I was talking with my friend and brilliant yoga teacher Christy Naida about food and dieting. We spoke laughingly about how many diets we had adhered to at one point or another, from veganism to paleo, from raw to Weston Price to Body Ecology to primal. There is no end to the variety of popular diets that one can follow, and it seems that each month a new diet becomes popular and takes over public consciousness. I think that in some ways, this kind of searching is positive; it reveals a drive to be healthy and to pursue well being. In another sense the endless chasing of an ephemeral target so ill-defined as health (seriously, ask yourself how you define health and then ask your friends and family. Like ‘home’ health means something different to everyone) shows us that we are hungering for direction, for someone of authority to tell us how to eat. This part is what saddens and concerns me. It means that we have lost faith in the innate ability of our bodies to discern what is best for us. We have lost connection to our body’s intuition.
A year ago, I began a dramatic change in my diet. Suffering from chronic stress and anxiety, increasingly difficult periods and hormonal imbalances, I became seriously concerned with the track I was heading down. Not that I was eating poorly before, I ate a mostly low-fat diet with lots of veggies, whole grains, little dairy and all organic. And yet, clearly by body was struggling with what I was giving it. I started researching diets that were more heavy on protein, and came across the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), which offered a radically new way of eating. Emphasizing fats (the horror!), grass-fed animal protein, soaked grains and fermented vegetables, it was a completely different way of dieting. But I couldn’t quite follow it to the letter. I researched paleo, but found it too restrictive. Similarly with the GAPS diet, though I strongly advocate its use for patients who fit its profile.
Eventually, I came to the realization that there might not be an external source that tells me what is best for me. I might need to take a deep breath and learn how to listen to my body’s needs and start to trust them. I find that personally I resonate with a Real Foods tradition, which is based on WAPF, but seems to be more flexible and less dogmatic. I’ve learned that for me, a certain amount of carbs in my meals are not the devil destined to cause weight gain, but actually give me a sense of satiety that is otherwise missing. I need more animal protein than most MDs would recommend, but not as much as WAPF purports. I feel best with lots of veggies, but have also come to peace with feeding my sweet tooth, something I hold a lot of judgement of myself on. I will make dessert once or twice a week, and that will feed me and my husband (whose sweet tooth is astronomically larger than my own) a dessert once per day. I am exploring alternative sweeteners like stevia and coconut sugar, both of which are far better options than white or brown sugar or agave syrup.
When my patients ask me what they should be eating, my first question for them is “what do you think you should be eating?” There are a few universals that I believe all of us can benefit from, but the fine tuning of what goes on our plates every day is something that I encourage everyone to find their unique perspective on. Just as there is no one herbal formula that benefits every person, I believe that there is no one diet that is the ‘right’ one. We have to develop a finer sense of craving; not the craving that tells us we need. KFC. now. But the deeper, more subtle and hidden longing of our body for real nourishment. This is the craving we need to feed. Since beginning this experiment, I have been frequently surprised at what my body really craves and what my mouth craves. I’ll often find myself picking up a container of salmon roe or a package of chicken livers, because when I look at them, I feel a deep, primal hunger. Kale, cabbage and sweet potatoes are frequent cravings for me.
The fact that we have lost our food intuition is not surprising to me considering the number of food experts shouting at us to ‘eat this, not that’ and the food companies that revel in false advertising. How can we trust our bodies when we can’t trust our food sources? Our food system has become a slave to marketing and what people want are things that are easy, cheap, and feed the mouth craving for sweet, salty and fatty. To have all of those, corners are cut, quality is lessened, and health suffers for it. Our bodies are built on a daily, monthly and yearly basis of cellular destruction and renewal; what we feed ourselves is in fact what we are made of.
There are a lot of resources out there, and there is a lot of conflicting information. What happens when one diet says ‘salt will kill you’ and another says ‘your body needs salt’; one says ‘low fat will prevent heart disease’ and another says ‘low fat is causing heart disease’? Do the research, read studies, educate yourself as much as possible, and then… trust yourself.
The guidelines I am currently living by are simple but not easy. They are:
1) Learn to really read lables. This means learing what is actually in ‘natural flavors’ and autolyzed yeast extract, soy isoflavones, etc. Most of these are byproducts of food, and have very little real food value, and some are potentially toxic to the nervous system and hormonal system. Be discerning about what you put into your body.
2) Avoid processed foods. This basically means cooking everything from scratch. No organic crackers, no tv dinners, no canned soups. The reason for this is that processed foods often have sneaky ingrediants that are detrimental to our health. The only way you can guarentee that your food is what it says it is, is to make it yourself.
3) If there isn’t a long history of its use in cuisine, think twice. This includes most refined vegetable oils (which are highly processed and potentially damaging to the cardiovascular system), most sugars, refined flour and flour products, and non-fermented soy.
4) Eat foods that deeply nourish you. Only you can know what these are, and they may look different from everyone else’s. But they are probably not cream puffs or fast food. Nourish your body without deprivation, and nourish your soul. A piece of chocolate once in a while or a glass of wine over dinner may add so much more to the health of your spirit than the health benefits of denying yourself for the sake of austerity.
There are many, many resources out there to help you in your journey. The ones that have been instumental in helping me form my personal diet are as follows:
Real Food, By Nina Planck
Deep Nutrition, By Catherine Shanahan, MD
Metabolic Typing Diet, By William Wolcott
Nourishing Traditions, By Sally Fallon and Mary Enig
The Diet Cure, By Julia Ross
And the following Real Food blogs: