Diet: Simple Messages

1) What you eat can also impact on a host of significant diseases.  This is the same list as exercise,such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke risk, cancer incidence, diabetes and more: allergies, asthma, skin problems, acne, macular degeneration, dental caries, plaque, and tartar formation, chronic fatigue, IBS, frequent illness, gout, kidney stones, gall bladder disease, appendicitis, muscle and joint soreness, and more, even your mental health.  Your diet also impacts most important biomarkers of disease, such as your lipid profile, blood sugar markers, liver and kidney function tests, hormone levels and others.

2) There is no one diet that solves everyone’s problems.   We are all unique and special snowflakes. People have done well (and probably poorly) on virtually every published diet, from Atkins to Ornish to Mediterranean to vegan/vegetarian to  Zone diets.  You may need to follow a variety of dietary principles, such as avoiding salt, wheat or dairy products, or need to try different diets that your doctor might suggest to you.  Popular diets in the press that you may have read about can be assessed and supervised by your doctor as to how appropriate they are for you.

3) For a wide variety of symptoms consider a dietary element.   If you have ongoing gastrointestinal complaints, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or recurring migraines, joint aches, fatigue, paresthesias, iron deficiency, skin problems, even asthma, there may be a dietary link.  Some foods that are thought to be healthy for most, cannot be tolerated by others. Many populations cannot digest the lactose in dairy products, several components in wheat, or the raffinose or stacchyose in beans.  Some foods contain anti-nutrients that, if you eat alot of them regularly, can decrease your absorption of several minerals; some other nutrients, like vitamin B12, may not be properly absorbed. Don’t be afraid to do some experiments, and talk to your doctor about what might work.  Even consider a brief fast to test your theory out.  Unfortunately, there are not easy tests for most of these problems, as they are not a true “allergy” in most cases.

4) Whole foods are generally better choices than processed foods. The more a food has been processed, the more nutrient depleted the food is, and the more likely it has had various additives included that are unlikely to have been tested for long term safety.  Whole foods may cost more, but you get more as well, and especially in an integrated, natural form that your body is probably better conditioned to digest and absorb. The more the cells of the food have been preserved, the more “whole” and unprocessed it is.  Processed foods often increase the risk of overeating as well, as they are digested too quickly, and may cause hypoglycemia.  There is probably no such thing as a healthy baked good; even the popular blended “smoothie” is really a processed food.

5) Avoid trans fats.  These are artificially created fats that do not occur significantly in nature, and are strongly associated with pro-inflammatory effects on blood vessels and therefore increases risk of heart disease.  These occur in margarines and alot of refined food products.  They are not a health requirement, so avoid them.

6) Don’t avoid all fats.  Although low-fat diets have been promoted for decades, they are no longer being endorsed by a wide number of nutritional experts. It is now known that several kinds of fats are health-promoting, if not vital to healthy function.  This includes especially omega-3 fatty acids, which are best found in cold water fishes, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring, as well as in grass-fed beef.  Although mono- and polyunsaturated fats are considered healthful, some are unstable with cooking, and refined oils are, well, refined.  Humans have not eaten processed oils through most of human history; these oils are probably best eaten in the whole foods they are derived from.

7) Avoid any foods that contain refined starches or refined sugars, including high-fructose corn syrup.  Sugar consumption 100 years ago was only about 5-10 lbs per person per year in North America, but it has zoomed up to an estimated 150 lbs per person per year by 2010.  There is no precedent for this, yet Big Food companies continue to add sugar to sell products, since most of us have a sweet tooth.  We are also eating more white flour and other starchy products that ever before, in part due to the low fat movement and the desire for cheap and convenient food.  This change associates strongly with increasing rates of obesity and diabetes, which have at their core impaired carbohydrate intolerance, rising insulin levels, and increased fat storage.  Sugars and refined starchy carbohydrates are known to be pro-inflammatory, and adversely affect both cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which in turn, increases heart disease risk.

