What Constitutes Healthy Eating?

Healthy eating.  What does that look like?  Is there a one-size-fits-all diet that most supports human health?  If so, then why are there so many conflicting beliefs about what constitutes the healthiest diet?  Hasn't  science been able to determine which foods are best by now?

Is there a way to determine the best food selections for each individual, regardless of what the 'experts' claim?

By now, most people have been confronted with a range of ideologies about what constitutes healthy eating.  Some claim that we are meant to be eating what our paleolithic forebears ate, that being a more hunter-gatherer type of diet.  Others believe we will experience lasting health by eschewing the meat, and munching solely on plants.  Still others claim our health suffers because we eat cooked foods, and are destroying important enzymes in the cooking process.

Does healthy eating involve eating a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, or a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet, and if so, should it be fruit-based, or grain-based?  High fat, or low fat?  

So many questions surround the topic of healthy eating!

With all the conflicting dietary advice, how do we determine what constitutes healthy eating, whether for humans as a collective, or for each of us as individuals?

Why did Don & I create the TYTN Diet Plan?

During the fall of 2011, Don and I transitioned from eating a paleo-diet that was too high in fat, to a plant-based diet.  After a few months, we both had a relief from several concerning symptoms, including an advanced fibrocystic breast tenderness with visibly enlarged, fatty, and uneven sized breasts, and prostatitis symptoms for Don who has a family history of prostate cancer.  The relief we experienced was pretty swift, which validated our decision to switch to eating a mostly vegan diet. 

After nearly six years of what we considered to be very healthy eating, I began to experience increasing fatigue, low-motivation, poor sleep, and increasingly poor vision that I believed the plant-based diet would help correct.  A recent blood test showed 'normal' levels of iron in the blood.  

Don was also dealing with very slow healing from old injuries, and poor vision.  His blood test showed low phosphorous and globulin levels.  These could indicate dehydration, or a low-level protein deficiency.  

For these and other reasons, Don began to do more research.  Perhaps we've been relying on scientific studies too much when determining what constitutes healthy eating.  Perhaps there was another way to determine which foods to consume that best support health.  

And then Don had an epiphany.  Rather than just rely on the science, or get caught up in another dietary ideological box, he realized that if we just trust our True Nature ~ and choose foods that Nature has historically provided in abundance ~ we could better determine what constitutes healthy eating for each of us.  

Nature has always provided man ~ and all animals ~ with an abundance of options for healthy eating!  Natural foods ~ fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, maple syrup or birch sap, greens, vegetables, tubers, and animal flesh foods ~ have been available world wide in varying degrees throughout history.  Whole grains and beans are a more 'modern' food. 

We are rewarded when we eat sweet foods with a hit to our 'feel good' neurotransmitters.  This is natural.  The predominant taste receptors on our tongue is for sweetness.  We crave sweetness in life in more ways than just diet.

However, we've all been programmed somehow into believing ourselves to be weak-willed when we crave sweets, and feel guilty or bad about ourselves when we indulge in our 'guilty pleasures.' 

Unfortunately, consuming industrialized foods has caused our natural taste receptors, and reward system to get cross-wired.  Overconsumption of highly refined foods, and diet sodas with synthetic sweeteners which are intensely sweet dull our taste buds.  We lose our taste for natural foods.

Don began to question what we would naturally be drawn to eating  if we put all 'ideologies' ~ nutritional and moral ~ aside.  Which foods  among those foods provided by nature ~ that are easy to obtain or prepare with minimal technology  needed ~ are most attractive?  

By and large, people are drawn to meats (many of which have a 'sweet' flavor),  sweet and juicy fruits, and plant fats, like nuts or avocados.  A variety of tubers  or root vegetables including sweet potatoes and winter squashes also provide energy, a sweet flavor, and a sense of fullness.  Add some greens and other vegetables for a balance of the five flavors, and you have the foundation for healthy eating! (Jump right to the TYTN Healthy Diet Plan.)

In other words, when one is coming from a healthy base point, and acting from the instinctive nature hard-wired into our DNA, 'meats and sweets' are the predominant cravings.  Even whole grains which can be sweet when thoroughly chewed are not really as sweet as fruits and meats.  In Chinese medicine they are considered to be more 'bland' or 'neutral' in flavor.

We decided to try adding an appropriate amount of lean meat into our diet.  What complements meat better than fruit?  Fruit is low in protein and fat, high in antioxidants.  Meat is high in protein, low in antioxidants.  Fruit provides potassium, while meat is higher in sodium.  It is important to have the right balance of potassium and sodium salts.

So we revised our approach to  'healthy eating' and devised a new healthy diet  based on what we were most drawn to eating ~ hence the TYTN Diet Plan was born.  

