Your Diet: Basic Nutrition
Even among those highly educated in nutrition, there are many points of view on the best food choices. Some believe you should eat as much raw food as possible. Others believe that raw food is too "yin" for most of us, and we should warm our foods so that our bodies don't use energy doing that work. (Also, some nutrients are brought out in cooking.) Some think we should minimize the fat we eat; some think we should minimize the carbs; some think we should avoid meat and other animal products; and so on.
So on this page, I'll summarize some of my basic beliefs on this topic, which I think are at least a good starting place for most of the population.
In my opinion, one of the easiest ways to fail in any kind of self-development is to try diving all the way in, because most people cannot handle the overwhelm of new information and changes from the ways they are doing things. I'm not saying you can't do it, but I've found that most people need to find simple steps to take them from where they are today to a better place tomorrow.
Those in dire health circumstances are of course more likely to adopt a radical change in hopes of curing themselves ... and this DOES work many times, even when mainstream medicine has given them up for dead. This works because the motivation is there.
For most people, the motivation for change is there, but not for radical change. They're still addicted to many of their current, comforting habits of living. So I encourage change one step at a time. Start with the easiest. Momentum does build over time. Back in college, I loved Pop Tarts and artificially flavored coffee. I can't even think about consuming them today.
Forget about raw vs. cooked, fat vs. carbs and protein, etc. For me, the very first step is choosing natural food. Even this is not a simple matter, because we see labels that tell us something is "All Natural," and for the purist, this doesn't tell you much because there's no legal meaning to the term. But as a first step in moving toward a healthy diet, I like a "natural" label as long as you READ the label and make sure that it really is free of trans fats, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and artificial sweeteners.
(If it's in a package, it's still processed, might have a ton of sodium, etc. But again ... first steps.)
If there are "natural flavors" alongside a high sodium count, there may be MSG. I'd avoid that as well. If you're eating wheat products, avoid "bleached" wheat. If you have to drink soda, look for natural versions (or a natural non-sugar alternative like Zevia) or at least DO NOT DRINK DIET SODA. It's poison because of the artificial sweeteners.
This also moves you away from meats from animals treated with antibiotics (allowing them to be very sick before becoming your food) and hormones, but even then big business is finding ways of avoiding these by using other chemicals or drugs. And while "free range" is supposed to mean that animals are given at least a minimum amount of space for movement (keeping them healthier) factory farming has simply turned many small cages into one big cage called a barn, and they still jam pack animals into these "cage free." (Then they live in their filth, where they also die, and you're fed that food.)
So besides the topic of animal cruelty, this stress and disease and pharmaceutical use just destroys the quality of your food. So I would highly recommend buying organic meat if you're choosing to eat meat. Yes, it's more expensive. But see if you can start choosing quality over quantity ... even if it's just once in a while.
Factory farming has animals packed together with little room, and these animals are forced to wallow in their own filth. This isn't just about animal cruelty -- this is about sick, weak animals making up our food.
By the way ... Costco has an increasing number of organic products, including meat. So there's one way to stock up at lower prices.
In any case, I believe this ONE STEP of moving toward more natural selections -- even if not perfect -- would make a very big different for a lot of people, and is an important way to get started.
REDUCE SUGAR CONSUMPTION
Notice that my FIRST recommendation is to avoid artificial foods, and I recommend eating sugar over eating artificial sugar replacements like aspartame, saccharin, etc.
But one of the next steps toward health is reducing "added sugar" consumption. Seriously. Notice I'm not telling you to quit cold turkey, because very few people can successfully do this. But really work on reducing it.
To be clear, "added sugar" may not be all the sugar on a label. A lot of food naturally has some sugar in it, as fruit obviously does. But fruit comes with fiber and a lot of other important nutrients. So as I talk on this subject, please understand that I mean "added sugar"; however, some people promote removing most fruit from your diet for this reason. My opinion: keep fruit to a reasonable level, and STOP eating it for a time if you're dealing with candida or other fungal issues, as well as with cancer.
To reduce sugar means reading labels. For instance, you look at a serving of cereal and see that it just has 12 grams of sugar, so you think that's fine; but did you notice that a serving size is 50 grams? And that means literally 24% of your cereal is nothing but sugar? (So no matter how big a bowl you pour, look at it and realize 1/4 of the bowl is just sugar.)
