18 May Nutrition—Eating Your Way to Health
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates
“We are what we eat” is a profoundly true statement. If there is one single intervention that can be made to improve health and vitality, it is attention to what we consume. But what does that mean? The amount of advice out there is mind-numbing. Individuals grappling with weight management issues are befuddled by the fad diets that are constantly introduced, many of which ultimately compound their problem with yo-yo weight loss and gain. Moreover, information is often contradictory, adding to the confusion and bewilderment. There are many complexities to the issue: a desire for quick and easy weight loss, a food industry driven by profit rather than health promotion, social and cultural influences, individual metabolic disturbances, psychological factors and habits, and more. It’s no wonder why good decisions and change are so hard.
Some of the simplest and best advice comes from author and food expert Michael Pollan: “Eat food—not too much and mostly plants” and “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” It is perhaps the second part of that statement that warrants the greatest attention.
Most of us eat a standard American diet (SAD). This diet emerged from a food industry that is, at its core, a business concerned primarily with finances and profitability, not the health of its customers. As consumers, we respond to taste, appearance, and convenience, forgetting about our health. That is how we end up drinking and eating things comprised primarily of corn syrup and modified by chemicals. Read the label on any sweet carbonated beverages, or worse, a diet soft drink, and this is what you’ll find. So when you think of it, applying Michael Pollan’s simple rule is a great way to start, but it calls for a huge change in the way we eat.
If you want a change that ups your game and truly nurtures your optimal wellbeing, there is immense opportunity when it comes to nutrition. Start with food, because what we eat greatly impacts nearly every other determinant of our health—gut health, immune function, hormonal balance, toxic load, inflammation, and metabolism. That is why nutrition is sometimes thought of as the “tap root” when we consider root determining factors of health and wellbeing, and the first thing you should attend to for better health.
Get into the habit of reading labels. Shop on the perimeter of the grocery store, where fresh, whole foods are located. Prepare your own meals—it improves your relationship with food and you actually know what you are eating. Cook with friends and build a different social life around how you eat. Take time to be mindful and present with your food when eating. Think about how your food is nourishing your body, your mind, and even your gut microbiome. How you relate to and engage with food is critical to your success in creating better eating habits and optimizing your health.
While more personalized recommendations can be made for your specific situation, here are some general guidelines that most of us would benefit from
- Restrict (or eliminate) refined carbohydrates (flour, sugar, corn syrup, baked goods, crackers, chips, etc.) and foods with a high glycemic index. These foods cause blood sugar and insulin to spike and contribute to the development of insulin resistance (prediabetes and diabetes).
- Consider eliminating dairy and gluten for three or four weeks and see how you feel. Reintroduce one at a time over the course of several days, and note the difference. Many people feel much better when they eliminate gluten and dairy, both of which tend to be inflammatory.
- If you eat meat, chose grass-fed options, which have a better healthy fat profile and are less inflammatory, or organic meats with low concentrations of toxins. Avoid meat with added hormones or antibiotics.
- Do not consume trans fats, which are often found in fried foods and baked goods.
- Increase content of healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado, and nuts. Oils should be cold-pressed virgin and organic when possible, but be mindful of portions—oils are calorie-dense.
- Increase consumption of vegetables to at least eight servings per day. Eat a rainbow of colors to increase phytonutrients—substances in food that help our metabolic functions. Vegetables are also an important source of fiber.
- Eat two to four servings of fruit per day—the more colorful, the better
- Fish and seafood are great components of an anti-inflammatory diet—sardines and salmon are good choices. Some fish, like tuna, can contain high levels of mercury. Look for low mercury and high omega 3 fatty acid (EPA/DHA) content to guide your choices.
- Consider adding bone broth to your diet. It is a nutrient-rich food that can be used in soup bases and cooking. Ask for it at a quality grocery or make your own.
- Consider adding more fermented foods to your diet—kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh, coconut, or almond yogurts. Not everybody feels good after eating fermented foods—pay attention to how it affects you.
- Increase fiber intake to at least 35gm/day.
- Eliminate artificial sweeteners, and also watch out for “natural sweeteners.”
- Limit alcohol—studies show that one drink a day can be beneficial, but beyond there’s no benefit beyond that.
- Eat clean and organic when possible–check out dirty dozen and clean fifteen. Antibiotics, hormones, and other toxins mess with our metabolism and can mimic hormones, acting as endocrine disruptors.
- Consider making your own salad dressings using quality olive oil and vinegars.
- Consume more cruciferous veggies like broccoli, brussel sprouts, and kale.
- Make healthy smoothies with ingredients like chia seeds, veggies (kale, spinach, and beets), frozen fruit, and almond milk.
Not so simple? Perhaps this list is overwhelming to you, or maybe it represents a lot of what you are currently doing. If this is radical change for you, you will need a plan—an approach that will allow you to successfully integrate changes into your life. Come up with two or three steps that you feel you can take on now, then add to that with each week that goes by. Revisit this list and see how you are doing. Over time, as you consistently treat yourself to good-tasting, healthy food and experience the benefits of eating well, it will automatically become your preference. Nutritious eating will become second nature.
Want to learn more?
To learn more about our current evidence-based and practical understanding of nutrition, “Food. What the Heck Should I Eat?” by Dr. Mark Hyman is a highly recommended read. The more you understand about how you are nourishing yourself every day, the more control you will have over your health.
How can we help?
You may have issues that will influence the way you eat. This could be GI symptoms such as bloating, cramping, IBS, and reflux, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis or eczema, metabolic compromise such as pre-diabetes or diabetes, or even autoimmune disorders such as thyroiditis or rheumatoid arthritis. Diet can have a pronounced impact on healing many maladies and we can help you figure out how to eat your way to better health.
by Katherine Bayliss MD