Quinoa was known by the Incas as 'the Mother Grain.' ItÕs no wonder, as itÕs full of nourishment. (photo by Google Images)

There are hundreds of diets. I know people who follow a raw diet, only eating raw fruits and vegetables; others follow a vegan diet, completely shunning any food from animals; and still there are those who follow a caveman type diet eating a lot of meat and virtually no grains. There are people who follow many different diets falling in between these extremes. Which one is right? The answer is not very simple.

Some of us do better consuming some animal products. Others do better consuming a diet without animal products. Regardless of what diet you choose to follow, there is one rule to remember: eat real food!

The best way to eat a healthy diet is to choose whole foods. This means food in its most natural form. Whole foods have more fiber and retain more vitamins and minerals than processed foods, therefore choosing whole foods is a better choice for improving health and fighting disease.

Eating real food means ditching processed and fast foods and replacing them with more natural foods. This means instead of potato chips and French fries, eat baked potatoes and instead of chicken nuggets, eating grilled chicken breast. Eating foods found in nature, in their most natural form, is an easy way to improve your diet. Follow these tips to increase the amount of whole foods in your diet:

• Avoid ingredients you cannot pronounce.

• Avoid ingredients you cannot purchase on their own (a jar of high fructose corn syrup).

• Avoid food with more than five ingredients.

• Include more plants.

• Cook more meals at home, instead of going out or getting takeout.

This sounds simple enough, but for many of us, the barrier to a whole foods diet is convenience. If you are accustomed to peeling the lid off a frozen meal and popping it in the microwave, it is going to be overwhelming to start making meals from scratch. Start slowly. Begin by swapping out healthier more whole foods for those you are already familiar with like whole grain or sprouted grain bread instead of regular white bread or baguettes. Instead of regular pasta, try a quinoa or artichoke pasta instead and top it with fresh tomato sauce or sautéed vegetables.

Here are some other ways to make the move to a whole foods diet:

• Eat more plants.

• Instead of chips and crackers snack on nuts and fruit.

• When choosing meat, look for hormone and antibiotic free selections.

• Swap out processed and refined grains like white rice and pasta for whole grain options like brown, wild rice or quinoa.

• Replace sodas and high calorie drinks with water, fresh juices and herbal teas.

• Replace packaged foods with freshly prepared foods.

• Commit to cooking at home at least one night per week.

The benefit of making the switch to a whole foods diet is because processed, convenience and fast foods have been stripped of most of their nutrients. We are getting very little nutritional benefit from eating these types of foods. Whole foods, in contrast, retain their nutritional benefits and therefore are healthier for us.

Whole foods have higher levels of fiber, vitamins and nutrients. Processed foods are not just lacking in nutritional benefits, but they are also loaded with fillers like sugar and artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and other chemical ingredients which are detrimental to your health.

Quinoa is a whole grain (technically a seed) that is inexpensive and really versatile. Use it in place of pasta or white rice. It is a good source of fiber and a complete protein. It is also easily found at your local supermarket and should be part of your new whole foods pantry.

Here are some ways to incorporate quinoa into your diet:

• Add it to soups and stews.

• Mix it with nuts and fruit for a twist on muesli.

• Replace some ground meat in burgers and meatloaf.

• Stir it into oatmeal for a protein boost.

• Combine with lentils and sautéed kale for a hearty meal.

• Add it to pancake, muffin and crepe batters.

• Use it with smashed beans for a homemade veggie burger.

My favorite autumnal/winter quinoa

Serves 2

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and cooked according to package directions

3/4-1 cup diced butternut or other winter squash

1 bunch kale, or other dark leafy greens, stalk removed and leaves cut into thin ribbons

1-3 garlic cloves, sliced, thinly

1/4 cup toasted almond slivers

sage, a couple of sprigs, chopped

red pepper flakes, to taste

olive oil

In a large sauté pan, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add the squash, kale and sage to the pan. Keep an eye on the flame so as not to brown the squash; you want it cooked until it is tender. In the last couple of minutes of cooking, throw in the garlic and red pepper flakes.

Fold squash mixture into quinoa, drizzle with fruity olive oil and top with almonds.

Jess Hilton is a health and nutrition coach in Santa Monica. She can be reached at www.jesshilton.com.

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