In the old days, health food stores were small, grungy, lovable, hole–in–the–wall establishments that carried a few basics for health food nuts: organic carrots, tofu, brown rice, sea vegetables, carob chips, etc. As healthy eating became more popular, these stores multiplied to the point where almost every major town in America had a local health food store. With that multiplication came expansion: in addition to rice, beans and greens, you could also acquire healthier versions of the chips, crackers and cookies carried by conventional supermarkets.
In recent years, the health food store market has been cornered by Whole Foods, a mega–chain that drove many smaller stores out of business. While Whole Foods has made health food more accessible for many people, it may have missed the point of the original health food store. At many Whole Foods stores, it has become almost impossible to find bulk brown rice, or macrobiotic foods, within the countless aisles of organic soda or breakfast cereal made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. While those processed foods are better than the counterparts you’d find at the local Walmart, they signify that just because a food is sold in a health food store doesn’t mean it’s healthy. What follows is my slimmed–down guide to the essential foods you need from your local health food store:
Fruit. The best tasting and most nutritious fruit is fresh, local and organic, qualities which you can usually only find in a health food store or at a farmer’s market. Make local and in season your priority, followed by organic. Fruit can be expensive, but it’s worth the cost. If you need to, shop at a conventional supermarket for fresh fruit rather than go without entirely.
Vegetables. Health food stores carry a wide variety of fresh, local and organic vegetables. When purchasing vegetables, you should try to incorporate a variety of different vegetable groups, which include greens (such as kale or collards), roots (like carrots and beets), bulbs (ex. onions or celery), gourds (squashes), and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, etc). Vegetables should generally be stored in the crisper at the bottom of your refrigerator. Greens need to be kept in a plastic bag with the air pressed out, and they should be wrapped in a paper towel or two first so that the water on them is soaked up. Greens can be kept until they turn yellow (which takes about a week or two). Other vegetables will stay good for several weeks but generally it’s best to use them quickly, as they lose nutrition over time.
Grains and Beans. Whole grains and beans are kept in bulk bins, and are very inexpensive when purchased this way. You can get much of your calories and protein from these foods, which take some time to cook (especially beans, which need to be soaked and then boiled), but they last a long time and once cooked, can keep in the fridge for several days. Uncooked dry beans and grains keep for a year or more.
Nuts and Dried Fruit. These are good choices for snack foods, but they are not meal replacements. Only snack between meals if you’re still hungry despite having had a solid breakfast, lunch and dinner. These foods can also be expensive. Don’t try to cut back on fresh fruit, vegetables, or all–natural animal products so that you can buy snack foods.
Dairy Products. Raw dairy products from healthy cows are best, but in most states these cannot be sold in stores. Cheese is an exception—choose unpasteurized cheese when it is available. If you don’t have a source of raw milk, grass–fed organic pasteurized milk is the next best thing (non–homogenized is good too). Butter is best when cultured and unsalted. Yogurt should have no added sugar; add your own natural sweetener (such as raw honey) instead.
Fish. Fish is very good for you if it is wild caught, rather than farm raised. Wild caught fish is more expensive, so you may have to have it only occasionally, which is okay, especially since mercury in many species of fish is a concern. Sardines are a low–mercury, less expensive option.
Poultry, Pork, Beef, Eggs. Meat and eggs can be an important part of your diet and a good source of protein and fat; the meat must come from a healthy animal. For poultry, choose organic and free–range (or at least free–range), and hormone and antibiotic free. Pork should be organic if possible. Beef should be organic, but more importantly, grass–fed. Eggs should be from organic and free–range chickens. Be sure to check out local options.
Herbs and Spices, Salt, Natural Sweeteners. All of these condiments should be staples in your kitchen. Start building up a collection of herbs and spices and natural sweeteners (esp. raw honey), and use sea salt instead of regular salt. Buying herbs and spices in bulk is more cost–effective and you can buy less of the ones you won’t use as much. Most health food stores have a bulk spice section separate from bulk grains and beans.
Macriobiotic Foods. The original standbys of the health food store, these foods can now be difficult to find. However, they are usually grouped together, and include tamari (a natural form of soy sauce), brown rice vinegar, umeboshi plum paste, tekka, gomashio, and sea vegetables (nori, kombu, wakame, arame, hijiki). In the cold section you can also usually find the macrobiotic foods miso, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and mochi. These foods originate in the traditional Japanese diet and are all very nutritious and beneficial to health.
Oils, vinegars, sauces, nut butters, pastas, pickles, etc. Not all foods you buy need to be whole foods. It’s not convenient to buy your own olives to make olive oil, or grind your own peanuts for nut butter, for example, and you wouldn’t necessarily come up with a better quality product. In this sense some pre–made foods are perfectly fine, as long the ingredients themselves are whole foods. Peanut butter that contains peanuts and salt—fine. Peanut butter containing peanuts, salt, and hydrogenated vegetable oil—not so good. Pasta that is made from whole wheat is much better than pasta made from white flour. Olive oil should be unrefined and unfiltered rather than filtered and refined. Generally, the fewer ingredients—and the more whole–food the ingredients—the better.
Bread. People are always confused about what bread to buy, but the answer is fairly simple. Choose bread that is made from 100% whole grain flour (i.e. whole wheat, whole rye, etc.). If it says simply “wheat flour” or “whole wheat flour and white flour,” skip it. 100% whole grain flour molds quickly, since it is so nutritious, so keep it in the refrigerator or freezer. In fact, many whole grain breads are kept in the freezer section of the health food store. Don’t be afraid to try something new!
Supplements. If you eat the foods listed above, you really don’t need supplements. You may occasionally benefit from certain herbs, if you happen to be sick. But the most important thing is to be eating a good diet so you don’t get sick in the first place. When it comes to injuries such as bruises, cuts, stings/bug bites, and burns, the supplement section has some effective remedies such as arnica, calendula, stingstop, and aloe vera.
If any of the foods listed above catch your attention, in that you’ve never heard of them or at least have no idea how to incorporate them into your diet, then be sure to contact me with your questions!