The holidays are just around the corner, with the attendant obligation to overeat and ingest more sugar, salt and fat than we normally would. Special occasions call for special circumstances.
Human culture has honored the importance of food in celebrations and gatherings of all types for millennia. Food and joyful celebrations are powerful bonds for families and friends. Guided by customs and availability, special foods enhance weddings, holidays and myriad social events. Food is fun, festive, symbolic — and necessary for survival, of course.
Here are a few tips to get you through the end of 2020 and help you boost your health in positive ways in 2021.
Diet and health
Your diet is likely shaped by how much time, money or energy you are willing to invest. Speed, ease, economy, simplicity and your upbringing most likely affect your choices. I propose another criteria, one which only you can discern — what works for your body now?
Food serves many needs but, primarily, food should be nutritious fuel your body can use. Unfortunately, many modern “foods” are linked with fatal diseases and are nutritionally barren. All foods contain some combination of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. These materials are used to build, repair and animate the body. Vibrant health requires more from food than merely a full stomach.
Everything you put in your mouth affects your health, for better or worse. You have likely heard the phrase “food is medicine.” Yep. Your goal is to supply good nutrition in the safest form.
There exist dizzying numbers of diets, each claiming phenomenal results. Most regimes are based in some science and can be helpful — to some people. But, one size does not fit all. The question is — what do you need? Many diets take a good idea and go to extremes, in my opinion, making them of questionable use for most of us. Here are some thoughts that keep coming up in my study of nutrition.
No single food offers everything your body needs, so consume a wide variety of foods. Leave the details to Mother Nature, unless you want to be an expert in nutrition. Brightly colored vegetables are rich in anti-oxidants, nuts and seeds have healthy fats, beans offer protein and fiber. Meat, poultry and seafood are rich in minerals and protein. Try new foods, avoid ruts.
This is important. Get the freshest, highest quality food you can. Nutritional value is determined by how and where the food is grown, shipped and stored. Local is best. Modern farming and food processing techniques are more efficient and profitable than the old ways — but never before have we endured so much chronic illness and obesity. That certainly gives one pause!
A small investment of your time here will yield quite an education. Simple awareness can lead you to make important changes. In general, buy foods with the fewest ingredients and fewest long unpronounceable words. A loaf of bread can have six ingredients or 20. There are thousands of food additives used to make foods taste good, look good, increase storage and even feel good. More are added every year.
Food chemists go to school for years to design foods that will be profitable and last longer than they actually should, but these are not always healthy. Extra sugar, salt and fat, plus many artificial ingredients, are often employed. Do you really want all those extra ingredients in your food? Added ingredients serve different functions. Some increase shelf life or safety, some attempt to replace what processing has removed, others are used to increase sales because they make the food more appealing. Artificial flavors, colors and even vitamins are an attempt to create a product similar to the whole unprocessed version.
For example, wheat. Plentiful in Eastern Oregon, it contains fiber, fats and more than 20 vitamins and minerals. Food processors make “enriched” white flour by removing the fiber, fat and most nutrients, then adding back a few synthetic vitamins. This flour acts like sugar in the body, causing weight gain and blood sugar spikes. Enriched white flour offers little nutritional value, but lots of calories and is commonly used in packaged foods.
Author Michael Pollan puts it succinctly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Foods and human beings have co-evolved for millennia. Human physiology is designed to use real food, not synthetic additives. New to the food chain, margarine used to be promoted as the heart-healthy alternative to butter. Margarine is made from man-made “trans” fats that are not found in nature. These funny fats foul up your machinery, often causing the very disease they claimed to prevent.
The “Mediterranean Diet” is a good place to start. Include foods that you like, are fun and healthy. Don’t obsess over details. Listen to what your body tells you. Does a food help you feel light and energetic, or bloated, heavy and lethargic? You are genetically unique. While we have many similarities, no one is exactly like you. If you wish to enjoy the rich traditional holiday foods which make you feel loved and happy, do it with an attitude of gratitude knowing that this is an exceptional time. That’s actually better for your body than beating yourself up because you “cheated” on some sort of diet. It is what you do most days that matters. Get to know your food, buy local. Pick your battles; you can’t do it all. Above all, have some fun.
And remember, moderation in all things — including moderation.
John Winters is a naturopathic physician, who recently retired after operating a practice in La Grande since 1992.