In recent years I’ve been researching different ways of eating and trying some out. For a long time I ate thoughtlessly, whatever felt good and was convenient, not giving much thought to my health.
That way of eating seemed at the time like a sort of relief from the often stressful circumstances of daily life, but in hindsight I realized that it was probably only contributing to the stress.
The way of eating that I’ve settled on is in a way not so radical. It basically follows what public health guidelines have been recommending for some time now. I admit that early on I fell down the rabbit-hole of notions about how the public health community is living in the Stone Age and they probably just haven’t heard about the really good science that says that butter is back, bacon is brilliant, saturated fat and salt and cholesterol are all healthy and everything with carbs is bad. Thankfully, that phase of mine lasted only a year or two.
I find that eating well has had many benefits for me, but one of the most dear has been how it has helped me think more clearly. Thinking is less foggy, is less often painful, is less interrupted by the sorts of emotional responses that make it hard to keep perspective.
I’ve been trying to distill down the essence of the changes that I’ve found most valuable. A few practical recommendations, then, based on my research and experience:
- More fibre. We eat extremely fibre-deficient diets, and rectifying that problem can do a lot for our health and for our sense of well-being. If you’re like me, you probably hear that and think of buying All-bran or Metamucil, something that’s refined the fibre to be by itself. Don’t do it. It’s both much cheaper and much healthier (and, believe me, much tastier) to get them as part of whole foods with all the other nutrients that naturally come with them. Whole grains (eg oatmeal), legumes (eg black beans), fruits (eg blueberries), vegetables (eg kale), and seeds or nuts (eg walnuts) are great healthy ways to get some fibre into the diet.
- Less saturated fat. Saturated fat, along with trans fat and dietary cholesterol, are known to worsen the main risk factor for heart disease, so for that reason alone they’re worth avoiding, but those same components for the same reasons are bad for brain health (cutting down blood flow to the brain over time). Saturated fat is also extremely pro-inflammatory. So finding ways to decrease these things in our diet can be beneficial. They show up in processed food, in animal products (especially cheese), and saturated fat also is in some tropical oils like coconut oil.
- Less salt. Blood pressure of course is affected by sodium intake, and also some cancers. Add minimally, and eat processed food and restaurant food more infrequently, since we can’t control how much salt gets used in those things. Chicken from the grocery store, incidentally, often has quite a bit of salt water injected into it, making it a significant source of sodium as well.
- More antioxidants. Herbs and spices should be used generously! Berries and leafy greens are also good options. Antioxidants are protective for brain health, as well as all sorts of other parts of our health. It’s far inferior to get antioxidants by vitamin pills, not nearly as beneficial. There’s very little antioxidant presence in animal products.
- Less oil. Even oil that doesn’t have much saturated fat in it is really pretty much nothing more than empty fat calories. Use sparingly.
- Fewer refined carbohydrates. Added sugar, white flour, these are the sorts of things I’m thinking of in this category. They’ve had the healthy stuff (especially fibre, but not only that) removed and only the empty calories left behind. Not so good for us.
There are some other facets as well that are worth paying attention to — animal protein has some health downsides for kidneys and cancer risk, for instance, and some foods have more of the sorts of heavy metals and pollutants that we should be avoiding, and that’s not even getting into the disease risks that come from factory farming and the environmental benefits of some diets over others. It’s possible to dive pretty deep!
But I think that focusing on my above list of six things to watch out for moves us a long way in the right direction, toward being healthier and feeling our best. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve found nutritionfacts.org to be an excellent resource.
I know some people might be critical of such a focus on food, or health, or risk. “Be brave,” they’ll say, “and just eat what you want! Stop living in fear! The body is made for man, not man for the body!”
If needlessly eating a diet that makes them feel unwell and dramatically increases the chance of ill health is how they manifest the virtue of courage, I will happily leave them to it.