One of the first things I suggest when someone wants to lose weight or get healthy is cutting out the processed and packaged foods. A box of cereal, no matter what the front of the package says, is unlikely to be healthy. Frozen dinners often have a list of ingredients that are so long that you have to sit down to read it, and that list is usually filled with more bad than good.
That being said, just because a food is packaged or processed doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. There are some good foods that only come in packages.
1 – Oatmeal
Some people think that only healthy oatmeal is the raw oatmeal found in those big bins in the natural food stores, but that’s not true. Yes, if the oatmeal has any sort of flavoring, it’s not going to be healthy, but if it’s a canister of 1 minute, 5 minute, rolled oats, Irish oats, or steel cut oats, then that’s good oatmeal. These are all just oats, just cut up, cooked, and dried differently.
Steel cut and Irish oats are closest to the whole grain, but all oats are essentially “whole grain” anyway. Rolled oats, or 5 minute oats, are oats that have been steamed and rolled out, then dried and put into their containers. Quick cooking oats, or 1 minute oats, are merely 5 minute oats that have been steamed, rolled, and dried one more time. Continuting this theme, instant oats are simply 1 minute oats that have been chopped up a bit before that last steaming, rolling, and drying. The more time they’ve been steamed, rolled and dried, the more surface area they have for quick cooking.
The biggest issue with instant oats is that they are almost impossible to find without added sugar and flavorings. Otherwise, from a nutrition standpoint, they are all basically the same. Choose the type that makes you happy and keeps you full the longest, while still being convenient enough to enjoy.
2 – Olive oil
This one seems pretty obvious, as we’ve been gold that olive oil is healthy for years. Buy olive oil primarily for salad dressing, and look for Extra Virgin in a dark green or brown bottle, which keeps it fresher, longer. Can you cook with olive oil? Sure, but try to use lighter olive oils with less flavor, and stick to lower heat cooking, as overheating olive isn’t a good thing.
3 – Peanut and nut butters
I’ll be honest, I don’t keep nut butter in the house. It’s just too delicious, and even the uninteresting natural and unsalted peanut butter calls to me from the kitchen. I hate that, so I don’t often buy it. When I have a recipe that requires nut butter, I buy it in little packets. Just one packet, just in case.
4 – Bacon
A strip of bacon has only about 70 calories, plus the fat in bacon is mostly monounsaturated fat, which is the same fat that’s said to be healthy when health food experts push you to eat more olive and peanut oil. Plus, bacon is a good source of protein alongside your eggs. For the whole bacon story, read TheFitInk’s bacon article from last week; Bacon Bacon Everywhere.
5 – Coconut oil (and palm oil)
Coconut is the newest darling of the food industry. Coconut itself is in everything, and coconut water is everywhere! Funny how, because of bad publicity and poorly interpreted studies, movie theaters were forced to stop using coconut oil for popcorn back in ’94, isn’t it? Fast forward to today, and coconut oil is the saturated fat source that doctors and dieticians aren’t afraid to recommend, even as they reserve judgment on animal based saturated fats. They are waiting for the media to sell them on that, too?
Coconut oil is our oil of choice for cooking. It withstands high heat and does a great job frying, sauteeing, and even tastes great. If you want a more tasteless oil to replace your vegetable oil, you can look for expeller pressed coconut oil, which is flavorless. If that’s hard to find, look for palm oil (which is firm like shortening), which can be found online or in the fancy “organic food” section of supermarkets like Pavilions or Vons.
6 – Corn tortillas
Corn tortillas contain less than half the calories of even the smallest flour tortilla, so you can have a satisfying taco dinner without destroying your diet. Corn tortillas are gluten free, too.
Avoid the pre-cooked corn tortillas, as they are fried, often in oils that are bad for your health. Rather then steam tortillas in the microwave or merely heat them on a skillet, try this authentic Mexican street taco trick, excerpted from the recipe section of our upcoming book, Man on Top.
Tacos are a simple food, but visions of deep fried taco shells or the high calorie load of flour tortillas and heavy side dishes make them seem anything but healthy. But sit tight and I’ll show you an easy and healthy way to make tacos that even my kids love.
Years ago, on a trip to Mexico, I ate a lot of street tacos (shocking, I know), and I noticed that they didn’t fry the tortillas or do any of the fancy steaming that we do here in the States. Instead, they dipped them in water and then flipped them onto a very hot griddle or pan, turning them just once. When they were done, they were firm, but flexible, held together well with the fillings, and didn’t have that weird taste and texture that comes from steaming, nor did they fall apart on the way to your mouth! Healthy, tasty, and practical!
