By Dee McCaffrey, Director of Nutrition, Processed-Free America
National Nutrition Month® is upon us. This annual campaign held in March by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics aims to focus the nation’s attention on the importance of making healthy food choices.
Are you familiar with the acronym S.A.D.? It’s an abbreviation for Standard American Diet — a modern dietary pattern that is vastly different from the way Americans ate as little as 100 years ago. As you are probably aware, the S.A.D. is rife with nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods, and SADly, current generations are experiencing the health consequences of this deeply entrenched dietary pattern. We’ve swapped butter for margarine, eggs for Eggbeaters, whole grains for refined flour, healthy fats for trans-fats and refined cooking oils, and naturally sweet foods for refined sugars. We’ve also genetically modified common food ingredients such as corn, wheat, and soy to allow them to withstand spraying with massive amounts of herbicide. As a result, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, food allergies, irritable bowel diseases, autoimmune disorders, and cancer are on the rise, mostly attributed to consumption of S.A.D. foods.
Traditional wisdom and sheer intuition would tell us that not only is it unnatural to replace whole, real food with refined chemical concoctions, it simply cannot be sustained. Fortunately, although the S.A.D. has become the norm for many who may not be ready or willing to let it go, the tide is beginning to turn in a new, yet traditional direction.
Thousands of people across the country are participating in a transition from the S.A.D. to a more life-affirming way of eating characterized by the acronym S.O.U.L., which encourages us to eat foods that are Seasonal, Organic, Unprocessed, and Locally grown or produced.
Research published over the last 30 years increasingly demonstrates that S.O.U.L. food is the primary promoter of health and the main protector from disease. Fueled by the promising results of scientific research and the personal testimonies of thousands who have reversed chronic conditions, the S.O.U.L. foodstyle is becoming more mainstream.
A diet built around S.O.U.L. foods aims to increase nutrition and improve health because it includes the foods of our great-great grandparents — the foods of gardens and farms, traditional food preparation techniques such as soaking and sprouting grains, fermenting and culturing foods, and pasture raising livestock in humane conditions. Most notably, it is a call to action to do our part to sustain future generations and a call to honor our bodies’ true needs.
How can modern-day Americans adopt a S.O.U.L. foodstyle? By making small, gradual changes, rather than changing everything all at once, it becomes doable and achievable. Here are some ways to begin incorporating more S.O.U.L. foods into your diet:
Eat seasonal foods when possible
Unlike out-of-season produce which is harvested early in order to be transported many miles to your local grocery store, fruits and vegetables grown in season on local farms and harvested at peak ripeness are fresher and contain higher levels of nutrients. Even though we may like to eat strawberries year-round, the best time to eat them is when they can be purchased directly from a local grower shortly after harvest.
Choose organic when possible
A comprehensive study of the nutrient content in organic foods published in the July 2014 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition found that overall, organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contained 17 percent more antioxidants than their conventionally grown counterparts, and for some antioxidants, the difference was even larger.
However, the main reason to choose organic produce is to avoid the residues of toxic pesticides and herbicides that are sprayed on conventionally grown crops. Many pesticides, even small doses, are known to cause serious damage to human health, such as cancers of the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems. Antioxidants, on the other hand, have been shown to help prevent the development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many other serious diseases.
Additionally, foods that carry the USDA Organic label, by law, cannot contain ingredients that derive from genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), which have also been linked to several health conditions such as food allergies, autoimmune disorders, and cancers.
The challenge many of us are faced with is the high cost of organic produce, but not all fruits and vegetables need to be consumed organic. That’s where the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce comes in handy. This guide, updated and published annually, helps shoppers prioritize the most important items to buy organic and which are safe to eat conventionally grown. For the most current list, go to foodnews.org, or download the free Dirty Dozen mobile app.
Choose foods that are in their closest-to-natural form
There are many compelling reasons to avoid processed foods, as a large body of research continues to mount evidence of their negative effects on human health. The bottom line is that at our core, we’re all designed to eat real foods that aren’t foreign to our DNA.
New research is showing us how nutritional components in foods “talk” to our genes, providing them with vital information about how to express themselves. In other words, the foods you eat will either tell your genes to “turn on” or “turn off” disease traits. So, while we are each born with a unique and specific set of genes that we can’t change—we can change how those genes are expressed by changing what we eat.
A diet built around S.O.U.L. foods is recommended by health experts for prevention and management of disease. Every one of the thousands of nutrients contained in real foods work together, synergistically, to keep the integrity of the food’s message intact. When we eat processed foods, the nutrients are either missing, altered, or synthetic, and our genes don’t receive the messages to “turn off” disease, but instead, receive the fragmented messages to “turn on” disease.
Processed-foods are everywhere in our food supply, even in natural food markets. That is why my husband and I founded Processed-Free America (PFA) — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping folks make the transition from S.A.D. to S.O.U.L. You can learn more about becoming a Processed-Free Facilitator at processedfreeamerica.org.
As you celebrate National Nutrition Month®, consider making small changes in your food choices that help you transition from S.A.D. to S.O.U.L., for the betterment of yourself, your family, your community, and the planet.
Dee McCaffrey is an organic chemist, nutritionist, and author of The Science of Skinny and The Science of Skinny Cookbook. Dee lost 100 pounds and has kept the weight off for 25 years by following a whole-food, processed-free diet. She is the founder of Processed-Free America, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing a national awareness of the effect processed foods have on our health, and the healing properties of natural, whole foods. She offers fee based one-one one nutrition counseling to help clients find the right nutritional balance for their lifestyle. Learn more at www.processedfreeamerica.org.