With each bite of food you take, you are either preventing disease or creating it. This statement resonates deeply with me because I have seen the power food can have to both heal and to chip away at health and vitality.
Let me tell you a story.
When I was 15, I decided to become a vegetarian because I was disgusted by factory farming and the conditions under which animals were raised for food. (read my story here) I grew up an animal lover, and the thought of participating in this cycle of violence disturbed me greatly. I didn’t give much thought to vegetarianism or what it meant. I simply announced I would no longer be eating meat, and I survived mostly on rice, fruit, and ramen noodles.
A few months passed, and I began to notice was how exhausted I was: I routinely fell asleep in class, especially after lunch. I needed an hour-long nap as soon as I’d get home from school before I’d start my after school activities which consisted of working at our barn and riding the show horses I was training for competitions. Hours of hard work! My hair was dry and frizzy, and I was irritable. My period disappeared.
I had blood drawn and discovered I was severely anemic. I’d put little thought into what I’d eaten up until that point, mostly eating foods that tasted good to me. When I decided to go vegetarian, my diet became even more limited, resulting in dietary deficiencies that caused fatigue and amenorrhea. A lightbulb went off. My diet had caused my anemia. I was making myself unwell. If diet got me there, couldn’t it get me better?
That sparked my interest in health and healing through diet. I researched how to be a healthy vegetarian (click here for my thoughts on that topic), and eventually added humane animal protein back to rebuild and rebalance my hormones.
Unhealthy eating contributes to 310,000 to 580,000 premature deaths each year, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That’s more than tobacco, firearms, and drug use. (source) Our modern diets have become centered around convenient, skeletonized foods that have been adulterated in factories and had their essential nutrients stripped away in the refining process. These foods leach minerals from our bodies, jack our blood sugar and insulin levels, program us to store increased fat, and provide little nutritive benefit for the calories, leading to the cycle of constant hunger and sugar cravings. The result is that we’re overweight yet deficient, exhausted yet wired, depressed and anxious.
But reclaiming health is as easy as deciding what’s on your fork.
It’s time we change our mindset about food. Shift our focus toward foods we should include to thrive: Foods that heal the body, not create imbalance or disease. You’ll be leaving behind the chemically processed foods engineered to have higher contents of refined sodium, fat, and sugars our brains are hardwired to crave. Fats and sugars are the most calorie dense foods that we biologically seek out if it’s famine time, because they keep us fullest longest and provide the biggest calorie bang for our buck. Today, however, when food is overly plentiful in our area of the world, we’re eating these foods not because we need them to survive, but because we crave them and have become addicted to these “food products.” They’re not real foods. I’m talking about Hot Pockets, Pop Tarts, Oreos, fast food meals, microwave breakfast sandwiches, TV dinners, chips, cereal, candy, sodas. Good rule of thumb: Any food with a commercial that airs during sporting events.
How to Use Food as Medicine
My first piece of advice is to pick up a book. Dr Michael Murray’s Encyclopedia of Healing Foods is a great one. Spend some time reading about foods and understanding the unique properties they possess. Plant foods provide oxygenation, healing phytonutrients, disease fighting antioxidants, detox boosting vitamins and nutrients, and gut healing fiber. Healthy fats are essential for hormone balance, and protein is needed for tissue repair, energy, and healthy brain chemistry.
For good health: To stay healthy, eat a plant based diet with the amounts of organic animal protein appropriate for you. That will depend on your age, gender, activity level, and health status. Include plenty of healthy, unadulterated fats such as coconut oil, ghee or butter, olive oil, avocado (a fruit that counts as a healthy fat!). Eat seasonal fruits, legumes if they agree with you, and nuts and seeds if you digest them well. Include some superfoods daily: bone broth, spirulina, leafy greens, green tea, fermented foods. Avoid dairy, grains, vegetables oils, processed food, conventionally raised animal proteins. Mark Hyman describes this way of eating as Pegan: Paleo-Vegan. I love it!
If you want to improve your health or reverse disease, dig into the research. Learn which foods will enhance your areas of weakness. Most, if not all, disease is a result of inflammation, so including anti-inflammatory foods is a great place to start. Where does inflammation usually originate? The gut, as a result of foods that irritate the intestinal tract, feeding bad bacteria and contributing to leaky gut, which causes systemic inflammation and an overactive immune system. Enter autoimmune disease, which is skyrocketing to epidemic proportions.
Excluding inflammatory foods means dumping processed foods, white sugar, gluten, refined grains, dairy, and foods to which you are intolerant. Eggs, soy, and nuts can be culprits. I often have my new clients follow an autoimmune paleo plan for 60 days, then we’ll reintroduce foods one by one to determine which foods cause reaction. That’s a great way to figure out which foods are right for your body.
For gut health, include the anti-inflammatory foods. Colorful foods rich in phytonutrients (such as blueberries and all berries), onions, garlic, wild salmon, sardines, leafy greens, chia seeds are great to start. Fermented foods such as raw kraut provide good bacteria. I love this coconut water kefir. Nutrients such as glutamine and demulcent herbs like licorice and slippery elm soothe an irritated gut lining. The good fats are essential, too.
Your immune system is your first line of defense against disease. It scavenges for and destroys abnormal cells. To boost your immune health, include the high antioxidant foods and anti-viral and anti-bacterial foods (coconut oil is the king here). Foods high in disease fighting and immune-boosting antioxidants are the brightly colored fruits and vegetables and foods high in vitamins A, C, E, zinc, and selenium. Think citrus, berries, leafy greens, nuts, good fats, grass fed meats (especially lamb and beef), oysters. Turmeric and green tea are superstars. The medicinal mushrooms (reishi, shiitake, cordyceps, to name a few) are excellent immune boosters. And don’t forget about herbs!
Superfoods everyone can use for a health boost include bone broth, green vegetable juices, coconut oil, kale and chard, blueberries, fatty fish (wild), grass fed lamb, spirulina, raw kraut, turmeric, green tea.
Be aware that your body’s needs change all the time, dependent upon your stress level, the time of year, and health status. No one diet is right for anyone long-term. Learn to listen to your body’s cues. Eat mindfully and discover which foods feel right for you. You’ll know you’ve found your formula when you have abundant energy throughout the day, you sleep well, have daily bowel movements, and stable moods.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.