10/02/2014 01:37 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST

'Un-Junk Your Diet': Put less stress on your plate with whole foods, author says

TORONTO - When your mother urged you to eat your veggies, she was on to something.

So says Desiree Nielsen, whose new book "Un-Junk Your Diet: How to Shop, Cook and Eat to Fight Inflammation and Feel Better Forever" (Skyhorse Publishing) aims to inspire readers to simplify their diets and eat real food.

"Don't fuss over the fats, don't label things as good or bad or associate any kind of guilt with your food choice. Eat lots of veggies, feel good, make flavourful food at home," says Nielsen, a registered dietitian in Vancouver.

Whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, "are incredibly filling because they carry a lot of water and a lot of fibre and if you always follow that rule of half your plate as fruit and/or veggies you will naturally become more full, your appetite will be sated and you won't be rushing for another meal or another sugary snack in an hour, so it's a really easy way to regulate weight without counting calories because counting calories is crazy-making.

"Eat real food, don't count calories and never eat a 100-calorie snack pack again. Have a real piece of chocolate and call it a day."

Processed food "hijacks your taste buds," she says, adding that once people acquire a taste for healthy whole foods they'll want more of them.

"I find that greens are the gateway drug to a better life. Because when you get more of the kale, the broccoli, collards, brussels sprouts, you feel so good. It really helps take the edge off sugar cravings for a lot of my clients and they want to feel even better."

For those wanting to adapt their eating habits she suggests downing a green smoothie in the morning and noshing on a spinach salad at lunch, easy choices that then encourage "graduation" to trying other healthy foods that are full of flavour and texture.

"You (also) need to fill half your (grocery) cart with fruits and/or vegetables if you want to get that volume of produce into your life because that's really the No. 1 change people can make even if they never say no to a beer or never say no to a cinnamon bun," Nielsen, 35, said during a visit to Toronto to promote her book. "If you can get your servings of fruits and vegetables up to four or five cups (one litre to 1.25 litres) a day it will transform your health."

But the greatest challenge for many may be training their taste buds to enjoy the flavours of "real, unadulterated food."

Right off the bat Nielsen asks readers to ponder: "Is there any food in my food?" Much of the food that many in North America eat contains highly similar ingredients such as enriched flour, high-fructose corn syrup and other derivatives along with food cosmetics that make items look or smell a certain way. But that also means the food is highly processed, she points out.

For instance, though she says there are some good examples available, "there's 20, 40, 60 feet of breakfast cereals in some supermarkets. Different colours, different names, different shapes, but they're all made out of the same stuff and what you don't have are any real nutrients. They essentially sprinkle a multivitamin in them because there's nothing else there."

She suggests consulting the ingredients panel on products because the nutrition facts can be manipulated based on the fad of the moment. "So they can make those crackers gluten-free or if we're anti-sugar, they can pull the sugar out of them and put some fillers to add more body. They can sprinkle in whole grains. They can take down the salt. It doesn't tell you anything about the quality of the ingredients that went into that food ...

"If you see ingredients in that food that are not something you would buy and make a recipe at home with you don't need that food."

To keep inflammation at bay, a common complaint among her clients who may suffer from inflammatory bowel disease or eczema, she advocates fermented foods to keep the gut happy and to watch the type of fats used. "Extra-virgin olive oil is the staple in my house because it contains oleic acid which is an anti-inflammatory fat. And then I like to eat lots of hemp seeds, eating more cold-water fish, not just salmon because it's such a precious resource but getting into some of the Mediterranean favourites like mackerel and herring and sardines, getting them on the grill."

Keep blood sugar stable with slowly burning carbohydrates consumed in their whole state, such as whole fruits rather than juice, whole vegetables as opposed to dehydrated vegetable chips and grains in their simplest state, such as brown rice, quinoa and steel-cut oats and lightly processed grains such as pasta.

"For the average Canadian and the average North American our diets are so extremely bad that just to return to the basics — to whole grains, to fruits, to vegetables, to lean proteins — will completely transform their lives with no fad, no fuss."

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