Makes 10 tacos
10 corn tortillas
1½ lbs lean ground beef
1 jar of mild red salsa
Salt to taste
Sharp cheddar cheese, sour cream, avocado, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, chopped onions, salsa, hot sauce
Brown the meat and drain the fat. Stir in about half of the salsa and stir well. Salt to taste.
Heat one or more skillets over medium-high to high heat. Put some water in a bowl that’s big enough for dipping a tortilla, and set it near the skillet(s). When the skillet is very hot, put on a wet tortilla and let it sit until it can be easily can be lifted with a spatula, about 30-60 seconds. Turn the tortilla and cook until side two can also easily be lifted with the spatula.
With a non-stick skillet, this doesn’t always apply, and you’ll have to test it for doneness by touch.
Repeat with the rest of the tortillas, overlapping them on a large plate, rather than making one tall stack (which can soften and steam them too much).
Serve the meat, tortillas, and toppings at the table, family style along with our Mexican Chopped Salad from the Salad and Vegetable section.
Note – Our Slow Cooker Pork makes excellent carnitas tacos if you don’t feel like beef. Shred or chop the cooked or reheated pork and serve it in a bowl on the table. Green chili salsa (salsa verde) goes very well with carnitas, although you can never go wrong with red chili salsa.
Ground beef tacos? Yeah, the tortilla trick is authentic, but the taco recipe isn’t. Man on Top focuses on simple and easy (but delicious) recipes, so feel free to substitute your taco meat recipe of choice.
7 – Olives
Olives, from the large black ones that we stick on our fingers to the fancy olives in the gourmet food section are a healthy source of fat (olive oil, of course). Many Americans only have olives at holiday gatherings or on pizza, but olives are great in salads, chopped over meats, fish, or chicken, or just eaten on the side of your meal. Olives are easily overeaten, so measure out the number you want, and put the jar back in the fridge.
8 – Protein powder
I prefer solid food over shakes, but there’s no denying the convenience that comes from having a canister of protein powder on hand. Avoid tubs that have added carbs and fats, and just focus on the protein. If you want a meal from your shake, you’re going to have to add your own ingredients, as any tub that claims to be a meal replacement is lying, expensive, unhealthy, or terrible tasting.
Vanilla is a good choice for most people, as it can be used for recipes and shakes alike. Look for powders that contain no soy, which is a sign of a cheap and unhealthy powder. Stevia is our sweetener of choice, but can be hard to find, so you might have to look for a natural food store.
9 – Coconut milk or cream
Coconut milk has long been popular with Thai food, and now it’s being used in all sorts of things. At home, we even use it as a substitute for half and half. It’s not the same, but it’s good. Different good, but good.
Look for a coconut milk or cream that just uses coconut and water, when possible. Gums are often added as a thickener in “lesser quality” coconut milks.
Coconut cream is just thicker milk. I choose them based on quality of ingredients, followed by value measured in calories per dollar. A 1000 calorie can of coconut cream (for $2) can be diluted down to milk by adding more water, but a $2 can of coconut milk that only contains 475 calories is already pretty watery. Light coconut milk is simply thinner, watery coconut milk. You can water it down yourself at home and save money.
10 – Roasted nuts
Roasted, salted nuts have a bad reputation. We are often told to go raw and go for unsalted, but what are we afraid of? They claim the nuts are roasted in cheap vegetable oils that are bad for us, but that’s not as common as “they” say. Plus, only the ones that list cheap oils on the ingredient list have been roasted in oils, so it’s easy enough to read the label.
Is raw really better than roasted? Maybe a tiny bit, but the biggest benefit to raw for a dieter is that raw nuts aren’t as delicious, so if you’re tempted to overeat roasted and salted nuts, try raw and see if you can control yourself. By the way, cashews are always roasted, as they are poisonous when eaten raw. How come no one complains about that, eh?
Too much salt? That’s up for debate. Do you have a problem that low sodium would solve? Is the rest of your diet already low in sodium?If you really want more info, check out this article from Chris Kresser.
But I don’t eat ______…
Disclaimer – Please be advised that this list is in many ways subjective. Depending on your diet-style, you may find some of these things off limits. If you are a vegetarian, you won’t be eating the bacon, and if you are a paleo or primal eater, then skip the oatmeal or corn tortillas.
Don’t be tempted
There you go, a few good reasons to stray from the meat and produce sections of the supermarket, and into the dangerous and temping inner aisles. Don’t stay too long; just get in and get out!
So, did I leave anything awesome of the list? Let me know in the comments!