Unfortunately, today's packages rarely distinguish between sugar in the food naturally and what's been added, but for instance in the case of grains, they'll naturally contain very little sugar; so most sugar in a cereal has been added.
Watch for many words that mean "added sugar" like corn syrup / modified corn syrup, honey, molasses, brown sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, etc. Even starches, like rice starch, are a form of added sugar, although they do absorb more slowly into the body because they are "complex" carbohydrates.
If you have cancer, I would URGE you to stop as much sugar as possible, if not all. It strongly appears that sugar feeds cancer. Obviously diabetics should reduce sugar intake as much as possible. Yes, I know ... you've got insulin to help you out. Whether you use diabetic insulin or use your body's own, however, the more it's used, the harder it is on your body, and it definitely seems to speed up aging.
There are tons of articles about the danger of added sugar online (here's a good one), but let me keep it simple here: it negatively affects virtually all aspects of your health. Sorry, but it's no exaggeration. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, inflammation (problems all over). You get the idea.
I have read different data on how much sugar the average American consumes, from about 80 grams to 160 grams. Whatever the amount, suggested maximums from the American Heart Association are 37.5 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women. In fact, this should vary by size, but this seems like a good general goal. Once you reach this, you can see if you can cut even more. Main culprits to be aware of:
Now, some of the popular "healthy" sugar replacements can also be used to cut down on sugar. These include things like sugar alcohols (xylitol might be best known) and Stevia (a natural sweet leaf). However, truth be told, both of these are processed; and we're really not sure about long-term use of Stevia (often called Reb A). So while I think these are probably better than other artificial sweeteners, and they might be better than sugar too, they are by no means perfect. So again ... the more you can simply cut back, the better. From there, you'll have to decide if you prefer natural sugars or some of these "healthy" substitutes.
I've placed this as step 2 because if you made a serious effort to reduce artificial foods and sugar from your diet, you would go a long, long way toward bolstering your health ... even if you didn't take additional steps. But this would also give you the momentum to think of other steps in time.
Increase Healthy Meats and Vegetables
I won't argue the pros and cons of going vegetarian or vegan. I think each person needs to decide about this for themselves. I don't eat much red meat or any pork, and I don't care for seafood; but I do eat chicken and turkey. I personally can't get myself to feel full without eating meat, and there are some strong arguments that vegetarians can't get all the nutrients they need from just veggies. There are also definitely some very sickly people who are vegetarian. On the other hand, some people seem to thrive on a vegetarian diet, so I don't believe in a "one size fits all" label on this issue.
As you take the two steps above, though (reducing artificial foods and reducing sugars), you also need to put good food into your body. These are your proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbs with nutrients (vegetables). So rather than just filling up on crackers and bread (which easily break down into sugar), begin increasing the veggies you're eating, along with healthy meats if you're not going vegetarian. Lack of nutrients may be one of the big reasons people eat way more than they should -- they're eating empty calories, and their body keeps asking for more food to satisfy a nutritional deficiency. Not a calorie deficiency.
Keep in mind that a certain amount of fat is necessary for good health and even for weight loss. Avoid "trans fats" as I said before. Nuts, avocados, and other natural foods provide fats that are useful to you.
If you do choose a vegetarian lifestyle, it's important that you really find solutions for getting protein and healthy fat into your body. (Most vegetarian sources do not provide complete proteins, so you need to vary the proteins you eat.) I suspect the sickly vegetarians in our society are those who have replaced meat with low-nutrient foods, plain and simple. This is a challenging diet, so please don't take this step without really understanding how you'll stick to it in a healthy way.
Bottom line ... I keep a lot of healthy, convenient options around. Despite some arguments around them, I always add one or two brown rice protein shakes -- loaded with greens and other nutrients -- into my daily diet. (You'll find that there are arguments around everything in health, which is why I educate and let you decide!) I keep raw, packaged snacks that are easy to dig into any time. I keep blue corn chips and hummus around for non-gluten fiber and protein. And so on. Things that are easy so I don't get tempted by unhealthy snack options.
And yes, you can even go for a little dark chocolate (70%+ in cacao content, minimal sugar, and not much else unless there are other health ingredients added). Generally speaking, stick with one ounce or less of chocolate per day and see how YOU respond to chocolate. Not everyone does well with chocolate.
Gluten, Dairy, and Soy
I see these as less important to think about early on (unless you're having allergy problems, and getting rid of them for a time will help you determine the root of the problem). However, because these are topics covered by a lot of nutritional counselors, I feel I should mention them as part of your Free Nutritional Counseling.
