Pillars of Healthy Nutrition
There isn't a one-size-fits all approach to nutrition. Your genetic makeup, the lifestyle of your parents, the environment you grew up in, the environment you now live in, all of these factors interact to make you unique. So it's no wonder there are countless diets and diverse nutrition dogmas. Each approach may work for some people, but they don’t all work for everyone. How do you find what works for you? The key is to understand the main pillars that health-focused diets share and then explore what works best for your body. (I draw a distinction here between health-focused diets, such as paleo and plant-based, and fad diets designed solely for the purpose of losing weight quickly. Most health-focused diets can be used for weight management, but that is not their sole purpose or benefit.) Below I break down the pillars that I guide my clients to focus on to determine their optimal nutrition.
Pillar 1: Quality Is King
Whatever food groups you eat or eschew, the quality and origin of your food matters. This is one major reason why you can find people that feel fantastic when they begin a vegan diet and others that feel better when they switch to paleo. The key is not in their differences, but in their similarities. The healthiest version of each prioritizes high quality, minimally processed foods, with plenty of vegetables. Even a ketogenic diet can rely heavily on nuts, seeds, fatty fruits, and include plenty of non-starchy vegetables. Conversely, a person can get by on a junk food version of each of these diets and feel worse.
Consider two different meals. First, an impossible burger on a regular bun with french fries. Second, a bowl with spinach, quinoa, radishes, pickled ginger, steamed edamame, and hemp hearts with lemon, tahini + olive oil dressing. Both are vegan, but the first includes highly processed and refined ingredients, along with dangerous fats. Highly processed and refined means that these foods no longer resemble the source they came from. They are stripped of proteins, fiber, vitamins and minerals. They may or may not have synthetic nutrients added back in, and in many cases contain added sugars to make them more palatable. Highly refined oils like canola and vegetable oil are produced with both high heat and chemical extractions (which disrupts the chemical bonds, oxidizing them). Then they are deodorized, because the byproduct is initially too rancid smelling to eat (which also adds trans fats). Finally, they are treated with additional chemicals to improve the color. When they are heated to high temperatures for frying their chemical bonds become unstable and oxidize yet again. This change in chemical structure is essentially a trans fatty acid. (It doesn't get the same label as a trans fat used as a food additive, but it has the same effect on your body). In contrast, the second meal is full of fiber, complete protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidant plant compounds. It doesn’t contain ingredients that have been stripped of their nutrition or contain sugar and other additives. The body will respond negatively to the former and positively to the latter, and it has nothing to do with whether or not animal protein is present. If you only have the time or bandwidth to bring one focus to your nutrition work, it should be quality. Here are some quick tips on how to do that:
Better quality foods:
- resemble how they looked before they got to your plate
- were grown or raised without chemical additives (pesticides, antibiotics)
- were raised in healthy conditions that allowed natural behaviors, such as grazing and eating foods they would eat in the wild (most feedlot animals are given corn because it fattens them up quickly...do you want to do the same to yourself?)
- are cooked in a manner that preserves or enhances their nutrition (raw, lightly steamed, or cooked in a heat stable oil, not burnt)
- are as fresh as possible, or preserved when fresh (frozen + fermented foods, herbs)
Pillar 2: Amounts Matter, But We're Using The Wrong Measure
Whether it's total calories or macronutrient ratios, most of us have measured or counted our food at some point in order to follow a particular nutrition protocol. This works because amounts do matter. If you eat enough of just about any food your body will have to store what it cannot use as fat (some foods, like cauliflower, would be really hard to eat enough of and still go about your daily life). Not all foods are processed the same or serve the same roles in our body. We need protein (certain amino acids cannot be produced in the body and therefore must come from foods), essential fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Measuring can be a helpful way of making sure our body gets a good mix of the raw nutrients it needs, and not too much of the components it doesn’t need. The problem is that we have made measuring an external event. We look to experts to create rules, instead of connecting to our own bodies.
This disconnect results, in part, because we have succumbed to societal standards for what a body SHOULD look like (and only look to nutrition to "fix" this "problem"). If our body, even at it's optimal state doesn't fit that arbitrary ideal, we look outside of it to try and make it like someone else's. Weight and body composition are limited, but highly visible dimensions. I'm not saying it's wrong to have aesthetic goals. However, they may lead you to make dietary choices that don't support optimal health if aesthetics are the only dimension you are focused on. The human body is an elegant, interconnected system; what we eat becomes a part of us, and therefore a part of how our bodies function on every level.
The plethora of human genetics and environments means that no expert can make rules that work for everyone all the time. Instead, we should be paying attention to the feedback our bodies give us. Societally, we've become disconnected from this feedback for the last several decades. But more and more we've come to accept what the functional nutrition realm has understood for ages: that so much of how we feel is related to food choice. Energy, sleep, mood, skin, joint pain, severe PMS or other menstrual dysregulation, expression of genetic predispositions (such as autoimmunity), risk of disease and chronic illness, aging, brain function are all ways our body gives us feedback. When you start tuning in to how you feel, you will get clear information from your body on what it needs and what makes it feel good.
It can be helpful initially to use some form of guide, a dietary plan or template. Many dietary templates have solid research backing their health benefits. The most useful and easiest to follow, in my opinion is the following, from Precision Nutrition.
This graphic prioritizes healthy, whole food sources of each macronutrient group. Using one’s own hand to measure makes figuring out portions easy to eye ball and tailored to each individual’s size.
Following this- or any other guide- is merely the first step; a hypothesis to be examined and tweaked until we determine the combination of foods that make us feel our best. Use your hunger, fullness and energy levels as guides as you tweak what amounts work best for you.
