Dr. B is a naturopathic doctor in Ontario, Canada. He is the author of "Rules of Health," a comprehensive guide on healthy living.
Healthy eating is not about dieting or restricting major food groups. It’s about lifestyle choices, re-engineering our eating habits and self-discovery. If you consider your digestive system as a furnace, then the fire in it is what burns your food to create the energy you need. Some people have this furnace set on high and burn through food very quickly and some are set on low and it takes them longer. People burn calories at different rates and it may seem unfair that some people can eat whatever they want and not gain a single ounce while someone else will just smell a donut and gain five pounds. A calorie is not a calorie to everyone. Therefore just restricting calories is not a smart way to lose or maintain a healthy weight. Giving our bodies the nutrients it needs is more important than calories. We have to understand our body’s needs and incorporate a holistic approach of healthier food choices, stress management and exercise.
Food fuels our bodies and provides it with nutrients to repair itself, grow and fight diseases. There are macro-nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins and fats and then there are micro-nutrients like vitamins and minerals. All your nutritional needs can be attained from foods alone, provided you eat a wide variety of whole unprocessed foods. There are many diets out there promising to give you the body you want but research has not conclusively proven that one is better than the other. Use the tools presented here to create your own perfectly balanced diet.
Meat, Poultry, and Fish in Moderation
Meat is not bad if consumed in moderation and the right type of meat is consumed. Red meat from commercial factory farms is considered unhealthy, especially if it’s cured and processed into luncheon meats, because of their high cholesterol, salt and nitrate contents. Healthier choices of meat would be meat from poultry and fish. If red meat forms the majority of your diet then get it from pasture raised, grass fed organic cows as they are a healthier option. For poultry meat and eggs, go for cage free, free range or organic. Most of the commercial fishes are grown in fish farms under deplorable conditions. Not only are these fish lower in nutritional value, they may be dangerous for you because of the way they are raised and processed. Choose wild caught fish instead. Larger fishes like shark, tuna and swordfish tend to be higher in mercury, avoid them. Go for the acronym SMASH; salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sole, sardines and herrings have lower mercury content and should be safe to consume in moderate quantities. Get no more than 2-3 servings of fish a week to get the beneficial fish oils. A serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards.
Choose More Vegetables
On the whole, a vegetarian diet is a healthier option for you and the planet. Vegetarians tend to live longer, have lower cardiovascular events and healthier weights than people who consume a meat based diet. Considering the importance of vegetables, they should take up half your plate during any meal. Green leafy vegetables are high in calcium, vitamin k and other nutrients and should be indulged in often as they help your body detox efficiently. Frozen vegetables are also a good option for people who don’t always have access to fresh vegetables. They tend to have a higher nutritional content, as they are picked and flash frozen within hours. I would not be concerned with which vegetables are the best to eat for which health benefits as that is a science onto itself. Find yourself at least a dozen or so vegetables that you enjoy eating to ensure you are consuming a varied amount of nutrients and eat a rainbow of colors and you will have most your bases covered. As long as you eat healthy 80% of the time, consider yourself on the right track, so don’t get upset with yourself if you indulge once in a while.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, its best to get them from the local farms or go organic. Check out ewg.org for the dirty dozen which are the top 12 most highly polluted fruits and vegetables, get these organic if you can. Just as a side note to get your interest peaking as to the state of the food you are consuming make the following observation. Did you ever notice that when you bring certain fruits home from the supermarket, they can sit on your shelf, sometimes for weeks without rotting? That is because most of these fruits are picked raw with some of them being irradiated to kill the pathogens, in a sense pasteurizing the food but also destroying the enzymes and essential vitamins. These enzymes are what ripen the fruits releasing the full taste as well as making the nutrients more bio-available. Without these enzymes, our bodies won’t digest and absorb these nutrients as efficiently. Buy local farm fruits and vegetables in season and see how fast they will ripen. Not only that, they taste much better and are more nutritious. Knowing this try to get to know your local farmers and their farming practices and support them by joining their food distribution programs; you will be helping your family’s health and the planet. Also, If you are so inclined and have a small plot of land, grow some of your own food. You will be amazed at how little a land it takes to grow food, enough for your family. Furthermore, you can invest in a nice composter and use your family’s food scraps to make free fertilizer for your crops.
