My title of How to eat implies that I know all the answers to the complex questions of what is the perfect diet and how to eat. The straight up simple answer (from my experience anyhow) is that there is no one absolute and perfect way to eat. To think so is daft and to argue so is closed-minded. How can one diet at all times and phases of life work for so many culturally and geographically diverse people?
We are dynamic beings in an ever changing world, with multiple ‘things’ influencing our health and homeostatic balance at all times; our environment is constantly changing, our stress levels fluctuate alongside our ability to tolerate “stress”, and alongside this the trillions of cells in our gut are in constant dynamic flux alongside us – the beauty of symbiosis. We are complex, food is complex, and health is complex.
I think it is best to say: get curious, learn to be intuitive, take people’s big claims of knowing the definitive answers like a pick and mix adding what you intuitively agree with to your health strategy. Try things but don’t cling blindly to them; test them out and see where it gets you.
I feel it is best to avoid getting overly identified with our style of eating. For example calling ourselves vegan, keto, low carb, Paleo and so on creates limitations on our ability to fluidly adapt to what foods best suit us in the moment. See your diet as food, nourishment, joy and a way to socially connect and seasonally adapt. It’s a cool thing; who doesn’t love food and eating and to do so with freedom is a privilege.
Learn about your body, your ancestry, your environment from the ground up: the soil, wild plants, what you can grow yourself in a vegetable plot, local agriculture, farmers markets and the whole local supply chain.
Ask questions about where the food is coming from. For example is the beef on your plate Irish or an import from Brazil that may be linked with the Amazon forest destruction? Read here. Are your avocados from Mexico? Read more here. To make a positive impact on our world and economies, environment and climate it is important that we get curious about where our food comes from and how is the best way to eat based on where we live and what is available to us. Develop your own ideas and thoughts on this because I don’t feel any one person has the answer here. Do what you can, in your own way.
Learn about the food our oceans and rivers provide. Get to know your food likes and dislikes, be inquisitive about your food cravings and mostly, be flexible because our health needs also change over time.
There are many theories proposed about the cause of our current health and obesity epidemics.
Obesity and our growing waist lines are only the tip of the iceberg. We have more autoimmune conditions (The World Incidence and Prevalence of Autoimmune Diseases is Increasing), more allergies (see global atlas of allergy the allergy epidemic section), more digestive problems like inflammatory bowel disease (for example), more cancer and increasing incidence of infertility.
As first world developed nations we have more affluence than ever; and massive numbers of our population are not optimally healthy or experiencing “good” quality of life because they are not well. This is directly linked to the food we eat, the way that it is cooked, how and how much it is processed, lifestyle habits, environmental pollution and the stresses that our modern lives create (in addition to other susceptibility factors such as genetics, gut microbiome, etc.).
I think food and nutrition, activity levels and weight, genetics and environment are very complex and interrelated issues. They cannot be explained by just one theory: we are mind, body, emotions and the memory of all events in our lifetimes. Our health even extends beyond our own control and direct experiences as research shows us that genes are influenced by the stress our mothers experienced before and during pregnancy, what we were fed as an infant and even what our mothers and father ate in the preconception and for the mother during her pregnancy period. if your father smoked this impacts you, if your mum was overweight and so on. Amazing! Generational trauma can also influence our health as far forwards as several generations!
Some things we can change, some we can improve; the rest we cannot worry about and all of us can do our best to nurture and nourish our bodies and minds to our best ability.
A few things I would pay attention to are:
- Food volume (we eat too much).
- The balance of food groups on the plate: vegetables should dominate the portion for most of us.
- When we eat and how much of a gap we give our digestive system (it is good to fast on occasion or more correctly termed intermittent fasting; especially if you have chronic health challenges).
- Food processing such as refined and high sugar carbohydrates, heat processed/ treated fats, poor quality processed protein, processed vegan or vegetarian foods, burnt or charred foods.
- Food (and health supplement) quality.
- Air-miles and country of origin.
- Animal well-fare, environmental responsibility, fair-trade.
- Excessive use and hence intake of food additives, pesticides, artificial sweeteners, herbicides, etc.
- Our exposure to endocrine disrupters, heavy metals (e.g. amalgams, water quality, food quality, local industry, dare I also say food imported from China) and carcinogenic substances.
- Medication use and its impact on our homeostatic balance in addition to the gut microbiome (e.g. proton pump inhibitors, excessive use of antibiotics or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain killers).
- Gut health especially in relation to food quality, and diet regimen (low carb or high protein, keto, high carb etc all have consequences for the gut microbiome) and also foreign travel and exposure to parasites and microbes.
