There is much wisdom in the saying, “You are what you eat,” and most health care practitioners agree that good health starts with a good diet. What you put in your body can influence whether or not you’ll develop heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, or have a host of other health problems. Every meal is an opportunity to improve your health, but most people don’t realize just how simple healthy eating can be. Once you understand that the foundation for good health is dependant on supporting the body with an optimal amount of nutrients through whole, natural foods, and then learning how to combine those foods to get the most nutritional value, you can build the groundwork to support a healthy and vibrant life. It is simpler, less time-consuming, and tastier than you might think.
The Modern American Diet: A Path to Inflammation
Early humans thrived on a variety of plant foods, including leaves, roots, fruits, seeds, and nuts, along with lean meats and healthy fats, and though their life expectancies were shorter than that of modern humans, archaeological records indicates that these primitive people were generally healthier than people today and rarely experienced our modern diseases. But with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution our diets drastically deviated from this original diet. The Agricultural Revolution introduced large-scale cultivation of grains, which ultimately flooded the food supply with large amounts of carbohydrates. Our diets soon became centered on grains (carbohydrates), and with industrialization came refining and processing of those grains, and white bread was born.
We have replaced the healthful foods of our ancestors with a plethora of “convenience” foods built on a foundation of refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats that are very low in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. While most health experts agree that good food equals good health, they also agree that the modern American diet is a significant factor in our collective poor health, as well as the obesity epidemic sweeping the country. The modern American diet is full of processed foods, sugar, fried foods, refined oils and carbohydrates, and corn-fed meat, all of which contain large amounts of pro-inflammatory components, meaning that the consumption of these foods tends to promote inflammation in the body. Many doctors now recognize low-grade, chronic inflammation as a factor in heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and other conditions not traditionally viewed as being inflammatory diseases.
You Can Increase or Decrease Inflammation with Food
The body uses fatty acids to make hormones called prostaglandins, which can increase or decrease inflammation in the body depending on which fatty acids predominate in the diet. In general, prostaglandins derived from omega-6 fatty acids promote cell proliferation and inflammation, while those derived from omega-3 fatty acids have the opposite effect. If you eat a lot of safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, margarine, vegetable shortening, partially-hydrogenated oils, or products made with those things, your body will produce more of the prostaglandins that increase inflammation. On the other hand, if you avoid those fats and eat healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, walnuts, fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna, and lots of fruits and vegetables, your body will produce anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. A balance of both types of fatty acids is necessary for our bodies to function properly, but the typical Western diet is extremely deficient in omega-3s while it is excessive in omega-6s.
Additionally, refined carbohydrates from bread, soft drinks, cereal, pasta, and rice (which are the main sources of carbohydrates for most Americans) raise blood-sugar levels, which generate pro-inflammatory free radicals. Research from the Harvard Medical School has shown that diets high in refined carbohydrates increase C-reactive protein levels, indicating high levels of inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease.
What Are Natural Foods?
Natural foods are foods that are as close to the way they occur in nature as possible—they are the foods humans were meant to eat. This means whole, unrefined foods such as vegetables, fruits, wild-caught fish, grass-fed meats, naturally-raised poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, unrefined oils, legumes, and whole grains. These foods generally contain nutrients that are anti-inflammatory. Ideally, these foods should come from organically-fed and naturally-raised animals and organically-grown plants.
A natural-foods diet minimizes processed and refined foods—particularly sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, and white flour—that are often found in bags, boxes, and cans, and promote inflammation. A natural-foods diet also eliminates unnatural ingredients like artificial colors, preservatives, flavors, chemically-altered fats, and sweeteners. It also encourages the consumption of a wide variety of foods, eliminating specific foods only if a person has an allergy or other intolerance to them.
Conventional vs. Naturally-Raised Meat
An animal’s diet has a profound impact on the nutrient content of its products. Cows allowed to graze and forage, often termed grass-fed, have a much healthier fatty-acid profile compared to conventionally-raised beef. Grass-fed beef has a fatty acid profile closer to what is estimated to be the ideal intake of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, about 2:1. Whereas conventionally-raised meat, fed a diet high in omega-6 rich grain, has a ratio somewhere around 23:1. All of this excess omega-6 in our diets leads directly to inflammation and is associated with a host of modern diseases, including heart disease and weight gain. In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, grass-fed beef is higher in other nutrients including zinc, CoQ10, L-carnitine, and vitamins A and E. Grass-fed beef—and milk and butter from grass-fed cows—contain much higher levels of CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass, as well as enhance the immune system. Eggs from naturally-raised chickens are more resistant to bacteria and contain up to 20 times more healthy omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to 10 percent less fat, 40 percent more vitamin A, and 34 percent less cholesterol than eggs from factory-farmed chickens. Being raised in a more natural environment means the animals are less susceptible to disease and therefore don’t require the constant stream of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. All of this leads to a healthier meal for us and is much more humane for the animal.
Why Eat a Natural-Foods Diet?
Nutrients are the building blocks of health and include macronutrients—proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fatty acids, and amino acids. They are the necessary components that drive all metabolic and biochemical reactions in the body and our bodies need them all to function properly. The right balance of these nutrients allows all of the body’s systems to function at optimal levels. The nutrients you consume are fundamentally the building blocks—the bricks and mortar—of your body. Good nutrition provides a solid foundation for health. In contrast, poor eating habits and nutrient deficiencies lead to a shaky foundation, at best. The idea of nourishing the body with a nutrient-dense diet for optimal health isn’t a new concept—Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, said that food is our best medicine.
