I’m often asked ‘What’s the best diet’ and there really is no simple answer to this. There is no single type of diet that suits everyone, as we are all individual in our body’s requirements. There are, however, a few simple rules that can be followed that are beneficial for most body types and that can be easily followed.
In an ideal world we would all eat a balanced diet that gave us sufficient of the right foods to keep us in lifelong good health. Unfortunately, every survey of eating habits conducted in the last 30 years or so has clearly shown that even those who say they are eating a healthy, balanced diet are failing to even meet the minimum recommended daily allowances of vital nutrients, let alone optimum levels!
So including as many health-promoting foods in your diet as possible, is essential to long term health (it is no coincidence that chronic degenerative disease rates have risen as nutrient levels in foods have fallen). Too many of the calories that make up the average diet are ‘empty’, meaning that they provide no nutrients, and this is at its worst with processed and refined foods and snacks. Good choices mean better health and longevity for all of us!
One of the major things to be aware of is the quality of any food – a steak from cattle which has been grain-reared in vast sheds, never seen the light of day, and received growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics is NOT the same as a steak from grass-fed, organic cattle. Where our food comes from, how it has been produced, how much processing it receives all contributes to whether it nourishes us. Real food that doesn’t come in a package, that has been produced from quality raw ingredients will almost always be superior to something picked up in a supermarket, deli, or take-away.
Any healthy diet needs to be made up with a preponderance of plant foods. Fruit and vegetables are healthy, and loaded up with vital vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytonutrients and antioxidants that are essential to health. Ensure plentiful supplies of these in your diet – preferably organic. And don’t discount frozen fruit and vegetables – studies show that these often have a higher level of nutrition than those which have been languishing on a shelf for a few days. Some are obviously more nutritious and beneficial than others but all fruits and vegetables are good for you – some are superstars, but they are all stars. Particularly worth mentioning are carrots, beetroot, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms, kale, watercress and onions amongst the vegetables and all the berry fruits, cherries, coconut, kiwifruit and avocados amongst the fruits.
When it comes to meat and fish there are a few simple rules to remember. Naturally reared meat that has been fed on its normal diet will always be the best – cows don’t naturally eat grain, for example, they eat grass, but the majority of beef cattle are now grain-fed. It produces a different meat profile. Chickens that have been allowed to roam as nature intended will have a less fattier profile than those cooped up in big sheds. Organic means that it hasn’t been subjected to growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics. Like humans animals store toxins in their fat, so the unhealthier animals will not only contain more fat, but you will be eating a higher toxic loading.
Now let’s look quickly at grains. These once didn’t form part of the human diet, but over the period of a few thousand years they now form a huge percentage of the Western diet. Many people struggle to cope to digest grains well, resulting in a wide variety of digestive issues, whilst others have no problem at all! And sometimes its not the grain that causes the problem, but the glyphosate sprays that are intensively used in their production that impair gut function. As I said earlier, we are all individual. It is important to be able to tune into your body and assess whether grains may be causing you any problems, from energy lows to serious health issues. If you have any doubts, find a therapist who tests for food intolerances and then adjust your diet accordingly.
Fats are an interesting issue. For years we have been told that fats are bad for us, when in reality they are an important part of our diet, and make a big contribution to health. But not all fats are equal. Some, particularly the man-made fats known as hydrogenated, partially-hydrogenated or trans fats, are very bad news (and unfortunately found in may processed foods and margarine spreads), whilst saturated fats, which are mainly animal in origin, are good for us in moderate amounts. Vegetable oils can be of great value BUT it depends on how they have been processed – commercial processing tends to expose the oil to heat which leads to it spoiling, and having an adverse effect in the body. So chose your fats wisely – cold pressed, or hand pressed oils only, bought fresh in small quantities, moderate amounts of animal fats and avoid processed foods, spreads and margarines.
Whilst we are talking about fats, let’s look at dairy. Milk has become a staple food in the West, but many people struggle to digest it well – in fact 70% of the world population will have lost the enzyme required to digest milk, once they have been weaned. Another animal’s milk is not a particularly natural food to us, can be very mucous-forming within the body and has potentially been linked with certain types of cancer. Also, modern supermarket milk is a world away from milk direct from the cow, raw, unpasteurized and unprocessed – vital nutrients and enzymes are lost turning a potentially health-giving food into something very much less. Also, intensive milk production exacts a terrible price from the cow, and results in residues of antibiotics and other drugs winding up in the milk.
If you can’t imagine life without milk, consider trying some of the nut milks – almond milk, cashew milk or hazelnut milk for example – or even rice milk. Soy milk, although widely available, it not a particularly good choice for most people, so probably best avoided. Yoghurt made with live bacteria, called bio yoghurt, contains probiotic bacteria which are very beneficial to our gut, whilst butter, many of you may be surprised to read, if it comes from grass fed, organic cows is a very healthy food in moderation. It is the same story with cheese, eat in moderation and good quality. Always consider the source of the milk that goes into making these foods.
Nuts and seeds formed a large part of our ancestor’s diet, and contain a wide range of healthy nutrients and fats and should be included on everyone’s list. They are great snack foods, and nut butters are a healthy alternative to normal butter. Also people who eat nuts regularly are less likely to die from heart disease than those who don’t! Which are best? Well, they all offer benefits, so choose your favorites!
As well as being great snacks, many seeds when they are sprouted are a healthy and energy-giving addition to the diet. Alfalfa, mung beans, chick peas, lentils, radish and sunflower seeds are all commonly used, but you can use almost any type of seed. Each sprouted seed has its own distinct flavour and texture, making then superb additions to salads, soups, garnishes etc.
Herbs and spices have numerous health benefits to offer us, as well as a wonderful variety of flavours and tastes to add to food. Use as many of them as often as possible, and as creatively as possible. You will get nothing but benefit!
Finally, let’s look at sweeteners. Sugar is not only NOT a health food, it is an anti-nutrient. It has nothing beneficial to offer, and leaves us more nutritionally depleted than it found us – and that’s without looking at the health issues it causes! Avoiding processed sugars in its many disguises is a good health strategy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use sweeteners though as there are some that don’t cause health issues when used in moderation. Blackstrap molasses is one, raw, cold-pressed honey another. Maple syrup, agave syrup, stevia and xylitol are also useful means of adding sweetness to a dish. Xylitol in particular, looks like sugar and can be used like sugar in baking etc.
Before I finish, let me just say a word about organic. I have recommended it as the best choice for foods, but I understand there is a cost attached to this, and not everyone’s budget will allow it. The reason why I always suggest organic, if at all possible is two-fold. First, because organic food is often, although not always, more nutritious than intensively farmed foods and secondly, and more importantly to me, it comes free of harmful chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides etc. The residues of these chemicals in food potentially have serious health implications in the long term, and as prevention is better than cure, I would rather not court the problem if at all possible.
However, budgets being what they are, if you can’t afford to eat all organic, there is a hierarchy of foods which are ‘dirtier’ than others, and more likely to contain high levels of pesticide. The compromise is to familiarise yourself with this and try and buy organic for the worst of these at least.
Healthy eating revolves around making good choices and having some understanding about how our food is both produced and processed, and the implications this has on both the quality of the food and its nutritional status. Using this knowledge day-to-day with how you eat will pay dividends in both better health and better quality of life.