After only a few weeks following our TYTN Diet Plan, we both began to experience significant improvements.  Don was finally walking better (he had been limping for more than a year because of issues with his knee and low back tightness), and our results from our fitness training have markedly improved.  We both feel stronger, and have greater energy during and post training.

While making our changes, Don had been doing more research into the impact of various nutritional deficiencies.

According to our recent research, vegans (and some non-vegans) can be at risk for several nutritional deficiencies, which can take some time to develop.  

Some potential indicators of deficiencies of the important nutrients listed above (zinc, iron, selenium, B-Vitamins) include:

  1. Slow wound healing, and slow healing from injuries to joints, bones & ligaments

  2. Low libido - men especially need to ensure getting adequate levels of zinc and selenium for healthy production of testosterone, however women can experience low libido due to dietary deficiencies as well, as Rip Esselstyn points out in his book, My Beef With Meat.  He believes a plant-based diet increases libido.  There is reason for the confusion around diet, and whether or not the animal food component of the diet leads to heart disease, (impotence being an early sign), or the foods consumed with the animal foods. After a lot of recent research, we believe it is the latter.

  3. Fatigue and general malaise or low-motivation.

  4. Brittle nails and hair.

  5. Easily catch colds, catch colds often, or cold hands and feet (also a potential sign of low-thyroid function.)

  6. Pale nails, pail pink under the eyes, pale pink tongue. 

  7. Poor vision from low-levels of Vitamin A (plant-based diets can be high in beta-carotene, a Vitamin-A precursor, while Cod Liver Oil, or animal liver, such as pork or beef liver are the best sources of Vitamin A.)

One of the biggest New Year's resolutions made is to lose weight and improve their energy by eating healthier.  It's not uncommon to for people to initially feel better when beginning any new dietary regime which inspires us to continue.  If we have other symptoms crop up, we may rationalize their source, and continue on until we reach a point of diminishing return where we no longer feel our diet is providing the benefits we desire. Then we are off to try a new approach.

Of course one reason we may not be feeling well nourished ~ despite healthy eating ~ is because of changes over the last several decades in agricultural practices, and an increase in the use of pesticides.  Our soils lack the minerals they once contained, and our foods are just not providing the same full potential of nourishment that they once provided.  

Other lifestyle factors can impact our health that we neglect to consider ~ such as using personal body care products, and home cleaning products laden with chemicals, dyes, and other synthetic additives ~ which challenge our immune system.  Getting inadequate sunshine, sleep, and exercise, and poorly managing stress will all negatively impact health.  

But I digress...

Douglas Lisle, PhD, and  co-author Alan Goldhamer, D.C., discuss in their book The Pleasure Trap,  how humans and non-human animals are hard-wired to seek out comfort, avoid pain, and strive to feel satisfied (have one's basic needs met) with the least possible effort.  

We also know that the mind likes to be 'right.'  

Knowing these things about how we are wired, it is easy to see how we can convince ourselves that our approach to healthy eating is the correct approach ~ and must be for all people.  We gravitate towards the books, studies, or groups that validate our beliefs.  However all foods have the capacity to be either health promoting, neutral, or health negating, depending on our needs, and the dose.

For example, consider whole grains.  Some believe these are natural, healthy foods.  Most macrobiotic counselors coach clients to center their diet around whole cooked grains.  Many studies can be found touting the health benefits of whole grains.  

But are they indeed healthy for all people?  Are they even as healthy as these studies would have you believe?  

In my book, The Macrobiotic Action Plan, Your MAP to Greater Health & Happiness, (available in print or on Kindle), I suggest that a 'macrobiotic diet' does not have to be just grain-based.  You can follow the macrobiotic principles by first deciding what your principle, or primary staple foods would be ~ based on your needs, what's available regionally, and what you most enjoy ~ then choose your supplementary foods accordingly.  The supplementary foods will vary depending on your primary staples, and are chosen to be the most balancing, or complementary to the primary food choices.  

For example, if you are choosing to have an animal-centered diet, and you choose fish and beef as two of your principle foods, then salad greens, fruits, and tubers may be more complementary than whole cooked grains, or beans.  Or, you may really enjoy oats, and choose to have oats as one of your principle foods.  The quality and quantity of each of these foods, and the design of the entire diet would be adjusted accordingly.  

If, however, one of your primary food staples happens to be chicken, and you were to come to me as a client presenting various symptoms indicating a lot of internal heat, I would suggest an alternative.  In Chinese medicine, chicken is very warming.  You would be exacerbating your condition to continue to consume it all the time as a primary staple.  