8) Be aware that some foods contain anti-nutrients that interfere with absorption of some minerals.  Calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc are all vital minerals that share a common pathway of absorption, that can be precipitated or chelated by phytates (common in the hulls of nuts, seeds and whole grains); they are also chelated by several flavonoids, which reduce absorption and and also inhibit digestive enzymes. One mineral supplement can interfere with absorption of another mineral in the diet. Trypsin inhibitors and lectins (found in legumes) can also interfere with digestion.  These effects can be reduced by cooking, fermentation, and soaking, although few people are aware or interested in doing this.

9) Eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day.  In whole form, these foods are the closest to what our species have eaten for most of our existence, and are therefore most likely to contain the nutrients we need to survive.  Hundreds of studies done over the last several decades have repeatedly demonstrated the healthfulness of eating these foods, which are excellent sources of a multitude of micronutrients.  The exception is white potatoes, which have been associated with adverse health effects due to its high glycemic index.  Eating local fruits and vegetables in season will guarantee variety and freshness.

10) Don’t drink your fruit.  Dietary refined sugars have been increasingly linked to chronic disease and inflammatory changes, and this includes fructose.  There is as much sugar in a can of pop as there is in a glass of juice, and liquid calories do not provide satiety, leading to overeating.  Sugars in liquid form lead to spikes in blood glucose and insulin, aggravating diabetes and metabolic syndrome;  after the spike, often comes the crash, a reactive hypoglycemia. Whole fruit comes with many other nutrients and fiber, and is a natural source of water.

11) Healthful diets can include meat, shellfish and fish, especially if they are minimally processed.    Grass-fed and wild meats are generally better than grain-fed, due to a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids.  Wild fish is usually better than farmed, although there are some exceptions.

12) Nuts and seeds in moderation are generally healthful if unprocessed.   These are high in protein, vitamins and fiber when unprocessed, and can be useful to curb appetite in small amounts. Unfortunately,some nuts are also strongly associated with allergic reactions, and some contain some anti-nutrients that may interfere with absorption of other nutrients, especially when raw, and eaten in large amounts.

13) If you follow the above principles dietary supplements are usually unnecessary.   Getting your nutrients from whole foods over vitamin and mineral supplements is a more reliable, cheaper and more complete way to get all of your nutrient needs.  Science, by its nature is reductionist, causing us all to look at one nutrient at a time, yet our bodies use nutrients in a complex and orchestrated way that is profoundly dissimilar from taking concentrated nutrients in isolation.  There are no scientific studies that support the use of long term supplements without clear evidence of deficiency in the first place.

14)  If you are reading labels, you are already in trouble.  Labels and barcodes imply that this is a packaged, and therefore processed food, and health claims most often imply a food depleted of nutrients. Yet there are only a handful of foods on supermarket shelves that contain 4 or less ingredients that are recognized as food.  Author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, 2008) calls these products “food-like substances.” If you don’t recognize the ingredients, don’t buy food chemistry, as it is not associated with health.

15) Learn how to prepare 10 easy to make, inexpensive, healthful meals that can save your life (and/or your family’s lives).   Our current generation of young people have grown up with a warped perspective on food–they don’t know where their food comes from, they don’t know how to cook or prepare foods from scratch, and they see a major source of food as packaged convenience foods or fast-food restaurants.  Most of what they think are every-day foods didn’t exist even 50-100 years ago!

16) Embrace eating as your ancestors did by preparing whole foods, and consider growing your own.  Too many of us fuel our bodies like our cars and give no time or thought to what we put in it.  Treat your body like a temple—it is the only one you will ever get.  What you put in your tank matters!  As one bumper sticker says, “Eat organic food–or, as our grandparents called it, “Food!”

17) Consider the water content of foods.  Since our bodies are 50-70% water, it only makes sense that our diet should contain at least that much water content.  Unlike processed foods which are usually dehydrated, natural, unprocessed foods are most likely to be high in water, and if eaten this way, makes it possible to get all your water needs from foods. Gorillas are known to get all their water needs from the plant foods they eat.  And, contrary to popular belief, drinking up to 8 glasses of water a day over and above the water content in foods is completely unnecessary, unless intending to replace excess fluid losses in exercise and/sweat.