Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Considering Health: Mindful Food Choices

Ariel recently shared a TED talk called "Why Dieting Doesn't Usually Work" by Sandra Aamodt. My response was too long and tangential for the comment box, so I thought I would shape it into a post.

In most cases, weight is not how we should gauge health. Rather, we should look at more accurate indicators such as skin health, teeth health, digestive health, energy levels, alignment, strength, flexibility, and resistance to illness, among others. (What else comes to your mind?) If these things suggest balance and wellness, one's correct weight will probably follow.

When it comes to eating, I am a strong believer in the body's intuition. Not only can our bodies tell us when to eat and when to stop, but which nutrients we are lacking and how we might obtain them. Sometimes we have to get our meddling minds out of the way so as not to miss the prompting. I try hard to model this and teach it to my children. (As a result, they occasionally refer to themselves as "my body" instead of "I" when stating a need, or, for more convincing power with Mama, they'll use the phrase, "my body is telling me..." Funny kids.)

Ms. Aamodt alluded to this in her talk, but I think it should be clearly stated that which foods we eat is of utmost importance (not just when and how much). A body with optimal nutrition is more likely to function optimally. It is equally crucial that we source our food mindfully. Where did the food come from? How was it grown or raised? When buying a packaged product, I am a habitual ingredient-reader, seeking to know what each ingredient is, where it likely came from, and how it might affect my body.

I can't help but share my feelings that the current dietary recommendations in our country are flawed. They are not rooted in the traditions that guided the development of our bodies, nor are they based on solid science (this might be why). They are not pointing the country to glowing health. In fact, we are in an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (to name a few) that has spiraled out of control under these guidelines. (Food choice is not solely to blame for these problems, but it is significant.)

Following are a few examples of harmful food choices, sanctioned under USDA guidelines, that are contributing to our collective declining health:

Vegetable oils 
Touted as "healthy polyunsaturated fats," these volatile oils become rancid through high-temperature chemical extraction and cooking. As a result, free radicals are formed, causing damage in the body and contributing to a host of serious ailments. They are completely untraditional, never having been accessible until the industrial revolution. Partially-hydrogenated oils are even worse, containing highly toxic trans fats that wreak havoc. (For a thorough discussion on fats, read this article by lipids researcher Mary Enig. To give credit where credit is due, the FDA has acknowledged the serious risk of trans fats.)
  • We do not buy vegetable oil, or anything containing it, specifically: canola, soybean, corn, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, rice bran, or grape seed. Instead we choose healthy, nourishing fats such as coconut oil, butter, olive oil, lard, and tallow.

Besides being addictive, sugar is the primary culprit of weight gain. It also depresses immune function, disrupts hormones, leads to anxiety and depression, and generally contributes to inflammation. Containing zero nutrition in itself, refined sugar taxes the body's nutrient stores in order to get digested, leading to a deficit. Sugar consumption causes blood sugar imbalance: energy highs followed by intense lows. This is a good overview of the effects of sugar in our every-day lives, and some tips on how to beat it!
  • In our home, we do not buy any type of refined sugar, and use natural sweeteners in moderation. 

Whole grains 
Most people know that refined flour is a nutritional no-no. Unfortunately, even whole grains are taxing on the digestive system unless carefully prepared using traditional methods like fermenting or soaking. Sprouting is also a fine choice. With these pre-digestive preparations in place, several things occur: 1) phytic acid is neutralized, freeing nutrients for assimilation, 2) proteins (like gluten) become more digestible, 3) enzyme inhibitors are also neutralized, allowing beneficial enzymes to increase vitamins in the grain, and 4) and the carb count is reduced, lowering the amount of sugar released into the bloodstream.
  • For these reasons, all the grains we use at home are freshly-ground, then soured or soaked. We also sprout and dry grain regularly so we always have some on hand.

Low-fat dairy
Indigenous cultures thrived on dairy in its whole form without suffering any of the ills prophesied by the low-fat peddlers. We need stable saturated fat for many vital functions: building cell membranes, protecting from toxins and harmful microbes, strengthening immunity, carrying certain vitamins (A, D, K, and E) into cells, assimilating calcium into bones, protecting reproductive health, and certainly building a healthy baby. (I am so tired of seeing recommendations that pregnant women consume low-fat dairy!) Mainstream media sources are starting to recognize the unjust slander against saturated fat.
  • We consume dairy products in their whole form.

Pasteurized, homogenized dairy
Pasteurization kills digestive enzymes that help break down the milk sugar and the probiotic bacteria that contribute to healthy gut flora (and thereby strong immunity). People who have trouble digesting pasteurized milk are often fine on raw milk. Homogenization crushes and damages the fat and cholesterol of the milk. This kind of milk differs from it's raw counterpart at the molecular level.
  • We consume high-quality raw dairy products. (Remember, there are two kinds of raw milk: that intended for human consumption and that intended for pasteurization. Never drink the latter!) If I do have to buy pasteurized dairy, I buy full-fat, cream-top, organic, and grass-fed if possible (and never ultra-pasteurized).

