From the heart-protective antioxidants in grapes and dark chocolate to the cancer-causing downside of refined sugar, our national awareness of the role good nutrition plays in our health is on the rise

Nutrition is a big buzzword these days.

Nearly every week, we hear about the newly discovered health benefits of whole foods or the harmful effects of denatured, processed foods.

From the heart-protective antioxidants in grapes and dark chocolate to the cancer-causing downside of refined sugar, our national awareness of the role good nutrition plays in our health is on the rise.

A Nutritional Crisis

Even while information about good nutrition has gone mainstream, personal health is still a mystery to many people.

It’s no secret the standard American diet—with the appropriate acronym SAD—is the worst diet humans have ever eaten, and it has created a health crisis unlike anything seen in human history.

Within the last 100 years, we have gone from growing, harvesting and preparing food with our own hands to mass-producing concoctions in laboratories.

In the name of progress, we have blindly and tragically denounced many of our traditional, real foods as unhealthy, and replaced them with synthetic look-alikes.

Fearful of rising cholesterol levels and heart disease, we swapped real eggs for Egg Beaters, for example, and real butter for margarine.

Artificial sweeteners, artificial colorings, flavor enhancers, stabilizers, hormones, antibiotics, trans fats, preservatives and pesticides have infiltrated our pantries and eateries, stripping us of our birthright of good health.

Most recently, in the 1990s, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were unleashed into our food supply before being tested for human safety. Since then, incidences of food allergies, digestive disorders and cancers have risen sharply.

We’ve become so far removed from foods in their natural state, that we now call such foods health foods, a sad admission that we’ve compromised our health for the sake of convenience.

The effects of our nutrient-deficient diets and sedentary lifestyles have taken their toll, not just on our bodies, but also on our souls and psyches.

Traditional wisdom and sheer intuition tell us not only is it unnatural to replace real food with chemical concoctions, but this way of eating simply cannot be sustained.

Good Nutrition

Good nutrition involves more than healthful food choices; it encompasses the care and feeding of the whole person, which has profound effects not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.

At its most profound level, health is not just the absence of pain, stress or disease, but an abundance of vitality, passion and purpose.

It is the daily experience of wholeness and balance—a state of being fully alive. Getting to this state can begin with conscious, mindful food choices.

Good nutrition reaches beyond conventional approaches of dieting and calorie-counting, and employs a variety of approaches concerning food and nutrients, blending traditional, ancient food wisdom from cultures around the world with modern scientific discoveries, as a way to individualize what works best for each person.

It takes into account a person’s culture, lifestyle, constitution and how aggressive he wants to be with obtaining the results he wants to achieve.

Different illnesses, conditions or diseases have different nutritional requirements, and each responds to diet and nutrition uniquely. This holistic approach provides ways for each person to participate in the care of her health.

The underlying principles of holistic nutrition are nourishment, mindfulness, awareness and nutritional and environmental responsibility. It helps us to better understand food and appreciate it as an instrument of personal healing.

Nourishing ourselves according to holistic nutrition principles becomes a wise, mature and loving act of self-care.

Gradual Change

The word diet comes from the Greek word dieta, which means way of life. The Latin root of the word means a day’s journey. Holistic nutrition emphasizes and encourages us to approach changes in our food choices as a gradual process.

The key is to make real changes—changes we can live with successfully on a long-term basis—in the way we approach food, fitness and the challenges and opportunities of living. Changes are best achieved slowly, as our understanding of food and our individual needs deepen.

Although holistic nutrition is largely individualized, there are some basics that apply to all individuals who wish to follow holistic nutrition principles.

One of the main tenets of holistic nutrition is to eat foods in their closest-to-natural form as possible. The focus is on eating more SOUL foods—that is, foods that are seasonal, organic, unprocessed and local.

We find these are the type of foods that provide our bodies with the highest levels of nutrients and life-force energy. These are also the types of foods humans thrived on for thousands of years.

10 Steps to Better Nutrition

1. Drink plenty of pure water each day

The amount of water each person needs is individual. To determine the total amount you need, divide your body weight by two. The resulting number is the number of ounces of water your body needs. If you are not currently drinking enough water, gradually increase your intake by 8 ounces each week, until you have reached your optimal amount.