- Stress management, sleep, shift-work, jet-lag, exercise and movement.
- And finally our emotional / psychological health.
Our bodies health relies on a delicate balance of so many factors.
A healthy body is resilient, resistant to illness and infections, and adaptive; there are only so many insults that it can take before it all starts to spiral into a mess.
The sooner you pay attention and make changes whilst removing triggers and causes, then the better.
Separate ethics from nutrition + health science. We are created to thrive optimally on some meat or animal products (how much probably depends on where our original tribe comes from). Whether you decide to do this or not is your choice and if for ethical reasons you decide to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet then you must be prepared to learn about nutrition, understand food, and put time into meeting the nutritional needs of your bodies. Supplements are often needed. Much focus is often placed on meeting protein, iron and B12 needs; however there are concerns for other nutrients such as retinol (preformed vitamin A), vitamin D3, iodine, zinc, phospholipids, helpful substances such as creatine, carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, carnosine, choline, DHA and specific amino acids. That said, some forward thinking, good diet planning and sensible supplementation will help you meet your needs.
A vegetarian and vegan diet can be filled with as much junk as an omnivore diet; neither diet is optimal if built on poor quality food and both have environmental consequences.
That said, it is possible to balance our consciences with our health and be an example of what we believe in.
Educate and empower yourself:
Learn how to build a healthy meal and what a good balance of protein, vegetables, fats, and carbohydrate foods look like on your plate. Most of us don’t eat enough protein, over-eat carbohydrates and especially the least nutritious ones, fail to get in sufficient vegetables, over-eat fruit, don’t understand the difference between types of fats, and don’t drink enough pure water. We let bad habits become the acceptable norm and consider processed foods and beverages as ok in our typical week; they aren’t.
It is worth educating yourself about what YOUR ideal plate looks like and how this may change dynamically. For example when exercising, as the seasons change, in health versus illness, for growing active children, across the menstrual or gestational cycle, during times of stress, when healing an injury, etc. We work on this together in the clinic. This is an example of two different food plates:
Eat enough, and sometimes go hungry – it doesn’t have to be as rigid in structure as intermittent fasting (IF); such a rigid structure as IF doesn’t work for all of us. But do practice going hungry a few times a week. For example delay your breakfast, eat a light broth lunch or dinner, or go to bed fasting on occasion. Many of our food issues are that we simply eat too much and the human body was designed for periods of hunger or at least not being fed all of the time!
We are still learning about what “patterns” of eating serve us best – when is optimal timing, frequency or even the perfect split of meals across the day. Do we fast in the AM or eat like a king? When should our last meal be in the evening/ night? What matters more the food timing or the foods chosen? And what about very northern or southern hemispheres were there are big difference in the day and night cycles across the seasons? This is a fascinating area of research; I am not an expert in this field which is churning out some fascinating research.
There are so many individual variables that make the answer I would give “it depends”. This is why it is good to sit down with an expert to explore what may work best for you and also take this into historical context with your health and lifestyle, i.e. what have you intuitively found works for you and what clearly doesn’t work. Current health, hormone balance, activity levels, sleep patterns, outdoor and indoor light exposure, shift work may all influence how it is best to time your meals, your work and your training schedule.
More extreme diets are usually reserved for more extreme needs.
Do we need to go so far as ketogenic diet for our individual optimal health? Probably not. But if suffering with epilepsy or multiple sclerosis (MS) or a neurological disorder then a keto approach may support other integrative and medical approaches well. There is evidence that a keto approach may even reduce medication need for these conditions.
On the counter argument however, a keto diet may not be the best choice if you are working on healing gastrointestinal challenges and encouraging a healthy microbiome. In this instance less sugars is a must but some fiber rich low glycaemic index natural carbohydrates may be helpful. Think lentils, beans, oats, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, root vegetables for example. These are nutritious carbohydrate choices that can happily take up approximately 1/4 of your plate or a fist sized portion for several meals in the week.
Do we need to go no/ low carbohydrate? Certainly most of us can do with eating less carbohydrates, especially high sugar and processed carbs, but a stricter low carb/ no carb diet may only be necessary for those with insulin resistance issues, acne, PCOS, metabolic syndrome, specific training cycles for athletes, etc.
The take home message for carbohydrates should be that we all reduce our intake to small to moderate portions AND make better carbohydrate choices (clients please see your food charts for guidance) and tailor the portion to our activity levels.
