Nutrition can be a confusing and complex topic that leaves most of us with heads spinning. There’s so much information out there and it’s often contradicting. Foods that are cancer-causing this week will be a "superfood" next. Last week in Part I of Nutrition Basics, I explained WHY nutrition can seem so complicated, but now where do we go from there?
So much of optimal nutrition is dependent upon the individual, but I've broken it down into three principles that are applicable to everyone. Also, implementing these practices are the groundwork for achieving any goal reached through nutrition. We can’t begin to use nutrition to improve performance, lose weight, or manage health problems until these building blocks are in place. In fact, many common issues are often relieved or at least minimized by making these simple shifts.
Whenever I find myself getting swept up by the enormity of nutrition, I ALWAYS fall back on these three principles:
1. Eat Real Food
Unfortunately we exist during a time when food is often altered far from its natural state, and the consequences on both our health and our environment aren’t pretty. Our bodies are designed to digest and utilize foods in their most natural form. Most foods found in our grocery stores today are no longer in that natural form and contain harmful additives. When we ask our bodies to process substances it doesn’t have the machinery for, we put unnecessary stress on our digestion, immune system, metabolism, and detox processes. This contributes to some of the most common health problems Americans experience such as gut issues, fatigue, sleep disturbances, weight gain, mood disorders, skin problems, and more.
What to do?
- :Add nutrient dense, minimally processed foods into your diet as much as possible. Examples include fresh fruits and veggies (especially dark leafy greens), organic meats and dairy, beans and legumes, unrefined starches such as brown rice, quinoa, and potatoes, and healthy fats such as avocados, coconut, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Oh, and tons of water!
- Minimize nutrient sparse and processed foods such as fast food, convenience and snack foods (cookies, chips, and candy), sodas, and refined starches (white sugar and white bread). Many pre-packaged foods contain added preservatives and artificial flavors and colors, so buying foods in their most natural form is an easy way to avoid those.
2. Balance Blood Sugar
The human body is very particular about how much glucose it wants circulating in the blood at any given time. The body regulates blood sugar with two hormones: insulin and glucagon. If blood sugar increases, insulin shuttles glucose from the blood to cells to either be burned for fuel or stored as fat. Glucagon helps raise blood sugar levels in the case that it drops too low. Dygleciemia is a state of chronically dysregulated blood sugar, and can include both low and high blood sugar. This is often the result of inadequate physical activity, irregular eating patterns, skipping meals, big or high carb meals, and chronic stress. The consequences are mood swings, fatigue, weight gain (especially around the abdomen), hormonal imbalances, and in some cases diabetes.
What to do?
Eat regularly: Aim for three meals a day with 1-2 high protein snacks in between. Include protein, healthy fats, and veggies at every meal to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Try not to skip meals, and eat before you feel too hungry (hangry!).
Complex Carbs: Refined starches and sugars (candy, cookies, pastries, white flour) raise blood sugar like nobody’s business. Choose complex carbs such as brown rice, potatoes, squash, quinoa, fruit, and sprouted grain bread.
3. Manage Stress
Stress and mindset have everything to do with nutrition. Our bodies are actually well equipped to handle stress whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, or dietary, but the modern world exposes us to an overload of stimuli, information, and demands. When the total load of stressors outweighs the parasympathetic nervous system’s ability to bring us back to balance, all of the body’s major functions take a hit. Stress and high cortisol levels inhibit absorption of nutrients, slow metabolism, disrupt digestion, and cause the body to hold on to extra fat. That just means we have to be all the more tenacious about rest, recovery, and stress reduction.
What to do?
- Eliminate stressors where you can. Learn to say no to unnecessary demands and make self-care a priority. This includes getting plenty of sleep every night, eating well, and exercising. Also remember, STRESS ABOUT FOOD is still stress. If you are micromanaging your diet and constantly fretting over what to eat and when and how much….well then we’ve missed the point, haven’t we?
- Find your calm. Engage in practices that down-regulate the nervous system, such as meditation, taking a bath, journaling, deep breathing, prayer, or progressive relaxation techniques.
- Have fun. Fun is actually good for your health, so don't forget to engage in activities that you enjoy and spend time with people who support and energize you.
Making Lasting Changes
As you make lifestyle changes, remember to always keep it simple. Diet and exercise should be healing and energizing, not overwhelming, stressful, and guilt-forming. Decide on one or two changes you can make and work with those until they become second nature. When those shifts become habit, incorporate the next ones. Slow and steady is the best way to make lasting changes.
This can be tough advice to swallow (no pun intended) because we are impatient people. The diet industry is thriving off of quick fixes, fad diets, and products that suggest quick results. I can promise you that these companies don’t have your best interest at heart. A healthy lifestyle is a life-long endeavor that takes some effort and intention. The reward though, is much greater and well worth the work.