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Food: Options or Alternatives?

How do your choices stack up from both nutrition and eating experience perspectives?

We have a world of choices when it comes to our food. Global flavors, regional cuisine, family recipes passed down through the generations. Food has tremendous meaning to us, yet at the most fundamental level, we need the nutrients in the food to survive and thrive, and ultimately, that is why we need to eat. This, my friends, is the background to why this conversation about choice matters. For now, we are going to focus on two important words because of the implications to our intake. Ready? Here we go:

An alternative is a choice that can be made instead of something else.

An option is something that can be chosen.

Weird? Not really.

This is an important distinction when it comes to our food. Why? Because not all foods are created equal.

Foods are organized into food groups by similar major nutrient(s). Take the protein group, for example. When you eat beans, nuts, and/or seeds, you get fiber along with that protein. When you eat fish, you get omega-3’s. Eat meat/pork/fish, and you get heme iron (a really absorbable form of iron), and when you eat eggs, you get choline in the yolk. I’m oversimplifying because there are so many more nutrients in every choice, but this gives you the gist. Bottom line: while all of these provide protein, each one of these delightful choices has a unique package of nutrients we need. Some have similar nutrient profiles, so they would be true alternatives to each other. Some are very different beyond the similarity of containing protein, so they are options.

Here are two of my favorite examples to bring this to life:

Spinach is an alternative to kale. They are both deep green veggies with a very similar nutrient profile.

Cauliflower steak and beef steak are options to choose from. You can cut cauliflower into a thick portion, marinate it, and grill it, but it is not a source of protein. It is a lovely cruciferous vegetable with a great nutrient package on its own, but it is not an alternative to meat just because you can prepare it in a similar fashion. If you choose the cauliflower, consider where you will get protein and incorporate that into your menu. If you choose the beef steak, consider what veggie to serve with it.

So now you know. Next time you see a trendy news story pop up in your feed, you can ask yourself the important question: is it nutritionally equivalent? Then, you can take intentional action to ensure that your choices provide the nutrition you need to support your health and activities.

Food is awesome. It supports us on the most fundamental level plus it gives us pleasure to cook and serve and eat with our loved ones. Enjoy and feel good about this – and now, you can feel even better because you are thinking about how that food is working to support your health and human needs.

What options will you choose today?

By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.

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