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Food shopping can be overwhelming, especially with the daily deluge of contradictory information about what is good for you and what is not. There are so many different “healthy diets” with very specific foods to each: Macrobiotics believe that you should load up on grains like rice, eat fermented foods and avoid fruit. Paleo says no to rice, breads and pasta, but bacon is OK. Some naturopaths tell their clients to avoid nightshades like potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. That low-fat diet craze certainly was a “healthy” myth, as now we know that many fats like avocados and coconut oil are actually good for us! Should you follow the DASH diet, be a flexitarian, or go vegan? The possibilities can make your head spin. So what exactly should we eat? Obviously, each individual has to customize their diet to fit their lifestyle and DNA, but over the years, I’ve learned a few strategies when it comes to consuming healthy food. Here are my thoughts:

  • Eat locally and seasonally so the food is as fresh as possible.
  • Shop along the outer rim of your supermarket, avoiding the inner aisles of processed goods loaded with unpronounceable ingredients and additives.
  • Eat the colors of the rainbow for a varied diet.
  • Support farmers by ordering a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box or by buying produce at the farmers market.
  • Opt for lean or grass-fed proteins; spend more on quality, and then eat smaller portions.
  • Redesign your dinner plate with more greens than grains and proteins.
  • Eat several (5-6) smaller meals throughout the day, always pairing protein or good fats with any carbs.
  • Know the source of your food.
  • Remember it’s OK to eat ugly-looking imperfect fruit and veggies, as pristine-looking ones have probably been sprayed.
  • Avoid the Dirty Dozen, the Environmental Working Group’s list of pesticide-loaded foods.

This last item on my list is important. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an excellent resource and watchdog group that keeps consumers updated about pesticide residues found in our foods. Understandably, not all of us can afford to buy 100 percent organic produce, but it’s worth educating yourself with EWG's Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, an annual list of the most heavily contaminated foods that you should absolutely not eat unless they are organic and not sprayed.

Here’s the list for 2018 in descending order, with number 1 being the most contaminated:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples
  5. Grapes
  6. Peaches
  7. Cherries
  8. Pears
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Celery
  11. Potatoes
  12. Sweet bell peppers + hot peppers

Pesticide residue is a common problem on many conventionally grown vegetables and fruits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that nearly 70 percent of tested samples of conventionally grown produce had pesticide residues. Ugh. One single strawberry sample had 20 different pesticides on it alone. 20! What? That kinda takes the joy out of snarfing down a basket of summer strawberries when you start thinking about all those toxins lurking on the inside and out. And more than 98 percent of the samples of non-organic cherries, apples, spinach, strawberries, peaches and nectarines had at least one pesticide on them. That’s a high percentage, my friends.

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The EWG also does a report on the Clean Fifteen — foods that have been tested and have very few, if any, pesticide residues. So if you can’t afford organic produce, buy more of these cleaner fruits and veggies:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbages
  5. Onions
  6. Sweet frozen peas
  7. Papayas
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mangoes
  10. Eggplants
  11. Honeydew melons
  12. Kiwis
  13. Cantaloupes
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Broccoli

In the EWG’s 2018 study, avocados and sweet corn came out the cleanest, and more than 80 percent of the asparagus, cabbages, onions, pineapples and papayas had no pesticides. Yay! Multiple pesticide residues on the Clean Fifteen are fairly uncommon, with only 5 percent of those tested having two or more pesticides.

When it’s time to hit the market, go organic when you can, or favor the Clean Fifteen. Hit the farmers market and introduce yourself to your local growers. Color your plate with an array of veggies and greens. And if you want to really dig deep, download the EWG’s Healthy Living App which rates more than 120,000 foods and personal care products. Thankfully, watchdog groups like the EWG are dedicated to sharing this vital information so we all can live a little cleaner and healthier.

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Journalist Ann Wycoff has written about wellness, fitness, longevity, travel, spas, food and wine for the past 20 years for magazines like Shape, Fitness, Spa, Outside, Travel + Leisure, Coastal Living, Redbook, Modern Luxury, San Diego Magazine, Redbook, Marin Magazine and more. She lives in Encinitas, California.