In many Asian and European countries traditional diets have been made up of unprocessed foods, eaten in close to their natural state. Traditional diets are clean and balanced and lifestyle related diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancers which have afflicted ‘westerners’ have not been experienced at anywhere near the same levels. This is changing though as the westernised diet and fast foods have become the global staple.
The secret to is to eat foods in as close to their natural state as possible – so if you are going to eat grains, eat them un-refined, if you are going to eat meat go organic and if you are going to cook vegetables, lightly steam them so that you reduce the loss of nutrients through cooking.
As naturopaths we use a slightly different food pyramid, in fact, it’s a square in which the foods that we should be consuming are surrounded by the number one element our bodies need – water.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, our bodies are literally made up of 60– 70% water. Yes that means the person you love is 70% water. Your muscles are 75% water, your blood is around 83% water and your bones are 22% water. And because they generally have more muscle, men have a higher water content than women. Now does it make sense why everyone keeps telling you to drink more?
Water is fundamental to our body chemistry, among the most important roles it plays are keeping your body and brain hydrated, your brain is the first place that you lose water from when you become dehydrated and this affects your ability to think straight. Water is also essential for helping your body to eliminate wastes, including the acidic wastes released during times of stress. So how much do you really need? I recommend two litres of purified water per day, this is the amount that an active person needs just to prevent dehydration. Does it have to be purified? Water is potentially contaminated with toxic industrial chemicals such as chlorine, as well as nasty bacteria and heavy metals, so yes, purified is better. Are we talking about water specifically or just fluids? By water, I do mean water and although tea, coffee and scotch contain water or ice, the body has to process the contents of the drink before it is able to make use of the water. So water means water or herbal teas, including green tea provided that it is brewed for less than one minute. (When green tea is brewed for a short time you get all of the essential antioxidants without a high tannin release. Tannins are nature’s waterproofing and preserving agents and they’re used to turn animal hide into leather. Drink too much tea, especially the way westerners drink it – strong and black – and you’ll be drying out your insides.)
Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables
Ideally you should be eating between three and five times more vegetables than fruit per day. According to Harvard University, the average person needs to eat around nine servings (or 4.5 cups) of vegetables and fruits every day – and eating additional servings can reduce your chances of developing heart disease.
Vegetables are typically high in carbohydrates and a rich source of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, carotenoids, fibre and antioxidants. Raw vegetables are preferable to cooked because the cooking process destroys some of the nutritional properties, if you are going to cook go for lightly steaming over boiling or baking.
Don’t get too concerned about which vegetables contain which nutritional elements, just focus on making your meals as colourful as you can and you’ll be getting a good balance because different coloured vegetables contain different nutritional properties.
Like vegetables, fruits consist mainly of carbohydrates but in a more concentrated, simple sugar (high GI) form. They are a good source of some rather exotic and powerful antioxidants which strengthen the immune system by scavenging free radicals. The general rule with fruits is to consume them either before noon or after exercising when your insulin sensitivity is highest. This helps to replenish your muscle energy stores quickly and use kilojoules effectively by not allowing them to break down and become stored as fats.
If you eat meat, make it good quality meat. Commercial meats are typically high in saturated fat (sirloin steak is 72% fat) and provide little or no essential omega-3 fatty acids. Farmed meats are frequently contaminated with pesticides, antibiotics, parasites, salmonella and E. coli and processed meats are just as scary; the overheating used in processing creates rancid and mutagenic by-products that have no place in the human diet. So if you want to eat meat, go for organic meats, from animals that have grazed on grass like they are meant to free from too much human intervention.
When it comes to red meat, my choice is kangaroo, it has the highest percentage of protein and lowest percentage of saturated fat of all red meats and it is the highest known source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is found in grass-eating animals. CLA is a ‘good’ fat that has been shown to possess potential anti-carcinogenic and anti-diabetes properties, in addition to reducing obesity and atherosclerosis (high blood pressure).
Fish is also an excellent source of quality protein and essential fatty acids. Cold-water fish such as salmon is rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are the ‘good fats’ that we hear so much about today, and have been shown to be especially beneficial in the prevention of heart disease. These days people are aware that seafood can contain heavy metals such as mercury, and this can quite rightly cause concern when it comes to eating seafood. Many of the fish varieties that have picked up mercury contamination also contain high levels of minerals such as selenium and zinc which are particularly effective in combating the adverse effects of mercury. There are also plenty of varieties of fish that are very low in mercury but high in zinc and selenium, the pick of these are Tasmanian or Atlantic salmon and mackerel.
Commercial cow’s milk is pasteurised, homogenised, reinforced with synthetic additives and typically contains residues of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides from the grains fed to the cattle. In my experience the preferred dairy protein comes from milk that has come from happy cows. Yes the ones that get to graze the way they should, happily in a paddock, eating grass and being rested through the year and not be made to be in calf all year round. Cows can eat through as much as 70 kilos of grass and drink approx 70 litres of water a day.
