Here are the basic rules I set out to follow when food shopping, in roughly descending order of importance:
- Aim for under 28g of sugar per day, excluding sugar in raw fruits and vegetables.
- Whole grain everything.
- Try to increase my fat intake towards the upper end of the recommended daily amount, so that food would taste better without sugar, have a lower glycemic load, and cut my hunger for longer.
- Look for higher protein levels, to keep hunger at bay for longer.
- Try and get as much raw and unprocessed food into my diet as possible.
- Try and keep sodium levels as low as possible.
This turns out to be a pretty challenging set of rules to follow. At this point, food manufacturers are still playing the “low fat diet” game, even though it’s unhealthy. If they’ve paid any attention to nutrition at all, they’ve done their best to reduce fat, and usually bumped up the sugar in the process. Often it felt as though everything in the store was low fat and packed full of sugar.
Also, after decades of being told that low fat is the most important thing for your health, it takes nerves of steel to grab an item that contains 45% of your day’s fat and put it in the cart with every intention of eating it.
It’s perfectly possible to make delicious whole grain bread containing practically no sugar, but good luck finding any kind of bagged bread in the supermarket that hasn’t had sugar added; even the healthiest whole grain breads seem to have 3g of sugar per slice. Check the made-from-scratch bread and you might have more luck. Or get a bread machine and make your own.
Also, beware of misleading labels. In your search for whole grain bread, you might get fooled into buying bread which says “contains whole grains”, for example, which means it contains them in trace quantities. The food industry has a whole set of misleading labels designed to suggest whole grain content where little or none exists. Generally you’ll have to read the actual ingredients list, and remember that ingredients have to be listed in descending order of quantity. Try to find bread with “whole wheat flour” at the start of the list and the words “whole grain” with no qualifiers on the label.
Broccoli is good. I get bags of frozen broccoli; while fresh is best, raw-but-frozen vegetables are as healthy as fresh, possibly more so.
Kale is also highly nutritious. I find that red kale is less offensively stinky and has less of a bitter taste than regular green kale, plus it has an appealingly gothic color.
Since it can be tough to get enough raw vegetables into the diet, I decided to cheat: I got a Blendtec blender. Put in some fresh fruit, some kale and broccoli, chia seeds and some almond milk, and you’ve got a really good smoothie.
Almonds are a good choice for snacking. Protein, unsaturated fat and fiber all help curb appetite. You can get 100 calorie snack packs of almonds, or if you are good at self-control buy a huge bag from Costco like I did.
As with bread, the correct amount of sugar in peanut butter is no sugar. The ingredients list should be “peanuts”. Nothing else.
Same for almond butter. (Which is a slightly healthier option.)
There’s also PB2. It has a little sugar in, but it’s dried and powdered to remove most of the fat. It makes a good source of added protein for smoothies.
Wheatgerm and chia seeds are good to add to almost anything, from plain yogurt to oatmeal. Chia makes smoothies smoother, too.
I eat quite a lot of rice. Brown rice is a fairly obvious improvement, and brown basmati rice is probably the most nutritious variety you can get. However, I also discovered that red quinoa made an excellent substitute for rice in many dishes, and was easier to cook into the bargain.
The stores are full of snack bars which promise that they will help you lose weight. Most of them focus on being low fat, and have way too much sugar in. However, there are some that have 10g or more of protein with little or no sugar, and it’s good to keep some of those around for occasions when you suddenly find yourself hungry with no immediate prospect of a decent meal. I only ended up eating a couple in the course of 4 months, though, when I was outside somewhere and the only food sold in the vicinity was crap. For similar reasons, we now keep packs of almonds in the car.