As I mentioned in a previous post, the four pillars of health are food, exercise, sleep, and minimizing stress. Today we're going to look at food. It's arguably the most important of the four categories. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most confusing. There are so many warring factions out there claiming one diet is better than another. I look back on my own journey in fitness and think about how many times I've changed my thinking on this subject.
My experience has taught me that there is no ONE magical diet. This is actually a relief. We don't need to be searching for the holy grail of nutrition. There is a simple principle which solves most dietary issues. Eat whole foods. That's literally it. What are whole foods? They are foods that don't have an ingredient label because... the food IS the ingredient. The short list of these foods is vegetables, fruit, meat, nuts, seeds, eggs, and full-fat dairy. If you think about the layout of most grocery stores, these foods are generally located on the perimeter.
So, why is eating whole foods such a panacea? To answer that question, let's look at the characteristics of a healthy diet. In order of importance, they are:
- Energy Balance
- Adequate Supply of Nutrients (vitamins, minerals, plant phenols)
- Positive Hormonal Activity
Energy balance means not eating more food than what our body uses on a daily basis. Our bodies have evolved to be very in tune with what we eat. Whole foods maintain the natural feedback loop in our digestive system that signals us when we've had enough. Processed foods are like a Trojan horse that packs a hidden payload. Our bodies aren't able to properly gauge the amount of calories we're getting from them. Eating whole foods helps us avoid the Trojan horse!
Adequate supply of nutrients is pretty self-explanatory. Whole foods (especially vegetables) provide the wealth of micronutrients our bodies need. A multivitamin may provide vitamins and minerals, but vegetables provide a whole slew of plant phenols that drive cellular regulatory processes and promote positive gene expression.
Positive hormonal activity has to do with how our body responds to carbohydrate-rich foods. In order to process carbohydrates our body produces a hormone called insulin. Insulin stimulates fat storage. A lifetime of over-exposure to insulin causes our fat cells to become resistant to it. This condition is known as diabetes. A diet of whole foods is naturally low in carbohydrates since grains (bread, pasta, etc) and processed foods are not a part of it.
There's a catch with whole foods. You have to cook! Actually that's part of why it works. Everything we do in life is connected - one habit influences another. If you're cooking there's a good chance you won't be watching as much TV, and it's likely your family will gather together for a communal feast. Balance is so important... but that's for another post! In the meantime you can check out a detailed example of a whole food diet, and let me know if you have any questions.