Welcome to Get Healthy Month! Sundays are not a normal publish day for me, but I really wanted to kick this off on the first day of the month. If you didn’t catch my last two posts, then let me fill you in. Starting today, I am dedicating this entire month to helping you learn the basics to starting a healthy diet and lifestyle. My goal is to provide real information about diet and health that you won’t get from the USDA, and to help you customize a healthy diet that works well for you, that you can stick to for the long haul.
If you didn’t catch my last two posts, I urge you to please go back and read them because they are loaded with important information that is a must-know before planning your diet. The first one explained in-depth the relationship between diet and chronic illnesses. The second one broke down the process of cancer formation and growth. Knowledge is power, and if you don’t know the “why” behind dietary and health recommendations it makes it tough to adopt healthy habits. Understanding, not motivation, is the key to change. Motivation fades, but knowledge is forever.
Now then, let’s talk diet
What does the USDA recommend? If you’re around your mid-30’s like me, then you grew up on the food guide pyramid, to the right. Dairy two-to-three times per day. Protein includes beans and nuts, but also meat, poultry and eggs. Grains makes up the largest category, with no mention of making them whole grains. It’s a decent start, but doesn’t provide much detail.
Now, after receiving flack from the plant-based movement that has picked up in the last several years, the USDA has modified their recommendations a bit with My Plate, to the left. They now suggest more lean proteins, and tell us to make half of our grains whole grain. And still include three servings of dairy, with the new disclaimer that it should be low fat or fat free.
You might wonder, what is wrong with this picture? Doesn’t it seem reasonable? Well, it is certainly a step closer to the right direction. So let’s break it down.
All grains should be whole grains. Why? If you’ve done your homework and gone back to read my two introductory posts to Get Healthy month, then you know that simple carbohydrates found in enriched white breads, pastas, etc. are processed as glucose during digestion, which is the same as eating sweets and sugar. That means it adds to fat stores in the body, raises the risk of diabetes and heart disease, and also is one of the two leading food sources for cancer cells.
Whole grains are extremely important to the diet because they provide one of the main sources of energy for our bodies, promote healthy brain function, aid in digestion with dietary fiber, as well as antioxidants that help your body with cell and tissue repair (remember the first step to cancer is DNA damage that doesn’t get repaired).
So those fad diets that are low in carbs and high in fat, like Atkins and Keto? While they may prove beneficial in accelerating weight loss initially, they are not great for your health overall because high levels of fat means increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, and is also a primary feeder of cancer cells. If your fat and protein are coming mostly from plant-based sources, then those diets certainly become safer. However, I would still strongly urge you not to cut the carbs long-term, because they are vital for normal and healthy functions of the body.
This is probably the biggest place of misinformation in a healthy diet. If you ask people what the best source of protein is, they’re probably going to tell you meat. Because that is what has been perpetuated for decades, ever since the importance of protein was discovered back in 1838. Plant-based proteins usually just get a footnote, if they get any mention at all. The highest source of protein is chicken, followed by meat and fish. That much is true. But also high in protein are nuts, beans, seeds and legumes.
In order to get a healthy amount of protein in the body, you should be eating a wide source of proteins, and not relying solely on animal-based sources. In fact, I will take it a step farther and say that the best thing for overall health is to make plant-based protein sources your primary source of protein, and make animal-based proteins the footnote. I will tell you why, and it’s three-fold:
- Plant-based proteins actually fight against DNA damaging free radicals in the body, whereas animal-based proteins produce those free radicals.
- Plant-based proteins do not contain the fats found in animal-based proteins that feed cancer cells, nor do they create the hormone 1GF-1 during digestion like animal-based proteins do that also feed cancer cells and accelerate the process of cell proliferation.
- Plant-based proteins not only do not add unhealthy fats to the bloodstream that raise cholesterol, put strain on the heart, clog your arteries, and keep glucose in the bloodstream that leads to type 2 diabetes like animal proteins do, they actually put healthy fats into your blood that lower your cholesterol and reduce inflammation. Not to mention they are also an excellent source of fiber.
