Eating is something we do daily and let’s face it – nutrition can be confusing. There are hundreds of diets and fads out there. Some make promises and pitch deals or they may rely on the use of potentially harmful products. Others take a gentler, more moderate approach. It has been my experience treating clients for the 25+ years that there simply isn’t one nutritional path that will match everyone’s needs. What a diabetic needs in their diet compared to what an athlete needs can be vastly different. Under the rule of the Earth Element, and the Stomach and Spleen organs, our digestive systems are the center of the house (our bodies) and our source of integrity in form and energy. Creating healthy eating habits isn’t about simply buying and eating the best food.
At the root of nutrition is our relationship to food and eating and we often have to look deeply at client’s history to help set up new and healthier habits. However, there are general guidelines that can observed by those in a relative state of health and can serve as a starting point for cleaning up even the most out of balance diet.
Here are my general guidelines for creating healthy eating habits
Attitude and gratitude
Food should nourish us to the very deepest level. Eat with joy and gratitude whether you are eating a gourmet meal or simple carrot. Harbored thoughts of anger, guilt or disgust while eating can block your ability to nourish yourself. Even if you are eating a meal that you might consider “bad”, it is better to resolve to enjoy it – for your body’s sake. Take the time to sit down and relax with your meals. It makes a huge difference. Expressing gratitude shifts our energy. Giving thanks, in whatever manner you choose. Express gratitude for the abundance you have, give regard for the person preparing the meal–heck, for having tastes buds. Shift your mental energy to the positive, and there isn’t anything that doesn’t improve.
Meaning most of the time, eat well. This will allow you room for play 20% of the time. By increasing the quality and nutrition of the food in your diet you will naturally start moving towards greater health. Likewise, it can be detrimental to our well-being if we are so rigid and strict that we don’t allow ourselves to enjoy another’s cooking, go out to eat at restaurants or have a bit of decadence. The more you practice this rule, the more you will begin to refine even the 20% area of play.
Eat whole foods
If grandma wouldn’t recognize it – don’t eat it. This refers to eating real whole foods. My grandmother wouldn’t have recognized much of the Asian and Mediterranean food I love – but she would have recognized them as veggies, fruits, grains and meats. Real whole foods. Our modern diets are plagued with food that is stripped of nutrients and is wholly unrecognizable. Food has been dyed, bleached, flavored, preserved with chemicals, these foods are also usually ‘made’ in more than one location. It is not surprising that many of our children have problems recognizing what a tomato, potato, onion or pea even looks like. If you have problems imaging the food you are about to eat in its original form or it sports a horrendously bright color or smell, steer clear if possible.
Lots of them. I recommend people eat 7-9 servings a day or about 65-70% of your daily intake. What’s a serving size? About 1 cup of raw or 1/2 cup cooked. No, I’m not saying you should eat 3 cups of mashed potatoes a day. Enjoy variety. Shoots, roots, stalks, leaves, blossoms and seeds – oh, my. All provide different energetics and healing values. Another way to look at this is to fill 1/2 of your plate with vegetables and divide the other 1/2 equally between your protein source and whole grain or starch. Vegetables and grains are also our primary sources of fiber which is essential for good bowel health. Find out more about fiber.
It’s true, digestion begins in the mouth with an enzyme called salivary amalyse. When you take the time to chew well, your digestion improves and problems like gas, bloating, acid reflux and the sensation of food ‘just sitting’ in the stomach will decrease. The physical process of mastication (chewing) triggers the food in your stomach to move from the small intestines and into the large intestines, thereby aiding regularity of bowel movement. Eating slower is beneficial for those who want to eat less, as well as, those who might need to gain. The process of chewing also slows us down, enabling us to make the most out of the nutrients we are taking in. Really, trust me on this. Read more.
