Aside from chronic stress, the food we eat is the biggest determinant with respect to health. Not genetics, not environment, not government backed health care – but what repeatedly goes down the hatch.
Numerous daily decisions, over the course of years and decades, will count fierce over time. There’s no getting away from this aftermath.
Fortunately, if you’re on a mission to improve your health, there’s no need for years to go by before the effects of a better diet start to reveal themselves. Our bodies are extremely responsive, receptive, and regenerative. And though on one hand our bodies are entirely frail and vulnerable, they are also miracles of vigor and capability. Positive changes can take place very quickly despite the frequent length of time and effort invested in taxing ourselves
A Note on Biochemical Individuality
Everyone is different. We’re different genetically, microbially, and biographically.
Genetically, we’re not only different in way of height, eye color, and ethnicity, but also in way of other less obvious genetic expressions. This includes things like the size of one’s pancreas, endocrine activity, blood type, stomach acid composition, and even the requirements and metabolism of key nutrients such as potassium, calcium, and vitamin D.
Each of us also has a one-of-a-kind microbial ‘fingerprint”. This ‘fingerprint’ is made up of roughly 39 trillion bacteria from hundreds of (sometimes a thousand or more) different species that reside in our gut and that in turn exert a very personal biochemical effect all its own. Your microbiome is unique and is constantly evolving based mainly on your diet. But also other lifestyle factors like stress and exercise. It has a colossal impact on nearly every aspect of your health and experience. Most notably on digestion, food compatibility, and even appetite.
We also have very unique emotional, physical, and spiritual life tapestries that have powerful and lasting repercussions on how we see, feel, and the quality of energy we carry. In no uncertain terms, our different stories and experiences contribute to neurochemical changes in the brain and universally throughout the body. One man’s stress is another man’s joke is another man’s life strategy. In each case, the mental and somatic chemistries will be different.
All of these variations – genetic, microbial, and biographical – combine to have potent implications with respect to not only individual nutritional requirements and how we respond to different diets, but also to how we respond to stress and exercise patterns, toxins and heavy metals, medicine and drugs, and even holistic and alternative therapies.
Different Strokes For Different Folks
I mention bio-individuality because some folks might thrive on carbohydrates and plants, while others might do better on meat and fat. Some might have no issues with raw vegetables and beans while others might struggle with bloating and indigestion. Then there’s issues around nightshades and FODMAPS, gluten and grains, dairy and sugar etc. Inflammation caused by allergies and food intolerances is a real thing and must be mitigated as best as possible.
It’s worth keeping in mind however that sensitivities may be especially true when:
1) Transitioning from the strikingly low fiber intake of a Western diet of mainly animal and processed foods to a diet that is substantially higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. These extra and unfamiliar sources of fiber can make for an initial shock to the system.
2) Someone is out of balance due to long-term dietary and lifestyle indifference. A lack of health is consistent with a lack of tolerance and resilience. As one starts to recover their equilibrium through an improved diet and lifestyle, options and preferences will often expand.
Or… dietary sensitivities may be a part of your reality forever. Or one day they may simply vanish. Or show up. In any case, these are matters of bio-individuality given the time and place in life, much like the related symptoms are – weight gain, migraines, acid reflux, etc.
Which is why when it comes to diet, there really isn’t a single size for everyone. Diet customization is key and discovering what works best takes self-awareness, and frequently continuous trial and error. There are some general principles that will serve most everyone, but specific recommendations can be problematic.
Fact is I can’t tell you what to eat any better than anyone else can. You and only you will always be the best judge of that. Nothing else but your own intuition and experience can speak to success. Only your own approval and consent matter. So if you enjoy your current results, then clearly carry on. If you don’t, or at least not Fully Completely, it warrants to experiment and to do things differently.
All that being said, I stand by the following nutritive principles for considered emphasis. I stand by them based on what science and research has consistently shown, based on what has served all of our longest and healthiest lived populations and ancestors, and based on the undeniable shortage of whole, simple, and natural foods in the modern, western, diet. Most admittedly, I stand by them based on my own accumulation of bias, experience, and understanding of nutrition.