While many doctors have recommended patients to reduce consumption of beef to lower cholesterol, according to principles of Chinese food therapy, beef is more neutral in temperature than chicken.  The person with a lot of internal heat would achieve greater balance by either switching the primary staple from chicken to another animal protein, such as mild white fish, or even beef, or by reducing the total amount consumed at any given meal, and increasing the amount of plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and tubers, or possibly whole grains and beans.  By nature, these foods are more cooling, and will provide greater balance to the person's condition.

Providing your food selections are prepared and consumed in a manner that provides balance to your unique needs ~ your caloric needs and your needs based on your current condition, constitution, and the current season ~ and providing the foods you are selecting are natural foods which are minimally processed, then in our view, it is a macrobiotic diet.  

A Macrobiotic diet simply refers to the foods and lifestyle practices that will help you live a long, healthy, or 'great life.'  Having a healthy relationship with food, and enjoying your meals is part of healthy eating, and contributes to having a great life!

Many people believe that whole grains ~ and beans ~ are a modern 'invention' in the food world, consumed only since the Agrarian Revolution.  It allowed civilizations to grow and thrive because an excess of food could be produced and stored.  Grains are very easy to store, and can remain viable for a long time.

Some believe whole grains are the elixir (or staff) of life, and should be consumed regularly to help prevent heart disease, obesity, and other chronic health issues, while others see grains (and beans) as being like a poison to human health.  

Both grains and beans contain phytic-acids, often called 'anti-nutrients' which block the absorption of important minerals like iron, calcium, and zinc, and disrupt the microvilli in the small intestine.  This can potentially damage the efficiency of our digestive functions, and lead to an increase in allergies, and other health issues stemming from nutritional deficiencies.

Polenta w/ Sautéed Swiss Chard, Onions & Dried Cranberries
Beans, Greens, & Sweet Potatoes

It is important to understand that many of the studies regarding whole grains are comparing the consumption of the whole cooked grain with a refined and milled grain product.  The wheat berry vs. ground wheat flour, for example.  In this comparison, whole grains will come out on top every time.  

A whole grain contains the bran and germ, wherein the bulk of the vitamins and fiber reside.  Whole grains also contain antioxidants, however they can be destroyed when the grain is milled.  Milling also separates out the germ and the bran.  A refined grain no longer contains the healthy components of the whole grain.  Refined grains have a longer shelf life.  To make up for the loss of vitamins, synthetic vitamins are added back.  Therefore, refined grains are not a natural food.  

The bulk of 'grains' consumed by Americans is refined wheat.  It's in cookies, cakes, bagels, breads, and crackers, often with many refined sugars and unhealthy fats.  Avoiding or greatly minimizing refined foods are among the recommendations for healthy eating.

Even breads made with 100% whole grains ~ in other words the grain was milled, but the fiber and nutrients remain in tack ~ is still not as healthy as consuming the whole cooked grain.  It's dryer and more dense for starters.  Bread is dry, while brown rice or bulgur wheat is cooked in 2-3 times the volume of water to grain.  It's fluffier and chewier to eat.

The more refined, the more easily it will spike blood sugar.  

Home made whole grain zucchini bread
Brown rice balls w/ ume plum paste centers
Vegan Barley Cornbread
Vegan whole wheat pancakes w/ Pear Ginger Sauce

A 1999 crossover study published in Pediatrics, was conducted on 12 obese boys comparing the hormonal appetite regulating effects after consuming a low, medium, or high glycemic breakfast.  The low glycemic breakfast consisted of a vegetable omelette with fruit, and the medium and high glycemic breakfasts consisted of oatmeal.  The high glycemic breakfast was made with instant oats, while the medium glycemic breakfast was made with steel cut oats.  

They were given a lunch, and a low-glycemic dinner.  During the day, between meals, they were to ask for food when they felt hungry, ad libitum.  The hormonal and metabolic test results indicated a clear difference between the various diets, with the low-glycemic breakfast producing the best results.  They consumed less food and had a better insulin response following the low-glycemic vegetable omelette, then when consuming the instant oats, and the steel cut oats.

Steel Cut Oats & Quinoa w/ Peanuts
Siroloin Steak & High Omega Poached Egg w/ Stir Fried Beet Greens, & Roasted Homestyle Potatoes

Whole grain consumption is recommended for prevention of heart disease, and many other health conditions, including constipation, cancer of the colon, and blood sugar imbalances (1).  The complex carbohydrates contain fiber and many vitamins and minerals.  They ultimately break down into glucose, the primary form of energy, especially for our brain.  Their slow burning nature is more balancing to the blood sugar than eating their refined counterparts, which lack fiber and have been stripped of their natural vitamins and minerals during the milling process.  

