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Eating Well

What is a Healthy Diet?

In these times, there seem to be as many "healthy diets" as there are experts. While our specific dietary needs may vary according to our individual body types, metabolisms, and genetics, there are some basic guidelines that can be useful in determining which foods are nutritious and which are not.

  1. Eat whole foods. A whole food is a plant or animal product that remains as close as possible to its natural state. It is unprocessed, unrefined, and contains greater nutritional value than its factory-made alternatives. For instance, a piece of fresh fruit offers fiber that is missing from fruit juice or sugary fruit drinks; real cheddar is a great source of calcium without the unhealthy additives and colorings of processed American cheese.

    A perfect example of the difference between whole and processed foods is the case of whole-grain wheat versus white flour. To make the white flour you see in white bread and most baked goods, the manufacturer takes a whole-wheat berry through a series of steps. First, machines strip the germ and the bran from the outer section of the grain, removing fiber, B vitamins, and other important nutrients. The remaining part of the grain--the nutritionally poor endosperm--is then milled into flour, which removes further nutrients in the process. Humans need these nutrients to digest and absorb vitamins and minerals; when we don’t get them from our food, we take them from our bodies reserves. Because extreme deficiencies of certain B vitamins are associated with diseases of malnutrition, the manufacturers "enrich" the flour by adding back synthetic versions of a few selected nutrients, like thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), and folic acid. But these nutrients alone may not be enough to keep our bodies strong, and eventually, the reserves can become depleted.

    Whole foods are also an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that works together with sodium to maintain balanced fluid levels in our cells. To do this properly, our bodies must always have anywhere from two to six times as much potassium as sodium (experts disagree on the precise ratio). All fresh fruits and vegetables contain high levels of potassium. Because it is found abundantly in almost all whole foods, our bodies have evolved to easily process and excrete potassium. Sodium, on the other hand, is hard to come by in whole foods (have you ever eaten a salty apple?). As a result, our bodies have evolved to hoard sodium. Food processing almost always increases sodium and decreases potassium. Thus, a diet heavy in processed foods can threaten our sodium/potassium balance, which can lead to high blood pressure, edema, kidney disease, and low energy. 

    Now that I’m in my eighties I want to try to be well. I’m very keen on soups these days. I make my own so I can control the sodium content. When I use canned soup I add an equal amount of water to reduce the sodium in each portion.

  2. Emphasize fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants--nutrients that help neutralize toxins in the body. Generally, brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain the highest levels of antioxidants: for example, yellow, orange, and dark green vegetables; citrus fruits; and cruciferous vegetables (those in the cabbage family, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage). While taking antioxidants in supplement form can be beneficial, those found in foods are much more powerful.

    Fruits and vegetables are also high in other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C, which is supportive to the immune system, is abundant in strawberries, oranges, and bell peppers. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are a powerhouse of beta-carotene, which is important for vision. Green leafy vegetables support the health of our bones and teeth, among other things, with high levels of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K.

    In addition to the protection they offer us from disease, fruits and vegetables are essential for our daily bodily functions. Fiber from fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes helps us digest and move food through our system. The amount of time this takes is called bowel transit time (BTT). The ideal BTT is a point of disagreement among experts, but eighteen to thirty hours is considered safe and healthy. A transit time that is too short may not allow your body to absorb nutrients adequately, while a BTT that is too long will allow your body to reabsorb toxins and used hormones that were on the way out. These toxins and hormones then return to your bloodstream and may cause problems, from joint and muscle pains to hormone imbalances. It is normal to have one to three bowel movements per day. If you are not having at least one bowel movement per day, you should consider increasing your fiber intake through the foods mentioned above. (If you are having more than three bowel movements per day, this may be a sign of a serious condition; consult your health care provider.)

    Some helpful guidelines to follow: Eat two to four pieces of fresh fruit daily, and fill half your plate with vegetables at any given meal. The graphic on this page may help you to envision what that looks like.

  3. Eat the amount and combination of whole foods that make you feel best. There are many different approaches to healthy eating. If you feel good eating a high-protein diet with lots of nonstarchy vegetables and few carbohydrates, it may be the best diet for you. However, if you feel best eating a diet high in grains, vegetables, and beans, that may be the best diet for you. 

    I was a vegetarian for 12 years, thinking that it was the best thing for my health. By the end of that time I was sick and depleted. I reluctantly added meat back into my diet, little by little. It made such a difference, but I still felt sick a lot of the time. I found out that I was sensitive to gluten, so I eliminated that, which helped more, but I still had lots of intestinal discomfort. A couple of years ago I started trying the specific carbohydrate diet, which has totally changed my life. Eliminating all grains, sugar, and some other starchy foods, and focusing my diet on organic meats, cheeses, and lots of fruits and veggies made my intestinal pain disappear within a week. It was miraculous.

  4. Eat local, seasonal organic foods if possible. The cost and availability of organic foods varies widely depending on your geographic location, so this is not an option for everyone. However, if organic foods are available, they are almost always a healthier option. Organic farmers constantly replenish the nutrients in their soil to maintain the health and disease resistance of their plants. This allows them to avoid using potentially harmful chemicals, and as a result, their fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of nutrients and fewer toxic chemicals such as pesticides.3 Buying fruits and vegetables that are local and seasonal is also a wise food choice, for several reasons. The money you spend supports local farmers and stays in the local economy. Knowing where your food comes from and how it is grown gives you safer food choices. And because locally grown produce is generally picked at the peak of ripeness and eaten soon afterward, it is packed with nutrients and tastes great. Look for a local farmers market in your area by going to www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/. (For more information, see "Supporting Better Farming Practices." 

    Animals that are grass-fed and/or raised on organic foods (and all the products those animals produce) seem to have superior nutritional profiles.4 In addition, studies have shown that children who grow up eating organic foods have lower levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies than those raised eating conventional foods.5

    If finances prevent you from choosing all organic foods, you might simply make organic substitutes for the foods most likely to contain pesticide residues: meat, eggs, and dairy products, all of which contain fat. Most pesticides are made from petroleum, which is an oil, and therefore dissolve and store most easily in fats (they are fat-soluble). For more information on pesticides and hormone-disrupting chemicals in the food supply, see Chapter 7, "Environmental and Occupational Health." In addition, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that the following fruits and vegetables contain the highest residues: apples, bell peppers, blueberries, celery, cherries, grapes (imported), nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Conversely, the following foods were found to have the lowest pesticide residue levels: asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, corn (sweet), kiwi, mangoes, onions, papaya, pineapples, and peas (sweet).

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective. 

4. Dr. Joseph Mercola, Why Grassfed Animal Products Are Better for You: A Quick Review of the Fats That Make Up Your Body, Mercola.com, 2004.
5. Cynthia L. Curl, Richard A. Fenske, Kai Elgethun, Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban preschool children with organic and conventional diets, Environmental Health Perspectives: Journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences III, no. 3 (March 2003): 377-82. Accessed September 23, 2004 at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1241395/ 


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