Diet is not simply about calories, in fact, calories are a minor concern when it comes to healthy eating. Food is tied up with personal, cultural, and emotional influences. Eating provides biological and psychological comfortà it controls neurotransmitter, opioid, and hormone release, and turns genes on and off. We use food for reward, bribe, and punishment scenarios. It is a social device and is used to say “I love you”. The quality of the food is of far greater importance than the caloric content and to that end I suggest the following basics…
1- Buy the highest quality you can afford, instead of the greatest quantity. This simple strategy makes those little imperfections in the diet less problematic and way more fulfilling! Additionally, you’ll be surprised at how much farther higher quality meals, snacks and beverages can take you. If you’re craving chocolate, get the best you can find. An ounce of top-notch chocolate may cost the same as a 5lb bag of M-n-M’s but it’ll be worth it! And you will be more likely to enjoy it without later regret. By the same token, the nutrient-rich locally grown produce may cost you a few pennies more on the dollar and you may come home with a little less food, but your body will be nourished better, your money stays in the community, you make connections to the farmers at the market and you might lose a pound or two of body fat without even trying.
2- Eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. They have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and even osteoporosis. They are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and various other beneficial substances we are only beginning to discover. Choose local and/or organic when possible since they are higher in nutrient value and are better for the environment, which means they contribute to cleaner air, water, and soil- all of which also affect your health. Second best is organic frozen, 3rd is fresh or frozen conventional. Leave cans on the shelf. If your diet is really good for you it will also be good for the environment. This is an unavoidable fact. Think of the slightly higher priced food as built in assurance that you won’t overeat! In exchange for this small investment, you’ll experience greater health resulting in reduced medical costs and fewer sick days.
3- Emphasize animal protein foods from sustainable sources, such as organic fresh meat, poultry, dairy and fish, and wild fish, ethically caught. These foods will keep you satiated, boost your metabolism, and help prevent diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis. They supply ample amounts of all the amino acids needed to make enzymes, neurotransmitters, cell walls, hormones, antibodies, muscle tissue, bone tissue, and drivers in the liver’s detoxification pathways. If you are short on any one amino acid, an entire production line will be shut down… much like running out of nails while building a house but having plenty of everything else you need. They also provide the only biologically available sources of vitamin B-12, which is necessary for the proper functioning of all your cells. Last but not least, if they lived free-ranging or wild, they’ll be a rich source of the healthy omega-3’s you’ve been reading so much about.
4- Frequently include fresh, raw tree nuts in your diet. These include almonds, pecans, filberts (hazelnuts), walnuts, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, and pistachios, but not peanuts, which are legumes and cause many people problems. Tree nuts have been shown to have benefits for the heart, and may even improve longevity. Nuts also contain a fair amount of fiber and other minerals. Avoid those nuts which are salted and cooked in unhealthy oils, opting for raw nuts instead. You can lightly roast them yourself if you prefer. Soaking them over night in the refrigerator improves their taste and makes them easier on your digestion. This is a case of small amounts making a big difference, so keep your daily intake to a handful (literally, the amount you can hold in your hand). These are nutrient dense and calorie dense so it is easy to overeat!
5- Avoid processed, boxed, refined, prepackaged and fried foods, as well as fast foods. This stuff is not food, it is a science project and every time you eat it you are a test subject! These food-products increase your chances of developing heart disease, colon, breast, and prostate cancer, diabetes, and obesity. They are high in refined carbohydrates, sweeteners, harmful trans-fats, sodium, and preservatives; and low on vitamins, minerals, fiber, and nutrients in general. Beware of white flour disguised as whole wheat- if the first ingredient listed isn’t 100% whole wheat, you are about to buy an imposter, you can’t go by the brown color. As little as one teaspoon of sugar suppresses your immune system for up to 4 hours! Every 4.2 grams of sugar on the ingredients list equals a teaspoon. If you see sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup solids on the label, it means “sugar”.
6- Use coconut oil or lard and butter derived from grass-fed cattle for high heat cooking. Although fat is a necessary nutrient in our diet, the heat used in many cooking techniques and processing converts much of the fat into “trans” fat which is harmful. Sauté your food using high-heat oils such as coconut oil or butter from grass-fed cattle. Trans-fat is also the main reason to avoid margarine and shortening. These are vegetable oils which have been altered to make them solid at room temperature so as to be competitive with butter and lard for your shopping dollar. Conversion of healthy vegetable oils to hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated solids is also common in processing so as to increase the shelf life of products such as peanut butter, candy bars, cookies, etc. This process yields trans-fats and causes health problems. Use olive oil at the table or in low heat cooking to avoid damaging it.
7- Drink clean water. All our cells require a certain amount of water to function properly. When even mildly dehydrated, metabolism can slow significantly. This occurs before your thirst mechanism kicks in, so if you wait until you are thirsty you’re already dealing with some lost function. As a rule of thumb, attempt to drink half an ounce of water per pound of bodyweight each day; for example, a 180 pound person would shoot for 90 ounces of water per day. Add 8 ounces additional water for every 15 minutes you are exercising. If you are attempting to lose fat, you need to drink more water than normal. This is because the biochemical pathways involved in moving fat out of storage and burning it off actually consumes waterà it is dehydrating. If you run low on water, fat-burning slows or stops.
- Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages don’t count toward this daily total because they have a dehydrating effect.
- Use a filter on your tap or under the sink to remove unnecessary and potentially harmful chemicals in the water – it uses a lot less plastic compared to constantly buying bottled water and is far less expensive in the long run.
- Add a pinch of unrefined sea salt (Celtic or Himalayan) to your water to improve the taste and to increase electrolytes. Unrefined sea salt contains around 80 trace minerals rather than just being sodium and chloride.
- Herbal teas are a great way to get trace minerals and medicinal properties on a regular basis which will make a huge difference over time. They also will make the water taste better so that you’re more likely to drink enough.
8- Avoid vegetable oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, canola/rapeseed oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil, as well as margarine, shortening, and mayonnaise. These contain high levels of trans-fats and/or high percentages of Omega 6 fats (which throws us off in Omega 3:6 ratios). The attempt to balance omega 3 oils by supplementing with fish oil will not work. The best way to improve your ratio is to severely reduce your intake of omega 6 oils (vegetable oil). Having too much omega 6 compared to omega 3 promotes an inflammatory internal environment. The average American eats a ratio of 11:1 omega 6 to omega 3 due to the high level of vegetable oil intake. We really need the ratio to be around 1:1 to have a healthy balance in our inflammatory and ant-inflammatory capabilities. Peanut oil is also stable at high heat and makes a great cooking oil if you use it occasionally. However, it is high in omega 6 and should not be your main cooking oil.
9- Save grains, potatoes, and legumes for breakfast and the post workout meal. When you wake up in the morning and immediately after intense exercise, your insulin sensitivity is at the highest point of the day. Take advantage of this by having moderate amounts of starchy foods with your breakfast and post exercise meal/snack. It’s not a free-for-all carbo-loading smorgasbord; a little goes a long way! Make an effort to get at least a balanced snack if you don’t have much of an appetite in the mornings. This will allow your liver to replenish its supply of sugar (called glycogen) which is used to maintain stable blood sugars throughout the day and night. If you skip breakfast, you enter the day with your liver running short, which means you’ll be dependent on having frequent stress responses and sugar-cravings to maintain your blood sugar. Caffeine is one way to provoke a stress response. Another way is to drive erratically or to be irritable so that people respond to you confrontationally. Who’d’a thunk breakfast could make you a safer driver, better co-worker and increase your friend-potential!