Good, the bad and the…
“Red meat is bad, right?” I am often asked if one food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – but there really isn’t such a thing when you are looking at whole, real foods. What matters is your relationship to a particular food and whether it is appropriate for your needs at this time. A little red meat may not be ideal for someone with high cholesterol and high blood pressure or excess patterns, yet it is very beneficial for a very cold, Yang deficient, weak and anemic person. Another example is wheat. It a real grain, energetically it is cold and cloying and highly allergenic, so it may not be ideal for many. Most people eat wheat only in a processed, overly refined form. With its overuse in our diets, many people are now allergic or sensitive to wheat but another may benefit from its cooling principles. Some foods can be eaten by nearly everyone (think of squash and rice) while foods with strong energetics are often overused (soy and corn) will often need to be moderated in the diet. Again, enjoy variety, try something new.
Eat local, organic and sustainable
Whenever possible, I try to eat what is available around me and in season. This helps support my local community, encourages good farming and husbandry (raising animals) and environmental habits including use of resources for shipping. This also aids your body like only live, nutrient dense food can. Do I eat out of season? Yes, sometimes. Do I eat imported? Yes, sometimes. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule in my book. For example – I live in Idaho. We have no ocean nearby, to bring in fresh seafood means a lot of resources are used. I take this as a personal conscious choice to consciously limit my intake of items that have to be rushed here. Seaweed takes few resources to process, it dries easily and stores well for a long time so it can take its time getting into my cabinet. Eating in the seasons also means you take in the foods that will energetically help you adapt to your body’s needs during each season – something western nutrition rarely recognizes. Learn more about the nature of the seasons Spring, Summer, Late Summer/Doyo, Fall & Winter.
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper
Remember this one? From a Chinese medicine perspective our ability to digest food is at its peak in the morning. From the hours of 7-11 am, during Spleen and Stomach energy times, to be specific. When we skip meals our blood sugar fluctuates which may lead to many problems including diabetes. When you eat breakfast you utilize the energy from that food to make it through your day, rather than stealing energy needs. Skipping meals also will not help with weight loss–many studies agree, eating regular, appropriate sized meals makes for better and more sustained weight loss, if that is a need. Read more about the Nutrient Cycle.
Sit down and eat with people you like
When you eat, take the time to sit, taste your food, savor it and be thankful. We’ve lost this simple habit that helps tremendously. When you want your body to digest, give it the opportunity—enjoy pleasant company, maybe go for a gentle stroll, turn off the TV. The Qi will flow into the digestive track.
Know your body
Our bodies are amazing and dynamic. Personally, I do not view health as a static state. We shift and change in different life stages, ages and situations. Rather, I see health as an overall state of well being (in body and mind) that is able to handle the impact of life and situations and then bounce back. This is highly individualized; some of us are born physically strong, some are born weaker. What matters is what you do with what you have. My goal is to help people recognize a person’s individual state and to improve on that, no matter how strong or weak. There is always room to for improvement.
Don’t Skip Meals
One of the most common recommendations I end up making. Our bodies need energy to run on and that energy comes from the foods we eat. If meals are skipped we run the risk of blood sugar swings and ‘hoarding’ which can cause weight gain.
Keep your Spleen and the digestive fire warm
Our digestive systems are like cooking pots or cauldrons. They must heat the food up to be properly transformed into energy and fluids. This fire can easily be snuffed out by too many cold or raw foods. For best absorption eat your food warmed up. A little raw food in the spring and summer is fine, especially for those with vibrant digestion. “But it will kill the enzymes.” Yes, true, partly. However, if your digestion is weak, you aren’t breaking the food down to get the most of it anyway. You will absorb more with the cooked. Read more about the Earth Element here.
We see images of the perfect plate full of food, and what have wonderful shows with magnificent recipes that can overwhelm and burden us. Honestly, your digestive system, likes simple. Fall back on things like soups, congees, cooked roots and winter squashes when your system is weak.
What can I take with this meal?
Interesting thought. Have you ever considered—what can I eat or add to this meal that will aid my body’s ability to absorb it? You can create a whole ‘tool box’ of ideas to add to any meal. Try including a tea like fennel, ginger or lemon; take a digestive enzyme; eat a ferment food.
Get the family involved
Learning to plan and prepare meals shouldn’t fall to just one person in the family unless you’ve divided the work that way. Why? It’s a life skill, everyone should learn. Especially if there are children in the household, get them involved. Have them pick out one or two meals to have each week, have them participate in cooking and clean up. Besides you never want to tick off the cook, right?
Here’s to eating well!