Discussions on Nutrition and Diet are fraught with peril. We carry the baggage of “Diet Culture”, “Convenience Culture”, family bonds, emotional eating, fears surrounding “incomplete” or even “toxic” diets, concern for causing disease, concern for damaging the planet, concern for cost of products, and hope for a magical cure with “food is medicine”.
Trying to write any advice or even loose guidelines around food can be an invitation to debate. And those debates can turn nasty when core values or fears come in to play. It can feel like anything not in perfect alignment with your way of eating is a personal attack on who you are as a person. A judgement on how a person spends time and money, or a judgement on their level of morality even (meat? Environmental impact? Parenting?).
When I work with clients, I start by understanding their personal value systems and their lifestyles. This is part of what makes Holistic Medicine unique. Instead of starting with an industry standard, I start with an individual need. As a result, I do not have a specific brand or style of food that I recommend. I do work with a set of personal guidelines that I can apply to the various goals and values that a client brings to the table.
Here are my primary Requirements for a Diet:
1. It must meet the basic nutritional needs of the patient.
2. It must be something the client can stick with long term.
That’s it. And yet, these two things often keep me busy. Sometimes clients come to me wanting to do an elimination diet for allergies, or a ketogenic diet for cancer, or a vegetarian diet, or a just a “clean” homemade diet. They mean well, but they are uncertain where to start and default to something like lean chicken breast and steamed vegetables. This is a nice singular meal, but it is not a lifestyle. Most basic homemade food attempts are woefully inadequate in all areas. They have enough protein, and may enough carbs for some dogs, but not enough minerals, vitamins, fat, micronutrients, fiber, etc.
Similarly, when I am thinking about how to advise the families in my life on dietary choices, we need to make sure everyone’s nutrient needs are met and that it is something they can stick with, that fits their lifestyle and priorities. Even though these seem like straightforward things, they are actually almost entirely disconnected from the messages we have received about food throughout our lives.
From childhood, I internalized messages telling me to restrict food in order to avoid body fat. Fewer calories was the goal. How could I achieve a pleasant full feeling and partake in social experiences without getting calories? Steamed veggies and chicken breast. As I got older and more conscious of “food as medicine” it was still hard. Low carb? No carb? No carb except steamed veggies? No meat? No legumes? No wheat? No fake sugar? No imported fruits? Nothing that has un-pronounced-able ingredients? Nothing with palm oil? No vegetable oil at all? No dairy? “Clean eating” became a catch phrase that seemed to mostly mean, “only eat perfect foods” or possibly “don’t eat”.
Orthorexia. This is a dangerous concept. In an attempt to control every item of food that enters the body, to ensure the most clean and healthy and optimal diet possible, some people create severe nutritional deficiencies and become functionally anorexic, even if they are in fact eating. This is a somewhat unofficial “disorder”, but one I have observed over and over in “healthy living” circles.
Let’s turn this whole thing on its head. Humans are ominivores. We have digestive systems that are quite adaptable and able to figure out how to use an incredible array of foods. We also love novelty. We love trying new things or combinations. We love color and texture and flavor and even sound. All of these factors mean we should be eating EVERYTHING. If we can just figure out how.
Hunter gatherers? Herders? Farmers? Shoppers? What are we? All of these things.
The goal isn’t to eat “Only the Perfect” foods. The goal is to figure out the best way to eat every food. Pick something up, read about it. Figure out the best way to prepare it that you can manage. Then enjoy it thoroughly. Preferably in the company of people you enjoy. I suggest Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon as a great starting point when you are trying to figure the best way to prepare a food. But these days there are some wonderful traditional food bloggers that have really taken the time to delve into food science and traditional diets to understand just about any food you can think of.
Beware! Once you read Nourishing Traditions and find some bloggers you like, this can become an incredibly addictive and life-changing lifestyle choice! You may spend more time than you would think staring at a novel vegetable and trying to decide the most exciting and delicious way to prepare it. And your body will thank you for this!
It’s OK to notice how it makes you feel and adjust accordingly. (It's not just OK, it's really awesome!) Maybe grains in the morning makes you feel “blah” by 11am. Maybe you do better with fish soup in the morning. Or eggs and bacon. Maybe you’re stressed and anxious if you stick to the “hunter-gatherer” style too much, and you feel way better with some well-chosen and carefully prepared grains. Maybe milk just never agrees with you, but cultured butter makes every vegetable better and more appealing and makes your skin glow. Notice these things, but don’t hold too tightly. Our bodies and our needs change over time.
It takes time to completely change the way you approach eating. But you can start with one food. Figure out the best way to prepare and eat that one food. And then enjoy it. Then do it with another food. And another. Until some day you aren’t considering the calories or the effect on your metabolism. Instead you are eating a diet of whole foods that fully nourish you, supporting your mental and physical health, connecting you to the earth and the people around you.
Another tricky pattern is the link between our emotions and our eating. We frequently select foods for the quick temporary feeling of pleasure they bring us. But if we start tuning in to our bodies, we can see the patterns in how we feel day-to-day and not just moment-to-moment. While candy or caffeine may bring a quick jolt of ecstasy, we find ourselves tired and tapped out very quickly. Slower burning proteins and fats will keep our moods even through the whole day, with energy leftover. This is clearly a way to make life more pleasurable over all if we can start seeing the patterns.
When we meet our bodies' nutrient needs, and we eat at times and in places that feel good, we don't crave those unhealthy emotional foods or overindulge in harmful ways. We have cravings to meet needs. If we meet those needs proactively, we don't have the cravings.
A healthy diet does not mean shame, contrition, self-control, and limitation. It means deep nourishing abundance. Because we feel better this way. And that is the point. Healthy happy lives.