More and more people appear to have become sensitive to or allergic to gluten, which is found in a number of grains and most famously in wheat. (There are suspicions that many of these people are misdiagnosed, but it's not clear.) Those with Celiac's disease respond so seriously that they cannot even eat remnants of gluten without a painful reaction. Until they know what the problem is, children may have a failure to thrive (not growing, very skinny, etc.), and anyone may have digestive problems, joint pain, loss of energy, weight loss, and much more.
It may be that many people have similar but milder reactions to gluten. Luckily there are more and more products now made "gluten" free. Some of these just involve major food companies jumping on the bandwagon and producing something that is still junk food that doesn't happen to have gluten in it. But many options appear to be healthy and many taste really good.
Why is this happening when we've been ok with gluten for so many generations? Maybe because we're changing as a species. Maybe because we've screwed up our systems so badly with junk food. Maybe because wheat is now incredibly hybridized and genetically modified. Maybe all of the above. Bottom line ... at some point you may find the need to reduce or eliminate gluten, and it's becoming easier these days to eat without it.
Grains in general break down pretty easily into sugar anyway, so I encourage a diet higher in protein along with healthy fats and minimal grains. Get your carbs from vegetables when possible, and make sure to get plenty of dietary fiber. There are too many incredible studies about longevity and wellness from mainstream research to ignore the benefits of dietary fiber.
Some people suggest that milk is for babies ... and cow milk is for cow babies, not people. However, I'm not so much in the camp that says we shouldn't drink milk, since this is another food that humans have used for eons. I think people's modern problem with milk is, well ... modern milk. Milk that's been pasteurized and homogenized and basically changed, chemically, from what we've used for eons.
If you could get some local raw milk, you might find it to be a very nutritious, sweet, and filling food ... and it gets you right back to the "natural" food issue. But you'll want to know the source -- the cows should be raised cleanly and on healthy diets. Raw milk is only legal in certain states; in other states, you could join a "cow share" program, and as part owner of the cow, drink your OWN cow's milk.
Regardless of how raw it is, milk and dairy in general can definitely cause mucus problems in some people, so if you have issues with mucus, you may well want to cut back on dairy and see if that helps.
Poor, poor soy. It was touted as this big solution to dairy, and people raved about its health benefits. Now there are arguments on both sides -- there is a TON of money behind soy these days, so of course you'll hear about how good it is for you. Others will tell you that soy draws toxins from the ground, and then you're eating the toxins when you consume soy.
Another known issue with soy is that there are estrogen-like components called isoflavones in soy, and these can cause hormonal problems in both men and women. However, tons of studies show that these do NOT affect hormones.
Bottom line, soy is a kind of bean and I'm not going to demonize it. It's used as a food staple in places that boast tremendous health. I think it may be better for you in some forms than others. Like everything else, soy is a personal decision. I would only recommend balance and watching what ingredients it's combined with. Watch out for those sugars that are used to addict us to everything!
I put this topic further down the list because organic food is more expensive, and I want this guidance to be for everyone. As your health becomes more important to you and you want to invest more, or if money isn't much of a factor for you, you can move toward a more organic diet.
Again, for purists, there is nothing perfect about the organic label. But this is a step in the right direction for healthy food. As far as the label is enforced, these foods aren't directly tainted with pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, and other toxins and nastiness you really don't want to be consuming.
We should be clear that organic food cannot avoid acid rain or toxic groundwater from getting into the mix. They cannot avoid pesticides blowing in from nearby farms. Again, not perfect. But I think it's fair to say that it's a worthwhile label for those seeking to improve their lives.
I have, by the way, heard arguments on both sides as to whether organic foods have more nutrients in them. This depends on one's soil and probably other growing conditions. I don't want to get too far into that debate. For me, it's much about what you're NOT consuming when you choose organic.
As you can see, this really isn't rocket science: the ultimate goal is to avoid artificial food and to eat REAL food. Doing this alone, by the way, would simultaneously lower your sugar consumption. Nutritional counselors can go into many more details, enough to make your head swim. There's nothing wrong with that, especially for those needing detailed guidance around particular problems. But if we can just get back to basics, we'll find many of society's health problems clearing up.
I hope you find this to be a helpful overview. In my next article, I'll cover the topic of supplements -- why I think they're necessary, and which ones I recommend.