From the beginning of time, our ancestors foraged for food and then started planting and growing food. They enjoyed the occasional and rare pleasure of the sweetness of fruits and honey!
For tens of thousands of years, we ate but not a lot, all unprocessed food, and very little sweets. Our physiology adapted to this reality of relative scarcity, alternating bounty and starvation, (unless we were born in the nobility!) until the turn of the last century and the advent of mass production and processing of food. What looked to be a means to increasing the quantity of food, quickly grew into a gigantic industry studying how to appeal to our senses and cravings. Our bodies were not made to deal with the overabundance of food and especially the overabundance of starches and sweets, fat and processed foods. Couple this with our lack of movement and the result is a huge epidemic of prediabetes, obesity and diabetes that predispose us to everything from heart disease, strokes, dementia, kidney disease, blindness, loss of limbs, and cancer.
The famous journalist and food activist, Michael Pollan who first brought to light the problems caused by the overabundance of high fructose corn syrup stated: the key to health is simple: “Eat, not too much and mostly plants”. For the paleo enthusiasts amongst us, it is good to remember that animal game constituted only 20% of our ancestor’s diets and the rest was gathered from foraging roots, berries, other plants, greens and nuts and seeds.
Let us consider what FOOD really is. While many of us grew up thinking of food as fuel and counting calories in and calories out, we now appreciate that food is not only a fuel necessary for survival but a dynamic intelligence that brings information to our body. Plant food empowers our body with mechanisms that arrest unwanted growth (i.e. cancer), increase antioxidant activity and decrease inflammation. These positive changes happen because plants have thousands of very active phytochemicals. On the other hand, high animal protein, high animal fat and increased sugar or sugar equivalents (refined white flour) allow for increased growth, oxidation and inflammation. Food does that by changing our gene expression, our chemical reactions and microbiome (our gut flora). Fats are the main constituents of our cell membranes and good fats such as ones that come from fish, olive oil, avocado and nuts and seeds create healthier cell membranes and less inflammation.
The way we eat reflects our relationship with the earth and ourselves. What is good for the earth, is usually good for us and the converse is true. So raising less cattle, pigs and chicken in factory farms is better for the earth, for the animals and for us.
Food is pleasure, just talk of a great meal and you see excitement and smiles on people’s faces. While pleasure through tasting and savoring food is essential to our wellbeing, we are now facing new artificial cravings for salt, sweet and fats that have resulted from the availability of huge amounts of processed meals and snacks. The industry is competing to appeal to the now well studied crunchy melting point and to the increased sweet cravings that resulted from the mass production of sugar and later corn syrup. The result is that we have become addicted to these tastes and started confusing cravings with pleasure and savoring. We started hearing sad statements such “if it tastes good it can’t be good for you”.
So what should one eat?
While there is not a single diet that applies to everyone, there are lots of healthy traditional diets that fit a certain people and their environment. We can, nonetheless, venture some major simple principles that may help everyone.
One very important principle to keep in mind is: eat whole food, unprocessed and mostly plants. Simply said cook from scratch as much as possible and if you buy prepared food buy the ones that have 5 or less ingredients that you can recognize as food!
Increase what helps your body stay healthy:
The rainbow diet provides all the colors of the rainbow in vegetables and fruits. If you can, aim for at least 7-9 servings a day. (a serving is a small fruit or a cup of vegetables raw or half a cup cooked.) Make sure you eat lots of leafy greens every day: (romaine lettuce, arugula, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, parsley , collards) and don’t forget your mushrooms (always cooked). Eat as much as possible from your local farmers as fresh plants are richer in phytochemicals and eat as organic as possible but do not limit your intake if you cannot find or cannot afford organic food.
Plant proteins (lentils, chick peas, beans of all colors) , nuts and seeds
Unprocessed grains (not in the form of flour) meaning oats, sprouted wheat, barley, quinoa, brown rice
Limit what may enhance disease:
Limit animal proteins (chicken, fish, dairy, eggs) to once a day at most (unless you cannot digest beans). Do not eat more than 6 eggs a week. When you eat them try to source them not from factories but from humanly raised animals.
Breads and pastas and all flours, as they are easily absorbed and can raise your blood sugar (even if whole grains although whole grains are better). It is better to eat unprocessed grains such as brown rice, quinoa, wheat berries, oat groats, sprouted flourless breads.
Sweets and if you eat them try to eat the natural ones (dried dates, figs) and the less sweet (dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa)
Saturated fats from butter and cheese and cookies and cakes
Avoid what has been shown to increase cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia.
- Red meat (keep for special circumstances and outings and holidays).
- Processed meats (bacon, cold cuts, hotdogs), and processed food in general
- Shortenings in processed sweets and crackers
- Added sugar: American heart association limits your daily sugar intake to 6 teaspoons or 25 grams for women, which is what you get in one strawberry flavored yoghurt! And 9 teaspoons or 37.5grams a day for men or what you get in one 12 oz can of coke!
- Artificial sweeteners: They fool your brain and create more hunger, teach you to crave very sweet food as they taste sweeter than regular sugar, disrupt your good gut bacteria and have never been shown to help weight loss.
- Ultra-processed food: these have lots of phosphates, additives , emulsifiers, bleaching agents, sugar and or salt and have a long list of ingredients unrecognizable as food. They have been linked to increased incidence of heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases, an effect independent of fat and sugar content. Examples are all in one lunch box meals for kids, hot or cold packaged snacks, sweets and soda.
Finally enjoy feeling light. Leave the meal 80 percent full and wait, you will feel satisfied after half an hour