I grew up on a farm. We had a big vegetable garden and we spent the summer tending it, harvesting, preserving, and canning. We traded pork for milk, eggs, and beef from the neighbours. We got fresh raspberries and strawberries from our grandparents’ farm and froze those for the winter months as well. Mom also did her own baking.
Now we did all of this out of necessity, and I certainly didn’t appreciate it as a kid. But the more I learn about nutrition, the more I realize that a return to that lifestyle and that kind of connection to food is exactly what we need. We need to bring it back to the basics. I’ve decided to make my own Top 10 list to frame some basic recommendations about nutrition.
1. Drink more water
Our bodies are 60-70% water and most of us walk around dehydrated. We learn to ignore our thirst mechanism and it eventually just stops working. We need water for energy, to eliminate toxins, to hydrate skin, for healthy kidney function – basically every system of the body needs water to work efficiently. I’ve had patients with health concerns like itchy skin or low energy – and all they needed was to drink more water and their health concern went away. Recommended intake varies from person to person. Eight glasses a day is a good average (smaller individuals need less, larger folks need more).
2. Listen to your mother – eat your vegetables!
Vegetables should be, without a doubt, the basis of any healthy diet. They provide antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and fibre. The brightly coloured ones have bioflavinoids that have been shown to be potent antioxidants. Antioxidants are components of food that prevent or repair cellular damage from toxins and free radicals in the body.
Fibre is roughage: compounds of plant origin that are essential for good digestion and colon health. The recommended intake is 35g per day – North American’s eat on average only 12g per day! Fibre dilutes toxins within the gut, lowers cholesterol, and helps with excretion of excess hormones in the body.
3. Don’t be afraid of fat.
Fats don’t make you fat. The low-fat craze of the 90s was a failed experiment. While consuming less fat, dieters actually gained more weight. Without enough fat in our diet, we tend to eat more carbohydrates and more calories. Essentially fatty acids such as omega 3’s help protect our hearts by preventing clots, inhibiting inflammation in the vessel walls, and causing vasodilation. These fats also have anti-inflammatory properties and lubricate the joints.
However, you still need to avoid trans fats which increase LDL (the bad) cholesterol and increase our likelihood of heart disease. These are found in margarine, cookies, crackers and snack foods.
4. Eat enough protein
Some people strongly feel that North Americans eat too much protein. Others feel we don’t eat enough. In my practice I tend to see quite a few patients who have problems regulating their blood sugar and could benefit from eating less simple carbohydrates and more protein to help with that regulation.
Protein is important to build muscle, connective tissue, bone, and enzymes for digestion. Good sources of protein include nuts and seeds, legumes (bean salad, hummus), soy foods (tofu, tempeh), chicken, turkey, fish, lean red meats and lean dairy. For blood sugar regulation, it’s important to eat protein at every meal. Nuts and seeds make a good protein-rich snack.
5. Eat the right carbohydrates at the right time
Simple carbs spike blood sugar and give us good short-term energy, and then we crash as our blood sugar drops and we crave more simple sugar. In North America, we are eating too many simple carbohydrates (refined sugar, white pasta, white rice) and not enough complex carbs (whole grains, oatmeal, brown rice) that help slow that release of glucose.
The only time that simple sugars are recommended is around exercise. When we exercise our muscle’s glycogen or energy stores get depleted so we need to maximize stores before exercise and replenish during and afterwards. The best way to refuel them is with fast-acting carbohydrates – simple sugars.
6. Keep a food journal.
I get my patients to write down everything they eat for a week and how they feel each day. I remember the first time I did the exercise for my naturopath I said “oh this isn’t a typical week – I usually eat much better”. She gave me this very subtle ‘oh yeah right’ look. I slowly realized that my diet diary really was an accurate picture, and if I wanted to feel better, I better make some changes.
A diet diary gives a good picture of exactly what you are eating, and can also be a good motivational tool to eat better. It can help you set nutritional goals – such as 8 servings of fruit/vegetables each day — and then track it and see how you do.
7. When you eat is as important as what you eat
I’ve had patients with fatigue who don’t eat either breakfast or lunch! Food gives you energy. Going without for too long is more common than I thought.
During the night our metabolism goes down. If we skip breakfast our metabolism slows down even further in response to a perceived starvation. Then when we do eat, we’re really hungry, we overeat and our metabolism is at rock bottom so it maximizes how much energy is stored as fat. Therefore, we have no energy and we gain weight. So I recommend 5-6 small meals instead of three large meals for blood sugar control and healthy weight management.
8. If it keeps, don’t buy it.
Real food goes bad. It gets moldy. That’s because it’s alive and has nutrients. Too much of our food is designed to sit on a shelf for way too long. It’s processed and contains chemicals and by the time we eat it there are no nutrients left. We need to fundamentally return to a whole foods based diet, a diet composed of foods that look a lot like they do when they’re growing in the ground.
9. Eat less.
Basically, North Americans are on average eating 200 more calories a day than they were in the 1970s. If you do that and don’t get correspondingly more exercise, you’re going to gain weight. Many demographers are predicting that this is the first generation of Americans whose life span may be shorter than their parents’. One reason for that is obesity and the accompanying diseases like diabetes. I encourage my patients to stop eating when they are 80% full. It’s better for energy, blood sugar and digestion.
Okinawa in Japan is an area with one of the greatest percentage of centenarians – people over the age of 100 — in the world. Why? Along with eating more vegetables, less meat, more fish, one of the main differences is in the quantity of food consumed. They eat less and they live longer.
10. Listen to your body.
My experience working with patients over the years is that everyone is different. The perfect diet for one person is NOT going to be perfect for the next person. Some people thrive for decades as vegetarians, but others lose energy and can’t focus without meat. Some people digest beans but not dairy, others can’t digest meat but could eat 3 or 4 servings of beans every day.
The important thing is to start building awareness into how food makes you feel. Make a change and see if it makes a difference.