CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dear Cindy,I am a working mom with great intentions trying to keep up in our fast-paced life. I'm concerned that our kids, ages 7 and 10, aren't always getting all they need nutritionally. I do give them a multivitamin each day. I definitely put the effort out to cook, but we do eat fast food sometimes. I appreciate any advice you can give. -- TracyDear Tracy,Yours is a great question shared by many good parents trying to do the best for their family. Life in the fast lane (i.e., two working parents, caring for children, making honest efforts to stay active and serve nutritious meals at the end of a long day) is no easy game. It must be met with a firm commitment and a never-ending desire to play a vigorous role in the family's health.Average American dietUnfortunately, only 8 percent of American's overall calorie intake comes from fruits and/or vegetables, while processed foods are being consumed at an astounding rate. We eat 30 percent more processed food than we do whole food, which leads at least half of us to rely on vitamin and mineral supplements to make up for our nutrition deficit.Nutrition and health experts continue to emphasize the importance of eating whole foods, which is integral for a nutrient-dense meal, and to urge us to steer clear of processed foods that have little or no nutritional value. Hearing this information is one thing, digesting it is another.What are whole foods?Whole foods need little or no processing, have no additives and can be eaten in their natural state. There is nothing added and nothing taken away. They are superior to processed foods. The main reason we should avoid processed foods is that there is a strong correlation to disease risk.Why? Because processed foods are usually packed with unhealthy amounts of calories, fat, sodium, saturated fat and sugar. They typically have little or no fiber. If we regularly serve this type of a calorie-dense diet to our children, we increase the chance they will become obese and raise their risk for many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer and stroke.Processed foods are tempting for many reasons -- and even good moms grab them on the go. They are usually easy to fix (just rip the cardboard off and microwave), last longer in your cabinet (because of all the preservatives) and can be less expensive (fillers like sodium, fat and sugar make them cheaper).Can you point to the whole foods in your grocery store? It's not always simple in the beginning, but you don't have to be a nutritionist to make sound decisions for your family.Here are some examples of whole vs. processed foods:Fresh green beans vs. canned green beansStrawberries vs. strawberry jamSteel-cut oats vs. boxed cerealsBrown rice vs. white riceGrocery checklistSure, education and reading labels is important, but when all else fails, the following four questions, recommended by the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, will guide you to the foods you need to put in your shopping cart:1. Are there five ingredients or fewer?2. Can you pronounce all of the ingredients and are they familiar to you?3. Would your great-grandmother recognize each of the ingredients?4. Can I find each of the ingredients in my kitchen?If you can answer yes to all of these, then you most likely have a whole food in your hands. If not, place it back on the shelf and move on. Here are some tips to make planning and shopping easier:
Prepare by creating your family's meal plan. Based on the meal plan, write out a weekly shopping list and stick to it. Shop the perimeter of the store, which is where you'll find fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, low-fat dairy and lean protein. Inside aisles should be ventured into only for whole grains, dried beans, natural nut butters and canned tomatoes.We can do better if we know better. If you're concerned about the quality of the meals you serve, you are ahead of the game. Now it's about recognizing processed foods and choosing whole foods instead. And relax if your choices aren't always perfect. We all have days when there is more on our plate than we can handle; the trick is to choose wisely more often.Cindy Boggs, wellness presenter and author, is an ACE-certified instructor/trainer. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to email@example.com. Look for her award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World" on her website, www.cindysays.com.