One of the most important lifestyle changes I recommend to my patients is to improve their diets. Patients who make this change often notice life-changing effects on their health. But most patients come to me totally confused about nutrition.
As I discussed in my last column, there are a dizzying number of diets and nutritional theories, from celebrity diets to weight-loss programs to the USDA Food Pyramid. The problem is they do not agree on what makes up a healthy diet. Modern nutritional advice is not very helpful and changes often, adding to the confusion.
My patients ask me, “What do we eat?” It sounds like a simple question. But the answer can be complicated because it involves not just what to eat, but also the quality of our foods.
Several observers of native cultures — people who are not “civilized” and still eat as their ancestors did for centuries — talk about how healthy those cultures are, assuming they have access to good foods. (By “healthy” I mean free from the chronic diseases that plague us, such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer, often summarized as “diseases of civilization.”)
The interesting thing is that these cultures had very different diets. We are told about the importance of eating several servings of veggies every day, and that we should limit meat consumption. However, the Native Americans from the plains had very little plant-based foods to eat, as they were surrounded by grasslands. Their diet was almost exclusively meat, yet they were remarkably free from chronic disease. Yet the same was true of other native cultures that had little access to meat and ate a plant-based diet. Their produce was raised in what we would call an organic fashion; no chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used. Quite different from the foods available at the supermarket today.
So the issue is not just what you eat — likely more important is the quality of the foods you choose. I don’t tell my patients to eat less meat; meat and animal products such as eggs are full of nutrients and have healthy fats that control blood sugar, support the heart and help us feel full. However, I do recommend that my patients eat less “factory farmed” meat and more free-range or wild-caught meats. (Free-range meat is expensive to buy in small amounts; it is more cost effective to buy directly from the farmer in bulk.)
Most of us would benefit from eating more veggies, but drinking them as a highly processed juice or in the form of French fries is not the answer. They are best in their least processed state, either raw or lightly steamed, and more palatable when you add olive oil or an oil-and-vinegar mix.
As simple as it sounds, veggies are almost “color coded” by nutrient, so all you have to do is make a point of eating a variety of colors to get your nutrients. Green veggies generally have the lowest carb content, while white ones (potatoes, especially) have the highest.
Dairy products are a mixed bag. They are a perfect food for very young animals, but less so for adult humans. Again, they are often processed, with low-fat, sweetened versions of milk and yogurt available. If you do eat dairy, limit it to unprocessed milk, cheese and yogurt.
Fruits are also a good choice, but they should be eaten in limited quantities, and again preferably in whole form. Apples are a great food, and I recommend them as a snack, especially if you add some peanut butter for protein and fat. But I strongly advise against drinking reconstituted apple juice. This product (I wouldn’t really call it a food) is so processed that it’s basically sugar water with apple flavoring.
Of course, in addition to food quality, what to eat is still an issue. I recommend my patients reduce or eliminate wheat, in all its forms, from their diets. I realize this goes directly against current advice but the health benefits for my patients have been enormous. We have seen improvements in problems ranging from colitis to arthritis and depression to infertility. (For me personally, it was sleep apnea. The only true treatment was to get off wheat.)
Part of our problem is that we are surrounded by “food like products” that are heavily advertised as nutritious. When a highly processed fruit juice with added artificial vitamins is touted as a healthy breakfast drink, you know something is wrong. We are so used to eating products that do not even resemble food — cookies, soda, chips — that we have lost all sense of real nutrition.
Try to stick to the Big Three: meat and animal products, vegetables and fruit. Eat as much as you want, as long as they are in a healthy, minimally processed form. Avoid anything that isn’t real food. These simple rules can make such a difference in your health that if you follow them, you may not recognize yourself in a few months.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.