I want to start this category by addressing the low fat dairy recommendation. If fat feeds cancer cells and clogs your arteries, and the dairy is low fat, then how is it bad? What happens when you remove the fat from dairy products, is the concentration of protein becomes higher. What do we know about animal-based protein? It releases free radicals that damage DNA, leading to gene mutation and then to the production of cancer cells. Animal protein also causes the body to produce high volumes of the growth hormone 1GF-1 that should be relatively low in adults, which both feeds and accelerates the proliferation of cancer cells.
Milk and ice cream are two big culprits of osteoporosis and loss of bone density as well. Why? Because they increase acidity and inflammation in the body. The body then draws calcium out of our bones to neutralize the acid and bring our PH levels back into balance. Cheese and butter actually do not have those acid-raising properties, but are two of the highest-in-fat foods you can find on the market. Cheese averages 70% fat and butter averages 80% fat. This increases your risk of cancer, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease.
My rule for dairy is this — not three times per day, but three times per week. Or, if you are happy with a plant-based diet, then not at all…I just happen to really like cheese! We really do not need dairy at all in our diets, because we can get more than enough calcium from plants — something else that people often don’t know because we’ve been told by our government agencies that calcium comes from milk. Well sure it does, but it comes from many, many other places, too. The difference is, there isn’t a plant industry out there lobbying the government to spread propaganda to make sure people are buying their products…but that is exactly what happens with the dairy industry. Therefore, the USDA tells us dairy is where calcium comes from, and excludes every other calcium source available.
So, about my personal diet…
How did I choose it? Now that you’ve read all of the information above, as well as in my two previous posts about how diet impacts your health, and where cancer comes from, you will be able to more easily understand how and why I chose my particular diet.
I began this process about a decade ago, and kept amending my diet as I gained more information on the impact of food on our health, in particular on cancer since my grandmother’s chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis is what set off my research. It took a few years to get it fine-tuned, and to a place I could firmly believe was the healthiest way to eat. What that meant for me was limiting all of the things that have been linked to cancer — animal proteins including meat, dairy and eggs, and also sugar.
What I will throw out there right now is that the overall healthiest diet you can possibly eat is a plant-based, vegan diet. But that is not how I eat, because I don’t believe in total restriction, and also because there are benefits to eating poultry (amino acids) and fish (Omega-3 fatty acids) in moderation. What I didn’t know is that there was actually a diet already out there that was the mirror image of how I was eating, and that is called The Mediterranean Diet.
In January 2018, I found an article about the top diets of 2017, and it ranked 38 diets in order from healthiest, to the least healthy. The number two diet at the top of the list was The Mediterranean Diet, which up until that point I had never heard of, and in 2019 has moved to the #1 top spot. So I clicked on it, started reading, then went, “holy shit, that’s exactly how I eat!” That’s really exciting to me, because now I have a much simpler way to explain my diet to others, and have the added benefit of truthfully saying “it’s ranked number one among all diets”. I even found a Mediterranean food pyramid, below:
Quite different from the food guide pyramid and my plate illustrations above, isn’t it?
This is the base of all of my meals. They are rich in veggies, especially greens such as a variety of different dark green lettuces, spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts. I also eat a lot of peppers, garlic, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets (these are actually my favorite veggie), tomatoes and cauliflower. Any time I make a tomato-based sauce, like pasta sauce or enchilada sauce, or even in my chili, I will usually blend a sweet potato and some spinach in too, just to amp up the antioxidants then get my kids to eat them without even knowing that they’re eating them!
My eldest child is picky about his vegetables, because he doesn’t care for the texture of cooked veggies…which makes life difficult. He’ll eat salads and veggies in ranch, but that’s about the extent of it. However, both of my kids love fruit, thank goodness! Hunter, my oldest, especially loves oranges. Logan, my youngest, really loves peaches. My personal favorite is grapefruit. But for health value, the best fruits are citrus and berries, because these contain the most antioxidants and immune-boosting properties.
Berries and lemons are a staple for antioxidants, which promote the production of enzymes that repair DNA damage that helps prevent cancer cells from ever even forming. They also help keep those pesky viruses at bay in the winter months.
You already know from above that I only eat whole grains. Finding whole grains, however, can be tricky. A lot of the “whole wheat/whole grain” breads in the store are not really “whole” grain. They have whole grain in them, but also enriched flours, chemical additives intended to soften the bread and make the dough pliable, preservatives so it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and sugar…because Americans have a serious love affair with sugar and don’t tend to like bread that isn’t a little bit sweet. You’d be surprised to find that every loaf of bread on the super market shelf usually has two grams of sugar.