If you've been consistently eating according to this template for 3-4 weeks and are still experiencing less than optimal health (remember this is NOT limited to digestive and gut symptoms), then it's time to go deeper. You may want to work with a nutrition or health coach to help you identify food sensitivities or other underlying conditions that will inform your nutrition choices.
Pillar 3: It's Not Just What, But How You Eat
The old adage "You are what you eat," has been more accurately updated to, "You are what you eat AND digest."
Do you know how calorie counts of foods are determined? Foods are placed in a chamber and burned. Then the amount of oxygen given off is measured. The problem is, our stomachs are not combustion chambers where we burn our food. Our digestive tracts are much more complex and elegant. A series of chemical reactions occur, starting with the brain when we first think about food. Ever walked by a bakery, breathed in the smell of warm bread and pastries and suddenly found your mouth watering and your tummy grumbling? That is our brain getting us ready to digest food. After that there are still several steps: chewing, breaking down the foods in our stomach, sending that down to the small intestine where bile is added for further breakdown, then nutrients must be absorbed, sent through to the colon for the last bits of absorption and processing before all that’s left is considered waste. This system isn’t isolated from the rest of the body, either. Neurochemicals and hormones connect our digestive organs and the rest of our body. So internal states of stress, activity, focus, etc. influence your digestion, or lack thereof.
The complexity of this system means that two individuals eating the same food will absorb different amounts of nutrients and therefore calories. This is why calorie counts can be as much as 30% off.
Even if you are eating the best quality food, cramming it in your mouth while finalizing the details of your presentation before rushing to a meeting means you're not getting optimal nutrition. In order to get the most out of your meals, you need to thoroughly digest food. The first step is getting your body into a relaxed state. Eat slowly and mindfully, chewing each bite completely. These steps allow your body to completely break down and absorb nutrients, as well as send messages of satiety to your brain. When you fully digest and absorb your meals you don't get hungry again as quickly, because your body knows it still has plenty of nutrients to work with.
Believe me, I understand that it's not always easy to control the demands that are placed on your schedule. Eating slowly and mindfully has been the hardest habit for me to adapt. Like any habit, small, simple tweaks are a great place to start. Try taking 5 deep breaths, elongating your exhale, before your meal. Chew thoroughly, taking time between bites to breathe and enjoy what you're eating.
Allowing our bodies time to fully digest (3-4 hours) before eating again is another condition for optimal health. The old bodybuilding advice to eat several small meals just a couple hours apart might be doing more harm than good, as your system doesn't get a rest from the stress of digesting. (Yup, digestion is a demand on your organs and therefore a stress). This is one of the many reasons intermittent fasting can be beneficial. It allows your body time to digest and then time to rest the system. If four hours feels impossible right now, try to slowly increase the time between meals, even 15 minutes at a time. Be sure to stay well hydrated, as this will help ensure you're eating because you're really hungry, not just thirsty. In addition, try to get at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast.
Pillar 4: Nutrition Doesn't Exist In A Vacuum
Once again, our body is an intricate, interconnected system. Your nutrition will influence how your entire body feels, and your lifestyle will affect your appetite and nutrient absorption. It’s well accepted that we must address both diet and exercise together in order to achieve optimal results. Unfortunately, many people miss the third essential piece: recovery. Recovery includes quality sleep, stress management practices (the most popular and one of the most beneficial being meditation) and recovery from workouts (which can include low intensity movement, stretching, deep breathing, massage or self-massage, epsom salt baths and cold showers to name a few).
If your version of doing everything you can to to get results only includes excruciating workouts and restricting your diet, you're not going to reap all the benefits of that hard work. We don’t improve during stress, we improve when we recover from that stress. A better approach: aim to keep the entire body, and all of it's systems, in good condition so that it's ready to manage all of life’s stresses. (And remember, workouts and digestion are stresses on the body.)
Think about professional athletes. Do they workout intensely, cramming in as many reps as possible the night before a championship game? No! They're recovering in order to calm their nervous system, so that it's ready to go when the time comes. The same goes for students preparing for a big exam, like the SATs: they are told to get lots of rest and eat a balanced meal beforehand.
You cannot get the most out of your body by asking it to constantly work harder. We may not see it as such, but most of us are submitting our bodies to an onslaught of stresses with no breaks. It’s seen as standard work ethic to get up early, caffeinate extensively throughout the day, rush from workout to work, slam down food while multitasking, rush home, take care of family, scroll through social media before logging back on to work, and sleep less than 7 hours at least 5 days a week. We may think we’re relaxing with TV and social media, but the opposite is true. While these media may provide contrast to work, connection and enjoyment, they are nonetheless stimulating to the nervous system. Resting and recovering doesn't have the sexy appeal of fitness models working hard, showing off enviable bodies. But if you want results, you need to make space for this piece.
How to Move Forward
I often find with clients that shifting our ideas about what matters- especially when it comes to lifestyle changes around rest and recovery- is extremely difficult. We have gotten so used to ideas of counting macros and calories and finding a specific plan or diet that has all the rules that will suddenly give us the body of our dreams. Letting go of these well-entrenched ideas is scary, despite the fact that they've never given us the sustainable results we seek. In some cases the shift is hard because it means giving up habits that are comfortable (even if they're not particularly easy or fun, we know we can count calories, because we've tried it at least 15 times over the years with various apps). In some cases, it means giving up or cutting back on certain pleasures, like TV up until bed time. The key here is to remember you don't have to do everything all at once. Take small steps, even if it's simply reading more articles about any given pillar. From time to time zoom out and see which of these pillars may need more of your attention.