Being in the nutrition profession, I hear this over and over again: vegan, primal, gluten free — there are so many competing theories on nutrition, it’s confusing! What should I eat?
My answer is that food is a highly personal choice. It's cultural, emotional, social, political and health related. In weighing all of these factors, you make the best possible decision for your body and your life.
That said, having studied the various dietary theories and in working with clients, there are three simple principles that are surprisingly consistent.
1. Eat mostly whole foods, focusing on vegetables with some lean proteins and whole grains.
Go for foods that look close to their original form. Eating a mix of these foods, each in moderation, is the key. For example, eating too much kale can reduce the body's ability to absorb calcium. Eating too much meat or poultry, which are both high in omega-6 fatty acids, can cause inflammation. A well-balanced mix can provide a full range of vitamins and minerals while being deliciously satisfying. Most importantly, make it fun. Experiment and discover what you like.
Here are a few "rules within the rule" that can help you stick to a whole-food diet:
- Skip most processed foods, which means anything in a can, box or bag. When choosing a processed food, read the label and skip anything with ingredients you don’t recognize. Look for non-GMO or organic labels.
- Skip trans fats, which are hydrogenated oils that can be found in everything from margarines to fries to crackers. They can clog arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Minimize sugars and refined carbohydrates, which are inflammatory. Sugar can also cause a craving cycle of exhaustion, hunger and moodiness.
Following this principle is huge, even 70-80% of the time. No one is perfect.
2. Optimize your food quality by skipping pesticides and antibiotics.
Look for pesticide-free vegetables and fruit. Swap out the most contaminated produce first, which includes salad greens, apples, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, grapes, bell peppers and potatoes. Local farm produce usually has fewer pesticides, is fresher, more flavorful and more environmental. But some farms do use pesticides, so ask.
Focus on high-quality proteins that are high in omega-3s, such as beans, legumes, walnuts and salmon.
When eating animal proteins, focus on antibiotic-free, humanely raised meat. I don’t know about you, but I want my food healthy. Most factory-farmed livestock is raised in poor conditions, and as a consequence is fed antibiotics to keep it healthy. About 80% of the antibiotics in the US are given to livestock. When eating meat, look for antibiotic-free labels on meat and eggs. This usually indicates it's humanely raised, but ask for this specifically if it's important to you. Organic doesn't necessarily mean antibiotic free or sustainably raised.
3. Know which foods work for your own body and which do not.
Some people feel better when they eat meat, grains or dairy; others can’t tolerate them.
Furthermore, many people have unknown food sensitivities that cause symptoms not typically associated with food, such as exhaustion, brain fog, pain or headaches.
To determine if you have any food sensitivities, try a five-week elimination diet, removing the major allergens: dairy, gluten, soy, eggs and corn. Eliminate them for three weeks, then add each back one by one for three days per food and notice how the body responds.
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