Along with exercise, attending to your diet is one of the most immediately effective changes you can make in your life. What we eat has a profound effect on our well-being, influencing everything from brain chemistry to sleep. A balanced and healthy diet is crucial to good health and overcoming stress. Strengthening the body and mind with optimal nutrition better equips you for dealing with stress. This also promotes a clearer, more effective mind and a more energized body, providing benefits to all areas of your life.
After much research, I developed a simple and holistic approach to nutrition, giving extra attention to the effects of what we eat on our neurochemistry. Ensuring that we are supporting a healthy neurochemical balance is an important proactive step for managing stress. Our brain communicates by passing neurotransmitters from one cell to the next. These neurotransmitters are created by the brain from the food we eat, meaning that what we eat has a direct bearing on our state of mind. I call this effect the “mood-food” connection.
I don’t recommend counting calories or focusing on any one food group while neglecting others. My approach to a healthy diet is to identify health-supporting foods and eating patterns, basing your diet around these while eliminating or greatly reducing harmful or unnatural foods and patterns. This holistic approach is far more effective and supportive of overall health than any fad or artificial measure, such as calorie counting or manipulating protein and carbohydrates. The human body is designed to thrive on a variety of natural foods. The imbalances and deficiencies in today’s typical diet can only be solved by returning to the basics of nutrition through eliminating harmful and unnatural foods and ensuring that the body and mind are nourished with natural foods. In today’s post, I want to focus on foods that I recommend eliminating or greatly reducing; in the next installment, I’ll outline the health-supporting foods and strategies that I recommend form the foundation of a healthy diet.
Processed and unprocessed foods
Do your best to avoid processed foods and draw instead on unprocessed ingredients when preparing food. Any food that is packaged and contains a list of ingredients is processed to some degree. The more processed it is, the less natural it is, and therefore the less suitable for your body. Remember, the human body has developed over its entire history in the presence of only minimally processed foods. Our bodies have always thrived on these natural foods, and this is the food that our bodies have come to expect. The degree to which food today is manipulated, refined, loaded with artificial ingredients, and preserved has arisen only within the past hundred years. Your body did not evolve to live on the typical Western diet of today; it evolved to thrive on foods that are natural and naturally prepared.
Ideally, the only processing of your food is that which you (or a healthy restaurant) do yourself immediately prior to eating, that is, combining natural ingredients and cooking them. In cases where the food you require is too inconvenient to produce from scratch yourself, such as bread, for example, choose the most natural kind available. Choose unprocessed, whole grains over refined grains, such as anything made with white flour (white bread and many other breads, white pasta, etc.).
Where possible, choose organic foods over conventional foods. Organic foods are produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation or artificial additives. All of these additives, which are often found in conventional produce and foods, can be harmful to your health in varying degrees, as they are not what the human body is used to dealing with. It is best to avoid such substances as much as possible by buying organic, if and when you have the option. Additionally, unlike the modern conventional methods of recent decades, which deplete our natural resources at an unsustainable rate, organic practices are sustainable. The depletion of resources resulting from conventional farming is evident in the compromised mineral content and quality of the soil, leading to food that is less nutritious. Organic food is farmed in a natural balance with the environment, ensuring that soil quality is maintained and that the food remains as nutritious as nature intended. As an alternative to buying “certified organic” foods, it is sometimes just as effective to buy locally grown produce if you can be sure of the methods used by local farmers. Smaller producers often find the organic certification process prohibitively expensive, even if their methods are similar to those of bigger organic farmers who can afford the certification. Local food may also be fresher and more nutritious, having traveled a shorter distance than typical supermarket produce.
Substances to avoid: C.R.A.P.
Minimize or, where possible, avoid the following harmful
*Caffeine, which artificially stimulates the body
*Refined sugar (including variants such as high-fructose
corn syrup), which is found in many processed foods
To reiterate the previous section, avoid all highly processed foods, such as fast food, junk food, foods containing artificial flavors and colors, and confectionery.
It is important to avoid C.R.A.P. as much as possible, as they cause harm to the body without providing any useful nutrition. For example, caffeine stimulates adrenaline (the fight-or-flight hormone), which remains in our system for a considerable length of time, throwing it out of balance. Similarly, refined sugar acts as a poison: the liver is taxed in the process of metabolizing it, potentially leading to insulin resistance, believed to be the underlying problem in obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and possibly many cancers. This is to say nothing of the numerous artificial additives that are commonly found in the processed foods addressed in the previous section. Today’s processed foods may include such harmful substances as MSG, food coloring, artificial flavors, aspartame, genetically modified organisms, and nitrates, to name only a few. By avoiding processed foods and instead choosing the most natural foods available, you will be doing much to avoid this toxic minefield.
Meat and Seafood
Keep your intake of red meat and pork to a minimum, and ensure that the red meat you do eat is lean. Where possible and affordable, stick with free-range and organic meat or poultry. Instead of relying on red meat or pork, choose instead unprocessed, natural chicken or turkey, which is easier for the body to digest. Avoid organ meats (offal) such as liver, kidney, and intestine meats, as these contain high amounts of toxins. Avoid processed meats such as sausages and processed ham, which also are usually loaded with toxins, such as nitrites and environmental pollutants. Fat cells are also a storage depot for toxins in any animal, thus by eating animal fat (such as that contained in beef, pork, chicken, or other animal products) you are also consuming a high concentration of toxins. When eating seafood, choose wild-caught fish rather than farmed fish where possible. Avoid seafood high in mercury—a known neurotoxin—such as tuna, marlin, swordfish, and shark. For a more detailed breakdown of seafood, refer to the food chart in the appendices.
Avoid dairy products, especially processed milk, cheese, cream, as much as possible. Although dairy foods do contain valuable nutrients, these nutrients—such as calcium—are found in high concentrations in other foods, such as leafy green vegetables. The negative effects of eating dairy products outweigh the benefits, due to their high animal fat content and mucus-forming properties that tax the body. Many cancer treatment centers advise their patients to strictly avoid all dairy foods, and links between dairy foods and mental illness are beginning to emerge.
The Glycemic Index
Finally, limit your intake of carbohydrates that have a high glycemic index. These foods are quickly converted to glucose by the body and cause a spike in blood sugar levels relative to foods that have a low glycemic index. Sustained reliance on high-GI foods is linked to diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and the sustained energy provided by low-GI foods is preferable to the burst of energy provided by high-GI foods.
Although this list of foods to minimize may create the impression of a very restrictive diet, in the next post I’ll highlight all the wonderfully enriching and nourishing foods that can support robust health.