Nutritive Principles to Consider Emphasizing
1) Fiber/Plant-Based Foods
When you focus on fibre, you have no choice but to focus on plant-based foods. Because the only way to increase fibre intake – excluding supplements – is to eat more plants. Plants are the only place that fiber is found naturally and in all its many varieties – roughly 6-8 of them depending on what classification is being used. And while fibre is quite likely the most under-rated and least sexy nutrient in the diet, it is one of the most critical for long-term sustainable health.
The reason why fiber is so important is because it acts as the fuel that feeds our gut bacteria. Gut bacteria in turn impact every axis of human health including metabolism, immunity, hormonal balance, cognition, and even gene expression. This makes the quality of your gut bugs a big deal to say the least. And their quality is directly related to your intake and variety of fiber. To rely on only a few fiber sources such as bread, pasta, and rice and a handful of fruits and vegetables is a lousy to mediocre strategy at best. Which is exactly why we need to be eating way more plants and a much greater diversity of them. Not necessarily to eat less animal products – though that would be inevitable – but for the sake of eating more fiber.
As it were, upwards of 95% of Canadians and Americans are deficient in this nutrient. And not only deficient, but most folks are only getting about half of what is recommended. Considering that there are clear associations between dietary fiber intake and better health outcomes, these stats are very revealing in way of our current disease and obesity epidemic. Because, when we shortchange our fiber intake, we’re limiting the means for optimal microbial function and leaving ourselves infinitely more susceptible to getting fat, getting grumpy and forgetful, and getting cancer.
There’s this misconception that plant-based diets need to be entirely void of animal foods but that just isn’t true. A plant-based diet merely means a diet that prioritizes plants, but it doesn’t mean specific foods are necessarily excluded.
2) Diet Diversity
This point is largely related to the one above since diets that emphasize fiber and plants are almost always associated with increased diet diversity. However, it’s also possible and of exceptional benefit to increase diet diversity through eating more diverse animal products – through eating game or unusual meat, organ meat/offal, and various raw or fermented dairy. Generally though, when considering diet diversity, eating a wider variety of plants is often more practical to most people. If you’re a daily omnivore however, then increasing the diversity of plants and animal products would be best.
There are 2 main reasons why diet diversity matter. The first is that it is closely connected with nutritional diversity. A great deal of the calories that sustain modern society come from refined carbohydrates, sugars, and seed and vegetable oils. These are the main ingredients in most of the processed, convenience, and fast food many have come to rely upon. Despite being high in calories, these foods have been mostly stripped of genuine nutritive value. Which is why it’s possible to be obese and yet completely undernourished as is often the case. On the other hand, a diversified diet is abundant in nutrients and way more effective at preventing deficiencies.
The second reason is that diet diversity promotes a healthier and more robust gut microbiome. These trillions of gut bacteria are comprised of on average 300-500 species. And so the specific food eaten is highly influential in way of which species thrive and which species dwindle and even eventually die. Certain species play crucial roles with respect to health and physiology. Other species have a highly inflammatory and pathogenic effect. A diversified diet that emphasizes plant-based foods and the various forms of fiber that beneficial bacteria rely upon, is effective at keeping ‘the good guys’ in charge, and the ‘bad guys’ subordinate.
3) Food Quality
When it comes to eating, nothing is more important than the quality of food itself. The focus of most diets however seems to mainly revolve around quantity… be it quantity of calories, of protein, of carbs, or of dollars saved. And while I am definitely not saying that these things don’t matter – especially when it comes to making ends meet – food quality deserves to be the rule rather than the exception.
As it were, a lot of thinking goes that you get what you pay for – say in way of liquor or electronics or services – but very often that same reasoning goes out the window with food. And especially in way of basic and elementary whole food. Where as people tolerate higher prices better for processed and convenience food. Again, not saying that it’s always justified to pay extra, but our thinking around food quality requires a reform. Unsurprisingly, our entire global food system requires a reform. And due in part to efforts that continuously prioritize quantity over quality.
What constitutes food quality? First and foremost – whole foods. This includes fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, whole grains, pulses (beans, lentils and peas), nuts and seeds, meat, fish, eggs, and minimally processed dairy. After that, there are two other well deserved considerations in the quest for improved food quality – locally sourced food and organic food.