Today the majority of cows are raised in confinement; they don’t graze in grassy pastures. Confined cows eat hay and stand on ground that is made of dirt and covered in manure not lush grass as it should be. It’s unnatural for a cow to be held in these conditions. These cows may produce far more milk than happy cows but it is of a lesser quality. The average cow raised in these unnatural confined conditions can produce up to three times as much milk which is 15 times more than is needed to raise a healthy calf. It’s unnatural and far away from letting the cows live close to nature itself.
Happy grass fed cows produce a milk that is richer in CLA “conjugated linoleic acid”, remember that’s the fat I talked about that is found also in kangaroo and which is found in all grass-eating animals. Happy cow’s milk or milk products also contain the ideal ratio of the Omega 6 EFA’s (essential fatty acids) as well. Studies have shown that it is these ‘good’ fats that have been shown to possess potential anti-carcinogenic properties and can help address other lifestyle ailments like dementia, diabetes, allergies, autoimmune disorders in addition to reducing obesity and atherosclerosis. The benefits of eating and living close to nature are endless.
Some people prefer an alternative to cows milk, including rice milk and soymilk. If you are one of those people read the packet carefully, some rice milks contain loads of added sugar and many soymilks are taken from genetically modified (GM) soybeans. If you have an allergy to cow’s milk and still want to have a milk product, go for low fat soy (non-GM) or if you prefer rice milk, look for one with no added sugar and not in long life packaging. Remember that milk products are not meant to have an extended shelf life like the long life products have. Just think about it and stay as close to nature as possible.
Lentils and legumes
Vegetarians have thrived for years without consuming animal products. Lentils and legumes are a wonderful source of protein and are a low GI carbohydrate. Nuts and seeds are another solid source of protein, minerals and fat-soluble nutrients, but they’re also very high in fat (68-78%), it’s good fat, but it’s still fat. The good oils found in nuts and seeds are easily damaged by heat, light and oxygen so always eat unsalted nuts and seeds, direct from their shells if you can. If you are going to cook with nuts or seeds, add them at the last moment so that the heat doesn’t destroy the nutrients.
Do you remember at school, we used to make glue out of white flour and water? Remember how it smelt after a few hours and how it set like cement when you used it? Well, that same cement-like action is happening inside your body every time you eat white breads, pasta and rice. And after it has been in there for a while, it becomes foul, sticking to the walls of your bowel and sucking the life out of you. I call it ‘bum glue’.
You should avoid grains that have had the wheatgerm removed, which is what white breads, pastas and rice are. The germ is where most of the nutrients live. Refined and processed grains are acid-forming (high in phosphorous) and when consumed as flour tend to cause problems in the gut (such as bloating), the brain and in the joint capsules. They are also rich in phytates which are acids that bind minerals to the intestinal tract causing them to be excreted unused. Have a ‘healthy’ meat and salad sandwich on white bread for lunch every day and the water soluble nutrients will immediately be leeched out of your body.
If you did nothing other than replace white grains for brown in your diet, your basic level of health would increase dramatically. Working out which carbohydrates to eat is easy, just remember to eat unrefined brown grains (brown rice, pasta and breads) and go for low GI.
Essential Fatty Acids
Fats are an essential part of our diet, we need ‘good’ fats such as linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). These fatty acids are a critical structural component of our brains, nervous systems and cell membranes. Without them, especially omega-3, we will experience chronic inflammation, water retention (oedema) and loss of tissue elasticity. Good fats also transport fat-soluble nutrients around the body.
One of the best books that I have ever read is ‘Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill’, by Udo Erasmus. He explains, in basic terms, the nutritional differences between lifeless, refined, processed oils and cold pressed oils that are full of nutrients. Most of the oils in the supermarket have been heated excessively in processing and are now rancid; margarines are even worse. When vegetable fats are heated excessively they are transformed into trans fatty acids, which are the nastiest of all foods that you can put into your body. In 2003, the US Government advised the creators of the food pyramid to revise it to encourage the consumption of omega-essential fatty acids and the elimination of trans fatty acids from people’s diets on the basis that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), while trans fatty acids may increase the risk of CHD.
Avocado, grass fed animals and cold water fish are all good sources of good fats (try to avoid tinned fish though because it has been exposed to extreme heat during the cooking process, which makes the good fats, not so good). I take organic flax or hemp seed and extra virgin olive oils in my diet daily. I add them to salads or protein shakes to make sure I get my necessary quota of essential fatty acids.
The easiest way that I’ve found for myself and my clients to stick to a healthy eating plan is to eat healthily six days per week and on the seventh day enjoy a ‘free day’. On free days you can indulge in any treats you want, guilt free. This break in the routine is a treat to look forward to and also signals to your body to not go into starvation mode. Starvation mode can happen when you cut your meals and/or kilojoules to lower than you are used to for too long. Because your body is not receiving the same amount of fuel that it’s used to, it starts to hold on to reserves, thinking that maybe there’s a famine, and you find that you either stop losing weight or start putting it on. The other challenge is that when we deny ourselves something we emotionally crave it. Everyone at sometime has started a diet on Monday and ended it soon after because the feelings of deprivation kick in and we self sabotage.
So enjoy your free day, it is a necessary part of balanced nutrition and can stop you breaking commitments to yourself and then feeling guilty about it.