An Education in Nutrition by Nathaniel Tran

by tuftsigl
Sep 21

The last time I blogged, I was just starting to learn about food deserts and was writing a guide for the Center for Young Women’s Health to improve snacking behavior. Although the Center exists digitally, I spent several days trying to address issues regarding access to healthy foods in Boston specifically. During this time, I visited several grocery stores, corner stores, and Haymarket (Boston’s outdoor produce market) and spoke with a few community members. Below are a few of my recollections:

The house I grew up in a child had a decent size backyard and my mom would have me harvest fresh herbs and vegetables to incorporate into our meals. Many community members that I spoke to were able to share similar experiences and those that did not expressed interest in growing their own produce but in Boston, the small plots of shared land makes growing your own produce extremely difficult. Aside from expensive, local co-op markets and inconvenient hours at Haymarket, many families are forced to get their groceries at larger chain grocers who aren’t always the best advocates for individual health.

While visiting different stores I came across these examples of “healthy” food options that are not truly much healthier especially if you didn’t know what to look for on food labels:

Peanut butter: The variety that most of us are used to is ultra smooth and sweet, but these products are often blended with hydrogenated palm oil and corn syrup. Low sugar varieties are sweetened with artificial sugars and molasses. Used in moderation, all natural peanut butter is great in thickening sauces or sandwiches but it costs $4+ per jar.

Sour cream: Low fat varieties often are thinned with water and then stabilized with synthetic chemicals, so yes it is in lower in fat simply because you’re eating less actual sour cream.

Butter: People often turn to margarine or butter spreads because it’s lower in fat but in turn people are swapping in hydrogenated oils, trans fats, synthetic preservatives, and sweeteners. And when I watched my friends eat it in the dining halls, they said it didn’t taste very good so they had to use a lot of it. Let me tell you one thing: modest use of real butter is much better than the cheaper, synthetic margarine you’re piling on!

Produce: Food should look and smell good. That’s the easiest way to tell if your produce is ready is that it smells and looks appealing. But wandering the aisles of the chain markets, I noticed a lot of produce that looked dull— was it fresh? Yes. After talking to a few dietiticians, I learned that frozen vegetables are sometimes better than dull and lifeless fresh produce because the vegetables are picked at their peak when consumption/demand isn’t high enough to eat all the produce so some of it is frozen and sold throughout the year. This is a great way to add in cheap vegetables that are sometimes better than throwing money at sad looking produce.

I wish there was a simple fix, but there isn’t. I spent several weeks writing guides on leafy green vegetables, snacking behavior, where to shop, and specific recipes but the main takeaway I learned after talking to clinicians, families, chefs, and grocers I think the following rule can guide us all: Eat as much food that looks and smells good that you could find on its own in nature. If you can’t read what’s in it or isn’t natural, limit your intake.

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