Are you what you eat? Food for thought
We have all heard the saying ´you are what you eat´…but how much time have we taken to reflect upon this with intention?
Human beings require food, water and oxygen to live and grow. Without these we will die within weeks or minutes. Back in the days before processed foods, ready meals, refrigeration, globalisation and the assault of chemical agents (this includes everything from preservatives added to food through to insecticides, fungicides and GMO for crop ´protection´ and increased crop growth), as well as contamination of water supplies, seas, oceans, rivers and the whole planet and the air that we breathe…..this was actually simple! We naturally ate whole foods that were local, organic and seasonal. We exercised. We drank fresh water from the mountains. Cancer was unheard of, as were allergies and auto-immune diseases, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (Of course there were more infections and other health issues that became more complicated, but we are getting close to this occurring again with the ever growing antibiotic resistant bugs!)
So, what has this got to do with nutrition today?
As a society we are eating more junk food, less nutritious food, and we are suffering the consequences with our health.
The proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and oils we eat are essential building blocks and running fuels for our whole body. Proteins, found in every cell in our body are vital in the repair and maintenance of our bodies – everything from skin and hair through to muscles and organs. They are also required for energy, hormone creation, transportation and storage of certain molecules like haemoglobin and the formation of antibodies. Carbohydrates are the main energy source for our bodies. Vitamins and minerals have vital roles from antioxidant activities (preventing oxidative damage to the cells DNA) through to the carrying of oxygen. Oils such as omega-3 (?-3) and omega-6 (?-6) fatty acids are important components of cell membranes and are precursors to many other substances in the body such as those involved with regulating blood pressure and inflammatory responses. Depending on the oil you use, there will be other essential roles they play in the body too! Without a well-balanced diet any lack or excess of these essential ingredients will eventually result in damaged or reduced functioning of the body and later on disease.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the biggest killers in Western society today – diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, strokes and cancer are directly linked to our diet as well as other lifestyle factors (smoking, stress, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol and drugs etc). By ´diet´, I refer to the quantity of fat, sugar, vitamins, minerals, preservatives, chemicals we consume on a regular basis in our meals and snacks.
Making dietary changes can be really difficult – there are those naughty foods you just can´t live without, there is the lack of time for cooking foods from scratch, then there is that cup of tea or coffee that seems so much better when accompanied by a biscuit! Eating is usually a big part of our family and social lives, making change a little more challenging.
How do we get a good diet?
I highly recommend that when choosing a healthy diet, you also try to ensure that the ingredients you use are the best quality. By this I would include: integrated organic cereals; vegetables and fruits that are seasonal, tree-matured, local and organic; free-range, organic eggs; organic meat and dairy products; home-made foods; good quality oils.
Eat colourful fruits and vegetables. Eat a rainbow selection of naturally green, red, yellow, orange and purple fruits and vegetables for at least 6 servings a day. Each colour actually contains varying amounts of different vitamins and minerals. By ensuring an array of colour, you increase the chance of getting all your daily required amounts! Fruits and vegetables chewed raw will strengthen your gums and muscles, as well as increase your intake of fibre. So it is a win win!
Eat a wide range of grains, beans and pulses. Don´t just stick to wheat, there are lots of different flours available out there, and they each have their different tastes and textures. Be adventurous! Remember to soak your dried products to avoid phytic acid that can cause damage to your teeth and act as an anti-nutrient.
Eat alkaline food. There is a growing tendency to follow alkaline diets that accompany the pH inside our cells. It reduces inflammation in the blood and body. Again vegetables and fruits promote this.
Eat organic foods. Avoid pesticides, toxins and GMO foods. Research has shown that our bodies do not know how to process or cope with these substances. For example we now have wheat that has been developed for fast growth and to be insect and pest resistant but because of that it now contains mega quantities of gluten which we are not designed to deal with in our guts and hence one of the reasons we are seeing the huge increase in people with gluten intolerance.
Choose a vegetarian or vegan diet. Vegetarians have been shown to have a 24% lower risk of dying of heart disease than non-vegetarians (Key TJ et al1998). Furthermore, world-renowned physician Dr. Dean Ornish found that patients on a low-fat vegetarian diet actually reversed coronary heart disease (Ornish D et al). There are also studies showing that there is an estimated 12% longer lifespan, given that plant-based diets reduce chances of obesity and cardiovascular problems (Key TJ et al 2003). According to Dr Kim Williams, former American College of Cardiology president “There are two kinds of cardiologists: vegans and those who haven’t read the data.”
