Just when you think the best diet plan has emerged, the next one comes along to tell you that you’ve done it all wrong and have been harming your health. From the Ornish diet to the South Beach diet to Keto, Paleo and the three different ways of saying it, it’s hard to keep up with the names, let alone the rules. Some people become complete carnivores who only devour meat, and on the flipside, you have the herbivores who stand 20 feet away in disgust at the slightest trace of meat.
The vegan crowd argues that our teeth, fingernails, jaw size and intestines are proof that humans are made to be vegetable eaters and not meat eaters. We don’t have big long claws, and our intestines are very long as compared to carnivores that have shorter digestive tracts. A further support to this perspective is that humans and chimpanzees have a 96% DNA match and the chimpanzees' diet is 95% plant-based. There are even arguments for vegan bodybuilders where they cite elephants as an example of animals who eat plants alone and yet are able to be so strong and large.
On the other hand, there is the view that our brains are so much more developed that we don’t need to have claws or other carnivorous features. We didn’t have to evolve physically because we evolved mentally. We have much larger brains compared to herbivores and this development helps us to strategise better when we are hunting for animals.
Finally, you have your middle ground which is the Paleo diet that includes lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. This diet limits dairy products, legumes and grains. The Paleo diet is from the Palaeolithic era, also known as the stone age. The Paleolithic era spanned nearly 2.6 million years, during which both migration and evolution occurred. Climate, terrain, tools, and diets changed throughout this time. Yet there was no farming at that time, so the Paleo diet specifically excludes such farming foods that emerged about 10,000 years ago.
With all these options, what can you practically do day-to-day to have a healthier life?
You have to know what your personal goal is. The reason why there are so many diets is because of various long-term and short-term goals that people are trying to achieve. We have to really understand what our individual goal is. And it's not just about the number on the scale or the tag at the back of your shirt but also what kind of lifestyle you have and want to have.
You don’t want to be having extreme diets which are unsustainable. It’s not good for your body. Instead, you should build simple and powerful habits throughout the day to feed your body with the right food. Your nutrition needs to be tailored to your personal lifestyle, so that it can be sustainable and realistic.
After you’ve nailed these simple habits, you can then adjust your choices slightly to suit your body. For instance, someone who has a higher body fat percentage will utilise their energy differently from someone who has more muscle. In fact, the goals of each person may also be very different. We should also consider our ancestral genetic makeup. However, such personalised diets would require books of their own so in this book we’ll focus on simple ways to have a nutritious diet and how you can go about picking the right ingredients to get all the nutrients you need.
Fat makes you fat, carbs make you fat, is there anything that doesn’t make you fat? There’s a common misconception that food is your body’s enemy. But it’s vital that you change the way you see food and learn to embrace it as a wholesome fuel for your body. You have to begin by respecting what you eat because you really become what you consume. When you put high-quality food in your body, you’re building a high-quality body.
People are learning now that fats are good and they’re needed for every single cell in our bodies. There are, of course, poor-quality fats which are usually hydrogenated, and when you consume such fats, you absorb this into your cells which makes it unhealthy. If your cell becomes unhealthy, you become unhealthy. It may even cause you to age faster because the faster your cells die, the older you look.
Fat doesn't necessarily make us fat. That's why the Keto diet has become popular. The focus of the Keto diet is on consuming a lot of fat and little to no carbohydrates, but there are some risks with that. Since glucose is the primary and preferred source of fuel for the brain, if we consume a long-term ketogenic diet, we start to have brain fog, and our cognitive functions are not the same. Many people don’t consider this because their goal is weight loss and not necessarily other areas of their health.
While carbohydrates can make us fat when we have too much of it, our brains and energy level get affected if we completely deprive our bodies of carbohydrates. The fact is, if we start cutting out or adding food groups to our diet in extreme levels, it throws our body off balance, and we may begin to suffer as a result.
Proteins always have the best reputation among all food groups. Whether the protein is coming from beans, legumes, grains, rice or animal products, our bodies break the protein down into amino acids which are the building blocks. However, it is important to note that there are some sources that we can digest better than others depending on our body. So, we have to be wary of where our protein is coming from.
Additionally, you can overdo the amount of protein you’re taking in. I know of someone who was consuming two and a half times her recommended daily allowance of protein to start a new diet in the new year. She was rather small and wanted to build more muscles. Yet the reality is that the body can only digest a certain amount at a time. It’s taxing on our kidneys which would start to get tired and could potentially fail as well. Especially if you have experienced any trauma or dysfunction, it influences how your body digests and you may need smaller meals with more or less protein a day. So, if you plan to bulk up or are quite active, you need to do it right. If not, then stick to the regular amounts of protein a day which is equivalent to 0.8g of protein/kg of body weight each day. For example, a 60kg man should consume approximately 48g of protein each day.
So what do healthy balanced meals look like day today?
Aim to have vegetables in every single meal. I know it’s difficult. In most Western countries, a typical breakfast might be oatmeal or granola or eggs, bacon and toast. In most Asian countries, breakfast meals tend to have a lot of noodles or flour with almost no vegetables. It's all carbohydrates, proteins, fats and no vegetables. You really want to be getting vegetables into your diet by breakfast so that you can tick off that box earlier on. When it comes to lunch, you also have some control, so you should include vegetables in those meals as well. By dinner time if you need to be at the bar with your colleagues and can’t get vegetables into your diet, you’ve at least fed your body with vegetables early in the day.
You want to be having a green breakfast. Make sure your breakfast has some broccoli, spinach or other greens. You can have that with 3 omelettes, using the yolks as well because cholesterol is very much linked to sugar intake and is not just from the egg yolk. You can cook it in grass-fed butter or a healthy fat oil like coconut oil. You can then have a side of berries, which provide both antioxidants and carbohydrates for fuel. If you don’t have much time in the morning, you could also consider a high-quality protein shake with a scoop of green foods powder - but don’t think you’re getting out of your veggies! Make sure that you double up on the vegetables at your next meal.
For lunch, you could consider having a raw salad that includes leafy mixed greens and root vegetables like sweet potato, turnip and beetroot. You can then add some goat cheese, walnuts, balsamic and olive oil so that it’s light and refreshing, but has enough fibre and fat. If this meal isn’t substantial enough for you, don’t fall back to your low-nutrient-dense foods like bread, pasta and rice. Instead, you can load up on the salad. I would challenge you to eat a larger portion of salad with more sweet potato, avocado, beetroot and other vegetables if you’re hungry. And if you’re craving meat, you can consider adding some grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, wild caught salmon or falafel patty. But be mindful of how much protein you’re consuming. Nuts, seeds, cheese, legumes, and even some vegetables already have protein in them.
When it comes to dinner, one of my favourite food items is cauliflower. There are endless recipes with cauliflowers which you can look up. In my home, we have Mexican cauliflower rice every two weeks. We add three different black beans and mix them with cauliflower rice which is a whole head of cauliflower shaved down. We add some crushed tomatoes which are a great source of lycopene, and we then add some seasoning and serve them up with sour cream or a sprinkle of cheddar. You can have this recipe on its own, with pita bread, lettuce, tortilla or other healthy chips for a crunch. It's delicious, and you're getting vegetables in the place of a heavy carb meal. The beans provide you with carbs and also contain protein, so it’s a lovely balance.
Another option for dinner would be pan-seared steak with chimichurri sauce, roasted asparagus and sautéed mushrooms. If you’re still hungry after this, dig into another helping or two of vegetables.
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Dr. Katrina Gallagher
Chiropractor, Clinical Nutritionist