Pick Protein Wisely
Protein is your friend as it boosts your metabolism, but more is not always better and the type of protein makes a difference. Animal protein is harder on your system. It takes a lot of digestive enzymes and energy to digest it. As a solution, consume your animal protein by itself if possible and drink with it some lime/lemon or apple cider vinegar in a little water to help your body digest the meat better. Milk based protein such as whey may be a better option, especially for those of us who want to put on some muscle mass as it stimulates protein synthesis. Some people are sensitive to casein, the other major protein found in milk or are lactose intolerant, for such individuals plant based protein may be a better option. If going for powder based plant protein, a combination product is always better than a single protein source. Pea, hemp, organic soy, brown rice, lentils, chickpeas, beans, nuts and seeds are all good plant-based protein sources.
Eat a Handful of Nuts and Seeds as a Snack
Nuts and seeds are high in good quality fats and proteins which will keep you satiated and help control your cravings. They are also a good source of Omega 3 oils which are very good for heart and brain health. Make nuts like walnuts, almonds and pistachios part of your daily diet, in moderation. Seeds like flax, chia and hemp are also high in omega 3’s and good to make part of your diet.
Plant Fat vs. Animal Fat
Animal fats seem to have a bad reputation especially if it is cooked over high heat like a grill for a long time. Limiting BBQ’s and not cooking the meat to absolute crispness will reduce your carcinogenic exposure. If the animal fat you consume comes from grass fed or organically grown animals then eating them in moderation is considered safe. Plant-based fats are a healthier option. Some of the good plant fats come from coconuts, avocados and olives. Olive oil which forms the foundation of the Mediterranean diet is considered a healthy option and should form part of your life if it isn’t already. The more virgin the oil, the more delicate it is. To preserve its health benefits, olive oil should not be exposed to heat. Heating oil will oxidize it and make it unhealthy. If frying pick healthy oils that have a higher smoking point such as grape seed, avocado or coconut oil. It’s best to consume a diverse range of healthy oils to get all the different lengths and permutations of fatty acids. However, I would avoid corn, soy and canola oil since most of them are made from GMO plants using toxic processes.
The beneficial bacteria that live in your gut outnumber the cells in your body 10:1 and they perform very vital roles. They mainly reside in the large intestine and their job is to digest any remaining undigested food and release nutrients like vitamin B12, K2 and other smaller proteins for you to absorb. They also release happy neurotransmitter molecules that will keep you in a good mood and cytokines that strengthen the immune system. When you feed on junk food and lots of sugar your gut flora get starved of the food they thrive on hence they cannot do their job properly and die off leaving room for bad bacteria, yeast and fungi to flourish and wreak havoc on your system. How does one make sure the good bacteria survive and flourish? Give them both prebiotics which are the food they like and probiotics which are a fresh supply of good bacteria. Pre-biotics are mainly found in fiber-rich foods like oats, beans, berries, nuts, seeds and vegetables. Probiotics are naturally found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. If you are sensitive to dairy, non-dairy options are available. Incorporate more fiber rich food into your diet and slowly increase your probiotic intake to prevent producing excess gas which can happen if you suddenly increase your intake.
Sugar Is Your Enemy
Sugar is sneaky, it hides everywhere. Most processed foods like prepackaged ready-made foods, pastries, and drinks are loaded with lots of high fructose corn syrup excess of which our bodies will immediately store as fat. Plus, this sweetener has mercury contamination which is currently unregulated. White grain products like white bread, white rice, corn starch etc. are highly refined and are simple carbs which will raise your blood glucose (sugar) levels leading to a rise in insulin and storage of these molecules as triglycerides (fat). Complex carbs found in vegetables will digest slowly, giving a slower release of glucose, making it a better source of carbs. Always watch out for the sugar content of any product you purchase. Try to choose products with the lowest sugar content. If one of the first three ingredients listed is sugar or any of its derivatives then I would suggest putting that product back on the shelf and choosing a healthier option.
