Like some of my patients, 43-year-old Martha immediately displayed her nutrition savvy during our first consultation. A busy CEO at one of Manhattan's top design firms, she consistently kept abreast of the latest nutrition findings. Yet amid constant hype, hyperbole, and sometimes downright misinformation, Martha arrived confused and unsure about how to lose 30 pounds and eliminate her ever-increasing joint pain.
"Every week a new study comes out telling us something contradictory," she said. "I've tried every freaking diet in the world but always regain the weight, plus the pain sometimes feeling unmanageable."
As a physical therapist who specializes in pain management, I've helped countless patients like Martha cut through confusion and return to tried-and-true principles to reduce pain, lose weight, and hit the optimal-health reset button.
While that sometimes demands more advanced strategies, these seven core foundational strategies benefit nearly everyone. It's never a bad idea to go back to the basics.
1. Eat real food.
Healing begins by eating real, whole foods. If most of your meals are packaged, processed, frozen, or boxed, chances are you aren't getting optimal nutrition. Keeping a food journal revealed how problematic processed foods slipped into Martha's plan. (Added bonus: One study found people who kept a food journal lost nearly double the weight of those who didn't.) Over the next few weeks, we gradually nixed that junk for healing whole foods rich in antioxidants, phytochemicals, healthy fats, protein, and fiber.
2. Increase your fat.
While Martha supplemented with omega-3s, she remained fat-phobic with her eating. While I applauded her efforts to avoid trans-fat, I explained certain fats were actually very healing. Martha swapped vegetable and corn oils for olive and coconut oils. She started eating more healthy fats like avocados; organic, free-range omega-3 eggs; olives; nuts; coconut milk and oil; and low-mercury fish like anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and trout.
3. Make a protein shake for breakfast.
Martha complained she had no time for breakfast, so she'd either skip it or grab something with her morning coffee. Both bad ideas! A healing protein shake—with whole foods like blueberries and healthy fat from coconut or almond milk—makes an easy, fast way to start your day. Morning meal replacement shakes became the easiest way for Martha to burn fat.
4. Eat a variety of rainbow-colored foods.
Like many Americans, Martha's low-fiber diet kept her in a painful, toxic state. Studies show, on average, Americans eat about 15 grams of fiber daily, way below the recommended 25 to 38 grams. To remedy that and get more nutrients, Martha introduced more color into her diet. She loaded her morning protein-infused fruit smoothie with mixed berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries). Her meals incorporated high-fiber, nutrient-rich staples like leafy greens, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, and lower-sugar fruits like berries.
5. Eat by the clock.
A super-busy schedule meant Martha had developed erratic eating habits, making it difficult to tell whether she was hungry or tired. She got on track by eating within an hour of waking up (easy with a protein shake), spreading out her meals to every four to six hours, and eating only three meals a day. I asked her to have her last meal three hours before bed since during sleep your energy should go toward restoration, not digesting food.
6. Choose organic whenever possible.
Organic foods contain more nutrients your body needs and no harmful pesticides or hormones. Martha couldn't always find or afford organic foods, so I recommended consulting the Environmental Working Group's (EWG's) most and least pesticide-ridden foods.
7. Find community.
With Martha's crazy schedule, I encouraged her to find an online social network, which studies show can play "a prominent role in participants' weight-loss efforts." Martha joined one of my support groups, which provided her like-minded, supportive people who were working through weight loss, pain, and other issues. If you're interested in seeing what an online support group looks like, check it out.