Tis the season for New Years resolutions. Right about this time, your TV, mailbox and e-mail account are flooded with advertisements for the latest diet or exercise program that promises to slim you down and whip you into shape. The most common New Years resolutions relate to health, weight and fitness, so January is a great month to talk about food as it relates to our health. One thing that I wish I could get my patients to truly embrace is proper nutrition. Food is a powerful, yet underutilized, medicine. As easily as poor food choices can make you sick, good food choices can keep you well. So, I choose to be encouraged this month as people strive to get their health in order. It is a decision that can change the trajectory of your life from one of chronic illness to one of vitality and longevity.
We have all heard the phrase “you are what you eat” at one time or another and perhaps laughed it off as a silly quote. The phrase dates back to the 1800s…and (gasp) is essentially true. What we eat really does affect who and what we are and it is about so much more than weight. Food means many things to many people. We eat for nourishment, celebration, happiness, sadness, connection…for many reasons. At the core, however, food is fuel for our bodies. What we feed our bodies determines how it functions, today and in the future. More that the calorie count, the substance of a food is what matters and not all food is created equal. There are the same number of calories in an avocado and a donut, but each affects the body in dramatically different and opposite ways. Our bodies will thrive with certain foods and struggle with the others, so it just makes sense to provide your body with the best fuel that you can. This may seem like an overwhelming concept, but I see it as a tremendous opportunity. We can change our current and future health by the food choices that we make every day.
Michael Pollan, the famed author of In Defense of Food, said it best: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. This statement beautifully illustrates the foundations of proper nutrition. The phrase “eat food” seems so simple, but it has become very complex in modern society. Much of the standard American diet is simply not real food. It is processed, devoid of essential nutrients, and unrecognizable from its original form. Let’s take the potato, for example. A baked potato has one ingredient…the potato. Instant mashed potatoes, on the other hand, have at least six ingredients, several of which are unhealthy oils and preservatives. They both are “potatoes”, but one is processed and does not resemble the other in appearance or in its nutritional effect on the body. You can start to determine whether a food is “real” by simply reading the ingredients on the label. Disregard the claims on the front of a package, which are often misleading (e.g. “low fat” often means added sugars), and decide for yourself whether it is worth eating by studying the ingredients. The more ingredients, the more suspicious you should become. Better yet, eat more of the things that don’t have a label at all, like vegetables and fruits. The best dietary pattern is up for debate, but there are a few things that all good dietary lifestyles have in common: an abundance of plants, a paucity of refined sugar and flour, and limited processed foods. Focus on what you are actually eating and you will be on track to a healthier life.
One of the best ways to eat better is to get back into your kitchen and cook. Many people eat out frequently because they feel they do not have time to cook, but cooking your own food is an investment in your health and worth embracing. If food is fundamental to the way we feel and function, then eating well should be a priority. Eating well takes planning, so take some time to get prepared each week. Start by planning a menu for the week. Make a grocery list and get everything you will need in one grocery run. We now have several grocery stores in the area that will shop for you so you can place your order online, drive up to a window and collect your groceries, saving yourself time. Spend a few hours prepping and cooking ahead to make your weeknights easier. Cook in bulk and freeze to help out on busy days. With a little preparation, you can not only eat better but you can feed yourself and your family more easily during your busy week. Planning a meal last minute is usually a recipe for failure, whereas planning ahead of time will ensure your success. The reward of providing a nourishing meal to yourself and your family is grand. Make the investment.
My challenge to you this New Year is to make a positive lifestyle choice. Rather than a temporary resolution, make a commitment to a healthier life by making nutrition a priority. Another common New Years resolution is to “live life to the fullest”. What better way to get started than by gifting yourself and your family with good food so you can all feel and function your best? By choosing to eat well, you are choosing to live life to the fullest.
Happy New Year and Happy Eating!