When I was a kid back in the 80’s, I remember my mom dieting and trying to lose weight on a low fat, low calorie diet. We always had Country Crock margarine, skim milk and Melba Toasts in the house.
Then in the 90’s came the Atkins diet – all protein and fat and no carbs at all. And since then, it seems everyone has an opinion, backed by scientific research, about what the healthiest diet is. Paleo, vegan, raw, macrobiotic, vegetarian, Mediterranean, etc, etc, etc. One study says meat is bad for you, another says it’s necessary for proper development. Eat all your food raw because it contains important enzymes that are lost with cooking. Cook all your food because it is easier to digest and neutralizes the acids that block absorption of nutrients. Saturated fat is bad – saturated fat is good. It’s enough to make you give up and stuff your face with Twinkies and Dorito’s.
But I promise there is an easier, common sense way to a better diet. You may want to postpone your trip to Mickey D’s and read on.
Our relationship with plants
Plants and animals (including humans) are pretty dependent on each other. Animals breathe the oxygen that plants expel, and plants need the carbon dioxide that animals exhale in order to survive. Plants take nutrients from the soil, water and air and transform them into something that can nourish animals (our food). When our animals excrete feces, it fertilizes the soil to feed the plants.
Of course this is quite a simplified explanation, and there are things like insects, fungi and bacteria that play a role in this complex cycle. However, you can see by this illustration that animals and plants have a symbiotic relationship that nourishes one another. We have cemented this relationship over many, many centuries, and our bodies have developed to reap the benefits of these plants when we ingest them. There are complex biological systems in place that are just now starting to be discovered by science. We have only scratched the surface in exploring the depths of this relationship.
Why it matters
All of this to say that nutritionists, science, and technology don’t yet know enough about how plants and animals co-exist to give us much advice at all. Our entire society has become a big experiment in how much we can alter the food supply and still survive and be healthy. And looking around at the levels of obesity, chronic diseases, allergies and the like, it doesn’t seem to have been a successful experiment so far.
So here is my proposition: Let’s go back to our traditional cultures, the ones that survived, made strong babies, and stayed healthy despite the lack of modern medicine. One example of this is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
One of the tenets of TCM is that the same diet doesn’t work for everyone. Diets are individualized according to your constitution and health issues. The guidelines for creating these personalized diets will be included in a later post, but for today I want to go over a few of the specifications that are more universal. This is the foundation, the part that everyone can benefit from, and is really all you need if you are already in good health.
4 Traditional food Guidelines
1. Eat Whole Foods
In the most general sense, this means to eat foods in their least processed state. Whole plants (and animals) come with all the nutrients balanced and in their most bio-available state. The act of processing food strips away nutrients (or adds them in) in false, man-made ways. Grains ground into flour quickly lose their vitamins and minerals, and so are “fortified” with synthetic ones that are not easily identified or absorbed by our bodies. Refined vegetable oils (corn, soy, canola, etc) are highly processed and have already gone rancid by the time they hit the shelf. Animals are raised so that their muscles are huge, but the rest of their bodies are tiny – because we only eat the muscle meat and discard the skin, bones and organs.
Instead, let’s go back to eating fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Enjoy the whole egg, not just the white, and the least processed dairy you can find (if your body digests dairy well). Experiment with eating many different parts of the animal, not just the boneless, skinless muscle meat. And do your best to stay away from food that comes in a bag or a box.
2. Eat Seasonally and Locally
Nature, in her infinite wisdom, created plants that grew in a particular area, at a particular time, for a particular reason. Watermelons are cooling, and only grow when it’s hot outside. Root vegetables have a sweet taste, which gives us energy and keeps our mood high in the winter when our sunlight is limited.
Another benefit to eating locally is that food isn’t transported as far, and hasn’t lost as many nutrients. So visit the farmer’s markets, join your local CSA, and learn about what grows near you, and when.
3. Eat a Variety
Picky kid (and adult) taste palates get used to eating the same, safe foods over and over again. But in order to get the most bang for your buck, try experimenting with new foods. Instead of French fries, make yucca or rutabaga fries. Swap out your rice for quinoa one day. And take a vegetable you’re not super fond of, and cook it in a different way. My favorite ways of sneaking new foods into my diet are to roast vegetables (this caramelizes them and makes them taste amazing) and mixing them in with food I do like (for example - making a curry with lots of different veggies). Most importantly, have fun with it!
Another aspect of variety is in cooking methods. For a healthy individual, you should be consuming some fruits and veggies raw, cooked and fermented. Steam your fish one day, and pan fry it the next. Each method of preparation creates a slightly different nutrient profile.
4. Trust Your Body
Some people can eat dairy products with no problems, others are lactose intolerant. I have patients that complain of gas and bloating when they eat greasy foods, for others, there’s no problem. Meat free diets are fine for some, others become exhausted after a time of not eating meat. Everyone’s body is different – what works for one person may not work for you. So eat what makes you feel good, and avoid food that creates problems.
This is not to say that if you’re walking by the pizza place in the mall and you crave pizza, that you should go inhale a slice. This is more about how your body feels after you eat something, not about your taste buds. But ultimately no one else can tell you what you should or should not eat, that is for you to figure out.
And if that doesn't work...
That being said, if you’re following these guidelines fairly well and still having problems, it’s time to call a professional who can help you come up with an individualized plan. If you are in the Greenville area, I would be happy to help!
And stay tuned for the next installment, which goes into much more detail about specific plans depending on your symptoms.