This article describes and explains my current view on what constitutes a healthy diet along with health promoting eating habits. Further, it will give examples of meals based on the suggested diet. The diet is simple to implement and relatively low cost - I spend about US $150/month.
I read a lot about the topics of health and especially diets. I have been experimenting with diets since 1990 and keep journals about my observations. Over time I tried several very different diets - ranging from the politically correct ones to highly controversial, along with diets of my own design. My general observation is that a healthy diet plays an essential role in the overall scheme of well being.
Why eat healthy?
Eating the natural foods humans are well adapted at utilizing, enhances ones ability to cope with the reality of every day life. This in essence improves the probability of living a longer, healthier life. Quality food consumption becomes especially important in the present world of high stress and pollution - making a healthy diet an essential aspect of modern self health care. (Although food is not the only aspect contributing to health or disease, it is significant enough to consider it's effects seriously.)
I think anybody who seriously tried living healthier through a better diet, proper physical activity, adequate rest, and by addressing mental and spiritual factors have experienced a vast range of natural health benefits. Common benefits are overall better health and a sense of well being, better sleep, improved physical endurance and strength, sharper mental abilities and lower sleep requirements. Further more, no or little time and money and energy is spend on doctors, hospitals and health insurance bills.
What is a healthy diet?
Since this article deals with healthy eating, a question remains to be answered: what constitutes a healthy diet? Unfortunately, there are more opinions about this than there are health experts. To further complicate the matter, dietary concepts change over time, leaving most people confused and uncertain about what or whom to trust. One solution to this problem is to become sufficiently knowledgeable about the relevant subjects and rely on common sense to draw basic conclusions. Along with personal experimentation, such an approach will enable one to establish healthy eating habits. This takes time and energy, but considering the long lasting benefits a healthy diet can provide, the effort is more then well worth it.
In order to determine the minimal basic requirements of a healthy diet, I concluded that it is safe to start with the following two objectives: examine human diet over time - the foods humans consumed since the arrival of our species. examine diets of ethnical groups known for their good health.
Looking at the type of diets humans lived on through out pre-history, provides good insights into the kind of foods human body should be well adapted at utilizing and dealing with. Further, the diets of certain ethnical groups that are well known for good health - the people of Okinawa(Japan), traditional cultures in the Mediterranean region and many hunter-gatherer societies - suggest certain health promoting dietary habits. Upon closer examination, two main denominators emerged: diets are based on natural, whole or minimally processed foods in accordance to heritage. diets are lower in calories compared to a typical western diet.
In the context of present time, one can therefore make two general assumptions in regard to the question of what constitutes a healthy diet: 1) generally, the less a food is processed the better. 2) eat less - eat what is adequate, do not over eat.
Generally, the less a food is processed the better.
The reason for this is simple. For 99.9% of human existence, our species lived on foods that were either raw or minimally processed. The technology needed to increase food processing did not exist until very recently. It is therefore reasonable to assume that our bodies are best adapted at utilizing and dealing with the raw or minimally processed foods which sustained us for hundreds of thousands of years: fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and seeds.
Often, the more recent the food is, the more likely it is to be less beneficial or even directly harmful - possibly due to lack of full adaptation to such foods. For example, it is estimated that food cooking started about 500 000 - 250 000 years ago (depending on the source, the range may vary). During this time frame, it is likely that human species have at least adapted in some way to cooked animal and vegetable foods. On the other hand, the beginnings of grain consumption are much more recent. Evidence of earliest known, systematical collecting of grains for food goes back to about 23 000 years ago - giving less time for adaptation to grain based foods.
Now, let's fast forward to recent times and consider all the new, human invented, highly processed foods so common today: fast foods, pizza, sweets, chips, convenience foods, canned foods, etc. along with the dramatic rise in heart attacks, high blood pressure, stroke, cancers, diabetes, kidney problems (and all the complications that arose from these conditions) during the past 100 years or so.