Do we all need to avoid gluten? There is no doubt that a percentage of the population have gastrointestinal symptoms (Coeliac, Crohn’s, Ulcerative colitis, post-infectious IBS) or extra-intestinal symptoms (e.g. autoimmune disorders, neurological symptoms) triggered by gluten ingestion along with other factors; but not all of us can blame gluten as the only culprit. There can be many other triggers going on in the mix which merit investigation such as poor diet, inflammation, dysbiosis, parasites, viral illness, stress, etc.
Are you an athlete?
If you are an athlete learn about how to periodise your food with your daily training in the context of your training micro- and macro-cycle and your individual goals. This basically is the same as already mentioned, eat enough and sometimes eat less and on rare occasion eat a lot more (racing); vary your carbohydrate intake to support key sessions with higher as well as lower carbohydrate availability and keep a strong focus on quality and variety. Learn how to tweak your protein and fat intake to support optimal health and performance. A few sessions with an expert (like me!) really does help to educate and empower you in your journey in sport. This is truly tailoring nutrition to the athlete.
Learn to use the internet and not be used by it. Google, YouTube, instagram and facebook groups (like here) can be a great place to learn about recipes, food ingredients, cooking skills, seasonal foods, local classes, and local resources such as co-ops, farmers markets, etc.
Get curious about your food heritage. I don’t know why but we always seem to place certain foods on a revolving health superfood pedestal. The super food for you, isn’t always going to be the same as for someone else. A few recent examples, in the context of most of my clients living and coming from Ireland or Eastern Europe:
- Avocado – great for us yes; local to us? No. Eat in small amounts and enjoy but don’t feel obliged.
- Coconut oil – a healthy fat of this there is no doubt and very stable for cooking at higher temperature; but coconuts grow nowhere near Ireland or Eastern Europe. What about grass-fed butter, ghee, olive oil or rapeseed oil for cooking, wild or organic salmon for additional omega 3, or cold pressed flax oil (on salads) as the main focus to which we add coconut oil from time to time?
- Goji berries do not grow in Ireland, they are also pretty expensive. What about the deeply pigmented foods more readily available and affordable to us here such as blackberries, wild berries, red cabbage, beets, etc.
- Positive examples of superfoods for us Irish are cruciferous vegetables, cold water fish, quality grass-fed meat, probiotic organic dairy, allium family vegetables like onions and garlic, hard cheeses, wild berries and hips, nettles, wild garlic, dandelion and fermented foods.
- I do believe that many of the exotic superfoods that reach us here are super awesome, in truth its hard now to know what can and what cannot grow here (e.g. an aubergine is a tropical plant yet I had to google does it grow here. Not outside of a greenhouse if you wanted to know!); but you don’t need to go over your affordable food budget led astray by the promise of what just one food can do for you. It is possible to pack your diet full of local goodness. I have written about this here:
Quick check list:
Make quality of food your priority.
Wash it before consuming; frozen food also.
Prepare it healthily.
Stick to the basics and get this right first; then get adventurous.
A healthy diet need not be expensive – look to what your ancestors ate and what your local food producers provide. Sometimes the discounted food and produce section of the supermarket has some great bargains for fresh food. Fish and meats can be frozen for later use.
Be less wasteful – from packaging to volume of food waste, to ensuring that you use as much of each plant or animal as you can. Consider eating more organ meats and offal; and adding vegetarian days to reduce lean meat consumption.
I believe there is great strength in a mostly plant based diet with conservative intake of animal products. This means adding a few bean and vegetable dishes to your meals during the week and even slotting in the occasional meal with tempeh or tofu Try to get away from the traditional thinking of every meal must have meat and veg.
Start reading labels and asking questions about what is in the food, where did it come from, is it overly processed and additive packed, or is it a good compromise on home cooked.
Eat close to mother nature
The best meals for your body are those constructed on real foods; for example several vegetables, good quality protein, a dash of healthy fats, natural condiments like vinegar, herbs and spices and optional whole-grains. Sometimes food does require some packaging for practicality in our busy lives like canned tomatoes or sardines or condiments such as Dijon mustard, relish or curry spice blends. If you aim to make as much as possible natural with some healthier convenience additions then this will stand to your health and need not take a lot of your time. e.g.
- Slow cooker meat, roasted veg, polenta.
- Scrambled eggs, avocado, baby tomatoes, rye/ sourdough/ home-baked bread.
- Home-made soups, broths, casseroles.
- Pan-fried/ oven roasted in butter/olive oil fresh fish with mixed salad and boiled/ roasted potatoes/ sweet potatoes/ squash.
- Meat stew with root vegetables and steamed broccoli.
- Stir-fry meat or tofu and vegetables seasoned with Balsamic vinegar/ soya sauce/ mirin served on bean pasta/ black rice noodles/ soba noodles.
- All in one salad of veg + protein + left-over grain like quinoa/ millet/ brown rice.