Local food is fresher, tastier, and very often more nutritious. Most produce at a farmer’s market or obtained through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program has been picked within the last 24 hours ensuring ripeness and nutritional density. In contrast, most supermarket produce was picked days or even weeks before reaching grocery store shelves. This isn’t ideal because extended oxygen exposure very effectively spoils antioxidants such as Vitamins C, E, & A. Variable transport conditions and extra chemicals and preservatives needed for transit similarly compromise the nutritional integrity of food that has travelled some distance. Buying local is also a good chance to find and take advantage of genetically biodiverse plants and animals since smaller scale farmers aren’t nearly as reliant on specific commercial strains and species.
Best yet, grow a garden if you have a bit of land. But even for people who don’t, porches, balconies, back steps, or even a sunny window can all yield surprising amounts of sprouts, herbs, or even produce. Obviously no need to become a farmer, but in way of taste and nutrition nothing beats homegrown food. It can also make for a satisfying pastime.
As for organic – it’s a tricky business but the topic warrants some words when discussing matters of food quality.
Clearly, not everything is created equal or makes sense. This includes the organic principles, standards, and practices that farmers and institutions rely upon for the production of organic food. Some will be rooted in solid science and evidence, others not as much. That’s why we don’t do ourselves any favors when we dogmatically plant ourselves on either side of the debate.
I for one believe that there’s unquestionable value in avoiding and minimizing as much chemical exposure as possible. So I tend to buy into the promise of organic. Not always… but often and also depending on the food in question. For me the organic label is more justified with animal products (see below), or with specific fruits and vegetables. Some fruits and vegetables are more sensitive to the environment, particularly those that ripen quickly or attract insects and molds. It’s logical then those specific foods will get more heavily treated and potentially with a greater variety of chemical agents. And this will also be more or less true depending on the farm/organization and their level of devotion to quantity, efficiency, and economics.
At the same time, I am far from certain about what is justified and what isn’t. I recognize that some organic choices may be sprayed with accepted pesticides that are more damaging than some conventional pesticides. Or perhaps the level of intake of residual chemicals is so small that your body effectively clears them as necessary.
Nevertheless, I lean towards giving the big O the benefit of doubt. Especially in way of the staple foods that I tend to enjoy daily like apples, leafy greens, berries, and coffee… and milk and yogurt for my family. Though we may not know with certainty which chemicals or how much of any one/combination cause our health damage, I personally believe that keeping our individual chemical burden as low as possible through whatever means available leads to more reliable health outcomes. For me, ascribing to the organic label with some regularity potentially reduces ultimate disease risk.
But to say that all versions of food are exact in nutrition and impurities… well that just doesn’t make sense. If you prefer to throw out the organic bathwater, then by all means. Just maybe don’t discard the idea of what it’s meant to represent – better quality food. All that being said, if you can’t bring yourself to pay increased prices for organic based either on finances or beliefs, then don’t sweat it for a sec. I really mean that. Let your focus be on whole foods and nothing more. If you’re mostly avoiding processed, convenience and fast food, then you’re already avoiding a crap-ton of unnecessary chemicals.
4) Living Food – Raw, Sprouted, & Fermented
Raw, sprouted, and fermented foods offer some powerful advantages that are unique over cooked and otherwise preserved foods.
Though cooking food obviously has a lot of merit – including the release and increased availability of nutrients– many foods offer substantially greater nutritional density when eaten raw or still in their living state. Raw food speaks a different energetic language to your cells because it contains more of the vital and unadulterated elements of nature such as structured water and natural digestive enzymes. Say what you will about either of these but nature is far more powerful and mysterious than our allotted credit to her. And while no need to become a raw food advocate, try to include some living food into your daily diet. It could be a single apple, a few pieces of raw broccoli, or a handful of unroasted walnuts. On some or most days try to include a large salad containing a multitude of raw produce.
Not all plants however evolved with the idea that they should be good to eat. Consequently, they protect their foliage, stems, seeds, roots and sometimes even fruits with natural toxins and insecticides that make some plants less safe/more difficult for human consumption. This includes anti-nutrients such as phytic acid, lectins, and trypsin inhibitors. And thanks to bio-individuality, some folks will be more or less prone to these compounds and effects. Either way, processes like soaking/sprouting and fermentation drastically change the composition of plants making the eventual food more digestible, more nutritious, and less toxic.
