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Healthy Eating During Plastic-Free July

Plastic-Free Grocery Haul

I’m just over one week into Plastic-Free July. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that it’s forcing me to eat quite healthily. Most of the junk food I like isn’t available this month. Even in the last few weeks leading up to July, I cut way back on buying foods that come in plastic packaging.

What I’m Not Eating

It’s amazing how many foods I can’t have this month. When I glance around the grocery store, it seems like 90% is food I can’t eat because it comes in plastic. Most breads come in plastic bags. Cold cereal and crackers come in boxes, but within the box, there’s a plastic bag. I have yet to find a brand of pasta that does not have the plastic covered window in the box. If I want pasta, I should find a restaurant that makes their own and doesn’t use egg.

When I’m craving junk food, I can’t stop at the grocery store for a pint of vegan ice cream or a vegan cupcake. I can’t event treat myself to a single serving bag of Fritos at the office. There’s no candy, or even gum, because it all comes in or with plastic. (There are brands of plastic-free gum, but not by the checkout at the supermarket.) If I want ice cream, I can go to an ice cream parlor for sorbet or vegan ice cream and get it in a vegan cone, not a cup. If I want a cookie, there are a few places in town that will sell you a single vegan cookie, or I have to make my own.

I have notice that I have to be more mindful about planning my meals this month because I can’t have any pre-made frozen or shelf-sable meals. This means no gyoza, burritos, or vegan patties from the frozen section, and no mac ‘n’ cheese, Thai food, or Indian food that comes in microwaveable pouches or with plastic wrap, envelopes, or bags.

It also means I can use frozen vegetables, which used to be a staple in my diet. I used to have them at least once, if not twice a day. My freezer used to be filled with bags of fruits and veggies.

What I Am Eating

My rule for Plastic-Free July is that I’m allowed to eat anything that comes in plastic that was in the house when the month started. So, I can have protein powder, coffee, and the bit of frozen fruit and veggies that are in the house.

Most of my food these days comes from the produce section and the bulk bins. I picked up a lot of fresh fruits and veggies this past week, using my reusable mesh produce bags. From the bulk bins, I make sure I always have oatmeal, lentils, rice, and quinoa in the house – also using reusable containers. That’s also where I get raisins, sugar, pumpkin seeds, and corn nuts. My store also has bulk bins for bread, so I was able to pick up some bagels and wheat rolls last week.  

I have dry beans in the house, but it’s been so hot lately, I don’t want to heat the house cooking them. Instead, I stocked up on beans in cans that don’t have BPA in the lining. My go-to meal in a pinch is rice, beans, and a vegetable, topped with a little salt, pepper, and vegan butter. I can also go into the store aisles for canned tomatoes, olives, and pineapple; and peanut butter, jam, oil, pickles, vegetable broth base, and condiments in glass.

Make my own oat milk and vegan butter, so I don’t have to buy them in plastic containers. I recently discovered a recipe for chickpea salad sandwiches, which is delicious. I may try to make my own vegan patties this month since I can’t buy the frozen ones.

I also plan to visit the farmer’s market this month to see what’s grown locally that’s in season. That’s probably the only place I might find plastic-free berries this month. Maybe I’ll find a vendor who sells pasta without plastic packaging.

Mad at Sugar

I’ve been trying to eat a healthier and more conscientious diet. Since January, I’ve been a gluten-free vegan at least 90% of the time. This significant shift in my diet hasn’t been that hard. There are lots of options for wonderful flavorful fresh foods. I hope I make my co-workers jealous with how awesome my lunch smells every day.

I like to joke and say that I have palette of 5 year-old. I like simple foods and I like foods that taste sweet. I used to be the person who put 4 spoonfuls of sugar in their coffee (now down to less than 1) and eat candy by the handful. But then I noticed that my sugar intake was affecting my mood. Around the office (where we have a sugar-laden snack counter) I frequently said that giving me sugar is as dangerous as feeding a Gremlin after midnight – usually while helping myself to more jelly beans.

Sugar Kills by Juhan Sonin from Fickr (Creative Commons License)

Sugar Kills by Juhan Sonin from Fickr (Creative Commons License)

I decided to be more thoughtful about my sugar intake. I’ve seen documentaries that discuss the impact of sugar on health – particularly Americans – like Fed Up. Annoyingly, the nutritional information on food labels doesn’t include what percentage of added sugar that food item contains. But, the American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than 25 grams (100 calories) of added sugar per day (no more than 37.5 grams for men).

Armed with this information, I started to be more diligent about reading food labels in my kitchen. Holy crap there’s a lot of sugar in seemingly nutritious food!

The vanilla almond milk I was using as a substitute for cream in coffee had 13 grams of sugar per cup! (Thankfully its unsweetened counterpart has zero added sugar and no artificial sweeteners.) At first, I was happy when Cheerios changed its recipes to be gluten free. Honey Nut Cheerios are delicious – hey, maybe that has something to do with the 9 grams of sugar it has per serving! (For comparison, Lucky Charms has 11 grams per serving.) Who knew it was so hard to eat breakfast!

I’ve since changed my breakfast from cereal to kale-and-fruit smoothies. Screw you Kellogg’s and General Mills.

Last week, I had an upper respiratory infection. I was coughing so much, my throat felt like it was on fire. I thought some whole fruit popsicles or sorbet might be a nice alternative to drinking copious amounts of ice water. I walked the freezer section of the store, reading the back of every healthy-appearing item. To my dismay, the first two ingredients in every option in the store were water and sugar.

Bah! Sugar is everywhere! Even in “healthy” options.

I don’t mind making most of my food from scratch, but geez, I’d like to enjoy some processed stuff. I don’t disagree that a lot of these foods are delicious, but it pisses me off that companies promote these toxic foods as healthy. Now, I have to be that guy who is meticulous about reading ingredients on food labels in stores.

I’m frustrated that food manufacturers can’t be trusted to be forthcoming about what they’re pushing. It’s hard to know at a glance what’s actually good for me. This is another reminder that most companies are more interested in manipulating us to benefit their bottom line, rather than create quality foods.