- Lentil and vegetable curry served with steamed vegetables or brown/ black/ red rice.
Eat vegetarian meals now and again; it is good for you, the environment and your food budget.
Learn some new skills
You don’t need to be a Peter Sagan in the kitchen (he’s funny; ok I really mean any Michelin chef!); learn basic cooking skills and so long as you enjoy what you are eating and keep your food choices varied you are doing great. Then with time build on this….
Invest in some helpful kitchen tools
Set your kitchen up to make life easy; invest in some good utensils and storage containers; here are some ideas.
Educate to empower
Know your food groups; once you know what your ideal plate portions should look like; learn how to use variety across the food groups. This is something that we work on in the clinic and I give you take home resource sheets with great detail to support this.
Learn which foods to choose to easily find specific nutrients such as anti-inflammatory nutrients, antioxidants, gut health supporters and healers, immune friendly foods, minerals like magnesium and iron, vitamins such as B12, Vitamin A and D, etc to work on identified areas of deficiency in your diet. All clients get comprehensive resource sheets to make this easier.
Start getting into the habit of planning meals; this will make it simpler to make good choices when the pressure and stress is on.
Get stocked up
Stock the cupboards, refrigerator and freezer with the essentials and remove the foods that are not healthy. If it is there you will eat it (good stuff); if it is not you cannot (bad stuff).
Ask yourself before every meal, how can I make this better and then do that one thing. It could be as simple as chopping some parsley into that smashed salmon going on your toast but it is one step better.
Vary your foods around a theme; e..g. switch rice → brown rice → black rice → quinoa → buckwheat → polenta → millet → teff → amaranth, etc. See your food charts for more ideas (clients).
Cook books, blogs, online recipes, etc are a fantastic way to open you up to new ideas. Don’t feel that you have to copy everything perfectly; sometimes the nudge to variety and stimulus for ideas is all that we need.
Although not a food, good sleep and skills to manage stress are crucial to support our ability to make good food choices, to digest and absorb our meals and to maintain health and performance be that on the sports field, in the home, classroom, or boardroom.
Listen to experts and be mindful of giving too much credibility to bloggers and forum debates:
A well-trained, well-read, and open-minded nutrition expert will know what should work best for you. Most of us however agree that an extreme approach whereby entire food groups are excluded is unnecessary for most; or perhaps is only necessary for a certain defined amount of time or to treat a specific issue. Often excluding food groups without treating the other causes for health issues can lead to more food allergies happening, leading to an even bigger health mess.
I do believe that food allergies exist, I am skeptical about the accuracy of food intolerance tests, and experience shows me that most food intolerance issues are downstream of compromised gut function and so I start here first with clients (exploring the gut for infection, inflammation, immune dysfunction, dysbiosis).
If I recommend that we need to work on your gastrointestinal health or implement tests to look at your gut function, microbiology and parasitology I don’t do this lightly. I know that tests are expensive and also incredibly helpful for many patients suffering with chronic or acute health issues.
Learn from experts – If I had a euro for every fad diet that I see walk through my door, every news article influencing a client that has actually been written by a journalist and not an expert adept in science, every person blindly following companies marketing be it direct to consumer or covertly through a celebrity, or taken from a book that only depicts one side of the story then I would be very rich. In fact I should probably employ all these strategies myself but I would never sell myself out.
I, along with all good therapists in my field, read original research and go to conferences presented by experts. I went to college to study nutrition and university to gain a degree in the medical field (pharmacy). I still feel like I know nothing and yet I know that my skill set and 20 years experience count for far more than those with weekend courses and mega claims.
I don’t simply give advice based on the latest fad, nor do I need to be told about the latest guru with a gazzillion followers – trust me I have my eyes open I watch what is happening.
My job is to give YOU advice, tailored to YOU, based on a thorough evaluation of YOUR current health and/ or fitness challenges all combined with experience and intuition based on YOUR likes, dislikes, and lifestyle to best serve YOU.
Get it! A good piece of advice is to learn nutrition from experts such as dieticians, accredited nutritional therapists, scientists, researchers, physiologists and biologists, etc, learn to cook from chefs, and learn about health from medically trained experts. But mostly, learn to be discerning.
Health is also about what we are exposed to:
Examine your environment and clean up where you can in the areas of: cleaning products, toiletries, cosmetics, cooking utensils, water quality, food quality and everything that touches your body through touch, breath, ingestion. Every positive change helps; you don’t need to be obsessive, just aware.
Food is emotional!
We are emotional creatures – learn about your emotional connection to food and work this to your favour instead of subjecting yourself to vicious cycles of frustrating self-sabotage.
