This is a directive that, despite how simple it appears, seems to baffle most people. Take a random poll in the supermarket and the answers you get would be a wide range of opinions, thoughts, and misinformation.
Some mothers may be pleased with themselves if their child eats their canned green beans. Some people might tell you that they avoid corn syrup in their juices. And some hapless individuals might actually tell you that the HungryMan, Hot Pocket, or Stauffers freezer meal that they plan to consume upon arrival home is the epitomy of a healthy meal. I have to say I would only eat a Hot Pocket under the most desperate circumstances. Like if aliens invade, using all fresh vegetables as pods for their offspring leaving processed cheese as the only source of nourishment. (ok maybe that is a bit extreme, but you get the picture)
The American public generally all eats 3 times a day. So how can we all be so confused about an activity that sustains and even defines a good portion of our lives? Perhaps it is the fact that the Today show and other semi-journalistic TV shows feature no less than 2 food segments every morning with varying advice on what is healthy. Some of this information is sponsored by food companies and press agents - dubious sources for dietary advice, as it is all focused around getting you to purchase a specific kind of food product. Specifically I'm thinking about when I recently saw a guest food expert promoting 100 calorie snack packs as a "good" choice when looking to cut calories. The immediate thought in my mind was "good" compared to what? Compared to Oreos - yes. Compared to Carrots - no!
I and many of my clients pursue what can be considered alternative food lifestyles. I left fast food and most soda behind at age 15 and have zero regrets about this decision. However, it has taken me until 20 years later to reduce my intake of dairy and caffeine and make other tweaks like boosting my greens consumption. It has been a long road. I wasn't an "unhealthy" eater to begin with, but the typical American diet has strayed so far from real food that reintroducing it can take some time and major adjustments to your daily life.
If you're just starting the goals of eliminating animal products, caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and potentially grains too for some individuals from your diet are big ones. These are noble aspirations and will positively impact your overall health. Despite all the benefits it may be a longer process than a breezy blog article or wellness expert will make it sound. It's easy to talk about. Implementation can be a good deal trickier. The good news is that change is possible if you approach it with a flexible, yet determined mindset.
I have tremendous respect for vegan lifestyle and follow numerous vegan and raw food blogs. There is a lot of exciting thought and adventurous eating to be had when you make your first batch of raw brownies or try a new juice recipe. Once you get beyond boxed food the world really opens up to a whole new level of creativity, flavor, and connection to what you eat each day. However, many people may experience unexpected barriers and have to delve deeply into their emotional eating patterns. This is work worth doing but you need to be ready. You may find many of your comfort foods have emotional significance due to family relationships and positive memories as well as the simple physiological pleasure. I tend to find change is most stable when you work into it gradually rather than turning everything on its head all at once. Start slow and try new things one at a time.
While dietary preferences such as veganism and raw foodism are gaining momentum in areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and even Chicago, the social support for lifestyles like this here in St. Louis, MO is more minimal. You'll need to be prepared to talk about your new dietary habits a lot to help others feel comfortable. As a vegetarian teen I went through a good bit of ribbing and ignorant remarks from relatives. It gets old sometimes, and you have to be spiritually ready to handle the hassling with grace.
In major cities you can find restaurants and markets that specifically cater to vegan and raw food eating styles. Here in the Midwest it is considerably tougher. Vegan foods are served at a few local eateries, notably SweetArt, Everest Cafe, Foundation Grounds, Whisk Sustainable Bakery, the recently opened PuraVegan, Frida's Vegetarian Deli, and a few others. Other than that your dining choices may be limited to staying home or just having the salad offered at more conventional restaurants. Home prepared food is awesome and this is how I eat most of the time, but many other people would experience a pretty jarring culture shock as they realize that accepting a dinner date with a friend means considering if the restaurant will have anything they wish to eat.
My best suggestion would be that in making a lifestyle choice like this you'd do well to reach out to other local alternative eaters so you don't feel alone. At least you can cook together (or in the case of raw food, not cook). You may wish to plan to be the host for dinner parties. Your lifestyle choice will likely take some time for friends and family to adjust to and can cause some negative or hurt feelings initially when you can't participate in food rituals that are important.
It may seem easy to you to replace ground beef with soy crumbles in Lasagna, but other people may initially think this sounds like a lot of work, or that it tastes funny. From personal experience it caused a great deal of trauma in my own family. Suddenly my mom couldn't prepare family meals the way she used to and all her culinary knowledge related to meat was null and void. As someone that nurtured through food, this was a significant blow to her. Mom has adjusted somewhat, and will now provide a meatless tomato sauce for the pasta as well as a meat version. That way the vegetarians present are not excluded. But I can tell you if I suddenly chose to go completely Vegan or Raw Foodist we'd go through much the same upset all over again.
The adage "It is more important to be Kind than Right" comes to mind. In social situations I will often eat something that I would not choose to eat at home because I don't want to hurt the feelings of the host. If they have been informed ahead of time that I prefer veggie meals and somehow made a mistake in their preparation I don't throw a hissy fit about if they slipped up and used chicken stock, if their sugar is officially vegan, or if their dairy is local and organic. That, IMHO, is just bad form and makes your host feel yucky. Unless you have a life threatening allergy to something on the table my personal feeling is that you should attempt to be gracious and respect that they tried. People are prone to get irritated with you instead of educated if they see you as picky, problematic, and negative about what they offered to you with good intent. If something offered really crosses your personal line then politely excuse yourself from that item without a fuss.
I've spoken to many other reformed food-focused individuals who have pursued more stringent dietary habits and then relaxed back to a more flexible eating style. Food obsession can be quite real and at a certain point the mental preoccupation with whether something is raw, organic, or vegan can start to take up an unhealthy amount of space in your mind. In my opinion it is important to be kind with yourself and with others. Don't beat yourself up if you have a piece of cheese, a cup of coffee, or a single sugary caramel. It's fine to strive for purity but your entire life doesn't hinge on one meal. Life is imperfect and so are we. The point is to try, and in doing so you'll generate better results than if you didn't.
The overall goal is to feel GOOD not GUILTY about what you're eating. Mental wellness is every bit as important as physical wellness. If you beat yourself up every time you eat something "wrong" you're just generating more of the same bad juju you came from. Instead of apathy you'll be drowning in negativity. To reverse it try to be compassionate with yourself. Don't hate on your hangups, explore them. There's healing to be done as you investigate the whys and wherefores of the food based decisions you make.
I do think a more conscious eating lifestyle is something we should all respect and aspire to. But there are places inbetween the SAD (Standard American Diet) and Raw Veganism where we can exist that won't cause tremendous strife with friends and family while they learn to understand and respect your new choices even while eating their Whopper. Take it easy and be kind to yourself and others. There is no final destination, no absolute perfection to be had - only a journey of expansion as you try new foods, new habits, and new philosophies to see what fits you.