Considering the declining health of most western nations as opposed to good health of the ethnical groups described above, it seems reasonable that the most recent food inventions are directly harmful to human health. Further, it has been repeatedly observed that as ethnical groups around the world adopt the modern western diet, their health dramatically declines and they develop the same diseases that are so common to westerners. Not to mention the fact that the above mentioned diseases were far less common among westerners themselves barely 100 years ago.
The more a food is processed - through excessive cooking, pasteurization, homogenization, high heat, mechanical processing, etc, - the less natural and nutritious it becomes to a point of becoming a harmful burden to the body, rather then a useful and health promoting food. Some industrial processing practices deprive food of their nutrients to such a high degree that the food has to be "enriched" by artificially adding some nutrients back into the food. This is especially true of flours where vitamins are added back in after the processing is done.
A good diet is based on natural, whole or minimally processed foods. A large portion of it should consist of foods that can be eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables. Fermented or cultured, unpasteurized foods such as kefir, yogurt, cheeses, miso, sauerkraut and pickles are considered highly beneficial. Cooking should be minimal and only applied to foods that must be cooked in order to be edible. Ancestral heritage also plays an important role as certain foods may need to be excluded or emphasized.
Eat less - eat what is adequate, do not over eat
During the past several decades, food in the western and westernized nations became increasingly affordable and more readily available then ever before in human history. This very fact combined with the enjoyment food consumption brings, results in all too frequent over eating. Which again leads to the above mentioned health problems.
In the past, as in the traditional way of living among the ethnical groups mentioned earlier, food consumption has always been significantly lower. Food quality, on the other hand, has always been higher. Resulting in a lower food intake, but of nutrient dense foods.
Finally, as an interesting note, it has been repeatedly confirmed through laboratory experiments on animals, including monkeys, that cutting down calories considerably lowers their susceptibility to diseases and prolongs their life up to 50%. It is believed by many, that life long caloric restriction can have similar effects on humans.
Health promoting eating habits
Over time, through reading and experimenting, I gradually arrived at several basic health promoting habits that in my experience are the most important:
Avoid or minimize: Avoid all junk, sweets, canned and convenience foods - including all foods with added sugar: most commercial yogurts, kefirs and juices, fruit and soft drinks. Avoid all refined or overly heated fats: margarine, any oil that is not cold pressed, leftover fat from cooking, all foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats and trans fatty acids (read the labels). Such fats are considered to be among the most health damaging foods. Avoid consumption of fish and water animals unless certain they came from unpolluted waters. Especially predators should be avoided as the toxins accumulate in them in far greater quantities. Keep the intake of foods high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) low - mainly nuts and seeds and any products made from them (mostly oils). PUFAs are unstable, they oxidize readily resulting in harmful free radicals. High PUFA intake have been repeatedly linked with cancer, heart and inflammatory diseases. Do not cook meat or fat at high temperatures while exposed to air. Such practice will avoid fat and cholesterol oxidation - believed to be responsible for build up of arterial plaque and injury to arterial cells. Grilling and frying is especially harmful. Boiling is probably the safest way of cooking meat. Minimize or eliminate consumption of foods frequently contaminated with mycotoxins: alcoholic beverages, wheat, rye, barley, corn and peanuts. Mycotoxins are poisonous substances produced by certain molds and fungi which cause a wide range of health problems including cancer, asthma, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