Emotions, perceptions, beliefs and trauma can all impact our relationship to food. This applies to almost all of us and so is something worth getting curious about. I love these types of chats; they get to the core of so many negative food relationships and open the doors to sustainable health and a happy relationship with food and our bodies. Sports performance is also potentially improved when we find a better relationship with food.
Watch emotional eating – boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, exhaustion, low energy. Catch these and consider is there a different way to feel better? And if these states are leading to poor food choices that ultimately leave you feeling even crappier how can we plan ahead for when motivation to make healthy choices or prepare healthy meals is low?
- Prepare ahead so food is ready in advance of the “wrecked from work cannot be assed to cook mood”.
- Make extra when you do cook and store/ freeze for the busy days.
- Have a stash of portable and health snacks available.
- Make a rule of never going to the fridge first after work but instead spending a few quiet moments leaving the day go. If you have a dog or cat, give them some attention first; if you have a nice garden go and sit in it!
- Do the food shop online, stock the cupboards with health ingredients, keep some veg in the fridge, have healthy condiments available so that an easy meal is doable.
Can you think about your weak spots? Most of us know how to eat well, so this real issue is why don’t we? Stop making excuses, it is actually easy to prep fast healthy meals if you really want to. If your why is big enough you will want to.
When there is a WHY, there is a WILL, and there is a WAY
Avoid tangling your identity up into your diet; I see the worst arguments happen over diet because people cannot be open to many approaches working for us all.
Appetite is a body call for nutrition, not merely calories and macronutrients. If you don’t meet your body needs for the essentials such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, trace elements, amino acids, and essential fatty acids your body will be looking for them. And fascinatingly our guts need fibre to satisfy the needs of our microbe visitors to prevent them digesting our stomach mucus and stomach lining! A restricted or poor quality diet will not satisfy appetite and sets you up for failure.
Hunger is complex – we can also have emotional hunger. Learn to know the difference.
Pay attention to food cravings, and learn to be intuitive about what your body is saying to you about its moment to moment nutrition needs. Try to not over think it.
Although calories matter, most of us do NOT need to count calories in and calories out in the long-term. A short period of time calorie tracking can be very informative about what you didn’t think that you were doing (sneaky grin), but do remember that it is a guesstimate at best so why waste your time permanently tracking your diet; focus your energy on more productive things. I have written about this here; I recommend an assessment of what you are doing as the best way to tweak and improve.
Are you an active person or athlete that burns calories to treat themselves? Our body needs more than calories (fuel); it needs the building blocks of construction, repair and optimal function. Health and performance are a function of nutrient density, not merely calories.
Exercise is not something that we do to earn food; food is an expression of self-love and is what nourishes us and heals us.
Disordered eating patterns, food phobias, excluding multiple food groups, strict food rules, weight issues and disruptive patterns such as anorexia, bulimia, over-exercise or laxative abuse are very damaging for our long-term physical and mental health – let’s talk about it and find better strategies and skills for dealing with life and how much you are feeling. I get it…
Be aware of the food choices that you mindlessly make; many of us are in denial about a lot of negative eating patterns. Start being mindful about what you eat and drink!
Avoid labeling things as GOOD or BAD, or seeing foods as TREATS/ REWARD or PUNISHMENT. This is damaging to our self-esteem.
Stop going on “diets”; start “eating healthily every day” because it’s what you do to feel good, to be healthy and to respect your body.
Lifestyle choices are emotional too! You need to dig deep and be honest with yourself about the choices that you make and whether these must be altered in order to allow sustainable nutrition and health changes to happen. Explore eating out, take outs, alcohol, work lunch, eating in the car, eating your kids food (yes this counts too), eating in front of the TV – where are you in denial OR not prepared to change? WHY?
Distraction makes us eat more and enjoy and appreciate it less. When you eat, EAT, when you do other things, DO THEM.
Frequently assess and tweak:
Body composition analysis is the most accurate way to track meaningful health and anthropometric changes over time and not simply weight. Book an appointment if you would like to know more about our BodyStat MDD 1500 device.
Frequent food and activity diary analysis and feedback is a great way to stay accountable, push progress, and open you up to ideas and suggestions – pop me an email if you would like to have this done for you.
Aim to get as many days as possible done consistently well so that when ‘events’ or ‘life’ get in the way you have the points in the bank to have some fun with your diet and resilience in your health and fitness to absorb this.
Excuses are not good enough; you are making them to yourself. At the end of the day it is your body, your health and your life. Your choice!
Where are you going to start making changes? Set new goals every week.
Phew, that wasn’t a short article!
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