Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Is Healthy?

I can't help but cringe when I hear people saying "Oh, you're eating healthy", or "I should start eating more healthy foods". What exactly are healthy foods? I suspect more and more that 'healthy' does not look like the dietary recommendations beaten into our brains over the past several decades. But I don't think anyone has found all the answers yet. The refrain we hear to eat 'healthy' seems more like an ambiguous guilt trip to me. Just more rules - from who knows where.
Copyright Laura A Knauth 

The big problem is that these 'health' rules are being advocated at the same time degenerative 'diseases' are exploding in number … maybe a causation? Something to ponder. At the same time you are following someone else's rules about what foods are healthy, you are told that it is natural for our bodies to break down, to require constant medical and drug interventions. Really? I'm not buying that people who are obese or have a chronic illness just weren't following the rules well enough. If health care costs and interventions are spiraling out of control, and overall health is declining, maybe the rules about what is 'healthy' need a revisit. I suspect factors that have a significant effect on our actual health are not on the mainstream radar (pesticides, plastics, processing, …), and other factors advocated may be just plain wrong.

Bad Genes?
I also hear references to bad genes being responsible for autoimmune conditions or other terminal diseases. Seems like another cop out. For one, gene expression (epigenetics) is increasingly showing a significant environmental component. (So even if you truly do have a bad gene, you may be able to modulate the expression of that gene by diet and lifestyle choices.) The mainstream health rules appear to be so far above suspicion that when everyone is getting sick in varying degrees that it must be due to their bad genes. Really? Or maybe the health rules and unseen heath factors are in fact compromising our biology to such a degree that each person's genetic weaknesses begin to be exposed … and that bar keeps getting pushed further and further down through the generations. If this is Option A, I'm trying Option B.

Pre-Agriculture Options (Paleo / Raw Foods)
I am in the process of testing out food choices that I suspect are more compatible with our physiology. The thought is that humans are better adapted to food our species has been eating for longer times (aka: Ancestral diets, Paleo, Uncooked Foods). More compatible foods might take a load off the system and allow more energy for repairing and rebuilding. The big assumption with this approach is that human beings were optimized to be robust and healthy far longer than the current norms and without constant medical intervention. If you are sold on Option A - that the mainstream expectations of sickness, frailty and disease are natural - then the rest of this article will probably seem very peculiar. But the long-term health AND cost benefits of finding a better option are just to compelling for me to ignore.

More options == More possible results == Optimal result

I view it as a big test. No one else's rules; just trying to home in on what works for me. After all, what turns out to be healthy for me, might not be what is healthy for you (due to food allergies or differently optimized genes). I suspect some general principles apply to everyone though - mainly: avoiding commercially processed foods.

Copyright Laura A Knauth
I'm convinced there just hasn't been enough time for our bodies to fully adapt (or to build appropriate defenses) to these wonky or mangled (overcooked / irradiated) foods. Modern franken foods aside, even grains appear to only have been introduced into our diet within the last 7,000 years. They do provide a cheap short term energy burst, but at what long term health cost? Even though grains have some vitamins and minerals, they also require significant mineral resources to actually digest. And that's not even considering what appears to be an impaired digestive response especially to gluten in varying degrees across the population. It's not just what you eat, but what you absorb, after all. The net benefit vs cost of the foods we eat is well worth considering. Maybe there's a more compatible nutrition per calorie option elsewhere? … hello lovely leafy greens :)  BTW, I juice or blend most of my greens in an attempt to further optimize the nutrition benefit vs digestion cost.

An Unexpected Benefit to a High Fat Diet
I switched to a paleo / raw foods diet about a year ago basically overnight (and chose to emphasize more fats than carbohydrates). Once I figured out what options there were to eat (mainly staying in the produce section of the grocery store, or the farmers market in general), there were no issues of willpower that appear to cause so much agony with the mainstream notion of a healthy diet. Fatty foods (and I am talking extremely good quality fats - I choose mainly unprocessed coconuts and avocados) as opposed to carbohydrates appear to have the side effect of working with your natural hunger mechanisms. (And BTW: High quality fats are also a very cost effective per calorie vs fruits.)

My basic rules when eating Paleo:
Eat when hungry.
Stop when full.

No willpower needed. No guilt. When eating carbs, especially from highly processed food (empty calories), the signal for "I'm Full" only triggered when my stomach was physically stuffed … and I would be ravenously hungry again a couple hours later. For the record, I'm probably considered underweight (always have been); I suspect I was not absorbing my food properly due to a gluten sensitivity. I had bad digestion issues for about a year following a period of time when I made a concerted effort to be extra 'healthy' which included making my own breads with 'healthy whole grains' (I even found a bag of gluten when I was clearing out my pantry). Yikes! I now suspect my body was just trying to get rid of basically everything I was eating. Back in those times, I probably could have eaten a whole cake and not gained a pound, but I would still grudgingly limit myself to a slice to be 'healthy'. Well, no more willpower needed when you make high fat paleo or raw food concoctions. I've found your body tells you when you are done, and that's that.

Here are a few 'healthy' mainstream rules I have replaced:
  • Instead of 'Healthy Whole Grains', I eat coconuts and avocados.
    • I heard someone describe the recommendation for whole grains over processed grains a bit like recommending filtered cigarettes over unfiltered, which I thought was a great analogy. Neither are actually good for you.
  • Instead of egg whites, I eat egg yolks.
    • The proteins in egg whites can be a digestive irritant esp for people with gluten sensitivities.
  • Instead of processed sugar (including 'raw cane sugar' or agave), I eat honey, dates, figs, fruits, …
    • I'm not a huge fan of stevia for the taste, but if I do use it, instead of the commercial powders, I order the dried crushed leaves online.
  • Instead of cooking with olive oil, I use coconut oil or butter (I eat mostly raw or uncooked foods, but do slow cook meats and sauté mushrooms)
    • Olive Oil is lovely as a final topping, but it, like so many lauded oils (or nuts) easily turns to trans fat when heated. I avoid trans fats at all costs. Seems to function like a trojan: Your body thinks it's a normal saturated fat and uses it to build vital organs, which compromises their function.

Wrapping It Up
I'm not saying I know the answers (no more rules from experts or gurus!). But I suspect much of what we are told is 'healthy' causes long term health problems that are not actually natural, and wanted to describe some other options that I think are worth a look. I plan to order yearly blood tests to monitor my vitamin/mineral levels, and other health markers. Just part of being vigilant and optimizing my results. If I ever don't like what I see, I'll keep tinkering. It's an invigorating approach. So far, so good!

by Laura A Knauth

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