In this week’s Ask the Nutritionist, Nonie De Long shares ideas for healthy meals that can at times include pizza or wings, as well as explains the meanings of common food labels
Dear Nutritionist, over the past year I’ve had more time at home to prepare meals and to focus on my family’s nutrition. I’ve taken up cooking more than I used to but we’re still eating out a lot. I’m not interested in dieting but want to make the healthiest foods possible. What is most important to be healthy? Should I buy organic or low fat or sugar free or omega 3 or what? Is there a difference nutritionally speaking? —Marianne
That’s great that you’re cooking more. I hear from people who have gone both ways during this pandemic, some cook more at home while others eat more takeout because they are just sick of being at home all the time. Many people are feeling stifled and a number of us are feeling the financial pinch of the rising housing, food, and gasoline prices. As such, it’s important to know where to put our money and what has more nutritional value.
The foundation of optimal health is to eat the highest quality, most nutrient-dense foods as frequently as possible, and consume lower quality processed foods as little as possible. This is what we nutritionists call the 80/20 rule. Eat the healthiest, most minimally processed foods you can find 80 per cent (or more!) of the time, and the other stuff up to 20 per cent of the time. So, if you’re going to eat take out, try to limit yourself to one time every week or two and make it as nutrient dense as possible.
Here are some ideas to try. If your family likes a pizza night you might try to load as many veggies on the pizza as possible, and try a thinner crust or use half goat cheese (less inflammatory). Or you might learn how to make it homemade and get the kids involved. If you’re not the type to mess with dough, you can make individual pizzas with wraps or pita bread. You might accompany your pizza with a really nice fresh salad and homemade dressing. These all change the nutrition value of the same meal to make it better for your health.
If you like wings, instead of fries you might try fresh veggies and hummus or healthy dip. If you like burgers you might try the best quality burger you can make with quality chuck and seasonings with specialty cheese and a lettuce bun instead of the bread. If you like pasta you might replace the white pasta with whole wheat or even better – zucchini or spaghetti squash noodles, with homemade sauce, of course. My favourite homemade pasta sauce includes finely chopped sweet peppers, onions, garlic, spinach, and carrots, with ground beef and a slightly spicy tomato-cream base. This is decadent enough that the healthy pasta options do not detract from the dish at all! And less is needed to feel satisfied when the food has more nutrients. The reason we’re often left hungry after we eat garbage food is that there are very few nutrients in it!
Instead of wine or soda on a weekend you might try kombucha for a beverage. Soda water with fresh pressed fruit juice is much better than typical soda for the kids. Rather than sugar or artificial sweetener in your coffee, you might try monkfruit or stevia sweetener. These small hacks can have a big impact over time.
Whenever possible replace lower quality products with higher quality ones. This typically translates as homemade over factory processed, sustainably farmed over commercially farmed, unsweetened over sweetened, and organic over commercially grown foods.
On that note, let’s review a few marketing terms to clarify their value for health purposes:
This means the product contains Omega 3 fatty acids, which we need more of in our diets, almost without exception. These fats help balance out the more common fatty acids we consume, and they decrease inflammation significantly. The problem is that once omega the 3 fatty acids are exposed to heat, light, or oxygen they lose their health giving properties and becomes oxidized. So cooking products that contain Omega 3s can damage the quality of the health giving fats.
There have been few studies I can find that explore this, but those that have been done suggest canning and frying are more damaging than baking or broiling. What I recommend is that we consume Omega 3s from supplements or foods that are not cooked – hemp, chia seed, roe, fresh ground flax seeds, cod liver oil, and sashimi. Sashimi is Japanese. It’s raw fish, typically sliced thin and eaten with soy sauce. Salmon is delicious and safe to eat raw – if it has been properly frozen first.
This refers to the way products are grown. It varies a bit from country to country, but it means the product is grown without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or GMOs. Farmers who grow organic produce typically use more sustainable farming methods, like soil regeneration and crop diversity and rotation. It typically costs more because it takes more time to produce, requires soil testing and certification that is costly to the farmer, and requires a level of personal care and investment you don’t find in commercial farming practices.
Despite myths to the contrary, I have tested organic tomatoes, apples, carrots, and strawberries, and organic does not go bad more quickly than the GMO, pesticide laden, and artificially ripened counterparts. It’s also untrue there are no health benefits, as the product can only be as healthy as the soil that produces it. In addition, non-organic produce is often exposed to glyphosate. You can read the marketing of glyphosate here, which states that it’s safe for use. It has been approved for use in Canada for over 40 years. You can read about the lawsuits against the company for causing cancer here. The WHO lists it as probably carcinogenic, after much lobbying. The more we lobby the government about dangerous chemicals like this the more action will be taken to remove it from our food supply. At present it’s in virtually everything.
