Wednesday, December 3, 2014

But What Can I Eat?

by Dr. Iva Lloyd
Naturopathic Doctor

Many well-intentioned people, after reading books and websites or having food intolerance testing done, are left asking "What can I eat?"  With all the conflicting information and all the research claiming that this food is bad for you, don't eat this, don't eat that, it is no wonder that eating well has become such a struggle. It doesn't have to be.  The following guidelines will hopefully provide some clarity.

The Role of Food

Although food is at times associated with socializing and comfort, and those are important factors, it is not the primary purpose of food. Food is the fuel for the body. It provides the building blocks for
every function and physical structure and for metabolic processes and detoxification. The saying "we are what we eat" is true on many levels.

Every food group has its purpose and role within the body.  At the most basic level, you need to eat foods from every food group on a regular basis.  The more you choose whole foods and those that are less processed, the better. The different food groups include:
A healthy diet cannot exclude any one food group. In order for all bodily functions to occur, it is important that all nutrients be present in the right ratios for your health as each one is part of the puzzle and has a specific role to play.

Avoid Diets

Eating healthy is not about choosing the best diet.  It is about ensuring that you recognize the importance of every type of food and that you eat adequate portions of all food groups on a daily basis.

The two most popular types of diets right now include the high protein and low grain diets. The focus of both of these diets is primarily on losing weight, not about achieving health. Although maintaining an ideal body weight is a good idea, the long-term impact of high protein and low grain diets can result in increased acid levels and are associated with a number of chronic health concerns.  Click on the links below to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of other diets:
There are a very few diseases or conditions that require a specific focus on one food group. Generally speaking, if you are looking for long-term, there is only one healthy diet - a balanced diet that is high in whole foods and that includes balanced portions of all food groups.  If you were going to choose any diet, I recommend a label-free, whole-foods diet.

Impact of Dietary Imbalances

When a diet is not balanced, physiology changes. There are three main dietary imbalance patterns:
  1. Calorie excess, nutrient deficient. The primary cause of obesity and most illnesses in North America is a diet that is calorie excessive, yet nutrient deficient. This generally occurs due to a diet that is high in fast foods, processed foods (especially "white" products) and packaged foods and diets that have a lot of pop, juice and other sweet beverages. When nutrients are imbalanced in the presence of excessive calories, the body is programmed to store the excess -- almost as if it is waiting for the missing nutrients to balance things out.
  2. Calorie excess, nutrient excess. It is quite rare for someone to be both calorie excess and nutrient excess. When the body has the needed nutrients that it needs, it is not as likely to store the excess, or if it does store the excess it is less likely to result in chronic diseases. When a diet is balanced, the internal programming is to excrete what is not needed. 
  3. Calorie deficient, nutrient deficient. A calorie deficient, nutrient deficient diet will result in the body down-regulating. Bodily functions will literally slow down as a way of reserving the use of energy. A person's constitution and the specific makeup of nutrients will determine in what way the "slow down" manifests. For some it will show up as hair loss, weak nails or skin, for others as developmental delays or cognitive decline and for others it will result in disease of some sort such as cancer or autoimmune disease.

Food Alterations

Food has gone through a number of changes over the years. For the majority of people, food is not based on what you hunt, gather and grow.  It is instead, what you pick up at the market or store.

Many of the alterations of food have been done to extend shelf-life and to allow for food to be preserved.  Historically, food alterations were done to alter the colour, flavour, texture or smell of food.  In the last couple of decades, genetically modified foods have added a whole new level of complexity to food. Another way that food is altered is by fortifying food and water with added nutrients. This sounds like a good idea, but it is not as great as it sounds. (stay tuned for a blog next month on this topic!)

It is important to keep in mind that most alterations of food are done to make it more appealing. Other than some natural food preservatives, it is not done to make food more healthy.

Most packaged food has been altered in some way. Click on the links below to learn more about the impact of food alterations including:
By choosing whole foods you will be limiting your exposure to food additives and food colourings. By choosing organic food you will limit your exposure to harmful herbicides and pesticides and genetically modified foods.

Factors that Affect Food and Eating

The following factors impact what food you should eat. 
  • Your Constitution determines what makes you unique. There is a tendency to evaluate food as "good" or "bad", when in reality what you want to do is to look at whether a food is good for you or not.  Your constitution, your individual food sensitivities and allergies, and everything else that makes you unique is what determines whether or not a particular food is healthy for you. It is not about the food itself. Check out my blog on How Do You Achieve Health, for more about this.
  • Temperature Outside - a general rule of thumb is that the temperature of your food should be opposite to the temperature outside.  This is especially true in the winter for those people that tend to be cold or for those that have conditions that are worse in cold, damp weather. Check out my blog on Healthy Fall and Winter Eating.
  • Movement. The more active you are the more nutrients that you will burn through. Many people associate being active with needing more protein, when in fact what you require is more water and more minerals.
  • Health Status - What is ideal for you to eat depends on your level of health. Eating is one of the best ways to help the body function. It is meant to change based on what is going on at any particular time. During acute illness, such as a cold or flu, it is best to drink a lot of fluids, consume non-dairy, non-wheat soups (like chicken soup) and to rest and stay warm. Check out my blog on Prevention and Management of Colds and Flu. Digestion works best when a person is relaxed. When under stress or when rushed it is better to have smaller meals and to eat foods that are easy to digest. The ideal diet for most chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, etc is a whole foods diet customized to your unique constitution.  There really is not a specific diet for each condition.  Only a few conditions, such as cancer, require a specific diet for a period time to help a person undergo treatment or to support the body in making a physiological shift.
I encourage you to see food as a wonderful way to help you manoeuvre through the twists and turns of life. What you eat is meant to change based on age, season, health status, activity level, etc. By seeing food as fuel for the body and understanding the properties of food (i.e., heating versus cooling) and the specific nutrients you get from food it is easier to work with your food to achieve health.

What Next?


When people want to become healthier the focus is often about removing "the bad" out of their diet.  There is a lot of merit to this, but I encourage you to put an even greater focus on adding in "the good".  Adding in more water, vegetables or even different types of vegetables, or adding in some nuts and seeds or lean protein is often mentally and physically more appealing than removing or feeling restricted in what you can eat.  There is a nice video on Netflix called "Hungry for Change" that I encourage you to watch. 

If you question whether or not your diet has been balanced, you may want to do some testing for mineral or protein levels, or to assess overall metabolic functioning.  Most of this testing is either done through hair or urine. There are a number of ways that your naturopathic doctor can assist you in determining your overall status for each nutrient category and ways to address any imbalance. 

Bottom Line! 

  1. Assess how you are currently eating and decide on what needs to change.
  2. Start adding in whole foods. Follow the 80/20 rule. Choose meals based on whole foods at least 80% of the time. 
  3. Eat foods from every food group on a daily, weekly basis.
  4. See food as a way of achieving health and modify what you eat based on what is going on with you at any particular time.
  5. Take the time to enjoy food and to see it as your partner in health.
If you have any questions about food talk to one of our naturopathic doctors.

For more information on specific foods, check out www.ndhealthfacts.org/wiki/food