Health food stores are replete with the latest books and advice about nutrition and diet. With the glut of conflicting information, I have often found it difficult to distill the essence of a truly healthy diet from all the divergent ideas floating around. Which messages about food are true and which messages are designed just to sell us something? Many foods that are advertised as healthy, in truth, are often devoid of meaningful nutrition. “All natural”, “whole grain”, “organic”, “fortified” are all labels put on food to make us think that whatever is inside the packaging is good for us. But is it? These days, it is easy to be fooled. Eating, which is one of our most natural and basic acts in life, has become mired in confusion. That is why I made an effort to sort through the information to find the kernels of truth about diet and healing.
In my own healing journey, I found all sorts of diverse dietary recommendations: don’t eat gluten, eat vegan, avoid dairy, eat only raw foods, no refined sugar, the paleo diet is the way our bodies were meant to eat, go grain free, eat more fish, don’t eat fish, eat macrobiotic, eat only alkaline foods, fermented foods are good for you, vegetarians live longer, don’t eat too late in the day, eat less, eat more, drink lots of water, stop eating when you are still a little hungry, don’t let yourself get too hungry. Make sure you eat enough protein. Americans eat too much protein. In trying to decide on a good diet, I was often left feeling paralyzed.
Then I asked myself: does it really need to be so complicated? Shouldn’t eating be simple and enjoyable? I didn’t want to waste my time, money and energy on the latest food fads. I wanted a food plan that would nourish my body, cultivate my health, and not take up my entire day (or bank account). I wanted to be empowered and in control of what I kind of food I was putting into my body. I was tired of being tricked by messages from the food industry designed with profit, not health, in mind.
First, I decided definitely that what I eat matters. If the body is continually making bio-chemicals, proteins, cells and tissues, then foods are the building blocks of healing. Eating a healthy diet gives the body the best substrate to facilitate healing, while eating food jam-packed with preservatives, sugars, pesticides, and chemical fillers puts unnecessary stress on the body. A poor diet will drain away energy, (which could have been used for healing), as the body becomes busy detoxing and clearing away what it doesn’t need.
I turned to experts in the field and looked into the scientific research about how food affects healing in our bodies. I discovered that there are a few fundamental dietary modifications that can have an enormous impact on anyone interested in healing regardless of the particular disease they face.
A healthy nutritious diet can have a dramatic, positive impact on your energy level, your sense of vitality, your mood, and your ability to heal. If you are ready to jump start your body into feeling better, here are seven of the most impactful dietary modifications that I believe anyone on a healing journey can make:
1. Say NO to fake food. Eliminate processed foods. This is probably the single most important dietary shift that will lead to feeling better fast. We are so accustomed to processed food that, at first, it can take some effort to recognize and shift our eating patterns. It is important to choose whole foods that look the way nature intended. If you buy something packaged, it is critical to look at the label and check the ingredients. Until I became serious about reading labels, I thought I was actually eating a fairly decent diet, but it turned out that I had a lot of room for improvement. Now, I am an avid label reader. Frankly, I am still shocked by how much of our food comes processed with all kinds of unhealthy additives. Even things as simple as a soup base, almond milk, energy bars, or turkey bacon can have all sorts of additives that the body doesn’t need. Give your body an amazing gift by sticking to fresh whole foods and skipping anything processed. Check out what Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, says about processed food say in this short video.
2. Eat at least one pound of vegetables per day. Sounds like a lot… but you won’t regret it. Veggies contain the macro-, micro- and phyto-nutrients that your body needs to heal. Choose a wide variety of vegetables. This is where you can get adventurous, creative, and decide to have fun. Eat them raw, eat them cooked, juice them, sauté them, bake them, make a smoothie out of them… just be sure to eat those vegetables.
3. Release your addiction to sugar. Sugar is everywhere and in massive excess. Too much sugar contributes to inflammation, suppresses normal immune function, and causes deregulation of the body’s hormonal and metabolic processes. Our bodies are simply not designed to eat the amount of sugar that is prevalent in our current diets. The irony today is that a diet with excess sugar has become the norm. From this vantage point, a truly healthy diet can seem extreme. For example, the USDA reports that the average American consumes around 150-170 pounds of added sugar annually[i] (that is an astonishing 186-211 grams, or ¼ to ½ pounds, of excess added sugar per day). Contrast this with diets from over 200 years ago when people were averaging somewhere between 5 and 25 pounds annually (that’s around 6-30 grams per day). The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their added sugar intake to under 25g per day (6 teaspoons), and men limit their intake to under 37.5g per day (9 teaspoons). Until I got serious about added sugar, I was well over that amount even when I thought I was eating a healthy diet. This was because of all the hidden sugars found in food. Food companies often disguise sugar by using many other names. (See below for a list of alternative names for sugar to watch out for on food labels.) The benefits to reducing your added sugar consumption back to a healthy amount includes resetting your metabolism, increasing your energy, decreasing your inflammation, improving your immune function, and dramatically improving your clarity of the mind and of the senses. Check out what Mark Hyman, author of The Blood Sugar Solution, says about sugar addiction in this short video.
