THE BLOG
10/12/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

How Do You Make Good Decisions If You Don't Know What You're Eating? (VIDEO)

Often we only see the processed version of food. We never get to see the raw, original version before it is cut, butchered, washed, waxed, blended, colored and mixed to be ready for our plates. But it's important that we know where our food comes from. When we do, it will change how we see and relate to our food.

And now I share something embarrassing:

For a long time I had no idea that tunas are big fish. I thought they were tiny, like minnows. I thought that because I only ever saw tuna mixed with mayo on my plate. Don't ask me where I thought the fish bones were, or the brain, or any of the fishy organs. I don't have answers to those questions. I just saw the little bits of fish on my plate and assumed that was the whole thing.

I am not alone in this. In a general sense, we are pretty far removed from the source of our food. It's very easy to grow up never seeing a tomato in it's natural (whole) state or making the connection between the boneless, skinless chicken breasts shrink wrapped in the supermarket and a real live chicken that those breasts came from. So if you don't know that ketchup is made from tomatoes, or that chicken nuggets are made from chickens, it's very difficult to know whether or not you're making good choices.

Because of my food allergies (gluten, dairy, sugar and soy) I have had to learn what's in my food with a sort of obsessive detail. And not to be "that woman" with "crazy theories" or anything, but it's almost like they purposely make it hard to do. Learning what is in my food requires not just reading every single ingredient label I come across, but looking up ingredients that have so many syllables they could be German, and also calling and asking the companies about purposely vague ingredients like "natural flavors" or cross contamination dangers. We have labels, but their meanings are often unclear ("Natural" and "Cage Free" are a perfect examples of this) and if they are not strictly regulated, and they often aren't, what they mean can vary from company to company.

But it's not just the food sensitive who need to know where our food comes from and what's in it. The United States is currently knee deep in an obesity epidemic. Thirty-six percent of Americans are obese right now. I know obesity is a complicated issue with many variables, but I can't help but think that part of it is due to ignorance about what we are eating and where it comes from. And the thing is, it's not really our fault. A lot of our food is made up of things we would never eat by choice. The labels on that food are purposely opaque and difficult to understand. I didn't know that tuna is a big fish. How can we be expected to make sound decisions about what to eat when we don't know what we are eating?

So how do we do this? Here are three simple things we can all do to learn more about our food.

1. Read the ingredient lists. If you don't know what a word means, look it up.
2. Look at labels critically. Find out which ones mean something and which ones mean a whole lot of not very much.
3. Ask questions. You want to know, what is soy lecithin and why is it in your chocolate? Ask. You've heard it may not be safe to eat GMO's but you don't know why? Ask.

The more we know about our food, the better choices we can make.

This post originally ran on Lillian's Test Kitchen