Where your food comes from, how it was grown or raised, and the amount of processing or chemicals it has been exposed to does make a difference on your digestion. And while many traditionally try to save money buying groceries, investing in the highest quality foods you can afford is a wise way to spend your budget – especially considering downstream effects and potential healthcare costs from poor nutrition. Over time I have transformed from a budget shopper (deals and save whenever I can) to someone who places a premium on the food I eat. I choose to spend money on food for me and my family over expensive dinners out, alcohol, and even entertainment. I have no judgment if you are not at this place yet, and I also completely understand that buying organic, grass-fed, local, and fresh food is more costly. If you don’t have the resources yet to eat and live this way, there are still ways to upgrade your quality.
Key Quality Terms
- Organic – No pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones
- Grass Fed – cattle that is fed grass (their natural diet) have a healthier nutrient profile that is good for humans to eat
- Local – the further food has to travel to get to you, the more nutrients get lost. Often times food has to be sprayed with chemicals in order to travel long distances
- Whole Food – food in its whole form and not processed
Increasing Your Food Quality
When it comes to quality, whole foods are a big step up from processed foods. A food that itself is an ingredient (chicken breast, spinach, eggs, apples) is higher quality than processed foods (Chicken McNuggets, Tostitos creamy spinach dip, Jimmy Deans Egg Delights, Sweetened Applesauce).
Since we will be focused on only using 5 ingredients per meal at a maximum (fewer is OK), aim for increasing quality and moving away from low quality processed foods. If you can make the ingredients you are purchasing higher quality by choosing organic, grass fed, and local, that is great and will pay dividends down the road. If not, then you are still taking steps in the right direction.
How to Grab and Go
The great news about having only 5 high quality ingredients in your meals is that you don’t have to worry about being a great cook. Browning some ground beef and making rice in a cooker, along with a cut up raw vegetable and fruit, is an easy meal for anyone to accomplish, and cooking at home gives you the most control over what goes into your body. But even if you can’t cook at home, you can walk into most grocery stores and grab 5 good ingredients from the prepared food section that will accomplish the same goals – great for when you’re on the road. Here is how to do that:
- Protein – look for a protein that is grilled (usually there is a steak or fish option that has only been seasoned with salt, pepper, or one other spice). Avoid proteins that have a ton of other ingredients on there.
- Vegetable – walk into the produce section and grab some fresh looking veggies (carrots, peppers, etc.) that are delicious eaten raw, and put them on your plate
- Fruit – grab a fresh piece of fruit while you are in the produce section
- Starch – most prepared food sections at your local store will have rice or a grain that has been cooked with just water. Grab some steamed rice and put that on your plate
- Fat – grab an avocado in the produce section or some raw or dry roasted nuts (not covered in oil – read the ingredients)
- Voila! – you have a protein + veg + fruit + starch + fat (5 ingredients). If your protein was cooked in oil, or you grabbed some prepared veggies that had oil on them, skip the additional fat to stay simple and under 5 ingredients.
If you haven’t already, you can explore the Resource Library to learn more about your gut microbiome. Eating the same foods over and over again without variety can decrease the biodiversity of the microbiome. This leads downstream to a less healthy digestive tract. Furthermore, low diversity in your food can lead over time to allergies that you build up to the foods you eat too often. An intolerance for a food that you have been eating every day for years is not uncommon. Intolerance leads to inflammation in the digestive tract as well as poor extraction of nutrients from your food.
Protein is the toughest of the macronutrients to digest. There can be a tendency to eat the same proteins over and over again. During the challenge and ideally beyond, rotate your proteins every 3 days. That means if you have eggs on a Monday, don’t eat eggs again until Thursday. Create a rotating protein schedule (use the Meal Planner Worksheet) and eat the same protein for multiple meals during a day. I find eating the same protein for 3 meals during the day to work for me. Some find eating the same protein for lunch and dinner to work well, but they need to rotate their breakfast. The Meal Planner Guide will give you some ideas about how to structure your eating, and you can ask questions and share what works for you in the Facebook Group. Also be sure to check out the Food List for ideas about what to select for your 5 ingredient meal components, and which items you need to keep rotating.
Vegetarians and Vegans
Even if you don’t eat meat, try to rotate your proteins daily. Remember, the goal is protein variety and keeping it simple with minimal ingredients. For vegetable and produce variety, there is even more room to mix it up. Instead of 10, go for 12 different vegetables and fruits into your diet every week. Choose a variety of colors and aim to grab some veggies and fruits that are seasonal (check out this Seasonal Produce Guide) and some that grow well all year (Broccoli, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumbers).
For starch variety, I recommend getting 3 different starches that you can rotate every 3 days. Starches may not make up a portion of every one of your meals. In the section about macronutrients and calorie recommendations we will talk about higher versus lower carb approaches. Still, it’s good to have a variety of starches that don’t contain gluten to choose from. My favorites are white rice, sweet potatoes, and quinoa – you can choose what works for you. I like to have starches at my first meal after I work out, when I can process them the best and they help me feel recovered.
Where to Buy Quality Foods
Fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, poultry, and more whole foods generally reside on the perimeters of food stores
Big Chain Stores
Costco, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Safeway, regional grocery chains – there is no shortage these days of options for quality organic food at affordable prices.
- Butcher Box – Animals that are sustainably farmed without antibiotics and fed natural diets; shipped to your door
- Farmers Markets and local stores often have good options as well
- Farmers Markets – support your local farmer and ask them directly about how it was grown
- Imperfect Foods is a service in our area (SF Bay) that delivers local organic produce that doesn’t pass muster for local stores, helping to eliminate food waste as well as conveniently deliver a great selection of seasonal fruits and veggies
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes are convenient and can often be picked up right in your neighborhood, or you can make a quick stop at your weekly Farmer’s Market to grab your prepaid, preselected box of produce for the week
If you have trouble with impulse buys in the store and don’t mind paying a little extra, online grocery shopping services such as Instacart, supplemented with deliveries from services such as Butcher Box and/or Imperfect Produce, can save you time and make sure that only the right ingredients make it home with you. Often your past orders can be saved and easily repeated or adjusted week to week. Many grocery stores such as Safeway offer online delivery as well for a reasonable price.
Where to Not Cut Corners On Cost
If you can only afford some organic items, the Dirty Dozen is a list of 12 common foods have the highest concentrations of pesticides when grown conventionally. You should always try to buy these organic when you can.
On the other hand, the Clean Fifteen is a list of 15 common foods that, even when grown conventionally, tend to be very safe to eat. You can stick with the lower cost conventional variations here.