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The Importance of Healthy Food

Part 1 of a series on feeding your brain and nourishing your body.

Key points

  • Healthy food does not have to be expensive. There are many ways to save, including seeking sales and primarily cooking at home.
  • Living with food allergies can be manageable, especially with the many options available in local stores and restaurants.
  • Mindful eating requires moderation and balance, and can include everything from fruits and veggies to junk food and meats.

"What most people don’t realize is that food is not just calories, it’s information. It contains messages that communicate to every cell in the body." —Dr. Mark Hyman

I was always that kid in school with the brown paper lunch bag, whole wheat sandwich bread with oat crust, a piece of bruised fruit, a granola bar, and maybe applesauce (as a treat). I hated my lunches. They were dull, and I was jealous of other kids who bought hot lunches from the lunch lady in the school cafeteria or had lunch boxes full of cookies, fruit-by-the-foot, and white bread sandwiches.

Sugary snacks and packaged food is expensive and hot lunches were out of the question.

Healthy food does not have to break your wallet

We didn’t have much money growing up, so my mom bought expired produce, coupon-clipped religiously, and was always searching for discounts, even if it meant dented cans and broken pasta.

In reality, we were so lucky to be able to eat three meals a day that consisted of whole foods, even if the produce was mushy, our canned beans were dented, and our eggs were expired. The growing percentage of children in America who go to bed hungry is becoming larger and larger each year. These children are not only malnourished but they are at risk for developing cognitive and behavioral problems down the road.

Living with food allergies

From as young as I can remember, dairy was my enemy. I spent countless nights in the emergency room with ruptured eardrums due to severe middle ear infections whenever I would eat something with dairy. I lost count of how many ear surgeries I had before I entered the fifth grade. These ear infections eventually worsened into anaphylaxis reactions whenever I consumed anything with dairy. I was eating cashew cream and soy ice cream before they ever became a trend. I didn’t mind eating Tofutti ice cream or cheese-less pizza with my mom and brother because to me, that was normal.

However, I became incredibly self-conscious about my allergy when I was around other kids my age. Going to a pizza sleepover, a birthday party, a team basketball dinner, a track outing, or anything where food was served became my worst nightmare. I ordered a veggie pizza without cheese and salads with no salad dressing. I said “no thank you” to birthday cakes, and I knew I was always going to be that weird allergic kid that would eventually turn into that weird allergic adult who does not eat dairy…or red meat.

Nearly 30 years later, I am finally comfortable explaining my food allergy, and I fully embrace pizza with no cheese. Of course, I still have rare moments where people do not fully understand my allergy or food choices, which presents some challenges along the way, but for the most part, I am fully content.

Cooking at home

My mom was never a fan of processed food. She never gave us frozen television dinners. The first time I ever went through a drive-thru was in the 4th grade, and I remember it caused one of the biggest parental blow-ups that I can remember.

Dinner was made from scratch every night (with plenty for leftovers), of course, and we sat around the table as a family and talked. My mom was a single mom of two with a demanding career, so time was not on her side. Instead, she meal-prepped, took full advantage of the Crockpot, “doctored up” the previous night’s leftovers, and somehow made whole, home-cooked meals fit into her financial and time budget.

On a rare occasion, we would indulge in “fast food,” which were strictly family chicken meals from El Pollo Loco, and even on more rare occasions, we would go to a sit-down restaurant. Dinners out, junk food, and candy were allowed but only on occasion. Soda was never allowed in the home, and my mom always baked our birthday cakes from scratch. She made it a priority to not only feed her children the best food possible but to ingrain in us the importance of food, not only for its nutritional value but for the value of bringing both strangers and loved ones together.

I share this part of my childhood because it not only foreshadows how I treat my mind and body today but also shows how our food habits can shape the rest of our lives. Growing up with a mom who prioritized whole foods and nourishment has allowed me to have a healthy relationship with food as an adult. How we raise our children around food can have a bigger impact on their future than many of us may realize.

It's all about moderation and balance

Today, I remind my mom on a regular basis that nourishing my brain and body with nutrient-rich whole foods was one of the best lifelong lessons she ever taught us. She not only taught us to nourish our bodies but to love our bodies.

To this day, I cook the majority of meals at home, crave fresh veggies and fruits daily, only eat at restaurants or order takeout as a way to socialize with friends and family, overindulge in my chicken (no cheese) burrito obsession, am a huge fan of whole balanced foods, and every so often, splurges on snack foods, dark chocolate, and gummy worms. My body feels good, my brain feels good, and my soul feels good.

Be mindful of what you eat, be creative with what you eat, enjoy what you eat, eat whole foods, and always be aware that you are not only feeding your body, but you are feeding your brain.

Brain fact: Two important hormones that shape our appetite and hunger signals are leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is secreted in fat cells and decreases hunger. Ghrelin is secreted in the stomach and increases hunger. Both hormones communicate with our hypothalamus (communication center in the brain).