My favorite bread is Ezekiel bread, which can be found in the freezer section of major supermarkets, and I actually buy in bulk from Azure Standard (more on that later this month). I also exclusively buy whole wheat pastas, brown rice and rice noodles, brown rice or seed crackers, organic multi-grain tortilla chips, sprouted wheat bagels, and whole wheat tortillas. Carbs get such a bad rep, but when I know they are truly completely whole grain, I never feel guilty for eating them, nor do I ever feel heavy or bloated after eating a normal-size portion.
Fish and seafood! When it comes to animal-based, I will choose this above anything else. The reason is the level of high-value fatty acids, like Omega-3 and Omega-6. Fish and seafood is high in cholesterol, yes. However, Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids actually raise good cholesterols and lower bad cholesterols, which balances out the cholesterol issue in the fish itself. And they also are a huge antioxidant, which protect our cells from damage, aid the DNA repair process, and block free radicals from environmental hazards and food digestion, especially digestion of animal-based foods. I try to eat these a couple of times per week.
Poultry. I do eat chicken breast and ground turkey, or sliced turkey processed without nitrates. However, I eat them in moderate amounts, which to me means a couple of times per week as well.
The rest of my protein. I will go ahead and let it be known now that I do not eat red meat. Well…that is not entirely true. I will eat beef about twice per year. And I will eat some sort of pork, such as bacon or prosciutto, about once per month. Why not never at all? Well, because I really love bacon and prosciutto, and I don’t believe that a diet that is completely restrictive of the things you love is one that you will be able to stick to. And that is something I want you to keep in mind for later this month when we talk about how to customize your own personal diet. It is my belief from all that I’ve read, studied, watched and researched that eating those things on occasion is not going to be detrimental to your health.
The rest of my protein is plant-based, which means a couple of times per day for me. Beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, and even veggies…because anything living contains protein. Every single work day morning for breakfast I eat oatmeal that has some sort of nut and chia seeds in it. I may or may not eat a protein at lunch, depending on my plans for snacks and dinner, because the body honestly does not need as much protein as we’re often lead to believe, and it is typically pretty easy to get enough in your diet. Granted if you are someone who does a lot of working out, or a lot of physical activity in your job, you will want to eat more than I do. So lunch will either be something bean-based, or just veggie-and-grain based. Then dinner will sometimes be fish, sometimes be poultry, and sometimes be some sort of bean. I mix it up each evening.
I give myself a limit of three times per week. Why not never at all? Because just like bacon and prosciutto, I love cheese! And I don’t believe in total restriction. Also, where dairy is concerned, the best dairy you can really eat is dairy in fermented form such as cheese and yogurt. That is because, even though it may have fat and protein, they at least do not cause inflammation, or increase your body’s acidity. So I can get a little calcium, a taste of something I love, and do less damage than drinking milk or eating ice cream.
When it comes to milk, that one is easy for me — I use almond milk. Plain, unsweetened almond milk can be used in anything that cow’s milk goes in. And unsweetened vanilla almond milk tastes great in iced coffee and baking. Soy milk I will tell you, only buy organic. Soy is one of the things that is highly processed and exposed to herbicides during production in the major farming industry. So the only way to guarantee you’re not swallowing a cup full of carcinogens with your soy milk, is to make sure it’s organic. Even with that aside, from a taste perspective, my preference is almond milk because it has a thinner consistency that is more like cow’s milk. It also has a high amount of calcium to boot. In fact, my morning oatmeal made with almond milk and chia seeds gives me the majority of the calcium I need in a day just from that one meal!
Sweets are eaten sparingly. I basically limit this to birthdays, holidays and special occasions. If I make baked goods at home, I turn recipes for things like donuts and muffins into something with whole grains and no added sugars. I keep lots of stevia in the house, as well as oats and whole wheat flour. I also always have almonds, which are great to toss in the food processor and grind up for use in baked goods as a flour replacement, that delivers a little extra protein as well. Even though ice cream is dairy, it is also a sweet, so it goes into this category for me.
