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The Basics of a Healthy Diet

I talk with every single patient about eating well because a nutritious diet is fundamental to wellness.  I often say that I have a lot of "tools in my doctor bag" for helping folks regain their health.  Vitamins, minerals, herbs, homeopathic remedies, hydrotherapy, exercise and stress management techniques are some of these tools, and they can support the healing process to a great degree.  But good health will not last if you do not nourish your body with good food.  And yet learning how to eat well is often one of the biggest challenges my patients face. 

So what are the basics of a healthy diet?  Here is my Top Ten list:

  1. Eat real food.
    • Avoid artificial colors or flavors – including dyes and sweeteners (Splenda, Nutri-Sweet, Sweet-n-Low). 
    • Avoid hydrogenated fats.
    • Read labels and look for recognizable ingredients.
  2. Eat whole food.
    • Avoid foods made with white flour, white rice and white sugar.
    • Go for whole grains such as brown rice and whole wheat.
    • Use honey, maple syrup or agave nectar to lightly sweeten foods and drinks.
    • “Shop around the edge” of the grocery store, that’s where the whole foods are – fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, and meat.
    • Avoid packaged food.
  3. Eat organically as much as possible, especially animal products.
    • Animals concentrate pesticides from their food in their tissues. 
    • Pesticides can be toxic, especially to children.
    • Here is the Environmental Working Group's rating of pesticide levels in 44 different fruits and vegetables.
  4. Eat a rainbow of colors of fruits and vegetables.
    • Cherries, red bell peppers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches, mangoes, pumpkins, garnet yams, spaghetti squash, bananas, pears, kale, collard greens, broccoli, zucchini, avocadoes, blueberries, grapes, blackberries, plums…and MORE!
    • Eat fruits and vegetables raw, lightly steamed or baked -  not fried or overcooked.  Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other healthful substances which can be degraded by overcooking.
    • Sometimes it isn't possible to buy fresh produce.  Choose frozen instead of canned, to retain more of the health benefits.
    • Eat whole fruit rather than juice.  Whole fruit has all the fiber and nutrition, while juice mostly concentrates the sugars.
  5. Eat breakfast.
    • Include protein for lasting energy – eggs, meat, cottage cheese, nut butter, tofu and beans are all examples of protein foods.
    • Coffee or juice with toast or cereal is NOT adequate.  This type of breakfast is a recipe for "crashing" later in the day.
    • For a quick breakfast, eat leftovers from dinner the night before.
  6. Eat a balance of carbohydrates, fats and protein.
    • Don't eat carbohydrates alone.  Add some good fats and/or protein.  Have crackers or toast with nut butter, cheese or meat.  Add some nuts or milk to oatmeal.
    • Snack on nuts and seeds – try mixing dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, etc.) with raw nuts or seeds (walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc).
    • Nuts, coconut, seeds, olives, avocados and fish are all sources of "good fats", but all fat is useful in a balanced diet.
  7. Develop mindful eating.
    • Eat when you are hungry.  Notice if you are eating because you are bored or upset.
    • Chew your food.  Count twenty-seven chews to help you remember.
    • Sit down to eat.
    • Stop eating when you are full.
    • Mindful eating improves digestion and, for parents, sets a healthy example for children.
  8. Drink water.
    • We need, on average, 64 ounces per day - that’s 2 quarts or about 2 liters.  For larger adults or small children, take your weight in pounds and divide it in half.  That is a good estimate of how much water, in ounces, that you need each day.  Add more water if you are breastfeeding, exercising or ill.
    • Sip on water throughout the day.  Keep it with you.  Don’t guzzle it with meals.
    • If you dislike the flavor of water, try herbal (non-caffeinated) tea, or add a bit of lemon juice to your water.
  9. Limit caffeine.
    • Stimulants “draw on the adrenal bank.”  You are using your future energy reserves today, like borrowing on credit.
    • Caffeinated beverages contribute to dehydration as well as symptoms like fatigue, headaches and fibrocystic breasts.
  10.  Limit alcohol.
    • There is evidence that about one glass of wine or one beer per day can provide health benefits like antioxidants (wine) and stress reduction.  The health benefits are outweighed by the health risks with higher consumption, however. 
    • Alcohol, like caffeine, contributes to dehydration.
    • Your body uses vitamins and minerals (especially magnesium) to process alcohol, depleting the amount available for other needs.
    • Immoderate alcohol consumption can contribute to insulin resistance, obesity and violence, just to scratch the surface.

And number eleven should probably be "Cheat sometimes!"  Eating healthfully will help you feel better, and that is motivating in itself, but it also helps to know that eating "unhealthy" foods occasionally won't undo your good work.  Changing the way you eat can be a challenging process, but eventually it will be second nature.  And you will have set the stage for long-term wellness.


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