I have been doing research about food and health for the past two and half years and I have been cooking and ‘experimenting’ on my husband and myself. In the past few months though, I renewed my efforts into research, in the light of my own (rather minor) health problems. I hate popping pills and so I have been reading up intensively about how what we eat affects our health. In the course of this research I have come across vast amounts of information that I am surprised I have not heard about before. I have included a few links and book titles at the end for you to explore when you have more time.
The purpose of this final post is to give you a concise snapshot of what I think are the most important pieces of information out there, so that you can consider whether there are any changes that you could make to your food and, consequently your life. Just to make it clear, this information is equally applicable to diabetics.
Avoid processed foods as much as possible: I know this sounds obvious and trite but if you were to change just one thing about the way you eat I would say this is the one you should go for immediately. Too much of our decision making about what to eat is driven by convenience, the food industry, and the packaging, advertising and marketing that surrounds it. Highly refined, fatty, and nonsensical ingredient foods are cheap, easily available, and rigorously marketed to us all the time (while quality fruits and vegetables are hard to find, at least in Bangalore).
Try a whole, plant-based, low fat, high carb diet for a 30-day period: For a trial period of one month, eat only fruits, vegetables, grains, beans/legumes, nuts and seeds – in the least processed forms as you can manage. There are three main reasons to try this. First, this set of foods (unlike the excluded foods – meat, eggs, dairy, refined foods, caffeine, cocoa, and oils) has been shown to help prevent and reverse diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (Type 2) as well as auto-immune disorders relating to the thyroid, the digestive system, the pancreas and so on. In essence if any small or big health concerns you may have are being caused by or worsened by what you’ve been eating so far, then even this short period of a whole, plant-based diet is likely to show you improvements. Second, this set of foods will help you get in touch with your taste buds, real appetite, and digestive capacity – and this will help you can find out how much food your body really needs to function optimally. Third, this set of foods tends to have the highest nutrient per calorie, and therefore eating this way means you are getting the best quality of nutritional fuel for your body and mind. In essence, plant-based foods are the easiest to digest, safest for your body, and contain the best quality nutrition you need. You may have to supplement your Vitamin B12 levels (which even meat and dairy eaters often need too), but otherwise you can get all that your body needs directly from plant foods.
A note on Type 1 diabetes: A high carb, low fat, plant-based has been shown to be suitable diet even for insulin-dependent Type 1 diabetics, as long as they ensure that there is fibre in every meal, and they plan the timing of their insulin intake carefully.
Eat whole, plant-based, low fat, high carb foods in large quantities: Whether you eat this set of foods exclusively, or not, when you are hungry, these foods are the best fuel for your body and brain. However, since most of these are not calorie-dense foods, you will need to consume a large quantity to ensure you are getting enough fuel as well as nutrients. (For instance, I have been having fruit for breakfast for about a month now and I need about 8-10 bananas blended into 2 smoothies to keep me energetic and satisfied till lunchtime. Similarly when I eat a dinner based on vegetables with rice, pasta, rotis, or potatoes but no added fat then, in order to feel satisfied, I need to eat 1.5 to 2 times what I used to when I added oil or dairy.)
Listen to your body: If you have given your body a months rest from meat, dairy, eggs, refined foods, caffeine, cocoa and oils, you will be able to interpret your own hunger, and satiation levels much more accurately. In addition, since you will have fairly good digestion on a regular basis, you will be able to tell when any new foods you introduce cause adverse reactions or digestive problems of any kind.
Get hydrated: Most people are dehydrated and have been so for most of their adult lives. Inadequate water in the system can cause all sorts of malfunctioning to occur – right from poor digestion and skin problems to hormonal imbalances, sluggishness, and pain. Drink 750ml-1L of water 15 minutes before every meal if you need a way of remembering. Of course, this means you will have to pee a lot, but once you are fully hydrated (this could take a few weeks), you will realise that it was worth every loo-break you had to take.
Learn from my mistaken enmity with carbs and sugars: A few years back, in an attempt to get rid of my permanently flabby belly, I tried cutting back on my carbohydrates. I felt that I ate too much rice, pasta, and rotis and that I needed to increase my proteins and good fats, instead. I’m not sure, but maybe this approach triggered my health problems in the first place. And it definitely made me cranky, tired – and because of the increased protein – gassy, too.
For almost 3 years now I have been conscious of how much carbs I eat and have always restrained myself. And whenever I felt hungry I would crave chocolate, pastries, cakes, muffins, cookies, and ice-cream type of things. I assumed that the common factor in all these cravings was sugar and therefore I needed to cut sugar out of my diet to get rid of the opportunity to indulge my cravings. In fact, this year I went on a sugar-free challenge to stop myself from eating these foods. I even limited the amount of fruits I ate thinking fruit sugar was also not going to help my body shed the blubber. But my thyroid problem has just gotten worse and my digestive system sort of went on strike.
My research over the past few months has shown me that I was completely mistaken about carbohydrates. The reason I had cravings for calorie dense foods was that I was not getting enough carbohydrates. And while it was good that I cut out all the processed sugary foods, I realised that these foods are actually very high in fats (oil, butter, eggs) and often contain dairy too and that is why people who eat a lot of these foods put on weight and have a propensity for diseases.
From about 4 weeks ago I have changed my breakfasts to fruit meals, increased my carbohydrate intake, decreased my fats, removed dairy, and I no longer have any cravings (seriously, ask the hubby!) and I have pretty decent digestion on most days. I eat a greater quantity of carbs than before but I have not put on any weight. The best part so far is that I am no longer cranky or exhausted in the middle of the day. Of course, I still think processed sugary foods are crap (no nutrients, unnecessary fats). However, I now know that good carbohydrates (grains, vegetables) and good sugars (fruit) in large quantities are the best fuel for my body and mind.
Resources: If you would like to give the whole foods, plant-based diet a try but have doubts such as: where will I get my protein, don’t I need dairy for calcium, isn’t dairy good for bones, will this cause any deficiencies, etc, then do check out one or more of these resources.
Series of Talks by Dr. John McDougall, author of The Starch Solution, available on youtube – https://www.youtube.com/user/KingNutrition20058/videos (the one on the ill-effects of dairy is eye-opening)
Dr. Colin T Campbell, The China Study
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease
Dr. Neal Barnard, Program for Reversing Diabetes (I’ve watched his talks online)
John Robbins, The Food Revolution
nutritionfacts.org, Dr. Micheal Greger (Useful for specific nutrition questions you may have)