How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Foods To Avoid

by | Apr 22, 2009
Junk Food

Junk Food

What truly liberated me from worrying about food all the time was shifting my thoughts and fears away from things I couldn’t or shouldn’t eat and instead focusing on delicious foods–foods I love–that also make me healthy. Changing my relationship with food in this way turned it from something that caused me anxiety to something that brought me pleasure.

One unexpected benefit of choosing healthy, tasty foods over bland diet foods was that many of my old cravings for sugary, unhealthy fare disappeared. While I have not found a clear scientific explanation for this, it stands to reason that a nourished body would be less prone to strong feelings of need toward certain foods. I was amazed how powerful it can be to focus on health instead of dieting. These days, really unhealthy foods barely even tempt me.

(This post is the final post of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries, part three is Seasonal Shopping, part four is Stock Your Freezer and part five is Balanced Meals. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–always free of cost and spam.)

Upgrading your healthstyle will go far in helping you overcome your cravings, but as I much as I would love to tell you that you can eat any foods you want in any quantities you want, we all know this is not true. While you are focusing on eating more of the foods you love there are also foods that are generally worth avoiding as part as your daily healthstyle.

There is room for anything in a healthy life, but here are some foods that DO NOT promote health and can lead to weight gain:

  • Sugar In any form, sugar wreaks havoc on your health and metabolism. Two keys to protecting yourself from sugar damage are quantity and timing. Do not eat too much sugar at once (stick to small desserts) and do not eat sugar very frequently. I try to limit real desserts to once or twice per week (max) and satisfy all other sweets cravings with fruit. Eating whole grains is particularly effective at reducing sugar cravings.
  • Refined flour Processed grains (all flour) are almost as bad as sugar in their effect on your metabolism. In fact, your body processes them exactly the same way. Generally look for alternatives to breads, pastas and other foods made with flour. Instead focus on getting carbohydrates from intact whole grains. Try to limit refined flour foods to less than once per day. If you are actively trying to lose weight, I would make an effort to cut these out completely.
  • Trans fat Twenty years ago scientists believed they had solved the problem of saturated fat by replacing it with an artificial solid fat made from plants. It turned out these processed fats, trans-fats, are one of the most dangerous foods you can put into your body. Not only do they raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol, they also contribute to lowering your “good” HDL cholesterol–a double whammy for your health. No amount of trans-fat is considered safe in the diet (the data is striking), and you should avoid these processed fats completely. Better to eat foods made with real butter. Better yet, choose healthy fats from vegetable sources like coconut oil, olive oil and canola oil.
  • Anything processed It is worth emphasizing that nothing processed has ever proven to be healthier for you than real whole foods–even foods with fantastic health claims on the package. In fact, as Michael Pollan points out in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, a health claim on a package is a pretty good sign that a food is bad for you. There are no stickers for “Whole Grain” or “Low Carb” on your vegetables, and those are what you should be eating.
  • Red meat As I discussed earlier this week, red meat is probably not good for you. Some people argue that it is really bad for you, and some people think it is not so bad. It appears to not be quite as bad as processed foods, but there are plenty of compelling reasons to limit how much red meat you eat. For myself personally, cancer is a bigger fear than heart disease. But there is also some data that saturated fat plays a role in insulin resistance. I recommend less than one (4 oz) serving of red meat per week. The same can be said about poultry with skin.

I do not recommend completely eliminating foods you love–even if they are bad for you–because this is not something you can maintain forever and it strips some of the joy from life. Instead I suggest trying a few customizable strategies to be sure that the less healthy foods you love bring you happiness, but do not damage your body:

  • Reduce, Don’t Eliminate Simply being aware of how often you eat these foods and trying to stick to the guidelines above can drastically improve your healthstyle. If you currently eat a lot of sugar, processed foods or red meat, do not attempt to completely overhaul your diet overnight. Make changes gradually or it will be very difficult to make them permanent.
  • Be Picky When you first start to upgrade your healthstyle, identify foods you can do without and those you can’t live without. Some changes will be easier for some people, while others are nearly impossible. Focus on the easier changes and do not beat yourself up over things that are difficult for you. Every little change you make will add up to a healthier you.
  • Set Up Simple Rules It is often hard to keep track of everything you do or do not eat. A food journal or Twitter can help with this, but the simpler your healthstyle the better. Setting up simple, easy to remember rules for yourself can help you make healthy changes. The guidelines above are a great place to start. For example, if you decide in advance you can only have one dessert per week, you can be sure that the one you choose is well worth the wait. Use simple rules to both increase your good habits and decrease your bad ones. Experiment to find simple rules that work for you. For example, if you love to eat pizza make a deal with yourself that if you have it you must have a big pile greens on the side–this may also help you eat one less piece.

Please share with us the strategies and rules you use to upgrade your healthstyle!

This is the final post in the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Much thanks to those of you have shared your tips and insights in the comments so far. Summer Tomato will continue to build upon these ideas and help make it easier for you to upgrade your healthstyle. If you have specific questions, concerns or even an idea for a future post please submit them in the Ask Me section.

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16 Responses to “How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Foods To Avoid”

  1. Again, great post! I love that you’ve addressed the processed ‘healthy food’ issue! So many are uneducated on the benefits of whole, clean foods and resort to ‘health food’ that is often complete GARBAGE!

