Buying Groceries: The Problem with Catchy “Health” Words

Energy Bars

image: Cooking Light

This is a guest blog post by Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD.

Lately, several of my clients have been asking me about “energy” bars. They often bring me bars that are organic, dairy-free, wheat-free, raw, natural — all those trendy catch-words you see so often — but they had the caloric value of a full meal. One of my clients hopefully told me, “This could be my lunch!” And that’s when I got worried. Because that bar may be organic, wheat-free and raw, but it isn’t food. So here’s my suggestion: Let’s look past all these trendy, supposed health products and bring back the real trend — food.

The problem with trendy foods is that they confuse people about what’s healthy and what’s not. For instance, many people are so worried about carbohydrates that they won’t eat a potato, but they’ll snack on energy bars dressed up in nothing but healthy catch-words. How do we end up so afraid of a thing grown in the ground that we will choose a product made in a factory instead? Factory concoctions are moving us farther away from the most perfect place to be: the kitchen.

In the end, the basis of good health isn’t keeping this or that ingredient out of your food; it’s building a better relationship with your kitchen. It doesn’t matter how wheat- or dairy- or fat-free your meal is if it isn’t actually food. Take some time to learn a few dishes and cook them at home. And I know that no one has any free time — but if you develop a good relationship with your kitchen you can get a lot done in very little time. Here are a few strategies.

First, don’t worry about trying to cook like Julia Child every day. Instead, find a couple of days of the week when you can commit to prepare some basics. Sunday afternoon is often a great time to shop and then cook up a large pot of grains (rice, beans, lentils) and multiple proteins (chicken breasts, a pork tenderloin). Roast a large baking sheet of vegetables — carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes. These things are the basis of very fast food that you can put together during the rest of the week.

Once you have your basics cooked, you can come home from work and put together a real meal in mere minutes. Slice chicken breasts to put over a salad. Chop up the roasted vegetables and put them with canned tomatoes and chopped garlic to make a pasta sauce. The beans and meat can simmer on the stove with tomatoes and spices, and in half an hour you will have a delicious stew. If you have the basics pre-cooked and waiting in the refrigerator, all you have to do is think of a way to mix them together. This is far easier than starting meals from scratch after a long day, and it will let you use your kitchen rather than food delivery or — heaven forbid — some processed “energy” bar.

What goes for dinner is true of lunch as well. Rather than grabbing some bar that is so processed it might as well be pre-chewed and pre-digested, use your prepared basics to make a lunch. Make salads with the roasted vegetables, the lentils and the chicken breast. Put the rice, pork and beans together in a tortilla to make a burrito. Pack it up, bring it with you, and you will no longer need to spend money and empty calories on artificial food.

Cooking and the kitchen are the best health trend you can possibly embrace. It will take a little bit of planning, and a small amount of time. But you will save money and improve your health. The first step: When you go to the grocery store, plan to shop for food, not products.

Manuel VillacortaManuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning weight loss center in San Francisco. He is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the founder of Eating Free and author of his new book Eating Free: The Carb-Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good

  • Laurel Standley

    Hi Manuel, Thanks for the great article. It’s kind of sad when we have to define the word ‘food’ but that seems to be more and more the case. I was offered an energy bar by someone and declined, saying that I was working on eating real food more. She then read the label to me of all the real ‘food’ in the bar and I explained I meant something like an apple. I also saw two women snacking on the train, one had a bag of chips, the other a baked yam wrapped in foil. The one who ate the chips told her friend that she was still hungry as they got off. I can’t imagine that the woman with the yam was and how healthy that was.

  • james cooper

    Bravo. Well put.