Cornerstone 1: Whole Foods
We all know about the plethora of evidence that shows the overprocessed diet we eat in the Western world is a major contributing factor to our overall poor and declining physical and mental health. We are addicted to processed fats, sugars and refined carbohydrates which are calorie-rich, nutrient-poor fillers. This is fast food for fast lives, and sadly leads to lives that may be over faster as a result. These foods tip our bodies into a pro-inflammatory state because our immune and nervous systems encounter them and react appropriately to them as foreign molecules. Our bodies quite correctly identify these substances, such as trans-fats and chemical food additives as invaders and start an inflammatory cascade against them. What’s more, a diet high in simple refined sugar or glucose load forces our pancreas to produce far more insulin for more of the time, than is natural. Over time this leads to erratic blood sugar control and insulin resistance of our cell receptors; tissues and cells become bathed in glucose and insulin. This sugar-loaded state is also pro-inflammatory, and many rigorous cardiovascular studies have now linked this metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes to the formation of obesity and artherosclerosis. These then lead to heart attacks, strokes, angina, high blood pressure, and even Alzheimer’s disease. In each of the following sections the key take-home message is in bold; these messages are backed up by rigorous evidence. These statements have helped me to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed when tackling personal health improvement one step at time: remember each small change gives tangible benefits.
Calorie counting and fad diets
If there is one thing I’d like you to take away about food it is this: nutritional value is far superior to calorie counting for gaining control of weight and overall health. Our Western diets are leaving us overweight and malnourished. If we get the nutritional content of our diets right our bodies tend to self-regulate calorie intake. When we focus on calorie counting, we often leave ourselves deficient in the vast array of vitamins, minerals, bioflavonoids, antioxidants, fibre, and pre- and probiotic nutrients that help our bodies’ rest, digest and repair systems to function adequately to repair our bodies after a busy day. Fad diets involving calorie counting or swapping out whole foods for shakes, bars, powders or breakfast cereals are only ever going to give you short-term results which deplete the body’s essential nutrients and leave you back at square one when trying to go back to “normal”. In addition to this, food is for enjoyment, it’s a social experience to be savoured. Fads also rob us of this part of life that is here to be enjoyed. Food is more than nourishment: it is also profoundly social and an integral part of our relationships.
Whole foods and healthy carbs
A food which is still in the form in which it was grown from the earth or the animal from which it came can be called a whole food. Use this as an underpinning principle for everything you eat: the less a food resembles its natural state the more processed and refined it is, and the more likely it is to promote chronic inflammation, microbiome destruction and free radical damage. This rule of thumb therefore calls into question one entire section of our diet, carbohydrates. There is a lot of confusion over what constitutes healthy carbs, with some health-focused websites, blogs and social media channels suggesting that we need to eat less and less carbs. Our bodies need complex carbohydrates and starches for energy, but we need to be clear that the whole food message also applies to this food group. Anything which is made from refined white flour is as good as pure glucose syrup for causing chaotic blood sugar spikes, therefore behaving metabolically as empty calories which drive sugar addiction and overeating. Pure glucose has a Glycaemic Index or GI of 100 and white bread can be anything above a GI of 80. Anything with a GI of 70 or above will cause a rapid spike in blood sugar and therefore cause the chaotic fluctuation in blood sugar that gives us sugar craving, brain fog, irritability and ultimately contributes to the hidden epidemics. The process of refining grains and rice removes the bran (fibre, B-vitamins, prebiotics and phytonutrients) and the germ (Vitamins B and E, some proteins and healthy fats) and leaves the endosperm, the carbohydrate-rich part which also contains a very small amount of protein. This would include most breads bought in the supermarket whether white or brown: they are rarely wholemeal and contain a large number of ingredients which are unrecognisable as whole foods. The same goes for white pasta, white rice, and peeled white potatoes (all the nutrient content lies immediately below the skin). In order to feel fuller for longer and gain all the health benefits of eating wholegrain foods we must take a personal in-depth look at what we are eating in the carbohydrate starchy food group. Rather than just reaching for the pasta or white crusty bread every night, try some different grains and starches like couscous, buckwheat, quinoa, wholegrain rice, and try replacing peeled roast potatoes with roasted colourful root veggies. Some nutritious and flavoursome whole grain flours include rye, spelt and polenta: give them a try, if you haven’t already. Having worked with the paediatric diabetes team during my career I was acutely aware of the detrimental effects of white processed carbs, but I could never seem to change my own bad habits. In the end it was simple, I just stopped buying them, and one by one replaced them with a variety of other options.
Going organic, and quantities of plant-based foods
We now know that five portions of fruit and vegetable foods per day are not adequate for optimal health. We have to consider the portion size, eg a lettuce leaf in a sandwich doesn’t constitute a portion. The portion rule of thumb for fruit and veg is: a portion for you is how much you can comfortably hold in your hand. You can really improve your overall nutrition by increasing this to 10 portions of plant foods per day, and by eating a rainbow of coloured foods each day. Each different colour is loaded with a variety of different nutrients and prebiotics needed for feeding different species in our gut microflora. Figure 2 shows a simple starting guide to the array of health benefits from employing this change to our diet. Moving to organic foods also reduces the load of glyphosate-based pesticides, which harm our microbiome, and also some studies show that organic whole foods contain more vitamins and minerals per mg, although research in this area is less comprehensive. There are two lists that it is worth being aware of: the clean fifteen and the dirty dozen of organic fruit and veggies: it’s worth looking at these lists regularly to get an up-to-date guide to pesticide load on non-organic foods and see which ones are best bought organic. These lists are incredibly useful because organic food is more expensive, and at a glance, you know where to prioritise spending on organic produce. It’s also worth investigating local organic farms, as buying directly from the supplier is also cheaper. There is also good emerging evidence from the Newcastle University farm that choosing organic cows’ dairy is much more nutritious than regular milk, butter and cheese. I personally would like to reduce the load of pesticides I’m feeding to myself and my family by choosing as much locally sourced organic whole food as I can find. It is clear that this will at least help the microbiome, and perhaps give us a bit more nutrition per mouthful too.
Consider the colour spectrum of fruit and veg consumption and think of building up to ten portions per day, with a maximum of two portions of fruit. Start by including a portion of green vegetables every day, and gradually build up to the whole rainbow.
There is a lot of talk about sugar, but one thing is crystal clear from the literature: our bodies do not need refined sugar for health or survival. Sweet whole foods are sweet and delicious but also contain vitamins and minerals, alongside fibre which helps our body to process the sugar more evenly, not causing the chaotic fluctuations in blood sugar which are so detrimental to our health. Animal and human studies have shown that consuming refined sugar leads to up to 10 times more addictive behaviours than cocaine, and we are feeding it to our children like it’s going out of fashion. It’s really worth doing the following simple thought exercise and then consider taking refined sugar out of your diet altogether.
Thought exercise: Spend less than a minute before each mealtime being grateful for the nutrition our food gives us, to help us to do the best work of our lives and heal us from the daily insults of living. Then call to mind that refined sugar and carbohydrates are addictive drugs, which are harmful to our minds and bodies. Why would we feed this to ourselves and our children/grandchildren?
Allergens and specific diets
There are many different types of diets which can provide large health benefits to many people. I refer back to the section on bio-individuality here because I really do believe that there is no utopian diet which would work perfectly for everyone. We are all unique. Having said that, if you are going to try going gluten free or diary free or try a ketogenetic or vegan diet: go back to the whole foods principle and apply this to whichever dietary approach you feel suits you. Once again, this is why I suggest that going whole is the only absolute rule.
I follow a gluten-free and diary-free diet and find that removing these foods from my diet has really benefitted my underlying asthma, so much so that I am now be free of all medications. However, I would not suggest this for everyone because there are lots of great nutritional benefits to be gained from gluten-containing whole grains and organic dairy. Gluten-free shop-bought foods can be loaded with refined sugar and carbohydrates, and are therefore considerably less healthy and very expensive.
When I was a working as a paediatrician, I have seen the ketogenic diet work wonders for children with complex epilepsy and adults with mental health conditions, but I have also seen this diet carried out badly with little or no nutritious fats and protein, and simply eating sausages and bacon. Feel free to experiment always applying the underlying principle of whole foods. If it’s a complex diet you’d like to try, find a nutritionist in your area who can guide you through this in a healthy way so that you don’t inadvertently end up starving yourself of essential nutrients.
Plenty of fluids
This is so simple and obvious that it almost doesn’t need to be said, but still sometimes the simplest solutions are hidden in plain sight! Drinking more filtered water can make more difference than you imagine and perhaps more difference than any other change you try to make. Our consumption of diuretic foods and drinks can leave us chronically dehydrated and therefore prone to headaches, skin breakouts and constipation. Tea and coffee, sugary and salty snacks all stimulate the kidneys to produce more urine and therefore we lose body fluid. Build up to 2-3 litres of clear fluids per day, either water or herbal teas. As we get older, we can rely less on thirst as an indicator and need to make more conscious decisions to drink enough fluids. If you are thirsty you are already dehydrated. Try filling a litre water bottle at the beginning of the day and sipping at it through a straw. Try adding squeezed citrus fruit, or replacing coffees with herbal teas or turmeric lattes.
Try a task: Cupboard clear-out realising your purchasing power: take a free weekend and plan this with your housemates or family. Empty all your cupboards onto the floor or kitchen table and take a look at the ingredients on each packet. The rules are simple – if it has more than five ingredients, especially if they contain sugar, glucose, fructose, maltose, inverted glucose syrup or anything that is difficult to recognise as something that grows from the ground or comes directly from an animal – bin it. It can also be fun to tie in moral and ethical considerations here: my 13-year-old daughter has encouraged us to think about the food miles involved in our veggies and also reducing packaging. Be creative and have fun with this, knowing that benefiting your own health can have wide-reaching economic, ethical and climate benefits too.