Healthy Eating 101
Many people have lots of ideas about what health eating is, mostly influenced and driven by marketing trends and fads. Very simply, healthy eating is nutrient dense. When we choose nutrient dense foods, we help to decrease inflammation, moderate our insulin response and provide all of our cells what they need to be vibrant. Combined with mindful eating, some kind of movement, and stress management, we can change our bodies to be more vital, as well as fit. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, and actually the simpler the better. And further, we should be making choices based on what we want for the long term (disease and pain free, vital, vibrant), not what we want right now (that sugar rush to feel better from this stress).
Ellie Krieger outlined some ideas in her Washington Post article, which are things I already have been emphasizing with patients over the years. Let’s look at her healthy eating ideas categories with my reflections:
Lifestyling is the new buzz word that is the opposite of “crash dieting". As I mentioned, Weight Watchers is calling it “Freestyling” although they are using it slightly differently.
For my patients, lifestyling means adopting a way of eating that is healthy and attainable given their budget, time and lifestyle and using some of the points addressed below. There is no one “diet” that is right for everyone. And not every diet is right for every person. For example, people with certain health conditions will not do well on a high fat diet and could exacerbate their condition. I work with folks to determine whether their cholesterol is hereditary, and caused by too much absorption from the diet or produced in the body. We look at insulin loads, inflammation and lots of other factors to determine what nutritional profile they should follow.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, endocrinologist, in his book, "The End of Diabetes: The Eat to Live Plan to Prevent and Reverse Diabetes” coined the “Nutritarian” diet, where the emphasis is on nutrient density of foods rather than quantity.
"Natural plants such as vegetables and beans contain thousands of protective micronutrients, such as antioxidants and phytochemicals. When we eat a diet rich in colorful plant foods, we glean a full symphony of nutritional factors that enable better cell function and resistance to aging and stress.” (p. 42) Isn’t anti-aging what everyone is looking for?
This is the idea of a plant focused or plant based diet (not necessarily plant only). Also what happens we fill 50-75% of our plate with nutrient dense foods, it pushes out the need and desire for other non-nutrients and limits need for excessive protein and fat.
Summer is the best time to celebrate vegetables because we have the most access to fresh, seasonal and a variety of vegetables. Choose a variety of colors and stay away from just potatoes and corn. When possible choose organic, especially now that most stores, including Walmart, carry affordable organic produce. If you can’t afford all organic produce, buy the “Dirty Dozen” in organic. Fruit like avocados, which tend to be a bit pricey normally, are safe to eat non-organic. Check out the Environmental Working Groups Clean 15+
Not Afraid of Fat
For years, fat from butter and eggs was demonized. And then low-fat and fat-free forms of foods were born. These foods are very refined to remove the natural fat and add texturizes to make it have a mouth feel of fat. And the science has now caught up to tell us that we need some fat in our diet to support our cell membranes and vitamin absorption, and actually supports, heart health, healthy weight and blood sugar regulation.
We don’t need excessive amounts of animal fat. But some butter and eggs are not a problem. Eggs are a good source of choline which essential for good nerve and muscle function, along with helping to maintain a healthy metabolism. And we should definitely not be afraid of vegetable sources of fat such as nuts, seeds and avocados. However, we should avoid highly refined margarines and vegetable oils such as canola, which tend to be inflammatory. Butter is better. Olive oil is best.
This is a tricky one. Many people think they need a lot of protein and eat lots of meat and protein supplements. But our protein needs are not as high as we think, especially if we are inactive. There are other healthful plant based sources such as legumes (beans, peans, lentils) nuts, and seeds. Some regular protein froma variety of sources is important to get a round amount of amino acids needed for a variety of biochemical processes. But more is not always better.
Our sense of sweet is distorted when we eat a lot of refined sugars and fast carbs. Our brain wants the dopamine reward that comes from having something sweet. But the downside of eating sweetened foods is the increased insulin response and accompanying inflammation.
Sweetness can be found in a variety of whole foods such as fruit and vegetables. If we roast veggies, the natural sugars caramelize and we can taste them. Using natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup in small amounts provide us a little taste of sweet in combination with natural minerals.
Our brain registers “sweet” in food hits our tastebuds, no matter the quantity. So we only need a small enough for the signal to be received. A small amount of dark chocolate (70% cocao or greater) can also serve to provide the calming effect of something sweet without a lot of calories and a massive insulin dump.
Avoid using artificial sweeteners, because there is some evidence that insulin responds to fake sweet just as robustly.
Here Ellie is talking about environmental impact, which is important to consider. Am I buying some special strain of Coconut Oil that is over-harvested by slave labor in a country on the other side of the world? Am I eating exotic fruit that has to be shipped from across the world, with a high carbon footprint? Is the fish I’m eating fished or farmed in ways that are harmful to the environment and perhaps not as healthy for me? (Check out Seafood Watch for more on sustainable seafood.)
When I use “sustainable", I am also indicating whether my patient can follow the plan in an ongoing way. If I am asking a patient to eat 12 avocados per day (exaggeration to make a point), can they afford it, can they get them easily or do they even like avocados?
In conjunction with sustainable, this is about knowing where our products are coming from. If the meat is mass produced, versus local and grass fed, its going to affect the body differently because of the feed and drugs that the animal has been consumed.
For other items, we eat, the closer to nature, the cleaner the produced, the fewer ingredients, the less additives, the better. Know what’s in your food and avoid things you can’t pronounce. Buy from local bakers, butchers, farmers because they are not adding preservatives to keep their products shelf stable. We know these preservatives can contribute to disturbances in the gut microbiome, which causes inflammation and contributes to insulin resistance and autoimmune conditions.
Good for your Gut
Fermented foods are making a comeback. Kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kefir, and kombucha offer probiotics that help the gut microbiome which helps keep the pro-inflammatory bugs in check. Be sure to buy fresh or make your own. Lots of recipes can be found online. Be wary of shelf- stable jarred or canned products, because heat is used in the canning process which effectively kills the probiotics. And lets not forget that fresh raw vegetables and salads have live organisms, even after washing and lots of fiber that aid digestion. Also note that unpasteurized cheese has the natural bionics and enzymes that helped create the cheese in the first place, and is thus usually more easily digestible when eaten. (Be cautious if pregnant or with severe immune compromise. Always consult a healthcare provider to be safe.)
Rich in Heritage
When we look to our own or other cultural heritages and food cultures, we discover lots of healthy eating styles that have been around for millennia with distinctive health benefits. The Mediterranean style diet of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains and nuts has been researched heavily and found beneficial for most diseases. Indian food is rich in vegetables and spices, including turmeric, which is naturally anti-inflammatory.
Even the French paradox, with its rich diet of butter, cheese, red wine, had benefits when taken in context of heritage. Just like in Italy and India, meals are often taken slowly with friends and family (not stressed eating on the run), enjoyment is emphasized, portions are small, products are fresh, local and unprocessed, and cheese is unpasteurized to allow for natural probiotics.
Making food interesting in presentation - Instagram-ready - stimulates what’s called cephalic (head, brain) digestion. The layers, colors and textures signal the brain, which reports to the stomach what is coming, stimulating gastric juices and enzymes start releasing in preparation for digestion.
Recently I was staying at a B&B with friends and the food was simple- omelet with veggies and a little goat cheese. But it was plated on yellow plates, which made the food look so fancy and delicious. The care taken with preparing and presenting food communicates nourishment, nurturing, which allows the body to relax, a requirement for efficient digestion. Without relaxation, there is no efficient digestion. And we can eat the healthiest meal on the planet, but under stress, on the run, get only a limited amount of the nutrition provided.