10 Food Choices That Will Change Your LIFE

With this call to action, you can change your waistline—and the world

Our flawed food system has led to dual epidemics: hunger and obesity. In the past 30 years, we've seen the repercussions of global changes, and they aren't pretty. We're closing in on 1 billion people going hungry—and an even greater number are already overweight. As a nation, we've traditionally focused on making food fast, convenient, and widely available rather than good for us. Cooking has turned into reheating. Shelf stability trumps freshness. "Big," "cheap," and "sweet" outweigh "nutritious" and "well produced" by an (un)healthy margin.

The thing is, bad food can kill you just as no food can—it just takes longer. It creeps up on us in the form of obesity, cancer, and heart disease, and also as degraded soil, a compromised environment, and weakened local agriculture.

There is a solution to this very complex and far-reaching problem: you. By making small changes to your own diet, you can not only improve your health but also become part of the collective force needed to re-create a healthy food system that feeds the world well. Start here.

1 OCCUPY YOUR KITCHEN! By deciding how much and exactly which types of salt, sugar, and fat we will use to make our fruits, veggies, meat, dairy, and grains taste delicious, we reclaim control over our health and our weight. Cook as often as you can.

2 WHEN YOU BUY GLOBAL, THINK FAIR TRADE AND LOW IMPACT Global certification programs like Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and Marine Stewardship Council ensure that foods are grown sustainably. They also reduce the impact of chemically intensive growing practices.

3 USE WORD OF MOUTH School gardens are cropping up, which is encouraging kids to ask for veggies at home. Millennials are teaching their parents the joys of kale and the tastiness of a veggie burger. The next time you host family or friends, serve them a grass-fed burger on a whole-grain bun along with a plateful of local vegetables. Let them see firsthand that eating in a way that changes the food system for the better can be delicious—and fun.

4 GROW SOMETHING EDIBLE City dwellers can plant herbs in pots on a windowsill. Suburbanites can cultivate garlic and asparagus, a perennial vegetable that keeps producing for decades. Encourage your kids, neighbors, and friends to do the same. Odds are, you'll feel more connected to your food and to your community (many food banks accept fresh produce donations from individuals and farmers' markets).

5 REMOVE HIDDEN CORN FROM YOUR DIET It goes well beyond high-fructose corn syrup—processed corn ingredients include dextrose, corn syrup solids, and corn-based sweeteners, as well as meat, milk, and dairy from corn-fed cattle. Nixing those products from your kitchen may encourage manufacturers to find healthier alternatives, and it's also a great way to remove junk foods from your cabinets and make room in your wallet and home for natural, whole foods.

6 BUY FROM YOUR BACKYARD Meat, milk, vegetables, fruits, and many grains can be produced across our diverse country. Sourcing your food from local producers not only saves fuel and reduces your carbon footprint but also ensures freshness, keeps money and jobs close by, and fosters true food security, because basic necessities are produced closer to home. Seek out goods at your local farmers' market or invest in a "cow-share" from a farmer.

7 CHOOSE PROCESSED FOODS WISELY The further food is from its natural state, the less nutritious it's likely to be. You don't have to make everything from scratch, but seek out lightly processed foods with a short list of ingredients (ones you can pronounce). Bread should contain flour, yeast, and salt, not diglycerides and calcium propionate.

8 GO FOR QUALITY OVER QUANTITY If we rethink what a healthy "full" plate looks like (e.g., a portion of meat that's no larger than the palm of your hand), we can afford grass-fed steak instead of the cheaper, industrially produced meat. Right now, we have unprecedented obesity but also unprecedented waste, partly because we're buying supersize deals that are either going to our waists or into the trash. We can shave pounds and save dollars by buying (and eating) smaller portions of high-quality food.

9 RETHINK THE IDEA THAT HEALTHY FOOD IS TOO COSTLY In 2008, Americans spent more than $140 billion on obesity-related health care. Why not reap the benefits of investing money in good food instead of on doctors' bills, meds, and bigger clothes? Think of mealtimes as an investment in your physical and mental health, and adjust your grocery budget accordingly.

10 TRADE FAST FOOD FOR SLOW FOOD Americans spend $117 billion a year on fast food—money that could otherwise go a long way toward buying things that might actually improve our health. Eating in fast-food restaurants just twice a week was found to increase the risk for coronary heart disease by a staggering 56 percent. Here's one possible solution: Get in the kitchen and make lots of "slow food"—a platter of oven-roasted vegetables, a big pot of chili, a vat of steel-cut oatmeal with dried fruit—one day a week. That way, you'll always have a fridge full of healthful options to choose from when your busy schedule tempts you to turn to the drive-thru. Make good food the easy food.

Adapted from We the Eaters, by Ellen Gustafson (Rodale, May 2014); available wherever books are sold.

Originally printed in Women's Health Magazine June 2014 Issue.