We all need to eat.
Food and meals seem to be one of the most universal things that humans share.
When managing a disabling condition, what to eat and how to eat may become more of an issue, so I want to talk to you today about how you can use food to improve your quality of life.
I have written a separate post on allergies, sensitivities and removing food from your diet – this post is specifically focused on adjustments you can make to improve your diet assuming your needs match more standard expectations.
Why I focus on healthy eating
I have been focused on healthy eating for the last several years after I hit a point where I recognized that I could not reliably exercise and wanted to lose weight.
I figured if I couldn’t sweat it out, I’d need to control what went in. I did my research and shopped and planned meals with eating healthier in mind, but have recognized that I am not great at portion control or using willpower to avoid temptation(a very common problem indeed).
I don’t have any particular health-related food requirements, but am trying to make the healthiest possible choices to keep that the case.
I am heavier than ideal, so losing weight would be good, but likely some of my weight gain is a side effect of long-term use of antidepressants, as well as the result of years with a limited ability to exercise.
My focus is generally on eating more nutrient-dense food, making sure I have a healthy amount of fiber in my diet(most people do not eat enough fiber), and eating a varied relatively low-fat and low-salt diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
Since Al’s injury, we have learned that he has osteoporosis(needs a bone-healthy diet), autoimmune pernicious anemia(so his body isn’t absorbing B12 no matter how much meat he eats), higher than average triglyceride levels(so he needs to eat a heart-healthy diet) and low HDL ‘good’ cholesterol(exercise and certain foods can encourage that number up a little).
I have been helping him think through the adjustments he needs to make in his eating habits so he can be heart-healthy and get proper nutrition, but it is a process, not an instant fix.
We’ve been working on it for a couple of years now, and I think we are doing pretty well on the food front.
We aren’t perfect and don’t expect to be – Al and I both highly value flavorful food, and focus on being happy and reasonably healthy, not miserable with a perfect diet!
We focus on keeping our habits trending in a positive direction.
Adding to your diet: dietary adjustments for healthier living
When it comes to healthier eating, such as heart-healthy(or healthier) diets, diabetes management, and other systemic dietary changes to make up for some absorption or processing issue that your body has, it’s important to have the best possible understanding of why it’s needed, what good practices there are, and how urgent and severe the change needs to be.
A heart-healthy higher fiber diet is useful for most of the population and can reduce the long-term risk of heart disease and obesity for most people, whether disabled or not.
Controlling sugar intake and other carbohydrate and sugar management techniques can help most people reduce their risk of developing diabetes and help people who are pre-diabetic or in early stages reduce their likelihood of needing insulin or more radical treatments.
A good friend of mine was told she was on the verge of type II diabetes, but by radically changing her diet and sticking to it, she not only didn’t need insulin treatments but experienced dramatic(and relatively safe) weight loss.
Years later, her doctor informed her that her test results no longer indicated her risk of diabetes. As long as she continues to maintain that diet, she likely will not need insulin injections and will be free of most diabetes-related symptoms.
The earlier risks to your health are recognized and treated, the more gradual your dietary change can be while still being helpful.
The more severe or extreme your reaction or your current state, the more quickly and extremely you need to change your diet, and the more extreme treatments may be required on top of diet and habit changes.
This also means that those changes will likely be harder to create and maintain. As I mentioned above, it’s still possible, but it is more challenging.
I feel lucky that while I may be obese or near obesity by BMI, my weight issues are not as extreme as they are for much of the population.
Currently the US is in an obesity crisis for a variety of reasons, including easy access to unhealthy foods(food deserts are areas with extremely limited opportunities for healthier options), our modern ability to buy most food options most of the time, and the fact that processed and less healthy food is much cheaper to buy, less effort to prepare, and less likely to spoil than healthier food is.
Many people look at dietary change from the perspective of the options they have lost – generally grieving for the loss of that extra pat of butter, the reduction of fried foods or sugary drinks, and so on.
I do understand that instinct, but want to encourage you instead to think about your gains.
- Olive oil is a very tasty cooking oil that can add flavor to your food.
- You now have a reason to try new vegetables and fruits
- Find new and interesting flavors to add to your cooking(spices, fruits, juices, beans, grains, or vegetables)
- There is now a huge variety of healthier kinds of pasta – from whole wheat to quinoa or rice-based pasta to bean-based pasta, most of which are much more flavorful than your standard pasta.
I admit they are also more expensive, but there are sales, and I love trying out new types to see what I like!
- This is also an opportunity to try brown rice or wild rice, or explore new rice mixes – or quinoa(which is both tasty and full of protein).
- Generally, these whole-grain foods are more filling than the more processed sides you are likely used to, so you likely will be eating somewhat smaller servings than in the past.
Eating healthier does often mean reducing your sugar intake, increasing your fiber intake, and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.
Cooking healthier – using substitutions
Changing your diet does involve some extra thought and planning, and initially, you may fear that some of your dishes are bland – a big part of that is that most prepared foods have more salt and sugar in them than healthy and our tastebuds crave those flavors.
If you give your tastebuds a chance to reset a bit, then you will end up more apt to notice nuances to your food that you’d missed in the past, and enjoy your food more thoroughly.
- Carefully read labels – make sure it’s the healthiest option!
