Food can be healing or harmful, so knowing what your body needs can help you make the right food choices to improve your health and even avoid having to take traditional medicines.
The foods we regularly eat help determine whether or not we will become ill or remain healthy into old age. Whether they are vegetables, fruit, meat, oils or grains, foods contain influential substances, including antioxidants, phyto-nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. Nutrient deficiencies and toxicity from a poor diet are linked to nearly all modern health conditions. Johns Hopkins University reports that some 80% of cancer patients are believed to be malnourished, and that treatments used to battle cancer (like chemotherapy) only increase the body’s need for nutrients and very high-quality foods.
We are all gaining more awareness that diabetes and heart disease (currently the #1 killer in the U.S. and most industrialized nations) are also illnesses that are highly influenced by one’s diet—and the same can be said for allergies and autoimmune disorders like arthritis or thyroid disorders. Studies show that although genes play a role in disease development and prevention, a poor diet can be a serious risk factor for many diseases. Nutrient deficiencies and toxic chemicals in low-quality foods have an effect on human gene expressions, and although each person is different in terms of how much their genes/health are impacted by their diet, many foods can be used to prevent, mitigate or cure chronic diseases. Medicinal foods act like natural protectors against disease and help to slow the effects of aging.
Foods provide us with energy (calories), but they do much more than that. The foods you include in your diet also play a critical role in controlling inflammation levels, balancing blood sugar, regulating cardiovascular health (including blood pressure and cholesterol levels), helping the digestive organs to process and eliminate waste, and much, much more. Certain anti-inflammatory foods even contain powerful active ingredients that help control how your genes are expressed, and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners have taught for thousands of years that food is medicine and that a healthy diet is a powerful tool for protecting one’s health.
Whole, healthy foods can balance hormones and restore proper body pH. Hormones affect every part of your health, from your energy and cognitive abilities to your body weight and sex drive. Abnormal hormonal changes contribute to accelerated aging, diabetes, obesity, fatigue, depression, low mental capacity, reproductive problems and an array of autoimmune diseases. The human body keeps a tight grip on its internal pH level, working hard to keep it around a pH of 7.36. Processed, low-quality foods make the body more acidic and allow diseases to thrive more easily. An alkaline diet helps with cellular renewal and might promote longevity.
It is also important to balance blood glucose (sugar). Diabetes and weight gain are tied to poor insulin response and other hormonal changes. Poorly managed blood sugar levels—due to consuming high amounts of sugar and processed carbohydrates—can lead to cravings, fatigue, neurological damage, mood disorders and hormonal imbalances. To sustain normal blood sugar, experts recommend that low-glycemic and non-processed carbohydrates take the place of refined, empty calories and added sugar.
We have to be extremely careful of what we put in our mouths. For example, toxicity is tied to poor digestive health, hormonal changes and decreasing liver functioning. In modern society, we are bombarded by chemicals from our diet and environment that contribute to inflammation, autoimmune diseases, infertility, hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, and so on. In addition, many of today’s illnesses are due to nutritional deficiencies and high rates of free radical damage. The majority of processed convenience foods are stripped of their natural nutrients—or at least partly man-made—and packed with synthetic ingredients and preservatives, but are very low in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes.
Dietary needs vary from person to person depending on one’s constitution, daily activities, and the environment in which one lives, but there are some fundamental principles that can guide a healthy relationship to food. The ideas articulated below arise from my understanding of Chinese medical food therapy and my clinical and personal experience:
· It is important to begin healthy, medicinal eating by simply eating food, not food products. Our grocery stores are filled with ‘food products’ (protein powder and bars, candy, chips, crackers, smoothie blends…processed foods galore). Whole foods that are natural and as fresh as possible provide the greatest nutrients to the body.
· The 80-20 rule: Try to eat what feels healthful at least 80% of the time—lots of vibrant vegetables and fruits, whole grains and healthy proteins. Strict deprivation is inflammatory, as it increases obsessiveness related to food. Additionally, it predisposes us to binge out of rebellion. Eating well includes occasional indulgence in treats and food pleasures.
· Regular meal times optimize digestive function. The digestive system thrives on warm, simple foods. Food which is cooked is easier for the body to digest than raw food, particularly when living in cold, damp environments. Cold and frozen foods may distress the digestive system.
· Eat some protein at every meal. Protein takes longer to metabolize, thereby regulating blood sugar, insulin, and the hormones which influence our response to stress.
· Consuming small quantities every 3-4 hours prevents sudden energy drops and reduces anxiety and irritability. Snacking on a single hardboiled egg, yogurt or cottage cheese, a small amount of quinoa, or 10-12 nuts will provide more sustained energy than the readily available muffin or scone.
· Keep things moving. Daily bowel movements are imperative to maintain a healthy digestive system and vital health. Regular loose stools or diarrhea are indicative of weakness or sensitivity in the digestive system.
· How we feel when we eat impacts how we digest our food. If rushed, distracted, angry or sad while consuming food, this will impact one’s ability to be fully nourished.
· By choosing organic foods, one decreases one’s own exposure to chemicals which can harm the body and our environment in the short and long term. If financially prioritizing which foods to purchase organically, consider the following: Plants do not have a liver by which to remove toxins from the body. They do consolidate chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, etc.) in their skin and seeds. So if you cannot afford to purchase all of your food organically, try to purchase organic oils, nuts and seeds.
The food-as-medicine movement has been around for decades, but it’s making inroads as physicians, medical institutions and the informed consumer make food a formal part of treatment, rather than relying solely on medications.
Research on the power of food to treat or reverse disease is beginning to accumulate, but that doesn’t mean diet alone is always the solution, or that every illness can benefit substantially from dietary changes. Nonetheless, a clear picture is emerging that the salt, sugar, fat and processed foods in the American diet contribute to the nation’s high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and many other modern day illnesses that we are experiencing. We are becoming more aware of the role food plays in health and prevention of disease.
Knowing what your body really needs to keep healthy, or even cure a disease, can be confusing, so it is best to consult an experienced holistic nutritionist or physician to help you understand which foods/diets will benefit you the most.