Holistic Nutrition

For most of my life, I have been interested in the subject of nutrition and have read many books and explored many holistic approaches to diet and health.  Many nutritional paradigms are directly contradictory, and I have experimented with my diet, synthesizing many of these differing approaches to find a philosophy of eating that works well for me.

To briefly sum up my nutritional philosophy, I believe that we should eat the whole, natural foods that our body evolved to survive on. This means a variety of vegetables, meat (from as much of the animal as possible, not just steaks and chicken breast, but tendons, organ meats, and broth made from boiling bones and joints), and whole grains. I believe that we should avoid as much as possible eating processed foods such as white flower and sugar, and strive to eliminate artificial and highly industrialized foods such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and modern food additives from our diet. Ideally, we should get our nutrition from natural foods and not in the form of pills and powders.

My interest in nutrition goes back to my childhood when my father was a vegetarian, and I followed in his path for several years. A vegetarian was an unusual thing in Alief, Texas in the 1970s, so I had to explain myself a lot to my peers, which in turn sparked a lot of thought and personal reflection on health, ethics, and ecology. I am no longer a vegetarian, but I am grateful for that early period of non-conformism, as I think it has helped me throughout my life to question common assumptions and to act not out of habit or convention, but according to the judgment of my conscience and reason. (Later I will post another article about why I have come to believe that it is ethical to include meat in our diets.)

Over the years I have been fortunate in meeting several mentors in different fields of holistic nutrition. I’ve come to the conclusion that no one nutritional philosophy is best for every person, and that each individual’s optimal diet is determined by his or her body type, tastes, and lifestyle demands.

Here is a quick overview of some of the nutritional philosophies I have encountered over the years that have informed by views on diet and health.

Food Combining

The theory of food combining states that our digestive systems are configured to digest either carbohydrate-dominated foods such as grains OR protein-based foods such as meat, but not both in the same meal. To eat high protein foods together with high carbohydrate foods inhibits the proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients, clogs the eliminative system, and creates a toxic environment in the bowels.

Vegetables, particularly fresh, raw vegetables, contain active enzymes that assist in digestion. Therefore fresh vegetables should be eaten with every meal.

Fruits digest very quickly and should be eaten alone, on an empty stomach. That means you can eat fruit as a snack between meals or up to a half hour before a meal. Eating fruit during or after a meal causes the fruit to over-digest and ferment, creating gas and poor digestion. Certain fruits, such as melons and tropical fruits, are so quickly digested that they should be eaten alone, not with other fruits. Granny Smith apples, on the other hand, are so low in sugar and high in fiber that they count as vegetables and can be eaten in salads or juiced with carrots, beets, celery, ginger, etc.

Good books on food combining include “Fit for Life” by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond and “The Pro-Vita! Plan” by Dr. Jack Tips.

Dr. Tips recommends eating your high-protein meals during the day when your system is strong and alert, starting with a late breakfast, then late lunch. Basically, these would be salads with raw veggies, nuts, seeds, sprouts, and a protein, like cottage cheese, seafood, chicken, eggs, or fermented soy (miso soup with tofu, for example). He’s also big on omelets and soup. The evening meal is the carbohydrate meal, based on whole grains with veggies or a whole wheat pasta primavera, etc. Once a week or so, you can indulge and have pancakes or even dessert for dinner.

Food combining can be hard to get used to, especially if you’ve formed your taste with standard American dishes like hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and sandwiches. I have adopted certain principles from food combining that work well for me and improve the way I feel, but I still eat sandwiches and the occasional burger (ideally grass-fed beef cooked medium rare over charcoal!).

Here’s what I’ve adopted from the food combining system: I start each day by drinking a lot of water to hydrate myself. Food combining principles state that you should not drink large quantities of liquids with meals, as that dilutes your digestive juices.

I might eat a small amount of fruit a half hour or so after waking up to get some energy without taxing my sleepy digestive system (I am not a morning person). I typically am not hungry for breakfast until I’ve been up at least an hour.

Otherwise, I try to follow the rules of food combining as best I can, without cramping too much on my enjoyment of life and food.

Cleansing

I was introduced to the idea of periodic fasting, or “cleansing,” through a friend who was doing a 28-day cleanse recommended by the book “Arise and Shine” by Dr. Richard Anderson.

The rationale behind the “Arise and Shine” program is that through our SAD (Standard American Diet) eating habits over the years, our eliminative systems are completely clogged up with “mucoid plaque,” a toxic rubbery green-gray gunk that coats our intestines, inhibits the digestion and assimilation of our food and creates habitat for parasites. This junk, according to the book, is the reason for all those oddly distended, round bellies that abound in America.

