Sometimes, it’s hard to eat healthy. In urban neighborhoods and at travel pit-stops, our food choices are often limited. Restaurants often serve nothing but burgers and soda, and groceries often carry more potato chips than fruit. These food deserts—regions with limited fresh food—have spread all across America. It’s made healthy eating hard; and sometimes, near impossible. In fact, food deserts have contributed to our massive obesity crisis. How, then, can we eat healthy when we have no control over our food choices?
With a little resourcefulness, you can often find healthy food items when you’re trapped in a food desert. If you can find a nearby grocery, you can almost certainly build a balanced, healthy meal covering all five food groups. And even when you’re stuck eating at a convenience store, all may not be lost. Your food won’t be gourmet, but at least you won’t have to settle for a greasy burger.
Here are three key strategies:
- Scout around. There might be a grocery store nearby. You’re much better off eating lunch at a supermarket than at a restaurant or at a gas station. Grocery stores are more likely to carry unprocessed food.
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods. Processed foods are stripped of their nutrients, and are often bundled with extra fat, sugar, and chemicals. They’re also more expensive.
- Follow the food pyramid. To eat a balanced diet, you’ll need grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and dairy (1). If you can’t get all the groups, just do the best you can.
Here are the tactics for each food group:
- Fruit: Buy fresh, not canned. Don’t get picky about the type of fruit; cheap, common fruits are fine. Oranges, bananas, and apples are packed with fiber and micronutrients like Vitamin C and phytochemicals.
- Dairy: Get whole or low-fat milk. Stay away from chocolate milk/flavored yogurt products; they’re loaded with sugar and preservatives. It’s much better to drink organic, but conventional milk is acceptable in a pinch.
- Meat: You don’t need any. Organic meat would be acceptable, but I doubt you’ll find pastured beef in a food desert. To get enough protein, eat some beans and nuts. It should be easy to find a package of peanuts with no additives besides salt. For beans, scavenge for a can with no extra additives like lard: refried beans are fine. Look for a can with a self-opening top, since you probably won’t want to buy a can opener. Beans aren’t glamorous, but they’re lean and jam-packed with protein. Avoid processed beans like baked beans or chili beans.
- Grains: Stay away from pastries, donuts, and muffins. A loaf of 100% whole wheat bread will give you plenty of energy without excessive sugar or oil. Sometimes, I’ll carry a box of oatmeal with me. Secret tip: If you’re not picky, you don’t need to boil oats in water. I eat them all the time in their raw, dry form.
- Vegetables: This food group is the hardest of all: I’ve never seen a convenience store carry veggies. However, if you have access to a grocery store, you’ll have plenty to choose from. Any common vegetable will do: carrots, tomatoes, and lettuce are all fine. Buy some bell peppers and cucumbers and wash them in a bathroom sink. Eat them raw. If you buy a salad, throw away the ranch dressing (better yet, return it to the clerk).
Be sure to avoid these common pitfalls:
- Don’t eat out. By preparing your own meals, you can better control what goes in it.
- Stay away from brand names. Commercially trademarked “food products,” such as Cheetos or Coca-Cola, are often loaded with harmful additives like corn syrup, sugar, hydrogenated oils, food dyes, and preservatives. They also lack vitamins and minerals.
- Minimize packaging. Most things packaged in excessive plastic or aluminum aren’t good for you. Unflavored, canned beans or tuna are the only exceptions I can think of.
- Stay away from conventional meat. In all likelihood, you already eat plenty of meat. Conventional meat products are extremely bad for the environment, and often contains added oils, fats, sugars, and chemicals.
- Don’t drink sweetened beverages. This includes not only soda, but also fruit juice. Juice is only healthy when you prepare it yourself and don’t discard the fiber. Most commercial juices have tons of added sugar, and virtually all of them discard the natural fiber. Watch out for deceptive labeling–a juice-flavored drink isn’t really juice.
- Avoid food that never spoils. Fresh food is more nutritious. Food products with a perpetual shelf life–ramen noodles, candy, microwave burritos–are highly processed.
By following my own guidelines, I’ve managed to scrape by in food deserts while traveling. Even when most restaurants were selling junk food, I was able to maintain a healthy weight eating whole-wheat bread and bananas while drinking milk.
Hopefully we’ll have some real alternatives soon. But until then, we need to be resourceful scavengers of the food desert.
How difficult is it for you to get fresh fruits and veggies? How about organic food?
- The USDA updated the pyramid; the meat section has been replaced with protein. Protein from beans/nuts, the USDA says, is plenty.
Dry beans and peas may be counted as part of the “meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts group.”
A group of volunteers from the Brooklyn Food Coalition went around and mapped all the local food sites and what types of fresh food they served. The data is available at their site, Food Census. Let me know if any of you have seen similar done on a national scale; the rest of us could sure use it.