Stage 0: Use it or Lose It
If you have food items lingering in your pantry or refrigerator that are past their prime, expired, open and rancid, or stale, toss them. This will not only help you avoid potential pathogens and lower nutrient content, but will clear space for foods with higher quality.
Stage 1: Examine Your Fats
Refined vegetable oils pose a health risk at a cellular level – they are more easily oxidized, can increase LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, lead to insulin resistance and inflammation, and compromise cell membrane integrity. Removing them from your pantry is a great step in improving your health. Oils such as canola, safflower, cottonseed, soybean, corn, peanut, rice bran, margarine, and generic “vegetable” oils should be replaced with more stable, unprocessed fats like coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, butter, tallow, ghee, or duck fat. These fats are more heat stable and thus less susceptible to oxidation. All fat sources are a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated molecules and work together to sustain energy levels, encourage satiety, act as carriers for fat-soluble vitamins, and provide the building blocks for cell membranes and hormone and prostaglandin production. Choosing high quality sources can help ensure these processes happen effectively without promoting oxidative stress.
Besides looking at your more direct fat sources, consider “hidden” unhealthy fats in packaged foods, labeled as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”, as these are highly oxidative trans fats. These ingredients tend to be found in highly processed convenience foods, as they provide greater shelf stability at a lower cost for the manufacturer. If a complete cleanout of these offenders is not feasible, work to remove or replace the top 3-5 items most often used or consumed to decrease your exposure.
Stage 2: Ditch the Chemicals
Our modern food supply is loaded with artificial dyes, preservatives, flavorings, thickening agents, and a myriad of other synthetic chemicals that may contribute to endocrine, digestive, cardiovascular, immune, and neurological imbalance. These ingredients are solely found in processed food to alter nutritional value or to maintain texture, color, or shelf stability. They tend to appear as unrecognizable terms, use acronyms and numbers, and are just as hard for your body to break down as they are to pronounce. Examples include BHT, FD&C Yellow #6, sodium benzoate, and carrageenan, among others. Again, depending on your individual needs and circumstances, starting with the top 3-5 most-consumed items may be appropriate.
Stage 3: Search Out the Sugar
Possibly one of the more challenging stages is the elimination of added sugars. We often seek out the joy, comfort, and short-term energy bursts from these foods without considering their impact to our blood sugar, adrenals, endocrine system, vasculature, and weight. Sugar can hide in places less obvious, like condiments, bread, and seemingly healthy products, like low-fat and low-sodium packaged goods. There are 61 different terms used on ingredient labels that indicate added sugar, whether from natural sources, chemically altered, or artificial. Based on your individual needs and health goals, these should be avoided or reduced.
Stage 4: Replace Refined Grains
If grains are generally tolerated, use this step to swap refined, bleached products to whole grain, sprouted, or alternative options like coconut, cassava, tapioca, or arrowroot. Ancient grains, such as einkorn, spelt, kamut, sorghum, or pseudo-grains, may also be great options, easier to digest, and richer in nutrients. This may also be an opportunity to explore using whole fruits or vegetables in place of flour-based products, like trying lettuce wraps or sweet potato slices in place of sandwich buns. While complete elimination of grains may not be required for your individual health needs, it is wise to consider these products as more of an occasional treat rather than something to consume on a regular basis.
Stage 5: Get More Active in the Kitchen
After taking the steps to clean up the pantry and refrigerator, begin exploring your new kitchen in a creative way. Try new recipes, new ingredients, and new cuisines, focusing on improvements rather than perfection. Consider meal planning and batch cooking to save time, money, and energy if those are of concern. Local classes, blogs, and cookbooks are all great resources for learning new culinary skills and how to incorporate supportive ingredients. Enjoy your new healthy lifestyle with gratitude, openness, and a sense of connection, celebrating every victory along the way.