This just in: everything that was on the superfoods list yesterday is now bad for you. In related news, everything that was bad for you yesterday is now a superfood!
Okay, maybe it hasn’t gotten quite that extreme, but it feels that way sometimes when you read health and nutrition headlines. Green juice is the answer. No, coconut oil. Or maybe meat—but only the super expensive, free range or wild kind that subsists on a special Arctic moss. Or no meat. Nothing from animals at all. Nothing that casts a shadow. And no gluten, of course, just lots of kale. And beets, beets are big this year.
In all of the radical nutrition and wellness information out there, one thing we often neglect to look at is the needs of our own individual bodies. And I don’t mean “The Blood Type Diet” or “The DNA Diet” or anything like that, but instead, what foods actually make your body feel its best.
The Paleo Diet and its cousins have become very popular in the past few years, eschewing grains, starches and often dairy products, in favor of meats, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables—things our hunter and gatherer ancestors might have eaten. At the other end of the spectrum, we see raw foodists and vegans, who wouldn’t touch that bison chili with a ten foot pole, and instead stick with fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains—often sprouted or juiced.
The thing is, either of these ends of the spectrum can be done healthfully, both can be done poorly—and neither is right for everyone.
Full disclosure: I’m a vegetarian, and have been on and off for most of my life. But, I’m the first person to acknowledge that my choice is an ethical one—not a health related one. The amount of literature and research available on human protein needs and eating animal products is dizzying; there is just as much support for the health benefits of eating animal products (especially pastured or wild) as there is for abstaining completely.
So then, what should we be eating? How do we decide?
While so much of this varies based on your particular constitution, activity level and needs, here are a few good starting points:
1. Whole foods will always trump processed foods.
Set aside all of the GMO, organic, free-range and other first world concerns we have for a second and ask yourself, “Can I recognize all of the ingredients in this without a dictionary?” If the answer is “yes,” you are on the right track. I love the way Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma sums this up: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” I don’t care if those cookies are gluten-free, vegan, paleo-friendly and in a fancy compostable bag; they are still processed food.
2. When you make food yourself, you know what’s in it.
Okay, not to sound like a control freak here, but if you’ve had issues with foods affecting your health, it’s worth cutting back on how often you eat out or buy ready-made foods. If you have blood pressure issues, this gives you control over the salt content. If you are trying to lose or gain weight, you have a better sense of the portion size. Another effect of cutting back on restaurant meals is that they are more enjoyable when you do decide to indulge. Which would you rather have: fast-food several times a month, or one spectacular dinner at a restaurant you love?
3. “Wear one hat.”
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this aphorism comes up in regard to addressing our health issues, and other parts of life. It isn’t necessary (or sustainable) to go from a Standard American Diet to gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan, caffeine-free, ad infinitum overnight. If you are having health problems that seem to be affected by your diet, talk to your health care provider about how to do an elimination diet. Many people do find they are sensitive to certain foods, particularly as they age. Food allergies can come on at any age, and don’t always immediately show up as hives or breathing issues. Instead of either eliminating or adding all sorts of new things, start small. Wear one hat. See what happens with that before making any other sweeping changes.
4. What works for your neighbor/mother/lover/best friend may not be what works for you.
I love having a green juice or smoothie for breakfast—especially when it’s hot out. For someone else, starting out the day with a cold or raw food might be depleting. One of the things I love about non-Western medicine practices, is that they often look at the individual’s constitution, instead of prescribing certain foods or behaviors as “healthy.” For someone who has a tendency towards being cool, sluggish and lethargic, more cooling raw foods might make them feel worse. For someone who is easily overheated and has a short fuse, a high meat diet with lots of spices might be aggravating.
You don’t have to embrace Ayurveda or Chinese medicine to benefit from the concept of paying attention to your own body’s signals. In August, when you feel overheated and tired, you instinctively know that something cooling and sweet will make you feel better. A healthy way to go is to choose fruits and vegetables that are naturally sweet in flavor rather than going right for the ice cream.
If we let our bodies be our guides in terms of rest and nourishment, we will be much healthier and happier in the long run.
Photo credit: Flickr / Daniellehelm