We can avoid further build-up of this plaque by transitioning to a mainly raw fruit and veggie diet, but first we need to “cleanse” to get rid of the plaque already coating our system. To start the program, we first have to build up the body’s alkaline enzyme buffers (by taking the herbal formulae they sell you), then taper off your diet over 3 weeks until you are taking in only fruit and vegetable juices for the 4th week, all the while taking more herbal formulae to break up the plaque and drinking massive quantities of psyllium (the super-fiber that powers things like Metamucil, but they have their brand to sell you) and bentonite (an edible clay used traditionally to leach toxins, and yes they sell their own brand), and take colonics or enemas of water, herbal teas, and coffee to flush out all that toxic gunk. Then you need to buy the pro-biotic capsules they sell to repopulate your intestinal flora. The theory is backed up in the book by many testimonials and even pictures of the striated, garden-hose like “mucoid” excretions from enthusiastic cleansers who have followed the plan.

Despite my sarcastic tone, I really do believe that the program was worth doing once, even though I spent at least as much money on their herbs and other products as I otherwise would have spent on food for the month. But I needed the structure of the program, the well-defined routine of taking the pills and psyllium drinks, tapering off the meals, etc. to shepherd me through the unfamiliar, scary landscape of fasting.

The book was a strong motivator, though now I no longer believe its claims. I think that “cleansing” can easily become a destructive obsession, a kind of obsessive-compulsive eating disorder, where you never are completely “clean” enough and have to keep going back for another round of fasting. While I think that detoxification of our systems is important (by eating clean foods free from pesticides, herbicides, and hormones and by getting out into fresh air and doing deep breathing chi kung exercises), I no longer believe in “mucoid plaque.” I think that the globby stuff that people are passing in the book is largely psyllium, bentonite, intestinal flora, and a small amount of nasty putrified food.

It would probably be a good policy to designate one day every 2-4 weeks to take it easy on your system and just eat fruit or salad, or do a day-long juice, grape or watermelon fast. The master cleanse is a popular (and inexpensive) program that involves drinking a strong lemonade with maple syrup and cayenne while eliminating solid food for 1-10 days.

Probably the greatest benefits I got from my cleanse were psychological. I really became aware of the degree to which eating is an emotional crutch. Now I know when I crave food out of boredom or anxiety, and not because my body needs it. Since I did the 28 day cleanse in 1999, I have much better control over what I eat. I have a clear sense of what is food (good or bad), and what is simply garbage.

Macrobiotics

Macrobiotics is an approach to nutrition that is based on principles of Oriental medicine. It rose to popularity in the 1960-70s as a “cancer cure diet.” The core principle of macrobiotics is balance. Foods are categorized according to their effect on body tissues as Yang (heating, contracting) and Yin (cooling, expanding). Excessively yang or yin foods such as sugar, caffeine, and meat are de-emphasized in favor of more balanced foods such as whole grains, cooked land and sea vegetables, salt pickled vegetables, soy products, and small amounts of sea food.

Macrobiotics also deals with the healing properties of certain vegetables such as beets, winter squash & pumpkins, burdock root, and sea weeds. Other vegetables, particularly nightshades (peppers, eggplants, tomatoes) are avoided because they can exacerbate allergic conditions and cause inflammation.

The first wave of macrobiotic teachers in the 1960s claimed that raw vegetables were difficult to digest and should be avoided. Today, advocates of the macrobiotic lifestyle embrace raw vegetables for people with healthy digestive systems. People with compromised digestion are encouraged to stick to slow-cooked foods until their systems get toned up.

Macrobiotics, like food combining, suggests that you hydrate before and between meals, drinking only moderately during or after meals. Water is best for hydration. A mild tea such as sencha green tea, kukicha “twig tea” or herbal teas are recommended with meals. Fruit juices are considered to be too sugary, but fresh juice is preferable to frozen or bottled. You are encouraged to heed the advice of Mahatma Ghandi, who said “Drink your food, and chew your drink,” meaning, chew so thoroughly that you liquefy your food, and try to get much of your fluids from water-rich, fresh food.  Very cold foods, such as ice water and ice cream are avoided, as they shock the digestive system and sap the body’s core energy.

Study of macrobiotics led me to give up eating refined sugar, white flour, and white rice (except on special occasions), and got me into eating whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat. It brought some delicious vegetables such as winter squashes (butternut, acorn, etc.), sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beets, and sea vegetables such as kombu and wakame as staples of my diet. It introduced me to miso soups, which are delicious and easy to prepare.