2. Read ingredient lists and avoid foods with artificial ingredients

The basic rule of thumb is, if you are buying prepared food that comes in a box or bag, make sure you know what all the ingredients are and if they have any known health effects.

If the ingredient list includes chemical names you can’t pronounce, it’s a pretty sure bet the product isn’t real or healthy.

Some ingredients to avoid include aspartame, sucralose, BHA, BHT, TBHQ, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium benzoate, nitrates and nitrites, partially hydrogenated oil, artificial colors and flavors, and anything with a number after it such as red 40 and polysorbate 80.

These are just a few ingredients with known links to such health effects as headaches, hyperactivity and cancer.

3. Eat loads of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains (if appropriate) and high-quality proteins

Eat at least 2 cups of green, leafy vegetables each day, and strive to include an additional 2 cups of other brightly colored vegetables into your meals and snacks. Juicing some fresh vegetables is a great way to make sure you get the optimal amount each day.

If you do eat grains, expand your horizons and eat a diverse variety. Minimize wheat and glutinous grains, and instead try some quinoa, buckwheat, millet or teff.

4. Avoid GMOs as much as possible

More than 90 percent of the corn, soy, canola, cottonseed and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are from GMO seeds. A genetically engineered growth hormone, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), is used on conventionally raised dairy cows.

Ingredients made from these crops are used in thousands of processed foods, so it’s best to stay away from as many processed foods as possible.

5. Choose organic

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program strictly prohibits the use of GMOs in any food carrying the USDA Organic seal. So if your food carries the organic seal, you know it’s not made from GMOs.

Also, pay attention to the little stickers with numbers on them when buying produce. If the item is conventionally grown, the number has four digits (for example, 4060 indicates broccoli). If the item is organically grown, the number has five digits starting with a 9 (94060 indicates organic broccoli).

If the number has five digits beginning with an 8, that means the produce you are holding has been genetically modified.

6. Eat small amounts of protein throughout the day

Eat protein to tame sugar cravings. If you eat animal protein, select hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organically raised meats, poultry, eggs and dairy. Animal proteins are best consumed in smaller amounts in comparison to the plant foods that should make up the majority of your food intake.

7. Minimize caffeine, sugar and alcohol

These are stimulants that interfere with the body’s natural detoxification pathways, inhibiting and negating your efforts at improving health. If you do drink coffee, make it organic as much as possible.

Conventional coffee beans are one of the crops most heavily sprayed with pesticides.

8. Know which fats are healthy and which aren’t

Plant-based saturated fats such as coconut oil, palm oil and small amounts of butter are best for baking and cooking because they are stable and don’t oxidize when heated, while monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados are less stable and provide the best health benefits when unheated or used with very low heat.

Polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oils, nut and seed oils should be avoided. Obtain nut and seed oils from eating raw nuts and seeds instead, rather than as pressed oils. One exception is flaxseed oil, which, if properly stored away from heat and light, can be added to foods.

9. Eat for your temperature

If your body temperature is cold, eat more protein foods, essential fatty acids, seaweeds and warming spices such as ginger and cayenne. If your body temperature is warm, eat more cooling foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and green herbal teas and spices like mint, rosemary, lemongrass and rooibos.

10. Take time to truly enjoy food

Chew slowly, savor flavors and give thanks for the blessing of the life-force energy being transferred into you.

Your Care and Feeding

“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather he will cure and prevent disease with nutrition,” said Thomas Edison.

In its simplest definition, nutrition refers to the care and feeding of an organism. Understanding how to properly care for and feed ourselves is one of our most important human responsibilities.

About the Author

Dee McCaffrey, C.D.C. is an organic chemist, nutritionist and author of The Science of Skinny: Start Understanding Your Body’s Chemistry—and Stop Dieting Forever (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012). She lost 100 pounds and has kept the weight off for more than 20 years by following a whole-foods diet. She teaches holistic nutrition at the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts in Tempe, Arizona.

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