In my journey as both doctor and patient I have come to realize that many people, including myself, want to make changes to live in ways that promote health but may not know what that healthier lifestyle looks like. Unless taught by parents, extended family, siblings, grandparents and teachers what a healthy lifestyle is, a person often has to start the “healthy” journey by learning some fundamentals.

I certainly had to unlearn and relearn many things. I have had to learn how to create a healthy diet, what, how and how much to eat, how much and what kind of exercise I need, why it’s important and how to create and stay in a healthy mind space. I had to learn how to sleep, breathe, stretch, and communicate all in ways to promote health. We simply live our lives from a very young age in the ways we are taught and can observe in our environment (family, friends, school, tv, movies). But that doesn’t mean that what we have learned is what is best for our body and for our health. In fact, many of us have to make a concentrated effort to learn these very basic things as adults.

I am starting this series of conversations with food and diet. So, I always believed that the food I ate in my childhood was very healthy. We had vegetables and salad at every meal, some type of meat, fish or other protein and a carbohydrate or two. Dessert was a rare treat and snacks were often left-overs from the previous day’s evening meal instead of store-bought sugary snacks. We rarely went out to eat, less than one time per year, as my mother cooked everything from scratch. We drank water and sun-tea and so, overall, it sounds pretty healthy, right?

Well, now I can look back and know that other than salad (iceberg), we rarely had raw or fresh fruits. Vegetables were always cooked (boiled or baked) until very soft. The carbohydrates we had were simple (white bread, white potatoes, pasta), not usually complex (whole grains), there was a considerable amount of dairy and fried foods were frequently served. And thanks to my mother’s Italian heritage, there was always ALOT of food, as much as we wanted. It was all so delicious, my Mom was a great cook and filled every meal time with tasty dishes. She loved to cook and everything she put on the table was infused both with her love of cooking and her love for her family. She believed that she was feeding us a very healthy diet.

When I compare my diet of yesteryear to other people I knew, especially in America, my childhood diet was certainly 100 times better than most. Common in America, in the years of my childhood, were meals like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for lunch and dinner, or KFC three times a week, McDonald’s and Wendy’s on the nights when there was no KFC. Snacks in their household were pop tarts and Captain Crunch – soda and juice were the normal drinks and salad was a once month side dish. So, by comparison, I ate super healthy but on the full spectrum of eating healthy, I had a long way to go.

So, the basics of healthy eating are pretty simple. First, whenever possible, whole fresh foods are the best choice. This means food that has not been processed, cooked, cut, added to (or taken away from) that was living a very short time before being bought and consumed. Why? Because it has barely started to break down, it is still living and it offers the best nutrition for the body.

Here are some examples of food I now choose: a tomato that was growing and picked the same day or just days before instead of a can of diced tomatoes, an apple that was growing and picked just days before instead of a jar of applesauce. Rice with the bran that I cook versus a packet of precooked rice that is reheated  in the microwave, local eggs harvested from freely running chickens, local free-range meats, etc.

I follow the Environmental Working Group’s guidelines on what to buy organic so as to cut down on chemicals and toxins and I always wash my fruits and veggies with a spray designed to dissolve away waxes, chemicals and pesticides on the skin.

What else? Well, I steam, bake or lightly saute in glass, ceramic, cast iron or stainless steel. Sometimes we grill on a gas grill. I do not cook on teflon or aluminum, try to avoid the microwave and always refrain from over cooking foods. I eat at least 50% of each meal in the form of raw foods – veggies mostly. I eat balanced meals of 40% complex carbs (whole grains, sweet potato, etc), 30% lean proteins (egg, fish, poultry, bison, beans) and 30% healthy fats (olive oil, flax, avocado). I try to cook just enough for that meal so that the next meal is fresh – and we buy small amounts frequently for the same reason.

I have learned not to overeat. Your stomach, before being stretched by the food you eat, is about the size of your palm-side up hand. It does not need to stretch very much before it sends a signal to your brain that you no longer need to feel “hungry”. It also does not need to stretch very much to start releasing chemicals to break-down the food, a process also controlled by what you have eaten (fat, protein, carb). So, I like to eat several (5-6) small meals during the day as this keeps my blood sugar stable and does not cause my stomach to be over full. It also allows me to completely digest my food before putting more food into my system. I make sure I am hungry before I eat, but I usually am as the amounts I eat at one time are small, slightly more than the palm of my hand. I find if I am still a little hungry after eating, a full glass of water finishes off the sensation.

There are some docs and nutritionists that recommend 3 meals a day, no snacks, and this works for some people. For me, and many others, it is not enough to keep blood sugar stable. I could take Vanadium, Chromium or any number of herbs to “stabilize” my blood sugar, but I have found I can manage by eating in a certain way – and I do not like to take pills or things any more than the next person.

Some other guidelines I follow:

Create a time and space to eat, relaxed, full of joy and thankful for the nourishment I am giving my body.

Make conscious decisions about what I put into my body, choosing foods that are nutritive and healing.

Chew my food well, savore the taste of what I am eating.

Eat slowly and then rest for 20-30 minutes after completing the meal, especially before any vigorous exercise or mental activity.

After I have “rested” post- meal, I take a short walk, do some consciuos breathing and visualize the nourishment I have just given my body spreading to where it is needed.

I do not eat before I go to sleep and I always eat within 15 minutes of waking in the morning.

I drink water with lemon and usually drink before and after my meal, not during.

Buy local fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats, etc, as often as possible.

I try to eat foods in season.

I store left-overs in glass not in plastic.

I minimize the amount of sugar I take in, as you can read in my other posts. I thought I was doing this but it was not enough. So now, it is less than 30 grams per day, and often much lower.

I got tested for food allergens and avoided those for 6 months completely. Now I eat them sparingly.

I limit the overall amount of dairy (cow), gluten and meat that I consume. I use many other other grains and dairy substitutes, although I really like Haagen-Dazs Butter Pecan ice-cream and will have that once in awhile. I also like cheese and will sometimes have a slice of Dubliner or Blue-cheese.

One of the most successful strategies I found was to make a meal plan, figure out the recipes and ingredients needed, make a shopping list and then that is all I buy. It is not a set-in-stone, day-by-day menu. I can swap out meals depending on what I am hungry for, but everything I need is handy and I am prepared by knowing how I am going to cook it. Now that I have been doing this for some time I have a binder full of meals and recipes that I can choose from.

Above all I am forgiving of myself. It is my choice what I eat, how much I eat and if I make the choice once in a great while to eat something that may not have been the best thing for my body, but that I truly enjoy, then I simply eat it and enjoy. And I enjoy a full tummy on Thanksgiving, a oh no don’t touch me now or I will explode state! But that is a once a year celebration and well worth all the yumminess 🙂 Old habits can be hard to break and what helped me was to realize that I can simply make new habits, ones that make me feel really good at the end of the day. For me, I have to be able to achieve my goals to keep encouraged – I have made my habits easy to follow.

Does this sound like a lot of work? It was. I did it slowly over time, making one change here, one change there. It took me a couple of years to get it all worked out – the foods, the meals, how and where I shop, how to stay in budget, the cookware, the glassware, etc…but I am done and simply enjoy the fruits of my labor every day – knowing that I eat healthy and that I am nourishing my body in so many wonderful ways!

Some resources for you:

Photo credits:

  Patrick Hajzler

 Hilde Vanstraelen, www.biewoef.be

 Michaela Kobyakov

 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1305627