Beans and legumes are considered even better for regulating appetite and blood sugar, and are the primary source of protein for vegan, plant-based diets.  They have also been studied for their role in promoting safe weight loss. (2)

In the article, Whole-Grain Foods Not Always Healthful published on July 25, 2013 in the Scientific American, Melinda Wenner Moyer  explains some of the confusion around the recommendations of whole grains with respect to the misleading labeling of grain products.  

The author also points out that the USDA recommends people replace some of their refined grain consumption with whole grains, not add to their total consumption of grains.  Plus the health benefits of whole grains are associated with high fiber grains.  Not all grains are very high in fiber.

Chicken Chipotle Cacciatore

To clear the confusion around determining what to eat that will best support your health, and help you prevent dis-ease, you need a set of principles to guide your choices.  

Healthy eating is based partly on your ancestral diet and the traits that you have inherited that support human survival, AND what you would be most drawn to naturally, given the correct framework.  Think 'sweets and meats!'

There is also another way to determine the best dietary choices for you as an individual, besides just focusing on what I call the 'nutritional resume' of individual foods.  It is a liberating approach, but may require unlearning some  strongly held belief systems.

Don and I have learned from our training in Chinese medicine and macrobiotics how to approach food, and the therapeutic use of herbs more holistically than the Western approach which breaks down and isolates various components of foods or herbs, and tests them to determine their effects.  

Nature doesn't operate by the same principles found in lab science.  The individual components of any particular food works in tandem with the other components of that same food, and within the greater context of one's entire diet and lifestyle.  How we eat, what we've been eating, and our levels of stress, can also impact the net effect of each food on our health.

There is another way to look at foods and herbs, and what constitutes a healthy diet.

There are three main components to learning how to self-determine what healthy eating looks like for you, that will best support your True Nature.

  1. Understanding some nutritional basics, especially knowing which foods pretty much all agree  constitutes un-healthy eating, and avoid or greatly minimize those foods.

  2. Recognizing that your human body is genetically best adapted to the foods Nature made available to your pre-agricultural ancestors.

  3. Learning how to eat intuitively, mindful of  the energetics of foods, and how to choose the best foods for you based on your True Nature.  We sometimes also say to 'eat for your dreams.'  What you choose to eat should fit into the context of your goals and desires, along with being a match for your constitution, and where you live.  

To determine what constitutes healthy eating for you will also depend on the context of your past habits, and current condition.  What have you been mostly eating?  How active are you?  Are you over weight?  Are you dealing with any major health issues?  What are your primary symptoms, and what are your health goals?  What are your moods like?  What about the rest of your lifestyle habits?  What type of time and financial budget are you willing to spend preparing healthy meals?  Which foods do you just love, and which do you detest?  

As a TYTN Health Coach teaching people to learn to trust themselves, I believe it is helpful to create a healthy eating plan that best matches one's present preferences, and level of willingness to make changes.  Trying to get people to swap out steak and eggs for big bowls grains and beans when they don't have any desire to do so is like swimming upstream.  It may not even be what is healthiest for that person.  But, they may be willing to modify how they consume their steak and eggs;  the total quantity, or the complementary choices can be more readily modified.

Eating a produce-rich, animal-centered diet with a variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and tubers along with some optional, unrefined whole grains and beans may be more ideal.  In fact, few foods need to be totally off-limits when you learn how to enjoy small amounts as part of the entire profile of balance, such as during celebrations, or as an occasional treat on the weekend.

It all comes down to choices.  As I discuss in Make Every Bite Count, and repeat in The Macrobiotic Action Plan, (both books geared more towards a plant-based diet), healthy eating is also about learning how to elevate your choices to improve your health outcomes.  

Within the greater framework of our TYTN Diet Plan, there is an ideal set of foods that can be determined based on your personal goals and needs.

To paraphrase Bruce Lee, take what is useful, leave the rest, and make it your own.

Because of all the experiences and health challenges Don and I have dealt with, including assisting many clients with a customized healthy eating plan at our acupuncture clinic, we have learned to take Bruce Lee's advice.  Don is writing more about this in his upcoming book. 

In summary, what constitutes healthy eating will vary for each person, however there are basic rules that apply to all, such as avoiding the top foods that are definitely not part of a healthy eating plan.

It is our desire  to empower people to free themselves from  rigid dietary boxes, prevent potential health challenges, and enjoy ones diet and life.  Food is to be prepared and enjoyed as a sacred act.  When we are mindful, and have embodied the above principles, we can  finally trust ourselves to be the best determiner of what healthy eating looks like for each of us individually, and better tune out the rest of the noise in the endless sea of dietary fads and advice.  Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own choices, and the creator of our outcomes.  

Embracing this responsibility is a far more empowering and liberating way to live.

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