by Toni Forsyth, APRN
Food! I’m talking about real food. The stuff our grandparents and great grandparents would recognize, not the food-like substances you find in boxes, bags and containers on every grocery shelf in America. It’s hard to believe we consume around five tons of it over our lifetime. Did you know that over half of our immune system is located in our gut? That’s five tons of stuff that our immune system has to sift through to discern whether it is going to benefit or harm us. When you walk into the grocery store you don’t see real food. You see bags, boxes, cans and containers full of food-like substances that have been refined, stripped, and filled with stabilizers and extenders. Not to mention infused with tons of sugar, which is extremely addictive and highly inflammatory. These are all things our bodies can’t recognize and ultimately get classified as ‘foreign invaders’ by your immune system.
Our relationship with food can be quite complicated too. Some people love it, some people despise it, some are completely confused by it and lots of people are addicted to it. Regardless of how we feel about it, we all require it to live. The trick is finding the right balance – and opening your mind to the right kinds of nourishing foods that fit your unique requirements. Some people need more help in this area than others. I call it “learning your body”. Learning what actually nourishes your body while also recognizing what is harmful. If you refrain from the bad stuff long enough, you are able to learn what the negative consequences are when you do indulge in such foods. When this happens, your negative consequences actually become a positive reinforcement in the long run. You also are able to recognize a positive craving from a negative one.
It’s easy to fall off the healthy wagon or to not even really know if you made it on to begin with. There is so much confusion and bad information out there. We make it so complicated when really it can be quite simple. Not always easy, but definitely worth it. We can start by getting rid of the obvious; processed high sugar foods and drinks. We need to cook more real/whole foods, eat less out of bags, boxes, containers and cans. Know how to convert sugar – this is a big one! The food industry doesn’t want you to know how to do this (but we do!). Four grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon. Now it’s your turn. If you are drinking a soda pop with 40 grams of sugar, how many teaspoons is that? (Hint: 10 teaspoons!!) You should shoot for a daily goal of somewhere between 6-9 teaspoons a day. We now know that food is literally information to your cells. So with each bite you take, you should ask yourself, “Am I feeding disease or am I fighting disease?” I bet you know the answer to that most of the time.
When you think about food, consider prioritizing things in the following order – Why? What? How Often? How Much?
Why? Why are phytonutrients important? Why should I eat this eggplant or that piece of broccoli?
Phytonutrients are those things in plants that have evolved over millions of years to protect them. Plants can’t hide from the scorching sun; they can’t run from bugs or jog down to the watering hole for a drink. Those same phytonutrients that protect plants also protect us! The dark purple color within eggplant has phytonutrients within it. For example, anthocyanins, which protect us from things like Alzheimer’s and cancer. They help control high blood pressure and reduce complications associated with diabetes. The white color inside the eggplant has something called allicin in it which helps boost immunity and reduces our risk for heart attacks. Phytonutrients are extremely powerful. We know that chronic inflammation is the hallmark of chronic illness. Did you know that phytonutrients actually MATCH that of statins (cholesterol lowering medication) in their ability to combat inflammation? And, they do this without the side effects! Research also shows that mixing these colors/various phytonutrients together while eating gives us an even bigger bang for our buck against chronic disease. Food really IS information!
What? What should we be eating? What is considered healthy?
You are well on your way if you just ditch the processed/high sugar foods we have talked about. Stay on the outside of the isles for real/whole food. Steer clear (as much as possible) from boxed, canned or bagged food-like substances. Keep your labels simple. If your third grader can’t pronounce something on the label (e.g., sugar, salt, tomatoes) than stay away from it. Every day consider whether or not you are getting enough healthy fats (yes, this is great for you despite what you learned in the 1980s), nuts and seeds, protein, vegetables, and fruits. Focus your attention on nutrients rather than calories. If you have the ‘why’ and ‘what’ right…you are already ahead of most people in America.
How Often? Is timing of meals important? Am I getting nutrients to my body in a timely manner?
You don’t want to get caught in the ‘cookie cycle’ – this viscous up and down cycle that drags you back and forth between craving and crashing. It can send your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride. And guess what? When you do this, you actually end up storing more fat! Your body is very good at storing fat. Our ancestors (and therefore our genes) had to be good at this to survive. In our modern bad carbs and high sugar world, this has proven to be a bad combination. In order to keep this high/low from happening, we need to be eating real/whole and low sugar foods quite often throughout the day. If you are eating the right stuff, you end up eating more! In addition, if you take a few big deep breathes before pulling up to the table, you enhance your ability to digest food and get those much needed nutrients where they need to be. Consider breakfast your most important meal of the day and get plenty of healthy fat, protein and veggies during this time.
How Much? Shouldn’t I be counting calories? Should I limit my food intake? Eat less and exercise more – right?!
No. Although periodic fasting can be extremely beneficial, counting calories is not the way to go. A calorie is not a calorie and we are not cars engines that burn fuel. Remember, food is information. And although a huge bunch of broccoli is equivalent calorically to a handful of M&Ms…they send very different messages to our cells which end up contributing to inflammation and turning on genes you don’t want turned on.
If you keep the above priorities in mind considering the why, what and how often…there will be way less emphasis on the how much. We are ‘white-knuckling’ weight loss in America. Lots of people want to lose weight and it becomes a very negative battle. We are taking something that should be joyful and truly simple and we are making it extremely negative and complicated. We should be concentrating on how food makes us feel and then responding accordingly. This is key…connecting your symptoms to what you are putting in your body. What is the food you are putting in your body saying to you? Do you feel tired; have dry skin, headaches, swelling, joint pain, high blood sugar or inflammation? If so, you are feeding your body the wrong information. It’s amazing when people shift their focus to listening to their bodies; the weight comes off as a positive consequence.
If you don’t like food because it has been a source of defeat, stress, pain or addiction, I want you to consider making one good decision at a time using the knowledge you have today. Be open and willing to learn and be an explorer when it comes to food. Open your mind and pallet to things that you haven’t tried before or perhaps things you think you don’t like. Make them in a different way. Learn to love the kitchen even if for just one night a week. Set small goals and stick with it. I want you to be an explorer of your body as well recognizing how it responds to the food you feed it. I want you to know that if you stick with it and really take notice and learn your body, you will reach a tipping point. You will slowly but surely see food as a healing consequence rather than a hurtful one. Don’t look at a number on a scale. Feel the difference within your body. Perhaps your joint pain goes away, your depression eases up, you have less fatigue, or your headaches subside. You then notice your clothing fits differently. The pizza or cake you used to not be able to pass up, you no longer crave because the way you feel trumps the way any pizza or cake could ever taste.
You are all worth it. You don’t have to wait to get sick in order to be healthy. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life, so take it one day, one decision, one bite at a time – and never give up!