Drinks. For me it’s basically black coffee and water. I’ve also been making what I call antioxidant water a lot lately. I toss berries and sliced lemons or limes in a carafe of water to let it infuse. That way I can hydrate and take in some vitamins and antioxidants all at the same time. I also recommend green tea, unsweetened or sweetened with stevia, because it is a great antioxidant too.
And then there is dry red wine. Why red? While this is not true at all for any other type of alcohol, red wine has been shown to boost the immune system when consumed in moderation. It also is commonly known for having positive effects on heart health. But remember, alcohol does produce a carcinogenic chemical during digestion, so you do not want to go crazy with alcohol. I stick exclusively to a small glass (about 3-4oz) of red wine at home probably five days per week on average, but also drink a beer or two sometimes when I go out with friends.
Believe me, I do get questioned often about why I don’t drink much. Mostly it’s because I have a sensitivity to all alcohol except for wine, which makes this pretty easy for me to stick to. I cannot drink liquor at all without getting extremely sick. But even if I could, I wouldn’t. I have a pretty outspoken and confident nature, so when my friends occasionally tease me about my drinking habits I don’t hesitate to stand right on up for myself, and it absolutely never persuades me to change my healthy habits…not for anything or anyone!
Oils. I use primarily olive and coconut oils. I keep it minimal in cooking, because heating oxidizes oil and makes it carcinogenic. I basically use just enough to keep food from sticking. But using healthy oils in raw form in salad dressing or on plant-based dishes is a great source of healthy fats!
Eggs. I do still use eggs in moderation too. What I typically do to eliminate fat, cholesterol and calories is rely mostly on egg whites. I will do two egg whites instead of one whole egg in baking. And if I’m going to eat eggs I will usually scramble two egg whites and one egg yolk to get the texture I like with half the fat and calories, then wrap them up in a whole wheat tortilla with a drizzle of hot sauce and maybe some spinach, kale, or some other veggie I have in the fridge.
How I Did It
It started with knowledge — knowing the difference between what is healthy and unhealthy, which hopefully you are beginning to understand now as well. It also took opening my mind to completely re-learning how to plan a meal and how to prepare food (things I will teach later this month). Because like most Americans, I was raised on the typical meat-and-potatoes diet, which means I learned to cook meals with the focus on the meat, some sort of starchy side dish, and if there was a vegetable it was usually canned and cooked with some sort of animal fat, like bacon. So I had to disconnect my brain from that thinking and focus instead on the ingredients.
The biggest thing was focusing on the plants. Instead of thinking about a slab of meat as the center of the meal, I started thinking of how I could use vegetables and/or whole grains as the centerpiece, with protein as a side. It was admittedly tough at first, because as I said before it required completely breaking my old habits and thought patterns. But once I started finding simple plant-based recipes, the options really started to open up. It took a few months of looking up recipes and making ingredient replacements, then it started to get easy. I was gaining experience with plant-centered cooking, and as I did, it started to come naturally. I even started coming up with my own ideas for meals, and now share them here on the blog.
Another challenge for me was finding things that truly were healthy. Produce is easy, and whole wheat pastas and brown rice are pretty simple to find. So is almond milk, beans, nuts and seeds. What is more of a challenge are breads and snacks. Even more of a challenge than that was finding safe personal care and cleaning products, which is a topic I will be covering next. I had to work at it to find those things and come up with ideas. But don’t worry…I will be sharing my secrets to all of that later this month, as well as excellent resources to help simplify all of it!
Up Next on the Blog
Throughout the month of September, I am going to teach the basics of getting healthy on the blog, so that you can have the tools you need to really know and understand how to establish healthy habits, one step at a time. Thursday I will dive into personal care products and household cleaners, which are also an important component of an overall healthy life.
After that will be:
- The difference between the diets: vegan, plant-based, low carb/high fat, and Mediterranean
- How to customize your own diet that will work best for you
- Meal planning, creating shopping lists, and prepping whole food
- Decoding the grocery store to choose safe and healthy foods
- Breaking patterns to learn how to cook and eat healthy
- Resources to get you off on the right start
Feel free to subscribe if you’d like to follow along. You can also get to the blog’s Facebook page through the social links at the top right next to this post (or continue scrolling below this post if you’re mobile) where I will be sharing information, inspiration and tips daily throughout the month of September.
Here’s to your health!