Chemical-ridden food
We have strayed so far from the days of clean food. Claims that the fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones applied so heavily to our food have minimal effects on our bodies are erroneous. It's a mess. Here are ten reasons to eat organic from the Organic Consumers Association.
  • We buy organic dairy, meat, eggs, and produce directly from farmers we trust. If we eat out, we consider paying the extra bucks to patronize restaurants who share our values.

Whole real foods, prepared for optimal digestion and nutrient absorption are a top priority in my home. It takes a huge amount of mindfulness, commitment, and planning to make it happen, but I see—no, I feel—that it is worth the effort a hundredfold. 

It feels welcome. It tastes delicious.


  1. An enjoyable post, Nonie. I love the idea of teaching children to listen to the cues their bodies are giving them. Something to implement I my own home. I especially love your last words, that you feel the difference these mindful choices make in your lives. I've come to realize that, even with desserts, if it isn't real -- really real food-- it isn't at all satisfying. Eating a fluffy cake bought from a store isn't tempting to me anymore, not psychologically or physically. It is as if, on the rare occasion I do indulge, my mind and body are crying out "Where is the substance?" Those things are clear counterfeits, now that I know the difference. And as I said, my body knows the difference, not just my mind -- and it can tell from the first bite.

  2. Amen! Our family has implemented all of these changes, though not as thoroughly as I would like. (Baby steps, everyone!) Living in a state where the sale of raw dairy is illegal makes finding raw cream/butter/cheese very difficult. I can make my own from the raw milk I get from my herd share, but then I have to sacrifice a large chunk of our milk. (We can only afford a gallon a week). One day we will move to a state with greater food freedom!

    I have noticed the same personal revolution as Melissa. I am just not tempted anymore by anything that is not "real" food. I may on occasion still eat it, as when a guest in someone's home or when traveling, but I feel the deficiency.

    Our family's health could hardly be better, we rarely contract colds or flu. This may be because at the moment Peter is home with me most of the time. But MY health has improved so much since we changed our food habits. I used to get strep throat every year, flu, and multiple terrible colds. At this point, I haven't had more than a mild cold in two years. Peter also has only been very sick one time. Now I need to tackle my seasonal allergies!

  3. What a wonderful overview! I agree that weight is not a good measure of our health, and also try to stress "listen to your body," with the same result of "my body made me do it" from the boys!

    I was also wondering if you had heard of the body's propensity to stay the same size/weight like she said in the TED talk, that even many years after changing your diet and lifestyle, your body's natural response is to go back to your original weight at the first opportunity. I had never heard that before.

    1. Yes, my thoughts strayed far enough from the subject of her talk that I had to write it all out separately. I think the catalyst for this post was that she seems to believe some of the notions that are keeping our country ill, including the ever-popular "calories in, calories out" frame of mind (this is not altogether inaccurate, but it is misleading). I actually consider the foods listed in my post to be a "fad diet," precisely what she was warning against. Food is SO much more than calories. The *workings* of foods in the body are of utmost importance. Nutrient density is the bottom line. At the end of this talk, Ms. Aamodt stated, "Doctors don't know of any approach that makes significant weight loss in a lot of people." I strongly believe that eating real food (prepared for maximum assimilation) would do exactly that, and lead to truly glowing health besides (because there are also lots of thin, sick people). And sadly, she's right. For all doctors know about the body, most of them do not seem to know about that. Many of the official dietary recommendations in our country are so counterintuitive (based on a shaky scientific foundation at best) that I'm just left gaping.

      There I go again. Sorry!

      Anyway, as to your question about set weight, this may be true for me, but it's hard to say. Since I've swapped out my old eating ways (the polyunsaturated, high-carb, low-fat diet) for real foods prepared traditionally, I am ten pounds lighter on average. Of course, I always had the propensity for this, but didn't eat in a way that allowed my body to settle into it. I don't feel that my body is trying to return to its old weight. On the other hand, I can't fathom that I could weigh ten pounds lighter still, even though I have some lingering love. :) But I might be wrong about that. And of course, there's also the question of muscle. If you're losing fat, but gaining muscle, you're not necessarily going to lose weight since muscle is denser than fat (right?), but you'll look and feel better. I think we should just forget all this emphasis on weight. And of course, along with eating mindfully, that was the thesis of her presentation. I so agree that we should get rid of diets, stop obsessing over weight loss, and eat mindfully, including when, how much, and especially what.

      Incidentally, I thought what she said about having limited will power was interesting (could that be true?).