What do we do when food has become an enemy? There is so much confusion and stress about what we should eat to maximize health and wellness: don’t eat gluten, eat only raw foods, cook your foods well, avoid sugar, go grain free, eat more grains, eat more fish, fish contain toxins, eat macrobiotic, eat less, eat more, eat enough protein, don’t eat too much protein. Just look on Amazon and you will find over 45,000 books with divergent recommendations about nutrition and food. I have spent the last few years knee deep in the nutrition research and I say, “enough already!” All of this conflicting advice about food can be maddening.
Life is already full of enough stress.
Wouldn’t it feel great to have a relationship with food that is grounded in simplicity, trust, and a return to joy?
We can! It is possible to have a simple food plan in our lives that will nourish our bodies, cultivate our health, not stress us out, or take up our entire day in the kitchen. Here are seven simple principles that can help us create a healthy relationship with food:
- Become aware about what you are putting into your body. Many of us eat mindlessly, while we are either multi-tasking or in a rush. Develop a practice of taking 1-3 minutes prior to eating to really notice and consider what you are going to put into your mouth.
- Stop judging yourself. You are not being “good” if you eat one way and “bad” if you eat another. Focus instead on being informed about which foods promote health and wellness, and becoming aware of your own habits and behaviors. Then, from a place of awareness, choose what you want to experience.
- Go with good enough. Do not worrying about getting your diet perfect. Perfect does not exist. Give up perfect and go with good enough. Start where you are.
- Fall in love with healthy, beautiful, natural, plant-based whole foods. Eating a wide variety of predominantly plant-based whole foods is a wonderful way to promote wellness, recovery and renewal in the body.
- Learn to trust your body. When you choose healthy foods, your body will know how to take those wholesome foods and create energy, wellness, and more vibrant health.
- You have the freedom to choose what is best for you. There is no one “right” diet for everyone. Be informed and then choose what is right for you in this moment.
- Enjoy your food. Joy helps to balance the nervous system away from the fight-or-flight stress response and into a rest-and-digest mode. When that happens your body can better process and absorb the nutrients it needs.
These seven principles are like food “relationship” skills. But all the relationship skills in the world will not help us if we are with an abusive, destructive partner. It helps to partner with the right foods.
What exactly are the right foods?
The answer: mostly plants.
Michael Pollen says it best, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”
Why are plants so important? Plants help to rebalance the gut micro biome (the good bacteria that live in our GI tracts), provide the body with a stable supply of building blocks to make hormones, enzymes, and neurochemicals, protect the body from environmental toxins and infections, prevent and reverse chronic illness, and plants help to turn off the expression of the genes that contribute to chronic illness, pain, and inflammation. Plant-based whole foods include all vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, seeds and nuts. Benefits that you can gain from eating plant-based whole foods are:
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved energy
- Improved digestion
- Improved mood
- Improved clarity of mind
- Greater hormonal balance
- Improved weight
- Faster recovery and healing
Really? Plants can do all of that?
Yes! You see, as mammals living on this planet, we actually need the macro and micronutrients found in plants to heal, to grow, to regenerate and to renew the body.
I have heard people say that they think a whole-foods plant-based diet is too extreme. I used to think that too. But then I really began to consider it more carefully. Now it seems much more extreme to me, and contrary to millions of years of life on this planet, to put highly processed, sugar-saturated, nutrient-deplete substances that come from factories into our bodies instead of foods that come directly from nature. As we face the massive rise in chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, allergies, asthma, and many others, we can see that this “normal” way of eating is making it more difficult for our bodies to thrive.
Let’s also take a look at another component of the standard American diet: meat. The problem today is that the vast majority of meat, and animal products, that we have access to today are from unhealthy animals raised in poor conditions on filler-based improper, pseudo-foods, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals. These poor quality meats and animal products are another a big contributor to the epidemic of chronic illness.
What about meats and animal products from animals raised on natural landscapes, free of all the added hormones, antibiotics and chemicals? It makes sense that these kinds of meats and animal products are healthier options as compared to many of the poor quality meats that are on the market today. However, we simply do not have enough data comparing the long term health outcomes in people who consumed a plant based whole foods diet exclusively and those who consumed mostly a plant based whole foods diet with good quality meats. To date I have not encountered such a study.