The Weston A. Price Foundation and the Nourishing Traditions Diet

Weston Price was a dentist in the early 20th century who, as chairman of the American Dental Association’s research section, traveled the world studying the teeth and gums of people in traditional societies and those living in modern cities. What he found, to his great surprise, was that people in traditional societies had not only far better health overall than industrialized people, but they had better teeth and gums, despite having no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, and all the other tools of modern dental hygiene. He was later marginalized by the ADA for his anti-establishment views.

Weston Price, and later his successors, studied traditional diets of primitive people around the globe to discover the key differences between those diets and the diet of the industrialized societies.

By now you’ve probably guessed what some of the major conclusions were: white flour and white sugar, hydrogenated oils, and other highly processed foods are bad for you. Fresh, natural foods are good. But other conclusions are more surprising and unconventional.

Broth. Traditional soup and sauce bases are made from simmering the bones, connective tissues, and other castaway parts (feet, etc.) of butchered animals. This slow cooking process releases a lot of key nutrients that would otherwise go to waste. The gelatin in these broths is excellent for digestion (one reason the French can eat all those rich sauces yet suffer fewer health problems than Americans!) and contains nutrients for healthy bones and joints.

Fermented Foods. Without the benefit of refrigeration, traditional societies preserve food by fermentation. In Asia, it’s miso, natto, fish sauce and kimchee. In Europe, cheese, yogurt, and sauerkraut. And, of course, fermented drinks are found everywhere, such as beer, wine, meade, but also kvass, kombucha and kefir. The beneficial micro-organisms in (non-alcoholic) fermented foods keep the intestines populated with friendly flora to aid in digestion and assist the immune system by crowding out pathogens.

Animal fats. Proponents of the Nourishing Traditions diet believe that natural animal fats are not the cause of heart disease. On the contrary, they advocate the use of animal fats including fish oil, butter and lard, as well as certain vegetable oils such as coconut, sesame, palm and cold-pressed olive oil. The rise of heart disease starting in the 1950s is ascribed to the popularity of modern hydrogenated oil (shortening, margarine), not to eating high-cholesterol foods. To quote from the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation:

Cholesterol is your best friend

The truth is that cholesterol is your best friend. It is vital for the function of the nervous system and the integrity of the digestive tract. Steroid hormones that help the body deal with stress are made from cholesterol. Sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone are made from cholesterol. Bile salts that the body uses to digest fats are made from cholesterol. Vitamin D, needed for thousands of biochemical processes, is made from cholesterol. Cholesterol is a powerful antioxidant that protects us against cancer. It is vital to the cells because it provides waterproofing and structural integrity. And, finally, cholesterol is the body’s repair substance. When our arteries are weak and develop fissures or tears, cholesterol is sequestered and used for repair. When cholesterol levels in the blood are high, it’s because the body needs cholesterol. Blaming heart disease on cholesterol is like blaming a fire on the firemen who arrive to put out the flames.(http://www.westonaprice.org/mythstruths/mtbeef.html)

Raw Milk: If I didn’t completely lose you with the animal fats, here’s the next unconventional dietary recommendation from the Nourishing Traditions advocates: consuming whole, raw (unpasteurized) milk and dairy products. The reasoning is similar to that above for fermented foods (active enzymes and “friendly” bacteria) and animal fats (consumed in large quantities by traditional societies without the modern high incidence of heart disease).

Check out their “Real Milk” Site at http://www.realmilk.com/why.html for the complete explanation.

Conclusion

Life and food are to be enjoyed.  That is why I have never taken an obsessive, quantitative, or reductive approach to dieting.  I don’t count calories, carbs, grams of protein, fiber, or fat.  I just eat a variety of natural things.  If anything, I note the colors, tastes, and textures of my foods (which is part of the enjoyment of eating) to ensure that I am getting a balanced diet.

If you have a particular illness, or are pursuing a difficult goal, sometimes an extreme diet is called for.  But in general, Newton’s 3rd law will come to play in your diet:  for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Making incremental improvements, trying new things, and noting how new ways of eating affect how you feel will guide you on the path to health and enjoyment.

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~ by nolashaolin on August 5, 2007.

4 Responses to “Holistic Nutrition”

  1. […] and can be intimidating, particularly with all the conflicting information out there.  I have another blog entry that gives an overview of my nutritional philosophy.  The important thing is to take one step at a […]

  2. Actually there is no mucoid plaque in your body until you buy into Richard Anderson’s hoax: http://mucoid-plaque-scam.blogspot.com/

  3. […] for lunch (ack!).  I returned to a vegetarian diet again for awhile in my early 20s.  Here is an earlier post detailing the evolution of my dietary […]

  4. […] your diet around real, whole foods, primarily fruit (between meals or in place of meals for best food combining), vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy.  Whole grains are good, but steer away from starches and […]

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