A major problem with many people’s diets is simply the lack of diversity of foods eaten. Variety is a critical “ingredient” for healthful eating, according to physician and herbalist Aviva Romm, who says that at least 80 percent of Americans do not get the nutrients they need for basic health. “Instead, most Americans are overfed and undernourished, getting too many calories from poor-quality foods, and not getting enough important nutrients from high-quality foods. The ‘phytonutrient gap’ is the term used to describe the difference between the nutrients you need for optimal health, and the nutrients you’re actually getting. The biggest deficit is of important vitamins, minerals and protective phytochemicals (phyto means “plant”) that are found in fruits and vegetables and that protect your cells from damage and support healthy natural detoxification.”
So when it comes to food groups, start with the plants.
Vegetables and fruits should be consumed daily in high quantities. Numerous studies suggest that diets rich in plants may help prevent all kinds of diseases, including many cancers. Aim for seven to nine servings of vegetables, herbs, fruits, beans and legumes each day. Lean heavily toward greens — several cups a day. Try them raw and cooked to mix things up. Enjoy a serving or two of fresh fruits (1/2 cup berries, 1 whole fruit) each day, plus a serving or two of vegetables (about 1/2 cup each) that taste sweet, such as beets and sweet potatoes. Make up the remaining servings with half-cup portions of a rainbow of colorful vegetables (orange peppers, pink radishes, yellow squash, etc.). And add fresh herbs and dried spices in abundance — herbs and spices provide important and beneficial nutrients in small packages.
Beans and legumes are excellent sources of protein and iron, and improve cholesterol and heart health. Their phyto-estrogen compounds block and reduce the effects of environmental toxins, and their amino acids assist in important detoxification work in our bodies. Some people are sensitive to members of this family, but most people tolerate garbanzo beans and lentils quite well. A serving is about half a cup.
Whole grains are a part of many of the healthiest diets on the planet. The majority of nutrients found in grains are contained in the bran and germ — the parts that are removed from refined white flours. Consuming refined white flours keeps our bodies on a blood sugar roller coaster with wide-ranging consequences. A half-cup serving of whole grains contains plenty of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, plus healthy plant compounds that contribute to healthy weight, longer life and a reduced risk of many illnesses. If you suffer negative health effects such as gas or indigestion when eating whole grains, it may be an indication that you need to correct your body’s microflora. Romm has worked with many patients who do not tolerate grains well until they have successfully reset their microbiome. Eating fermented foods and plenty of vegetables and fruits is a good strategy for gaining back the microflora necessary to break down and process whole grains.
Nuts and seeds are among the most important plants we can eat. Aim for at least an ounce a day (about a handful) for their numerous disease-fighting benefits. They are an incredible source of energy, as well. Enjoy them raw or toasted; alone, in meals or smoothies; and as nut and seed butters.
Wild-fermented plant foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, are beneficial to our all-important microbiome, which is key to optimal immune function. These foods are linked with a number of other health benefits as well. Try to eat at least a couple of tablespoons worth of fermented plant foods each day.
Higher meat consumption is linked with lower fiber consumption, which breeds the wrong bacteria in our microbiomes, so never replace plant foods with animal products. However, meat and egg proteins do our bodies a world of good. One serving (about 4 to 6 ounces) can power a body for a couple of hours, aid in detoxification (via amino acids) and steady blood sugar, in addition to building the structures in the body. We always recommend choosing meat and eggs from animals raised well — look for labels indicating animals or foods are grass-fed, raised on pasture, “organic,” not given growth hormones and not treated with antibiotics. Meats also have important B vitamins, zinc and selenium. Grass-fed meat and eggs also contain health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids. Consuming wild-caught seafood is another excellent way to get these fats plus protein.
Dairy products are not tolerated well by some people, but for those who can enjoy them without unpleasant side effects, they are a great source of protein, calcium, potassium and vitamin D. Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir, are especially health-promoting and are often less associated with dietary trouble than other dairy products. Whenever possible, choose dairy products made from cows raised on pasture and without artificial growth hormones. Although many standardized dietary recommendations continue to promote low-fat dairy, we recommend always choosing whole-fat and nonhomogenized dairy products. In a review of 25 studies, a team of scientists found that no research suggested low-fat dairy was better for us, and many studies report correlations between eating full-fat dairy and lower risk of obesity and weight gain. A serving consists of about a cup of liquid dairy or an ounce of cheese.
Oils & Fats
We have been fed more than 30 years of misinformation about fats, the most energy-dense form of food. What we know today is that high-quality fats are necessary, such as oils from avocado, coconut, olive, sesame, sunflower and walnut; butter and ghee from grass-fed animals; and lard and other animal fats from pastured livestock. These fats provide energy, keep blood sugar balanced and help prevent disease. Include a tablespoon or two in every meal.
It’s important to limit sugar intake, and to recognize its many forms, including highly refined flour and grains, starchy vegetables, sweeteners, processed foods, and carbohydrate liquids such as beer, fruit juice and soda. Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat and The Case Against Sugar, has spent years researching the effect of carbohydrates, proteins and fats on our bodies. Of sugar in its various forms, Taubes says, “These carbohydrates literally make us fat, and by driving us to accumulate fat, they make us hungrier and they make us sedentary.”
But here’s some good news: A bit of dark chocolate, which is antioxidant-rich, can be good for us. Antioxidants lower blood pressure, protect against some cancers and reduce risk of heart disease. Dark chocolate has also been shown to reduce stress by increasing serotonin and endorphins.
A few sweetener alternatives include stevia and lucuma powders, which are good for tea, coffee and some baked goods; and dates, which are great for sweetening smoothies. Maple syrup and honey, when used sparingly, carry minor nutritional benefits that refined sugar doesn’t, such as higher mineral content and enzymes that help digest starches. (For help curbing sugar addiction, visit motherearthliving.com/sugar-detox.)