And yet another notable aspect of raw, sprouted, and fermented foods is that they make a generous contribution towards nourishing the microbiome. In that sense, fermented food – also known as cultured or probiotic rich food – wins the prize. Foods like unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and miso are highly concentrated in the species and strains of bacteria that are consistently shown by research to support digestive health… therefore overall health. We’re seeing more and more compelling evidence in way of the connection between ‘healthy’ gut bacteria and reduced inflammation, improved immunity, and reduced risk for many chronic diseases. Again though, you do you. For example, kombucha doesn’t always favor everyone despite its common health reputation.
5) Home-Cooked/Home Sourced Meals
This point is likely the most basic of the bunch and yet the most important.
With respect to pace and speed of our modern world, times have changed fierce. So has collective health and happiness. Despite our penchant for speed and activity, we are some of the fattest, slowest, diseased, and drugged people in history. Perhaps even the most miserable. The evolution of our eating habits has been a huge part of that burden. As individuals and families, we have been spending less time in our homes and kitchens and more time in continuous transit and pursuit. Somewhere along we came to confuse frenzy for efficiency, doing for being. Frenzy and doing are valid and have their place, but they can’t be in charge of every waking moment… nor even the majority of them. Otherwise, stress and pressure become the norm.
When that happens – as it has – eating patterns are one of the very first things to get compromised. They get compromised for big and little people alike. The little people grow up and the patterns – for better or worse – get repeated. Which is why any defense of true health and happiness needs to begin in the home. More specifically in the kitchen and at the table. This is the start line for mindful individuals, for connected families, for authentic health and integrity on every level. Who would have thought?
It doesn’t take a double blinded placebo-controlled study to know there are benefits from slowing down. Benefits from putting more priority on eating home-cooked meals at home. But for that to happen, free time, rest, and empty space, need to be available. These days however, they are hard to come by. If better health and a better family legacy is of importance to you, above all emphasize eating at home. And when away, sourcing your meals/your family’s meals from home.
Avoid or reduce ordering in and doing take out. Either pack a lunch, or a quick snack like some fruit and nuts, or merely consider skipping lunch on occasion. If you find yourself hungry while on the road and running errands, just wait until you’re home. As much as you can, let your home be the source of what you eat. By all means make exceptions and enjoy them. But try to ensure that this standard takes precedence in your life and in your family’s.
6) Healthful Fats/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
There’s a massive difference between the pro-inflammatory dime-a-dozen fat that is used almost exclusively in the processed, convenience, and fast-food industry vs the high-quality fat that is responsible for effective cell-to-cell communication that a disease-free body depends on. Due to the tremendous over-reliance on the former by most anyone following a typical standard American/Western style diet, huge swaths of people have entirely distorted Omega-6 to Omega-3 profiles – with typical ratios approximating 16:1 and often well beyond. Where as an ideal ratio is in the range of 1:1, maybe upwards of 4:1. That’s clearly a huge difference… and a very problematic one considering that Omega-6 is inflammatory (especially cheap and inferior Omega-6) while Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. That’s dumbing it down quite a bit but it’s got to do with the integral role of Omega-3 on receptors in cell membranes.
In particular, focus on minimizing/reducing/eliminating the use of unfavorable oils. Emphasize the use of higher quality oils such extra virgin and virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and cold-pressed, unrefined and additive free oils like flax, hempseed, and walnut oils.
Of almost equal importance, focus on increasing your intake of foods known for elevated Omega-3 concentrations. This will improve Omega-6 vs Omega-3 ratios which will thus improve the long-term function of your brain, cardiovascular system, and inflammation response.
If you eat meat or are trying to reduce your intake of conventional factory farmed red meat and poultry, then fatty fish make a good alternative and are essentially the very best source of Omega-3 fatty acids – namely Salmon, Trout, Mackerel, Herrings, Anchovies, Sardines, Lake Whitefish, and Tuna (Bluefin and Albacore). In general, fish is an underutilized whole food and prime source of protein.
If and when choosing fish, try to choose fish or fish produced/obtained with a lighter environmental impact that has taken sustainability, biodiversity, and/or catch method into account. Wild caught fish and smaller species like herrings and sardines are often safer bets but not always. And who really knows. Maybe the Monterey Bay Aquarium? Their Seafood Watch Database is known to be a reliable source for checking on the sustainability and safety of various kinds of fish and seafood.