What about fish? The issue of fish is a little more complex. Here we must consider the source of the fish. Many toxic pollutants including mercury, lead, PCBs (or polychlorinated biphenyls) bioaccumulate in fish, especially those higher up on the food chain. While fish may have been a good food source in the past, now we need to be careful about the fish we choose to eat. If you choose to consume fish, it is important to choose fish, such as salmon, tilapia, shrimp, tuna (canned light), and cod that are found to be lower in these toxins.
So what are we modern people to do?
Nutrition experts seem to agree on one thing: eat plants.
It doesn’t have to be complicated: a diet of mostly plant based whole foods clearly helps to supply the macro and micro nutrients that the body needs to support healing and wellness. Of course, there may be caveats in those with allergies, certain medical conditions, or for those on specific medications, but that is why it is important to find the food plan that is right for you. Remember, there is no perfect one-size-fits-all diet. But for the vast majority of people, following the guidelines below can help to dramatically enhance wellness and health in the body.
Here Are the Foods to Include Every Day:
- Dark leafy greens, for example spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, and romaine.
- A plentiful, rich and colorful variety of vegetables and/or fruits with every meal.
- Nutrient rich (gluten-free) grains such as quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, and oats. (Whole grain breads and pastas may be ok for those without inflammation or gluten sensitivity.)
- A plant-based protein source such as beans (kidney, lentils, white, black, garbanzo, soy/edamame, etc), nuts, and seeds (pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.)
Here are the Foods to Limit:
- Refined and processed foods.
- Dairy, including animal-based milks, butters, and yogurts, especially those from animals raised on antibiotics, hormones and those exposed to chemicals.
- Sugar and sugar substitutes. (Ideally women should consume less that 25 grams of added sugar per day, and men less than 37.5 grams of added sugar per day.)
- Meats and animal products including chicken, beef, pork, and lamb, and eggs.
- Gluten in individuals with inflammation or gluten-sensitivity.
- Fish that have bioaccumulated pollutants.
Here, I must confess, is the point when the stress level begins to tick up in my conversations with patients and clients. “Can’t I have a treat sometimes? But, I love cheese. These recommendations are too hard! How am I going to get enough protein? I can’t do all that!”
Believe me, I get it. Eating a plant-based whole foods diet isn’t what most of us are used to. It isn’t that this way of eating is hard, but it can take some time to adjust. Be that as it may, there is an incredible amount of evidence that suggests that a plant-based whole foods diet is a powerful contributor toward wellness. Remember that it doesn’t have to be all or none. You do not have to choose an exclusively plant based diet. Simply do what feels the best for you for where you are right now while you lean in to the plants. Remember to take a breath and consider the food principles: it doesn’t have to be perfect, just start where you are, and choose what is right for you in this moment. Healthy eating is a spectrum. Depending on your health situation, you really can decide how inclusive you would like your eating to be.
So this brings us back to the idea of reducing stress and bringing in more joy with food. This is not about deprivation. Rather, we can focus on using food to enhance wellness and bring joy, vitality, and energy into our lives. It really is about learning to eat and love healthy, delicious, plant-based whole foods.
Here are few final tips for stress-free, joyful eating:
- If you are eating a plant-based whole food diet, then you do not need to limit or count calories.
- If you are hungry, then eat plant-based whole foods.
- Eat slowly and chew well.
- Eat a large variety of healthy plant-based foods.
- Enjoy the flavors of herbs and spices.
- Do not focus on all the things that you shouldn’t have.
- Do focus on all the good that you are doing for your body each day.
- Regardless of what you eat, find gratitude for the food on your plate, for this body that is yours, and for this opportunity to be alive.
- Remember to enjoy.
Please see these references for more information:
www.nutritionfacts.org, a non-commercial, science-based public service describing the latest studies on nutrition provided by Dr. Michael Greger.
Michael Greger book How Not to Die
Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food
Important Note: Those who choose to exclusively eat a plant based whole foods diet should supplement their diets with B12 vitamins.