If you do decide to eat meat and dairy….
Choose pasture-fed, organic dairy, meat products and eggs. Factory farmed meat contains steroids, hormones and antibiotics, and promotes unethical treatment of animals. Do NOT eat processed foods. By choosing pasture-fed products you will gain lots more nutritional benefits from the animals themselves.
Choose wild fish. Unfortunately, with all the plastic contamination in the rivers, seas and oceans, numerous fish eaten by humans have been found to contain plastic. Fish are also reservoirs of mercury, arsenic and a myriad of non-edible molecules. The health consequences are yet unknown, but surely it cannot be a good thing! It is recommended to eat fresh, wild fish opposed to factory farmed, which will often contain lower nutritional values of omegas 3 and 6, as well as minerals. This fish will also have been vaccinated and exposed to antibiotics.
Choose a good salt. Himalayan rock salt is a good source of sodium as well as phosphorous, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper, bromine, zirconium and iodine. All of these minerals occur naturally, so the mineral content is available in rock salt format as well as with the smaller grains of Himalayan salt. Avoid artificial table salt as it contains caking agents and is not nutritious.
Choose good oils: Healthy oils include olive, canola, flaxseed, avocado, sesame, walnut, hemp, coconut, to name but a few. It is important to use high quality organic oils, as these will contribute to some of the essential fatty acids that you require in your diet. Avoid polyunsaturated fats (the most highly reactive type of fat) that are prone to oxidation and free radical production when exposed to heat and light. Processed polyunsaturated oils are the most inflammatory inside our bodies because of their high reactivity to heat and light. This inflammation is what causes many of our internal problems to develop such as heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases.
Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners: Sugar does not provide the body with any nutritional value. We do not need it, yet it is found in more and more products, slowly killing us. There is scientific evidence relating sugar consumption with cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, diabetes and certain cancers. Try stevia as a natural sweetener.
Choose healthy cooking methods: Steam, boil, raw and grilled. Frying will not just add fat to what you consume, but can destroy some sensitive vitamins.
Be a savvy shopper: When it comes to buying fruits and vegetables, here in Tenerife we are spoilt with the local farmers markets in most towns, as well as great projects such as La Gangochera and La Libelula (to name but a few) who provide organic veggies from local farmers. So not only do you get local, organic and seasonal goods, but you also help the local economy. With the rest of your goods, there are wholefood stores, organic shops as well as supermarkets. Be sure to check the labels of what you are buying. Try and be aware of what you or your loved ones will be digesting, and avoid high fat and sugar contents.
Food policy, food labelling and the future
It is clear that there is a huge need for food products to be better labelled, making it harder for producers to blind us with what is or is not in the product. Labelling of GMO should be obligatory, as should any chemical sweetener, such as aspartame. In some countries they are even considering labelling certain processed foods with health warnings on them (as with cigarette packets).
Personally I would like to see bigger taxes placed on junk foods, and harmful, processed foods, so that healthy products can be subsidised.
At the end of the day, waiting for a politician to tell us what is healthy and nutritious is irresponsible on our part. When politics and big business are one, don´t expect health promotion to be at their cost. Educate yourself, your children, your neighbours, friends and family and make those healthy changes.
In the next article we will look at how we can introduce all these changes in a practical way. Do send me your comments and questions, so that I can respond to your doubts and concerns.
Author: Gemma Ortiz Genovese, @Kaos Factory Project
– Key TJ, Fraser GE, Thorogood M, Appleby PN, Beral V, Reeves G, Burr ML, Chang-Claude J, Frentzel-Beyme R, Kuzma JW, Mann J, McPherson K (1998). “Mortality in vegetarians and non-vegetarians: a collaborative analysis of 8300 deaths among 76,000 men and women in five prospective studies.”. Public Health Nutr 1 (1): 33-41. PMID 10555529.
– Ornish D, et. al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA 1998; 280(23): 2001-2007.
– Key, Timothy J, et al., “Mortality in British vegetarians: review and preliminary results from EPIC-Oxford” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 78, No. 3, 533S-538S, September 2003