Emphasize and do: The more natural and less processed the food the better. Emphasize whole, fresh foods. Replace white rice with brown rice; white bread with whole grain bread; sugar with small amounts of raw honey or dry fruit; pasta with millet or whole grain pasta; canned foods with fresh; candy and other sweets with dry or sweet fruit; etc. Organic foods are best as they are higher in nutrients and do not contain harmful pesticides, hormones or antibiotics found in conventional foods. Always choose fresh over frozen, dried or canned foods. Fresh foods taste better, have more nutrients in them, have no added salt, sugar or unhealthy additives. Enjoy simple meals. Generally, the simpler the food preparation the more nutrients are preserved and the easier it is to digest. Simple meals are easy and quick to prepare and use fewer resources like electricity and water - thus are more environmentally friendly and less costly. Only cook foods that need to be cooked in order to be edible (beans, grains and some vegetables). Foods that are edible in a raw state (fruits, most vegetables, sprouts, nuts and seeds) should be consumed on a daily basis and preferably with every meal. Raw foods are higher in nutrients, which to some degree get lost during cooking, and are easier to digest. At least 50% of the diet, by volume, should consist of raw foods. Steam vegetables that need to be cooked - steaming preserves more nutrients which when boiled leech into the water. Do not overcook. Cooked vegetables should be crunchy when you eat them, not soft. Chew food well (simply chew it longer) and eat at a comfortable pace. This improves digestion which already starts in the mouth while saliva gets mixed with the food. Variety in diet is very important - to prevent allergies, malnutrition and to lower exposure to natural and man-made toxins found in many natural foods. Always properly wash fruits and vegetables before consumption. This lowers the exposure to agricultural chemicals (used to cultivate conventional plants) and harmful microorganisms. Peel the skin if washing is not sufficient. Nuts and seeds should be soaked before consumption - to lower or eliminate natural anti nutrients like enzyme inhibitors. Soaking makes them much easier to digest. Do not eat more then a few handfuls a week as they are high in PUFAs and difficult to digest. Grains (except amaranth, millet and rice) and beans must be soaked before consumption. This lowers or eliminates anti nutrients like phytic acid which inhibits mineral absorption that can lead to mineral deficiency. Fruits are best eaten alone as a snack between meals. To improve digestion only eat one type of fruit at a time. Regularly consume unpasteurized fermented/cultured foods like sauerkraut, miso, pickles, kefir, yogurt, etc. These are pre-digested foods that are high in probiotics (friendly bacteria) and enzymes which provide numerous health benefits. Start with what your ancestors consumed and later experiment with other foods as well. Regularly consume enzyme rich foods: sprouts, raw honey, grapes, figs, avocados, bananas, papayas, pineapple, kiwi, mango and fermented/cultured foods (see above). Enzymes obtained from raw foods ease the digestion by reducing the body's need to produce digestive enzymes. Consider the diet your ancestors ate for thousands of years - you will most likely do very well on such a diet due to the long period of adaptation to it. For example, the traditional Chinese diet is high in carbohydrates and low in fat and protein; Europeans, on the other hand, have been eating less carbs and more protein and fat; North American Indians did not eat grains. Drink adequate amounts of liquid through out the day. Water is best. Under normal conditions, most people need 2-3 liters of liquid/day. Unless very hungry, do not eat for 3-4 hours before bedtime. That way the nightly fast can be prolonged considerably. This gives the body more/adequate time and energy to perform the countless nightly tasks that are so essential to good health. (Rather then digesting the just eaten meal) Eat only when hungry and do not overeat regardless of food. I found this to be among the most important of all health promoting habits.
Good sources of protein: any meat that comes from organic, free range animals that are fed their natural diet (hard to find) when not organic: lean poultry meat (high fat cuts are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids which oxidize readily during cooking and in the body; toxins accumulate in the fat) beans fresh, soaked or sprouted nuts and seeds raw fermented milk products: sour milk, kefir, cheeses, etc (hard to find) wild game eggs
Most commercial meats including pork and beef, unless organic and not fed corn/grains/beans, contain antibiotics, hormones and too many polyunsaturated fats - thus should be avoided.
Good sources of carbohydrates: vegetables fruits whole or minimally processed fresh grains: rice, oat, amaranth, millet, barley, wheat, etc. beans potatoes
Good sources of fats: avocados butter fresh, soaked or sprouted nuts and seeds (mostly source of omega 6) coconuts or coconut oil full fat raw milk products (cheese, milk, cream, etc) from pasture fed cattleolives or first cold pressed (extra virgin) olive oil
I always try to find organic foods to avoid harmful substances like hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, etc. The most contaminated fruits are: raisins, cherries, peaches, strawberries, mexican (winter) cantaloupe, apples, apricots, Chilean (winter) grapes. And the most contaminated vegetables are: spinach, celery, green beans, bell peppers, cucumbers, cultivated button mushrooms, potatoes and wheat. Lean poultry is probably the safest meat to eat if not organic.
