Nine years ago, I was ordering hot wings and pepperoni pizza for delivery and washing it all down with diet soda. Despite health problems and a friend who literally died as a result of poor eating, it was a very, very, very, gradual process to go from diet coke and barbecue hot wings with a side of candy to my current diet.

So if you are just beginning to explore healthy eating, a great place to start is by avoiding the very worst foods. The problem with most lists is they just tell you what to give up, without any allowance for the fact that you were addicted to the food for a reason. So while, yes this list says to give up chips, its only SOME chips not ALL chips. Yes there are candies that you should not eat, but chocolate is not one of them. So welcome to my realistic list of five manageable changes that could make a really BIG difference in your health

Instead of soft drinks and sports / energy drinks, have tea and coffee
Whether it is Gatorade, a Slushy drink or diet soda, there is no such thing as a healthy soft drink. Some are just less bad than others. When I see a kid drinking Vitamin Water I always want to grab his mom and ask “Did you read the label?” and if she says yes then ask, “So why not let him drink soda then?”. If you are worried about loss of salts drink tea and eat a banana. Drink mineral water. But there is a reason that soft drinks are so heavily targeted for regulation. They contain tons of sugar and most also contain additives, dyes and GMOs. They are also very easy to cut out. Virtually every fast food place also sells coffee and unsweetened iced tea. Get that instead. Send your kids to their games with bottled water or bottled tea. Sweeten it yourself if they don’t like it unsweetened. You don’t need a lot of sugar if you aren’t adding malic acid. Tea is actually health promoting. So is coffee especially the black kind with the caffeine.

Instead of Corn Chips, Pretzels, and Flavored Chips eat Potato, Sweet Potato and Bean Chips
Pretzels are made of either wheat flour and salt or cornstarch and salt. Both have high glycemic load numbers and are the opposite of paleo eating. They are pure white flour. Corn chips are whole grain, but unless they say “USDA Organic” then they are probably GMO and marinated in Roundup. Flavored chips, even the “healthy” ones, You can still eat chips, just stick with plain potato chips, plain cassava chips, plantain chips, plain Beanitos or plain Plentils. Choose brands that are non-GMO certified and where the potato or cassava or beans are fried in sunflower or safflower oils. You would be surprised at the nutrition facts on potato chips.

Instead of colorful candy eat dark chocolate
You know those brightly colored candies that contain no allergens? Well here is the problem with them, they also contain no food. The dyes used in the US are often banned overseas, and even if the dye is a safer one, this is a combination of fake flavors, fake colors, and sugars. Its not good for you. No one is saying to give up candy, just that a switch to dairy-free dark chocolate (which is actually fed to gorillas in zoos, because it is healthy in small doses) would be a good thing. Dark chocolate covered almonds anyone? Oooh or dark chocolate covered macadamias.

Instead of eating standard meat, insist on organic, grass fed meat or eat fish or vegan
I don’t care what the paleo people say, if my only source of meat was what my relatives could kill with uncorrected vision and pointy sticks I would have eaten a lot of fish and nuts. No one needs to eat a lot of meat, but if you are going to eat beef, pork or turkey, do not eat it out and do not eat meat from places like the US, Canada and Mexico because here livestock are often fed something called ractopamine which is banned in the EU, China and Russia. China and Russia consider it “unfit for human consumption”. Think about that for a minute. China thinks its not safe. The key here is to avoid eating meat when dining out (I tend to eat fish) and eat meat at home that is from New Zealand or organic or grass-fed. You can learn more about ractopamine on Wikipedia.

When you have a choice, don’t eat ingredients you don’t understand
Hydrolyzed soy protein can mean MSG, the compound fed to lab rats when the scientists need them to become obese. Carrageenan is fed to lab rats when they want the rats intestines to be inflamed, brominated flours can cause calcium loss. There are a host of sneaky weird ingredients. Do you know what the ingredient is? Do you know why it is in your food? Are you OK with it? What is TBHQ anyway? Actually its an anti-foaming agent. Now ask yourself why a candy bar needs an antifoaming agent. Look, if you understand the ingredient, then fine, eat it, but otherwise, somewhere else on the shelf is a brand that isn’t trying to trick you. Give them a shot.

Yes, these steps will require that you think more about your food, but the payoff is well worth it.

Happy New Year!