I’ve been meaning to write about food for a while, but kept putting it off because discussing food, in a lot of cases, raises more tension than discussing religion or political views. People have certain beliefs and habits around food which they are reluctant to change even when confronted with completely logical arguments. Eating habits are rooted deep in culture, tradition, upbringing, etc.
In my experience, this can only be changed with exposure to new and interesting information. So, I decided to write about food after all, in hopes of impacting at least one person in a positive way. These are some of the things I have tested on myself, which have improved my mood, concentration, sleep, immunity and more.
Please have in mind that I am not a medical professional and as such cannot give medical advice. I did my research and tested these things on myself, but we are all different and what works for me may not work for you.
Eating Real Food
This first one is simple: eat as much whole foods (i.e. real food) as possible and ditch processed foods as often as you can.
Let’s first see what the term processed means. Basically, every food that has undergone some kind of mechanical or chemical operation has been processed. These operations are performed for various reasons, but mostly to extend shelf life of the food and to make it more palatable and thus make you consume and buy more. The problem with processing is that it changes the molecular structure of your food, which leads to loss of nutrients. Nutrient consumption is the reason we eat, by design. The more processed foods you eat, the less nutrients you take in and you usually end up consuming empty calories which just make you fat.
Anything that does not occur in the nature, in that exact form, is processed food. For example, roasted hazelnuts are processed, since they do not come roasted from the tree. However, roasted hazelnuts are much less processed than the ones in hazelnut spreads such as Nutella. In Nutella, they are ground up together with other ingredients beyond recognition and mixed with a bunch of additives, preservatives, etc. As you can see, there are various degrees of processing and you should always opt for the mildest one.
Try to eat as much raw vegetables as possible. If they don’t taste nice raw (such as broccoli) apply minimal processing, such as boiling or steaming.
If you have to buy highly processed foods (for convenience reasons), which commonly come in a box, take a look at the ingredients list and buy it only if it’s something you could make at home (e.g. muesli which contains a few types of whole grains, some nuts and dried fruits). Skip if it contains things you can’t make in your kitchen, or don’t even know what they are (e.g. hydrogenated oil, soy protein isolate, etc). Also skip foods with a long ingredient lists.
If you are used to buying a lot of processed foods, removing them from your diet will seem hard at the beginning. Don’t panic or give up. Start by adding to your diet instead of removing. Add more fresh vegetables and raw nuts. That will start a healthy habit. Then, try switching instant breakfast cereals and porridges with steel cut oats and fresh berries. Instead of instant meals and snacks, try out some simple recipes you can easily find on the Internet. You might even find a love for cooking after some time and all of this will come more naturally.
Interesting: Certain processed foods such as greek yogurt, nut butters, frozen vegetables, unsalted canned beans, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc are actually very healthy.
In the late 80’s and 90’s, the low-fat craze spread from the USA to the entire world. It all started from the assumption that eating fat makes you fat. This is not untrue, after all, one gram of dietary fat packs twice as many calories as carbs or proteins.
In an attempt to reduce calories, people have started opting for low-fat versions of everything and food companies started producing more and more such foods. The problem is: low fat food is bland and unappealing. To make up for the flavour lost while reducing fat, food companies add high amounts of salt and sugar. To make up for lost texture, they add various gums and stabilizers. In the end, you get a highly processed food which sometimes even has more calories than it’s high-fat counterpart!
We’ll talk about the dangers of sugar in one of the upcoming articles, but to keep things short and simple: sugar gives you a momentary sense of satiety and then makes you crave more sugar soon thereafter. So, even if the low-fat food is is lower in calories, you will likely consume more of it, than you would the high-fat food. Food rich in fat keeps you satiated longer and you cannot consume much of it.
From all this we can see that low-fat does not necessarily mean fat loss. Moreover, when you replace fat in your diet with carbohydrates, you can develop insulin resistance, which will make it all the more difficult to lose weight, not too mention other health risks, such as diabetes!
Let’s forget weight loss for a moment and discuss just health. Healthy fats are beneficial for:
- brain function
- heart function
- cholesterol levels
- skin and hair quality, etc.
You can consume these through plant sources such as:
- extra virgin olive oil
- nuts (walnuts, pecans, macadamias, almonds)
and animal sources such as:
- fish (anchovies, salmon, herring, mackerel, trout, catfish)
- cheese (goat cheese and parmesan)
- pasture raised eggs
Interesting: There are studies that suggest that olive oil may actually prevent Alzheimer’s disease!
You may have heard of intermittent fasting, the new weight-loss hype. Intermittent fasting means switching between periods of feasting (eating) and fasting (abstinence from food by only consuming water and plain tea and black coffee).
Intermittent fasting gives pretty good weight loss results, mainly due to calorie restriction. If you follow the 16:8 pattern, for example, this means that you eat within 8 hours, which means you won’t eat more calories with a light midnight snack, if you know what I mean.
Weight loss or weight maintenance aside, fasting has many other health benefits:
- reduction of insulin resistance
- secretion of growth hormone (which promotes muscle growth and improves metabolism)
- increase of brain function and
- autophagy (which promotes anti-ageing and longevity)
My favourite of all the mentioned benefits is autophagy (from the Ancient Greek autóphagos, meaning “self-devouring”). This is a process in which, after approximately 16 hours without food, our body starts to do some house-keeping by removing unnecessary and dysfunctional cells – it virtually devours itself. Although this sounds horrifying, it is actually life prolonging and cancer preventing (according to some studies).
I find this super interesting! Autophagy is, in fact, what got me to give up late night snacks. I read that it’s good for my body to increase the not-eating window, so started with 12 hour fast every day. I eventually worked my way to 16 hours fasting window, or sometimes even 18. Start was, as any start is, the most difficult for me. I had to concentrate not to eat something in the evening. Once I managed to skip the late night snacks, skipping dinner altogether came naturally – I simply was not hungry in the evening any more.
Some people are not hungry in the morning. If you are one of those people, don’t force yourself to eat breakfast. Yes, I know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but if it’s more natural for you to consume your daily calories for lunch and dinner, so be it. Just try to extend the fasting window and see if you will have the mentioned benefits.
Although my initial plan was to improve my longevity through autophagy, after I stopped eating in the evening, I noticed some more immediate and visible benefits. I started sleeping better and waking up more energized the day after. This, in turn, improved my concentration and reduced procrastination. You may feel different results, but I definitely suggest trying. Give it a month and decide if it is for you or not.
Interesting: Intermittent fasting may be a new trend, but fasting is a tale as old as time. If you think about it, all major religions include a form of fasting. Coincidence? I think not. Aside from spiritual aspects which you may or may not accept, religions have many practical rules. These were designed to keep people safe and healthy, and many believe that fasting is one of them.