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Saturday, Jan 17, 2009
Eat Well, Be Well
As a naturopathic doctor and nutritionist I get asked lots of questions about food and health. There is a never-ending stream of information about what you should eat to be healthy and there is always another diet that is in vogue. Over the last ten years I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering the question, “what is the ideal diet?” Though I believe there is no one-size-fits-all diet, the good news is there are simple principles that you can apply even if we shouldn’t all eat the same. Much of what is healthy is common sense, or least it use to be. The challenge is restoring the “uncommon” common sense, to eat the way you were designed to.

Just as you wouldn’t want to run your car without the right fuel, so it is true with your body. Just as important as the fuel, however, are the “cofactors.” To continue the analogy, imagine running your car without the oil or lubricants in the engine and that surround every moving part. Imagine draining the coolant fluid, and letting most of the air out of the tires. Now fill up the tank with premium unleaded, start the engine, put it in gear, and hit the gas. Perhaps it’s a convertible and you begin to cruise down the boulevard. Though the ride feels a bit strange, you merge onto the freeway, really putting the pedal down. It’s at that moment that you notice the red light on the dash board and hear the squeal of metal on metal. Your joy ride comes to a sudden halt. It is the same with the human body. The fuel is the calorie content of what you eat. The oil, fluids, and air are the “cofactors” of the body, namely vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein and amino acids, fats and essential fatty acids. Just like a car needs fuel and supportive factors, so does your body if it is to last a lifetime.

More and more people are waking up to the fact that the average diet is lacking. Food is plentiful, but much of it is missing those essential cofactors, the nutrients that keep the body operating properly. In some cases one’s diet may be inappropriate given your individuality. It has been said that the diversity of the appropriate human diet is akin to the diet of a cow versus a lion. Lions don’t do well on a vegan diet and neither do cows on a carnivorous one. Humans are equipped to be very adaptable, one reason we’ve been successful as a species. However, depending largely on your genetic makeup, you may thrive on a healthy vegetarian diet or it can make you sick. Despite the variability there are basic principles that come close to being the ideal diet for most people. The caveat is that when someone is suffering from a specific disease or health problem, his or her diet can be tailored to encourage healing and restore health (especially when diet was the primary cause).

Hopefully you are now on the edge of your seat waiting to discover the “diet for all people.” The accumulated knowledge of what led to this diet recommendation comes from both science and the human traditions of nourishment from the past. From studying cultures that are the healthiest and looking at human nutritional science, many scientists believe the ideal human diet is the Paleolithic or “hunter-gatherer diet.” This diet consists of nutrient and fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean meat and animal products. What are notably missing from the diet are grains, refined sugar, homogenized milk, and most processed foods. Though I don’t think it’s practical or even necessary for most people to follow this diet to a tee, it does provide an important template. The take away message is that we eat too much grain-based foods and sugar, while getting too few vegetables. In addition, the animal products we now eat bear little resemblance to what our ancestors hunted in the wild. The nutritional profile of domesticated beef for example, is quite different from that of wild deer or even grass-fed bison.

The challenge for us all is to tame the tendency to take the path of least resistance, stopping at the drive-thru, grabbing the unhealthy convenience foods, not planning ahead, and never really taking the time to learn how to feed oneself. In today’s world healthy eating requires exercising your brain a little before your gustatory and digestive systems.

Next time I will discuss how to practically apply the Paleolithic diet and how an individualized diet can cure common ailments.

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