Low fat foods most often add more sugar in to make up for the lack of flavour or appeal in the product. As such, they are almost always unhealthy. And, natural fats are healthy for us. The myth that fat causes us to be fat has been exposed as untrue and we now know that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. What’s most important is ensuring your fats are as healthy as possible. Get organic if you can. Use first cold pressed extra virgin, organic olive oil, organic coconut oil, organic avocado oil, pastured lard, and grass fed butter and tallow.
Be wary of this labelling. Sugar-free is very healthy for us, but often this label indicates that the product is sweetened with artificial sweeteners. These include aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and sorbitol. They are known to alter the gut microbiome negatively, and can cause weight gain equal to what sugar does. In part this is because the taste of sweet foods can stimulate insulin production. Too, they can retrain your taste buds to desire sweets, especially when a sweetener is far sweeter than sugar is. The safest sweeteners for overall health are stevia, monkfruit, xylitol, raw honey, and coconut or palm sugar.
No artificial flavours/All natural:
This can also be misleading. It can cause us to believe a product is healthy. Sugar and fructose are natural, but not healthful at all. This label should be recognized for what it is. To be sure the product is good for you look instead at the ingredient list.
This label on meat is evidence the food industry will do anything to swindle us! Naturally raised cattle are ruminants – they eat grasses, not grains. Naturally raised pigs are omnivores – they eat weeds or grasses, small animals, insects, earthworms, roots, and dirt. Naturally raised chickens are also omnivores – they eat bugs, worms, seeds, greens, and whatever scraps they can get. “Grain fed” is slick marketing and nothing more.
Free range in theory means that hens have access to the outdoors to run around every day. In reality, it can mean they have access to a ramp to a space outside for part of each day, as opposed to being locked in a cage or kept indoors for the duration of their lives. It’s not much better than conventional, it turns out. The chickens may not be able to get to the door due to crowding or may not even know it’s there.
Pastured eggs, on the other hand, come from hens that have time in a pastured area every day, where they can pick at bugs and grasses and walk around and enjoy the sunshine. Naturally raised hens are not only happier and healthier, requiring less antibiotics because they have better immunity, but they also produce eggs richer in nutrients.
Organic are from hens that are fed food that is free of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are treated more ethically. Pastured are the best, followed by organic free range when those aren’t available. Getting to know the farm and their practices also helps. You can tell an egg is nutrient rich by looking at how dark the yolk is. A darker yolk means more nutrients.
As you can see, there are a number of terms the food industry comes up with to hoodwink us regarding the health of our foods.
One recommendation I make for everyone, regardless of which diet you do or don’t follow, is that we all learn how to cook and eat homemade food as much as possible. This minimizes the amount of synthetic food we consume, as well as the amount of preservatives, vegetable oil, sugar, and added salt. These are hidden in almost all processed foods. And it’s a myth that healthy food doesn’t have as much flavour or appeal as takeout or processed foods. In fact, the inverse is true, as anyone who has ever tasted home baked bread can tell you!
On that note, I had the opportunity this week to try the most incredible homemade bread, baked fresh right here in Bradford in the kitchen of Josie Patera. Only once in my life have I had bread I liked as much, as I was spoiled to live above a bakery called Seasons in my hometown of Cobourg in the 90s. I used to love the fresh baked triticale loaf. Josie’s pane was the first bread since to compare.
If you’re not familiar with pane, it means bread in Italian. Josie’s is a traditional Italian artisan loaf, rounded in shape with a crisp crust and a decadent, fluffy centre.
I inquired and discovered that two years ago Josie decided to turn her passion for baking into a small business on the advice of family and friends and Pina’s Pane was born. Pina is short for Giuseppina, which is her Italian name. She uses only the best ingredients and it shows in her product – which is sugar free. Josie makes several types of pane – from plain artisan to sesame seed to walnut cranberry maple crunch, to black olive and asiago cheese. I tried the olive pane and was blown away.
If your family consumes bread and you want a superior product while supporting a local small business, I recommend you try this bread. You can Josie on instagram at pinas.pane.
Thank you for writing in, Marianne. I hope you have a better understanding of how to prepare the healthiest foods possible now. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email. Readers can sign up for my free newsletter here to stay abreast of health news and upcoming events. Thanks for reading!