The Illusion of Healthy Choices

We all have choices.

Some choices require us to be more thoughtful, such as when selecting a career path or life partner.

Others perhaps are more inconsequential, such as the color of the shirt you choose to wear today or which brand of dental floss you add to the shopping cart.

There are some seemingly inconsequential choices, however, that have both an immediate and long-lasting effect on our well-being.

One such choice is what we eat and drink daily.

It’s no secret that we should drink more water and consume fewer junk foods.

But do we actually know which foods and drinks fall into this “junk” category?

Spoiler alert: it’s more than cookies, candies, and salty snacks from the grocery store aisle.

According to the Mayo Clinic and American Heart Association, junk foods are any food items that are highly processed, high in calories, and low in nutrients. These so-called “foods” often also contain added sugars, salt, and trans and saturated fats.

Bacon, fried foods, soda pop and other sugary drinks, some “healthy”-labeled granola bars, condiments like ketchup and BBQ sauce, frozen dinners, bread, pizza, cereal, and most fast foods are just a few offenders that meet the “junk food” criteria.

Sure, their appeal is understandable. Junk foods taste good, and they’re usually cheap and accessible. And some studies have suggested that our bodies react to junk food and drink in ways similar to how we respond to controlled substances, which means junk foods even “feel good.”

But that feel-good fix is short-lived, literally.

Since junk foods usually lack fiber, overconsumption of them can lead to poor digestion and constipation. Moreover, the artificial sweeteners in most junk foods and sugary drinks can lead to extreme imbalances in blood sugar and uncontrolled weight gain.

Long-term, a diet high in junk foods has strong links to increased risk of heart disease (including hypertension), obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, depression, dementia, stroke, and even premature death.

Interesting enough, it’s some of these very conditions that make us more vulnerable to COVID-19. When asked about what a person can do to boost their immune system in times like these, Dr. Suzanne Cassel—an immunologist at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai—says, “exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep are beneficial diabetes, obesity, and smoking can <...> interfere with your immune system and cause it to not work the way it is supposed to.”

Though no measure of diet, exercise, or healthy consumption can take the place of wearing a mask, washing your hands thoroughly, and socially distancing.

But what is a healthy diet?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a healthy diet as one that is full of nutrient-dense foods, including fruit, vegetables (excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, and other starchy roots), legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Such a lifestyle includes less than 10% of calories from added sugar and less than 30% from unsaturated fats found in fish, avocado, nuts, and sunflower, soybean, canola, and olive oils.

The WHO also suggests that healthy diets are those that choose unsaturated fats over saturated and trans-fats. “Saturated fats <...> are found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee and lard and trans-fats of all kinds, including both industrially-produced trans-fats (found in baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods, such as frozen pizza, pies, cookies, biscuits, wafers, and cooking oils and spreads) and ruminant trans-fats (found in meat and dairy foods from ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats, and camels).”

The above can be further simplified as either a modified Mediterranean diet—which has been known to dramatically reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease—or a whole-food plant-based diet.

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a whole-food, plant-based diet has been proven to not only reverse diet-related preventable illnesses, but also “ the number of medications to treat a variety of chronic conditions, lower body weight, risk of cancer, and a death from ischemic heart disease.

So when it comes to our short- and long-term health, most of us have that power to choose better. The power to choose plums over pizza, carrots over cookies, fresh vegetables over frozen dinners. The power to choose a healthier life now and in the future.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so privileged.

About 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in food apartheid (“food deserts”), that is, “geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options (aka fresh fruits and veggies) is limited or nonexistent.”

Simply put, affordable healthy options are just not available.

These neighborhoods, which are predominantly BIPOC and low-income families, are more likely to have water that contains contaminants (including lead) and are more densely populated with high-calorie, high-fat junk food, and fast food establishments. Those same junk foods that lead to chronic illnesses mentioned above.

These junk-food-filled neighborhoods are called “food swamps.”

And the unfortunate, racially-biased truth is that BIPOC are more likely than Whites to live near unhealthy food retailers.

It’s no wonder that Black people have the highest rates of diet-related preventable illnesses in the U.S. And living with so many pre-existing conditions have made BIPOC twice as likely to die from COVID-19.

It is this inequity that led me to create Food Love. Food Love by Might Be Vegan is a national COVID-19 hunger relief program designed to get fresh, plant-based foods directly to the doorstep of people who are in need. With a strong focus on unemployed and underemployed families in these food deserts and swamps, Food Love has supported communities so far north as New York and as far west as California.

Photo Credit: Grey & Gardner Photography

Food Love has also provided healthy plant-based nourishment to homebound seniors, immunosuppressed individuals, and families who don’t have the proper ID to show proof of residency.

To learn more about Food Love and how you can help, please visit mightbevegan.co and our GoFundMe.

About Kimberly Renee:

Kimberly is a self-taught private chef, on-air personality, and the founder of Might Be Vegan – a plant-based multimedia company and consultancy dedicated to helping people around the world eat more plants.

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