Michael Pollan, a food journalist, wrote ‘eat food, not too much, mostly plants’. Basically that is my message!
OK, I can expand a little further:
• eat fresh, whole, unprocessed food;
• eat what is in season;
• if you can, stay sitting down and eat, with family, undistracted;
• enjoy treats, on occasion.
Sugar is the enemy (and refined starchy foods)
These foods have absolutely no nutritional value, other than to provide energy. Foods which have essential nutrients also provide energy; thus, if you are trying to eat healthily or specifically lose weight, it makes sense to eat nutrient-dense foods, rather than eat empty calories. Sugar and those refined white carbs are finding their way into more and more foodstuffs (read the labels). Sugar rewards the brain and may be addictive.
The blood-sugar roller-coaster and insulin.
Eating these refined carbs will raise your blood sugar very quickly; your body will produce insulin to transfer the glucose from your blood to your cells, where it will be used for energy (or stored as fat). Your blood sugar will drop very quickly, so you will be hungry again very soon. If you repeat this cycle a few times you will soon recognise the ‘hangry’ experience. If you keep repeating this cycle over time, you may develop insulin resistance and you will gain weight. As well as utilising glucose in the blood, insulin’s other job is to store fat. Whilst you have high levels of insulin in your system there is only one way energy (food) goes, either you use it or it is stored as fat. Eating wholefoods containing fibre slows this whole process down; you just don’t get the sugar spikes and consequent lows. Focusing on eating the healthy foods helps us in terms of eating our way to health rather than ‘dieting’.
If we have been abusing our systems with sugar over a long period, we will develop health problems. Reducing sugar will undoubtedly benefit your health.
Cold turkey or gradually?
As challenging as it seems, I think the best advice is to go cold turkey on this one if you have a serious problem or addiction to the white carbs. Otherwise you just keep repeating the hard part as you ease them out of your diet.
Some people will have quite serious withdrawal symptoms: headaches, irritability and insomnia. This usually lasts at most for about ten days, often less for some (see separate article on website). Cravings usually follow a wave. If you experience this, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, and try to ride the wave. They also seem to follow a rhythm and are worse in the morning and evening; have a plan to deal with this.
Also, eliminate most artificial sweeteners — retrain your taste buds!
Eat your vegetables
Eat at least five portions of vegetable and salads a day, the colours of the rainbow. In winter, feed your desire for ‘sweetness’ with the starchier root vegetables (unless you are trying to lose weight, in which case stick to grown-above-the-ground vegetables). Fill half your plate with these powerful nutrient-dense foods. If you are changing your eating habits and eliminating the refined carbs, stocking up by eating vegetables prior to cutting out the refined carbs may help with cravings.
So: get those veggies in soups, stews, casseroles, stir fries, steamed, boiled, mixed salads, eat them raw—the more the merrier.
Using frozen vegetables and fruit is really OK too. They are harvested and then frozen very quickly, so may even be more nutritious than ‘fresh’ versions which may have been hanging around for some time.
Eat some fruit — 2 pieces a day. Berries are best. But an apple a day is pretty cool! If you are not trying to lose weight, any fruit is acceptable. Fruit juice doesn’t count! (In fact, try to eliminate it from your diet.)
Get your dose of vitamin C (veggies have it too).
The role of fat in your diet
The role of fat in our diet has been controversial, complex, and conflicting and endlessly debated. The sugar industry managed to demonise fat, and for years we have been swallowing their advice and eating ‘low-fat’ this and that, and getting fatter as a nation. Even now, very clever people give conflicting information about which fat to eat.
So, my bottom line: eating fat is essential to health — we need it for our bodies to function. Which fats? Absolutely not the trans-fat, hydrogenated fats found in many or most processed foods — the baked and packaged goods. If you have eliminated most processed foods from your diet and eat your veggies, I don’t think you need to fear the natural fats you find in whole foods — whatever they are.
Avocados, fatty fish, fat found in meat, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, nuts, seeds etc. are all OK. And especially olive oil!
The next question is: what fats are healthier to cook with? Below is an advisory list based on those fats not oxidising when heated.
• Butter (grass-fed): low smoke point
• Coconut oil
• Ghee (butter simmered to remove residue of lactose and casein)
• Animal fat
• Olive oil
I have written more about this in a separate article on fats.
Eat some protein at every meal —eggs, meat, fish, cheese, yoghurt, milk, seeds and nuts, beans, and legumes (1 cup) and soy products (like tofu). An approximate guide for how much protein you need per meal is a your-palm-sized portion. This equates to approximately 0.36 grams per day per pound of body weight. Your palm is definitely an easier measure! Unless you are engaging in intense sport or recovering from illness, there is little point in eating extra protein; any not used for repair and regeneration will be metabolised by the body into glucose. It is also important to eat protein at meals because it fills you up.
Potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat couscous, wholemeal pasta, oatmeal and barley are all good examples of complex carbohydrate foods which contain varied nutrients and are a good source of energy. However if you are trying to lose weight I would seriously limit them to a small-cupped-hand-size portion or not eat them at all. All the micronutrients contained in them are available in all the other foods which you can eat and maintain a good weight loss.
Drink plenty of water, tea, coffee.
Micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc
If you are eating an adequate, well-balanced diet as described, you are probably eating sufficient of these micronutrients. It is always better to eat your vitamins rather than take supplements. However, a few are worth special mention:
• Vitamin D: it is unlikely we get enough in our northern climate over winter; supplementation may be useful.
• B vitamins: They are harder to absorb as we get older. Also drinking alcohol can negatively affect their absorption.
• Omega 3: It may be worth considering a supplement
• Zinc/magnesium: Foods may not contain as much as they used to, as the soil that plants are grown in is depleted of these minerals.
Feed yourself but also feed your microbiome
We are only about 10% human cells. The rest is bacteria, fungi, and viruses which populate our bodies and in particular our large intestine (hopefully) and are essential to our good health. This system is called our microbiome, and it is a relatively new area for scientific research. However, we do know these bugs provide a number of services to our human bodies:
• Make serotonin (feel-good hormone)
• Make vitamins
• Keep the bad guys in check
• Maintain heart health
• Promote good mental health
• Keep us lean...lean people have greater numbers and diversity of bacteria
• Strengthen our immune system (the gut is 70% of the immune system)
• Protect us from allergens
You get the picture?
You inherit your microbiome at birth and through breastfeeding and, following that, from how you feed it.
You can help design your microbiome by feeding it with probiotics — foods which lay down populations of the good guys — and prebiotics— foods which feed the bacterial population.
See lists of each, below!
You can damage your microbiome with:
• Antibiotics-they do save lives but their use does kill the good bacteria as well as the pathogenic ones. If you must have a course of antibiotics, once the treatment is stopped be sure to nurture your microbiome, by feeding yourself with probiotic and prebiotic foods. You may want to consider taking a good supplement.
• Lack of sleep
• Too much sugar and artificial sweeteners. These feed the ‘bad guys’, the bacteria which grow in the wrong place, usually the small intestine and create digestive problems
• A diet low in fibre
• Insufficient exercise
You can improve your gut health by:
• Enjoying leisurely and relaxed mealtimes.
• Eating a diet high in antioxidants: nuts, seeds, berries, olive oil, vegetables, coffee and tea. Basically, up your fibre intake!
• Avoiding snacking. Try intermittent fasting. There is very good evidence that resting your digestive tract (that is not eating for long periods) encourages something called the ’migrating motor complex’ to occur, which is a clearing process in the gut which remove the bad kind of bacteria from the small intestine. Short periods of fasting stimulate microbes as long as meals are nutrient-dense.
• Spending more time outside.
• Stroking animals
• Sleeping well.
• Stressing less.
• Not being hygiene obsessed.
• Spending time with a lean person.
• Avoiding pesticides.
• Not eating when you are stressed, angry or sad.
• Exercising (linked to promoting a rich microbiome).
• Yoghurt Make sure you choose one with active or live cultures
• Pickled vegetables Salt-pickled, not vinegar-pickled
• Buttermilk the traditional by-product of butter-making; not ‘cultured’
• Cheese Raw unpasteurised Cheddar, mozzarella, Gouda, especially ‘artisanal’ cheeses, but check the labels
• Green olives
• Sourdough bread
• Beer unfiltered small-batch
• Dark chocolate
• Soy sauce
• Kefir Contains several major strains of friendly bacteria and yeasts
• Kombucha Fermented black or green tea
• Sauerkraut Choose unpasteurised
• Apple cider vinegar
• Kimchi Fermented spicy Korean dish
• Tempeh Fermented soybean product
• Miso A Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans
• Natto Fermented soybean
• Chicory root
• Dandelion greens
• Jerusalem artichoke
• Cold cooked potatoes and brown rice (resistant starch)
• Konjac root (Glucomannan)
• Cocoa and dark chocolate
• Burdock root
• Flax seeds
• Yacon root
• Jicama root
• Wheat bran
This all heads nicely into the next topic, which for good health I can’t ignore:
Going back to Michael Pollan (‘eat food, not too much, mostly plants’), especially the ‘not too much’ bit, I want to talk very briefly about the concept of fasting. Fasting isn’t really a new idea; it is an old one which has fallen out of fashion, until now. Most religions have all designated periods of fasting — so it isn’t a weird idea. (Unlike other diet fads, there is nothing to sell — so still largely a secret). Generations of humans have done it and it turns out that it is actually really good for us:
• improves mental clarity
• induces weight and body-fat loss
• lowers blood sugar level
• improves insulin sensitivity
• increases energy
• improves fat burning
• lowers blood cholesterol
• decreases inflammation in the body
• research is indicating that it may be beneficial in preventing Alzheimer’ disease, reversing the ageing process, and extending life (not just living).
If you are interested in using fasting to improve your health, or as a powerful weight loss tool, click here