What we eat is the single biggest determinant of our health – short term and long term. It is also deeply personal, connected with culture, emotions and preferences. We all yearn after family favourites, treats from our childhood or national favourites such as fish and chips or mac and cheese. Often, what we like to eat or are used to eating, is not always what is best for our health. Are you like many people, confused by the enormous amount of information about different diets that are often contradictory. All the more reason to ignore the so-called experts and eat what you want, right? Life is short after all and food is a pleasure in life!
What if you could re-learn food pleasure and connect to a more healthy delicious and satisfying food choices?
Whether you look at consensus reports assessing nutrition knowledge across the globe and across many different types of research, or simply look at the longest-lived populations, the basics are clear and undeniable:
· Focus your diet on whole plant foods
· Reduce processed food
· Drink mostly water
While there are more details about the variety and balance of foods that are needed in order to get all the right nutrients, these are the basics which have consistently been shown to reduce the risk diseases ranging from heart disease to diabetes to cancer and many others. It is also associated with longevity, overall health and even happiness. (Please note that there are many types of Diets that have been shown to help people lose weight. I am not addressing this topic here. I am focused on food choices and habits that that are associated with overall health.)
Now, you may already want to stop reading because you think I am telling you to never eat your favorite food again. But I promise you I am not. The healthiest diet in the world is of no use if you don’t eat it. And I am a firm believer that perfect should not get in the way of progress.
When I work with my clients, I suggest that they begin by simply being curious – curious about what they eat now and curious about how they might move their diet towards being healthier. So, let’s review the three bullets above and be curious about how we can create better habits.
Vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds. How difficult would it really be to increase the amount of whole foods in your diet? Perhaps you start by adding an extra serving of vegetables to your plate at dinner, or adding beans to your salad at lunch or adding some berries to your breakfast. Maybe you are interested in exploring recipes that are less familiar to you or adjusting a couple of your favorite recipes to be more plant based. What would be a simple first step for you?
First, let’s define – roughly – what a processed food is. Processed foods typically have things added to it (e.g., oils, sugar, and preservatives) and things removed (e.g. fiber and other nutrients). But not all processed food has the same level of processing. Here is an illustrative example:
o Chickpeas – not processed (but please cook or sprout them before eating if you buy dried beans)
o Hummus – ground chickpeas with added oil, salt and sesame seed paste. This is processed. However, unless you have certain health issues, hummus is a good choice depending on how it is prepared and how often you eat it. (And it’s one of my favorite foods!)
o Hummus chips – ground chickpea flour; added oil, salt and preservatives; many nutrients and fiber removed. This is highly processed and best avoided except as a rare treat.
Are there highly processed foods in your diet that you can easily reduce or eliminate? Then do it! But what if it is a processed that is harder to give up, because, well, you like it! Then don’t give it up completely. You can keep it as an occasional treat. Try reducing it to once per week or once per month.
In the simplest of terms, the above guidance is about choosing food (and water) – meaning choose food with as little processing as possible rather than highly processed ‘food-like’ products.
Of course, there are other important determinants of health – exercise, general movement through the day, sleep, social connections and managing stress. They all work together and build on each other to move you to better health. (Of course, they can also work in the opposite direction when neglected.)
The other important thing to remember is not to treat any changes you make as a ‘Diet’. Diets always end and they usually fail. Creating habits that you can stick with and build on is what results in lasting change. And as with any habit, there are some days and weeks that are better than others. If you are not on a ‘Diet’ you can’t go off your ‘Diet’. If you are aware of your eating and conscious about choosing healthier options, then you notice when life (and your eating) go off the rails. Rather than beat yourself up, take the time and effort to bring yourself back on track.
No one has a perfect diet. But we can all make changes to create a healthier one, which benefits you and everyone who loves you.
Thanks for reading my blog post,
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Like this blog post? Read Julies post How to prioritise your own health and well-being
Julie Morrow, PhD, is the founder of Morrow Health, aiming to provide clients with practical and individualized nutrition education, health coaching, and bodywork to support each person’s journey towards better health and a happier life. You can find more information about her and contact her directly at morrow-health.com.