Three renowned plant sources of Omega-3 that I like to include with regularity are walnuts, ground flax seed, and hemp hearts. All are highly compatible with oatmeal, salads, and smoothies… maybe minus the walnuts in smoothies… and even then. Other improved sources of fat include all nuts and seeds (as long as not rancid), avocados, butter and ghee, and better-quality meat (see below) and minimally processed dairy. Again, food is information that helps express our genetics. It’s really important to get fat figured out and dialed in rather than being at endless battle with it.
7) Better Quality Meat & Dairy
Consider emphasizing the purchase and consumption of animals that have been grass-fed, free ranged, pasture raised, organically produced, or obtained in the wild.
The price-point and availability of such food won’t be possible for everyone, but if they are then spending the extra bucks could be worth it. Just like animal products bioconcentrate minerals (zinc and iron) and nutrients (protein & fat), so too with the herbicides and pesticides used in the production of the commercial feed that conventionally farmed animals are raised upon. The majority of these chemicals are fat soluble so they can accumulate in an animal’s fat. Where as it’s less of an issue with respect to produce since most fruits and vegetables are fat free.
Factory-farmed animals raised in intense confinement are also subjected to a host of hormones, antibiotics, and piles of steady stress all of which make the final product less than what it could be for health. On the other hand, animals raised on grass and in sunlight have improved fat and nutrient profiles (Omega-3, CLA, Vitamin A & E) over animals raised on GMO grain and in stalls and warehouses.
What it comes down to is that meat and dairy are potent. They’re potent in nutrition and they’re potent in their implications on human health and vitality. Likewise, eating meat and dairy ought to be taken less for granted based on matters of death and slaughter and all of the many other complicated production/environmental ramifications. Because once we start taking life and flesh for granted, there’s huge potential for injustice and liability. In other words, for sickness and disease.
Just consider that if you eat meat and dairy like our family does, it may warrant to opt for a higher quality product that emphasizes the health and integrity of the animal/environment/community etc, rather than relying exclusively on that which is cheapest and most convenient. At the same time, I get it that when it comes to feeding your family, economics can matter tremendously.
8) Time Between Meals and Periods of Intermittent and Extended Fasting
Albeit one of the most natural things ever, digestion is a very sophisticated process. Natural however doesn’t mean that it isn’t also an involved and energy intense experience for your body. And what makes it infinitely more complicated is its outright connection to inflammation and immunity. To say the least, digestion is a big deal and we put it through the wringer. Which is why we ought to give it a break with regularity. Or at least consistent opportunity to get its job completely done rather than so often pushing down the next fix.
That break comes through not eating – also known as fasting. And it is quite likely the oldest, cheapest, and most powerful dietary intervention ever available. Be it a 6-hour gap between lunch and dinner, a 16- hour gap between dinner and ‘breakfast’, or an occasional 3 day hiatus, it all counts towards giving your body more opportunity for task completion, healing, and rejuvenation.
Life is about balance. Eating is about balance. If you’re eating every 3rd hour as often recommended or done through habit, then that is many things but that is not balance. At least not with respect to evolution and physiology. It’s certainly Ok to snack and to eat as needed, but for balance there also needs to be some consistent extra space and time around meals. And while this isn’t a case for starving yourself around the clock, CONSTANT and HABITUAL eating is not in your best interest.
9) Simple and Basic Beverages
One of the most debilitating dietary habits is the overconsumption of sweetened and high caloric beverages. They account for about 47% of the total added sugar in people’s Western diet. This is by far the largest source of extra sugar which then accounts for a lot of extra health crisis. Consuming liquid calories is not only especially easy, but it also has a more drastic effect on metabolism and hormones due to the speed and ease of digestibility.
First and foremost – focus on drinking more pure water. If nothing else, start with 8-16 oz first thing each and every morning depending on your size and thirst. Then, black coffee and black and green and herbal teas. Other good options include ginger or lemon water, unsweetened club soda, and occasional high quality pure and unsweetened (additionally) fruit and vegetable juices that offer an antioxidative punch or other repeatedly demonstrated health benefit. Cranberry, wild blueberry, pomegranate, beet, and wheat and barley grass juices are all good occasional options.
“It is easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet”– Margaret Mead