What follows are weekly meals that closely resemble my diet at the time of this writing. When planning meals, the key idea is to have variety in diet and to rely on food combinations that agree with ones digestion.
TBS = table spoon tsp = tea spoon / = or any fruit eaten alone 0.5L sour milk, 300g potatoes, fennel 0.5L kefir, 50-100g oatmeal, 25g raisins 0.5L plain yogurt, 300g grapes/2-3 bananas 50-100g oatmeal, 1-2TBS honey, cinammon 1/2 salad head, 1-2 tomatoes/pepper fruit, 1/2 cucumber/squash, 1-2TBS olive oil medium avocado, 1-2 bananas, cinammon 50-100g brown rice, 1-2 hardboiled eggs, 2-4 radishes, 25-50g leeks, 1-2TBS ground flax seeds, 50g sprouts 50-100g amaranth, 1-2 steamed parsnips, 1 steamed onion, 1-2 steamed carrots, celery stick, 1tsp freshly grated raw ginger, parsley, 1TBS olive oil 200g mung bean sprouts, 1-2 carrots, 25-50g leeks, 25g soaked pumpkin seeds/almonds/sesame seeds 1/2 steamed broccoli/cauliflower, 1-2 tomatoes/pepper fruit, 1/2 squash/cucumber, 150g turkey/chicken breast, 2-3 cloves of minced garlic, 1TBS olive oil 100g buckwheat sprouts, 2 carrots, florence fennel stick, 25g sprouted sunflower seeds, 25g raisins 50-100g amaranth, steamed onion, steamed asparagus, florence fennel stick, 1tsp freshly grated raw ginger, parsley, 1TBS coconut oil 50-100g millet, celery stick, 2-4 radishes, 25-50g leeks, 25g pumpkin seeds
I plan meals loosely, 1-2 days ahead. The meal preparation is very simple: meat and eggs are boiled in water, vegetables that need cooking are steamed. Since certain food vitamins become more bioavailable once exposed to low heat cooking, it is a good idea to alternate between cooked and raw vegetables. For example, Bio-carotene found in carrots becomes more absorbable after light steaming. I adjust the quantity of food according to how physically active I am during the day.
In addition to the above foods I also take vitamin and mineral supplements and drink bottled water. I use spices and salt. Kefir and sour milk are made at home from organic full-fat, unhomogenised pasteurized milk. Sprouts are home grown as well for maximum freshness. Both are very easy to make and require only few minutes of daily attention.
Although a healthy diet can enormously improve ones health, it is only one essential part of healthy living. The other parts are proper and adeqaute physical activity, mental and spiritual well being, and adequate rest. All need to be addressed in order to achieve better health.
An important thing I learned while experimenting with diets and other health related approaches is to always pay attention to the signals from the body. It is essential to do this - in order to maintain good health - and adjust accordingly. As one gets better at reading the body, it becomes natural to self diagnose a lot of minor problems (which can become major if not paid attention to) and remedy them by simply adjusting the diet or other aspects of life. Finally, we are all different - what works for one person may not work for another - thus it's important to experiment with ones diet to find out what works and what doesn't.
USDA National Nutrient Database - find out the nutrient content of many foods. The database files are freely available along with free software.
Books I found especially valuable:
Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol by Mary G. Enig, Ph.D.
Mucusless Diet Healing System by Arnold Ehret Natural Health, Natural Medicine by Andrew Weil, M.D.
Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct
Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon, Mary G. Enig, Ph.D.
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price Survival Into The 21st Century by Viktoras Kulvinskas
The Raw Life: Becoming Natural In An Unnatural World by Paul Nison
About the Author:
Dawid Michalczyk is a freelance illustrator and artist. Besides computers, his main interests include art, health and anthropology. He loves to ride a bicycle and does it almost every day. To see examples of his work and other articles visit his website at http://www.art.eonworks.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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