4. Drink water. Eliminate sodas and juices – including those with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, maltitol, mannitol, neotame, sorbitol, saccharin, sucralose, and xylitol. These sweeteners, like sugar, can cause a deregulation of signals in the body, both hormonal and neurological, that control the sensations of hunger and satiety. [ii]
5. Go organic. Where is your food coming from? Try to choose vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds that are grown without pesticides. This is important for all foods, but especially critical for cooking oils. Pesticides can become concentrated in non-organic oils, which means that you can be taking in a large amount of pesticides in eat tablespoon of non-organic oil. Great choices of oil are: organic coconut, olive, and avocado oils. If you eat meat, poultry, or dairy, try to choose locally raised, or free-range, sources that are free of hormones and antibiotics. If you eat fish, choose sources of fish low in mercury. Here is a resource about where to find info on Mercury in fish from the Natural Resource Defense Counsel.
6. Microbiome. We have an estimated 35 trillion cells in our bodies. But what is even more amazing is that there are ten-times that number of intestinal microorganisms living inside our bodies. The intestines are supposed to be colonized by health promoting microorganisms. But, our current diets, along with the prevalence of antibiotics have disrupted the health of our guts. What can you do to make sure that the good microbes are flourishing instead of the bad? The first step is limiting excess sugar and eating an abundance of vegetables. Next, you can add a high quality probiotic, and/or include fermented foods such as fermented vegetables to your diet. Scientists are only beginning to understand the importance of intestinal bacteria. Dr. David Perlmutter describes the fascinating link between gut microbes and whole host of illnesses, such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, chronic headaches, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s autism, Alzheimer’s, and more, in his book The Brain Maker.
7. Be gentle with yourself. Choosing to eat healthy foods can be an incredible gift that you give yourself. But, it can feel overwhelming at first to change deeply habituated eating patterns. So, it is important to remember to be gentle with yourself. Take the steps that you can. If you eat something that wasn’t a part of your ideal diet… well so be it. No big deal. Just start anew in the next moment. This is where mindfulness can help you make decisions in alignment with your goals. In each moment there is an opportunity to create healing in your life. In each moment, you have the opportunity to choose foods that will promote healing. Make your choices with joy and choose to be gentle with yourself.
There is no single perfect food plan that is right for everyone. We must be willing to try things, and to trust our own deep knowing about what kinds of dietary modifications are right for each of us. Because I struggled with autoimmune disease, I also made the choice to limit inflammatory foods (gluten, dairy, alcohol, trans-fats, and nightshade vegetables) in my diet. I am grateful that my body responded with significant healing as a result.
Even more important than limiting inflammatory foods, I believe that the process of letting go of the idea that I had to always have a perfectly healthy diet also played a significant role in my own healing. I continue to strive to accept that I will do the best I can in this moment and I release unnecessary worry, frustration, upset, or resentment that come up. I choose to look at my dietary modifications as an amazing gift that I am able to give myself each day, at each meal.
The following are just a few excellent resources on food and healing:
The Blood Sugar Solution: The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now, Mark Hyman, (2012). Here is a link to Dr. Hyman’s website.
Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, David Perlmutter ( 2013). Here is a link to Dr. Perlmutter’s website.
Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – For Life, David Perlmutter, with Kristin Loberg ( 2015)
In Defense Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan, (2009). Here is a link to Michael Pollen’s website.
The End of Dieting: How to Live for Life, Joel Fuhrman (2014). Here is a link to Dr. Fuhrman’s website.
Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure, Caldwell B. Esselstyn. Here is a link to Dr. Esselstyn’s website.
- Barley malt
- Barbados sugar
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Buttered syrup
- Cane juice
- Cane sugar
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Carob syrup
- Castor sugar
- Date sugar
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Demerara sugar
- Diastatic malt
- Ethyl maltol
- Free Flowing Brown Sugars 23. Fructose
- Fruit juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Glucose solids
- Golden sugar
- Golden syrup
- Grape sugar
- HFCS (High Frustose Corn Syrup)
- Icing sugar
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Powdered Sugar
- Raw sugar
- Refiner’s syrup
- Rice syrup
- Sorghum syrup
- Sugar (granulated)
- Turbinado sugar
- Yellow sugar
[i] United States Department of Agriculture, “Profiling Food Consumption in America”, Sowers, Robert, 2010, http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.pdf
[ii] Hyman, Mark, The Blood Sugar Solution: The Ultrahealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now, Little Brown and Company, 2012