How You Eat Your Food Makes a Difference
The stomach releases hydrochloric acid and other gastric juices to kill pathogens commonly found on food and to digest your food. The stomach’s main job is to digest proteins. Proteins generally take the longest to digest therefore they provide the most satiety, so include some form of protein with every meal. Starches and fats get digested in the small intestine. Try not to combine proteins with simple starches like rice or bread because they will just sit in the stomach and ferment releasing gasses until they reach the small intestine. However, it’s ok to eat vegetables with meats. Always eat fruits alone, away from other foods because they digest very fast. The more fiber a food has the better your digestion. Make sure to eat plenty of vegetables, which also come with their own digestive enzymes, an added bonus. The better the food gets digested the smaller the molecules become and easier for your gut to absorb them.
The act of eating also makes a big difference on how you digest your food. You have probably heard this many times but it’s important to chew your food thoroughly. If you are eating an entire plate of food in less than ten minutes, then slow it down to 20 minutes. Also, try not to watch TV while eating. Sit at a table and look at your food and enjoy the smell & taste. Try not to think of eating as a chore. It should be a pleasurable activity. Believe it or not, they studied and found out that people who ate food from ceramic plate vs a paper plate actually digested their food better.
You Are What You Absorb
For a long time, the popular notion was, “You are what you eat.” Now we have come to realize that absorption is just as important. Depending on how efficient one’s digestive system is, a nutritious meal for one person may not provide the nutrient requirements for someone else because of poor absorption. You can think of your digestive system as a tube that starts from the mouth and ends at the anus. The inside of this tube is technically considered an external environment, even though it resides inside your body. Your immune system needs to protect you from invaders from the external environment; hence, a large part of your immunity resides close to your digestive system. It monitors everything being absorbed by the gut lining, and if something doesn’t look right, it will try to sequester and destroy it. A lifetime of food sensitivities and intolerances can damage the gut lining and prevent uptake of essential nutrients, leading to a cascade of health failures. Consuming the same food over and over again and eating highly processed foods with artificial ingredients may be the culprits. For individuals who have difficulty absorbing certain nutrients, supplementation may be necessary until your gut heals. If you have multiple sensitivities to many different foods and you experience joint stiffness and pain, headaches, fatigue, rashes, chronic diarrhea, or constipation, then you may have advanced to leaky gut syndrome or intestinal hyper-permeability, where the tight junctions within your intestinal lining malfunction. This allows undigested food particles and bacteria to leak into the bloodstream and create systemic immune reactions, which can create widespread inflammation and pain within the body. If you suspect you have this, you may benefit from working with a professional, such as a naturopath, to figure out how to resolve this condition.
Some More Helpful Tips
- Make a healthy diet part of your lifestyle and introduce small habits that are sustainable.
- When shopping for groceries don’t go hungry. You will most likely buy more junk food. Before shopping, if you are hungry, eat a small protein rich snack like a handful of almonds if you cannot eat a meal.
- Shop on the perimeter of the store where all the healthier options are located.
- When buying pre-packed foods always read the labels on the back. If there are a lot of words on the ingredients list you have never heard of before, it’s not something you may want to eat.
- At home put fruit out in a bowl in high traffic areas. If it’s seen and appetizing it’s more likely to be eaten.
- Eat three main meals and use smaller plates if you are trying to lose weight. You don’t have to eat snacks. Give your digestive system a break, it will thank you.
- Use different spices in cooking food as they will make the food tastier, easier to digest and you won’t need as much salt.
- Be more aware of where your food comes from and choose more locally grown foods, in season and quality over quantity.
I hope this comprehensive guide will motivate you to modify your diet to suit your needs. Hippocrates said it best when he said, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” After all food is the medicine you eat three times a day. Why not choose wisely and watch the magic happen.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2017 Behzad Azargoshasb
Ken Burgess from Florida on December 02, 2017:
Some good information here, well worth the read.