The energy required by the body for maintenance and repair comes from the food you eat. Consequently, the health of your body depends on the quality of the food you put in it. Eat foods that are rich in nutrients per calorie, or “nutrient dense,” and you maximize your chances of good health. Eat foods that are nutrient poor—ones that contain a lot of calories but few of the components essential for the functioning of your body—and you set yourself up for ill health. It may take some time before the effects of a low-nutrient diet manifest themselves, but chances are they will down the road, in the form of a degenerative disease or simply premature aging.
The foods that are the most nutrient dense—those that pack the most nutritional wallop per calorie—are natural foods. In addition to the nutrients known to aid the functioning of the body, natural foods contain other substances, like phytonutrients, that doctors are continually discovering to be invaluable to health; processed foods tend to be depleted of both nutrients and phytonutrients. In fact, it’s fair to say that the more a food is processed, the less nutrient dense and less healthful it is.
In addition to being nutrient poor, processed foods often contain artificial ingredients that pose a hazard in their own right. Of the more than 12,000 chemicals that can be used in the production of America’s food supply, very few have been sufficiently researched to declare them truly safe, particularly over a lifetime of consumption. Relying on these fake foods over nature’s bounty is an invitation to poor health.
The Components of a Natural-Foods Diet
When planning a meal, there are three major groups that should always be included: high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables. A quality protein, not a grain, should always form the foundation of every meal. High-quality proteins may include grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, or eggs. Start with a quality protein, and build the rest of the meal around it by adding fruits and vegetables, being sure to use healthy fats when cooking. Try to add as many fruits and vegetables as possible—try for 10 servings per day and you will be more likely to reach the five that is recommended; include two servings per meal and it will be easy to reach this goal. Corn does not count as a fruit or vegetable, it is a grain; also limit your intake of potatoes, keeping in mind that potato chips and fries do not count as a healthy vegetable. Potatoes contain a lot of starch and can be pro-inflammatory for those who have blood-sugar control issues. Minimize your consumption of grains at mealtime, especially refined (white breads, pasta, rice), as they promote inflammation. If you must include grains in your meal, include whole, sprouted grains and treat them as a small side, rather than making them the focus of your meal.
The Importance of Eating a Quality Breakfast
Don’t forget that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Numerous studies have shown that starting the day with breakfast helps maintain a healthy weight throughout life and leads to overall better energy and performance. A quality breakfast should include sufficient protein, along with fruits and/or vegetables, and possibly a serving of a whole-grain or other complex carbohydrate such as beans or root vegetables. Break your night-long fast with protein for blood sugar stability and energy production.
Especially Harmful Food Additives to Avoid
While eating a diet of natural foods will supply you with many of the major nutrients, it will also help you avoid the dangerous man-made chemicals utilized by the food manufacturing industry.
Below are a handful of additives particularly problematic with respect to human health. These substances should be avoided under all circumstances.
Nitrites and nitrates are preservatives used as a color fixative to provide the red color in cured meats. They have been associated with increased cancer risk.
Artificial sweeteners include aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal), saccharin (Sweet-N-Low), acesulfame K (Sweet One or Sunette), and sucralose (Splenda™). Aspartame use has been associated with numerous adverse effects, including headaches, anxiety attacks, and exacerbation of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Saccharin has been shown to interfere with appetite control and to promote obesity in rats. The mechanism of this is thought to be interference with the brain’s natural coupling of sweet taste and calories: sweetness promotes the urge to acquire calories. The chemical structure of acesulfame K closely resembles that of saccharin. Findings of several studies showed a group of rats fed acesulfame-K developed more tumors than those not fed it. Acesulfame-K was also found to raise the blood cholesterol levels of diabetic rats. Sucralose is a no-calorie sugar substitute derived from sucrose (sugar) through a process that selectively substitutes three atoms of chlorine for three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sucrose molecule. This makes sucralose a chlorocarbon, a substance that has long been known for causing organ, genetic, and reproductive damage.
Artificial colors are unnecessary additives that may have carcinogenic properties; many are allergenic and are also believed to contribute to hyperactivity, learning problems, and difficulty with concentration in children and in some adults.
Artificial preservatives such as BHA, BHT, and EDTA are often found in grain products (cereals and crackers), soup bases, and other food products containing oils to prevent rancidity and to preserve freshness. In general, synthetic preservatives are potentially toxic to the liver and kidneys. These particular preservatives are known to cause allergic reactions and neurotoxic effects. In fact, BHT is prohibited as a food additive in England.
A healthy natural-foods diet is the foundation for good health. What you put in your body will influence the way you feel and can influence whether or not you develop a variety of diseases. Eating a varied diet based on quality proteins, healthy fats, and an abundance of fruits and vegetables will ensure that you have the foundation to build a lifetime of good health. “Diet” comes from the Latin word diaeta meaning “a way of life,” and indeed, eating a whole, natural-foods diet is a way of life that can have an immensely positive impact on your health.
This article is provided by Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage® for educational purposes only and is not meant to prevent, treat, cure, or mitigate any disease.