't know what you know now... the phrase "Ignorance is bliss" keeps coming to mind. There are days when I wish I could wind back the clock and not be constantly thinking about toxic chemicals, GMO's and other junk in our food supply. Then I see another news story about the health of US citizens, I find out another person I love has cancer or some other terrible disease, I see children in schools struggling with ADHD... and I know I can't go back. I cannot remain silent. To those of you out there contemplating change, I advise you seek out a friend that is willing to talk to you about these issues. You will need someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to encourage you and hold you accountable, someone to speak reasonably to you when disgust and frustration threaten to overtake you. You're not in this alone!
So choose your baby step. Start today and don't look back. Don't let perfectionism bog you down - any action is better than no action! Keep moving forward, keep learning, keep reading. You CAN do it.
"I am only one. I can only do what one can do. But what one can do, I will do!" - John Seymour, author of "The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It"