    Love the tips that you provided and I’m sure that many will find this helpful! 😉

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thanks Shannon! You are right, phony “health foods” have caused more problems than they have solved, yet people still believe them to be healthy. It’s a huge problem that I like to tackle with vegetables 😉

  2. Greg says:

    I guess I agree with you; although I still indulge in this cheap refined stuff, it just doesn’t taste as good as I remember it tasting when I was a kid. Maybe as we age we just lose some of our taste for it….

    • Darya Pino says:

      It could be age, but it could just be us growing our taste buds back.

      I agree with you completely that it is amazing phenomenon. Even after all my healthy changes I believed I still loved In-N-Out Burgers. I hadn’t had one in years, but not too long ago I found myself there. It was so… disappointing.

      My guess is I have just gotten used to better burgers, and my old faves have lost their luster because, well, they aren’t that good.

  3. doug says:

    I get confused by what “processed” means. Its a vague term. I know “refined” in flour means they removed all the whole grains, but what are the mysterious “processes” that are being done that turn foods bad?

    • Darya Pino says:

      When I use the word “process” I mean any chemical or mechanical treatment to foods that fundamentally changes them from their natural state. That pretty much covers any industrial food.

      It is bad because it always involves either high heat or mechanical mutilation, which destroys the most volatile chemicals–the healthiest ones. For some reason, foods that are bad for you tend to be very stable (“you cannot hurt a Twinkie”), whereas healthy foods tend to lose their magic easily (strawberries at room temperature). Processing makes foods more stable so companies can sell and ship them more effectively. This naturally makes them less healthy, and often harmful.

      In “refined flour”, they don’t really remove the whole grains so much as destroy them. They remove the germ and the bran once they have separated them by grinding the grains up. But even in “whole grain” products where they add the germ and bran back to the remaining starch, the grains have still been processed and lost most of their benefits.

  4. Scott says:

    Love the ‘Snackwells’ in the pic. They are the prototypical heathfood; not very tasty, not very healthy, and nicely preserved in a tiny 100-calorie bag. I wish those people would just go away. But I guess there has to be something on the shelves for overweight, will-powerless people to buy.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Scott, while I agree with you that thin people don’t often eat diet foods like the infamous Snackwell cookies, will power is not what is lacking in most overweight individuals. A much bigger issue is the lack of education in our society about what constitutes truly healthy food. If they are buying Snackwells, they think they are doing well by not purchasing Oreo’s, right? I think that is simply misguided will power.

      Rather than blaming people for their weight problems, I think it is more constructive to vote with our forks to change the way Americans want to eat. This requires changing the way we think about food and body weight.

  5. What a great series this has been! Amazing how when one changes their relationship with food they start to look at food differently and eat better.

    Thanks for the great tips!!

  6. All excellent advice. Particularly the part about not going cold turkey on everything you love. Even the stuff that isn’t good for you.

    Too many people try giving up on their vices completely. It can last for a bit, but eventually you will end up regressing. But if you can find a way to consume those things in small quantities, occasionally, you will be more likely to find long-term success.

  7. You know I kind of just went in stages: Sugar to agave to stevia to none. Something like that. It really helped just getting rid of all packaged products that contained sugar much to my surprise! i figured, if i’m gonna eat sugar i just want to KNOW it.

  8. Eleanor says:

    You make a really good point that the best way to overcome junk food cravings is not to work so hard at resisting what you can’t have, but to focus on eating more healthy, real food. Pretty soon you really don’t want the junk. Why does this happen? My theory is: when you’re malnourished, your body perceives sugar and simple carbs as quick sources of energy. Our bodies were invented before Twinkies and don’t understand that Twinkies have no nutritional value whatsoever!
    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on grass-fed beef vs. feedlot beef, and whether you feel they are both to be avoided.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Funny, this was just brought up in the previous post. My general take is that grass-fed is better for a lot of reasons, but health differences (in terms of nutrition – don’t get me started on antibiotics) are probably relatively small.

      Personally I am wary of all meat, but go for the highest quality I can get my hands on when I do eat it. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE meat. But it is expensive, more difficult to cook and not so healthy, so it is easy to avoid in my daily life.

      Hopefully this answers your question, but let me know if I didn’t =D

  9. Jennifer says:

    Hey Darya,

    I just spent about 30 minutes reading all the posts in this series. Well done! I now feel like I have a better idea of what I need to be eating. Your posts also helped me see that I do already eat pretty healthy…I just need to make some tweaks here and there.

    I have a farmer’s market down the street from me that is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. I don’t stop there often enough because most of the time I don’t carry cash (hopefully these markets, esp. ones that stay in the same location, will start accepting debit cards soon). I’m going to try to make it my weekend ritual to stop by from here on out, thou.

    Also, I live in suburbia (and truly miss with all my heart the easy-healthy lifestyle I was accustomed to when I lived in Southern California), which means my grocery store choices are places like Kroger and Super Walmart. However, there are Whole Foods store about 30 minutes away. I (once again) usually skip these trips because it’s a far distance and the cost of gas. Plus the long drive wrecks havoc on the food I buy (b/c where I live is so insanely hot!)… but I’m going to try to make a trip there at least once every couple weeks. I’ll bring a cooler with me and grab a bag of ice at the store.

    Thanks for this series of posts! I look forward to reading more (I’m an RSS subscriber, of course!). Keep up the awesome work.

  10. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. You may want to check out the book Sugar Shock. It answers some of the scientific unknowns you mentioned in the second paragraph.

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