Any food you regularly buy, pause a moment and look at the labels. Select canned or boxed food with minimal ingredients, and preferably words you can recognize. There are a lot of additives and preservatives out there whose long-term effects are still unknown, so the simpler, the better(as a rule of thumb). Also, a surprising number of foods have added salt, sugar, or both. If you are buying canned tomatoes, make sure that that’s all your getting – so often seemingly simple foods have salt or sugar added already, sometimes a considerable amount!
If you just do some of those replacements, that’s another step towards a healthier life! For example, Al and I will often buy crushed tomatoes or a very basic tomato sauce instead of jars of marinara or pasta sauce. This way, we can add in vegetables and spices, and start with much less salt and sugar!
- Instead of focusing on reducing salt, focus on adding spices!
I highly recommend experimenting with spices to add to the savor of your meal.
When we cook, Al and I often will try out spice mixes, like creole spices or Italian mix, or spike(a salt-substitute made of a variety of spices), and add additional spices to our food, rather than putting in salt.
We also have sea salt to add to our dishes if needed, rather than adding it in during the cooking.
You can also try out salt mixes, like onion salt or garlic salt, or other seasoning mixes that complement the meal, so that you are adding in more flavor per salt grain.
- Many meat-focused dishes can be made with less meat, different meat, and/or more vegetables!
Substituting chicken or fish for beef or pork can often make a meal healthier on its own. Also, if you add in more vegetables or a greater variety of vegetables, you are also improving the health effects without necessarily changing the flavor by much.
Al has always loved chili with beans – instead of making it with ground beef, we use ground turkey. We also make sure to have plenty of beans and vegetables in there and use low-sodium broth as a base. That’s a lot of fiber in one dish, and it tastes delicious!
We’ll also make beef stew on occasion, using slightly fewer cubes of beef than the recipe suggests – and extra vegetables.
We also often leave out the potatoes(a personal preference that happens to be healthier since potatoes are very starchy and relatively low on nutrients), and replace them with more veggies, as well as using a low sodium broth.
Many recipes suggest substituting sweet potatoes, as they are less starchy and more nutrient-dense. I love sweet potatoes, but Al isn’t a fan, so most of our dishes are sweet-potato-free.
- Frozen vegetables are often cheaper, healthier, and longer-lasting than fresh when you cook!
I mostly buy frozen fruits and vegetables, especially late fall through early summer. They are frozen at the peak of freshness(while ‘fresh’ fruits and vegetables often traveled a long distance in variable degrees of ripeness to arrive at your store), and they are often pre-cut saving you energy and effort. Everything in your freezer bag is ready for you to toss in the pot, pan, or baking sheet, so you can get your veggies quickly and easily with minimal preperation. For salads and other non-cooking options, you don’t necessarily want to buy frozen, farmer’s markets are ideal for fresh fruit and vegetables, but that still gives you a lot of opportunities to benefit from frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Use natural sweeteners instead of sugar or sugar substitutes.
For sweeter dishes, we’ll often use fruit as the sweetener instead of sugar. For example, I’ve seen multiple recipes of various forms of Hawaiian style chicken, mixed with vegetables. Pineapple is recommended to give that sweetness, but some recipes also suggest adding sugar – I’ve found that the pineapple juice is plenty sweet on its own, especially as the cooking process often caramelizes and intensifies the pineapple flavor.
On the occasions I have the energy and desire to bake, I have learned that dates and bananas can greatly reduce the need for sugar while adding fiber to the food. You may need to experiment a bit to find what works or doesn’t work for you, but there are a lot of recipes out there that use blenders to make batter and take full advantage of the natural sweetness of certain fruits to create delicious desserts or snacks
- It’s amazing what can replace butter in recipes!
Butter can be delicious, but it doesn’t have a reputation for being healthy.
I tend to avoid butter substitutes(like ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ or Margarine) because they don’t really add much to your diet, and they often are associated with other health risks(unsaturated fat).
Instead, I find things that add their own qualities to the food. For example, instead of cooking with butter, we use olive oil, which is lower in unhealthy fats, has fewer calories, and appears to have some potential to improve health.
In baking, butter can often be replaced by apple sauce(which also sweetens the dish), greek yogurt(often also replaces or reduces the need for milk), avocados(which feels ridiculous due to how expensive that are), or olive oil.
When you’re getting started, look for recipes with those substitutions already made, since there are variations in which works better and just what the rate of substitution is – but the point is that just because some food items should be reduced or eliminated, that doesn’t mean that you’re losing all your delicious options, but instead it means that you need to do some experimenting and find healthier ways to prepare your meals.
Conclusion: thinking about what you eat
Food is one of the most controllable part of your budget and can have a huge impact on your overall health.
In general, Americans currently have relatively unhealthy eating habits, and healthy eating is generally more work and more expensive than unhealthy meals.
Many disabilities are in some way or another food and diet-related, whether directly or indirectly.
Having better eating habits will likely help you have a better quality of life.
There are dietary options focused on improving health and mitigating damage to your system, whether that damage is due to life choices or genetic tendencies(or a combination of the two).
The earlier these problems are recognized the more options you have for adjusting your habits and changing your food choices.
The more severe the issue the more strictly you need to adhere to the diet for your health and the more severe the consequences for not following through.
I have also enclosed some general suggestions for adjusting your diet to better fit most health standards. There are exceptions with certain conditions, and you need to follow your doctor’s recommendations.
What have you found helpful? I’d love to hear other people’s stories of dietary needs and changes, and discuss how to better manage those changes.
As always, slow and steady wins the race, so I encourage you to think about one thing that you can do to improve your food and eating habits to protect or improve your health!