“To eat is a necessity, to eat intelligently is an art.”
~ La Rochefoucauld
Creating a healthy lifestyle is a wellness goal well worth pursuing.
Everybody loves to be full of energy and radiate vitality while we go about our daily business. The journey to health is a matter of making choices in all areas of our lives. But how do we choose wisely? There is a mindboggling amount of information ‘out there’ and sometimes it seems health can be created through quick fixes and a double shot of superfoods.
However, the path to a healthy lifestyle is more than just a matter of a smoothie a day. Our bodies are a masterpiece by design and operates quite wonderfully without our interference: think of our breath, our heartbeat and our digestive system. Sometimes we might even take this for granted and become rather careless of how we treat ourselves. Especially when it comes to nutrition we might be easily seduced by lovely treats, promising diets and so forth. Being mindful of what and how we feed our body is a great way of creating health. Discernment in what foods are constructive and which foods we better ignore is imperative: ‘we are what we eat’!
Scientist have found that the average human body cell count makes up a total amount of 37,2 trillion cells.
Our body was designed in a way to automatically and naturally regulate its internal environment, a mechanism by which we collectively refer to as homeostasis (Greek: homeo & stasis, standing & still). Homeostasis’ main function is keeping fluctuations in the internal environment within tolerable limits. Either homeostasis is maintained through a series of control mechanisms, or the body suffers various illnesses or disease. When the cells in the body begin to malfunction, the homeostatic balance gets disrupted. Eventually this leads to cell malfunction and disease which are further caused by either, deficiency (cells not getting all they need) or toxicity (cells being poisoned by things they do not need). Therefore, keeping our internal environment constant with all that cells need to survive (oxygen, glucose, mineral ions, waste removal, etc.) is necessary for the well-being of individual cells and consequently the well-being of the entire body. In short, cells thrive when given these two conditions: quality nutrients and proper elimination of toxins!
What if homeostasis is interrupted in the cells? There are several pathways through which we can externally influence our bodies ability to maintain cellular health. These influences are based primarily in nutritional, physical and psychological lifestyle choice and environmental exposures to toxins.
Furthermore, there is the genetic and medical pathways over which we have limited control as our genetic makeup and medical treatments we at times inadvertently face is unavoidable. However, there is also the saying: “Genetics load the gun, Lifestyle pulls the trigger”. It is very comforting yet empowering to know that by taking matters in our own hands by removing negative health influences and implementing positive health influences we can better equip our bodies to self-regulate and self-repair, consequently maintaining homeostasis.
“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs,
but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”
~ Thomas Edison
Long before and long after Hippocrates wrote his famous words “Let food be they medicine and let medicine be thy food” people were already occupying themselves with the question “what to eat?”. As for those early days of mankind this was more a matter of survival as our ancestors had to go out, rain or shine, to forage their meal or stay hungry. Flash forward it is interesting how food took centre stage in the modern world. Dietary books, (fast-food) restaurants galore, Instagram pages filled with lunch/breakfast/dinner photo’s, cooking programs & competitions on tv and a multitude on “what to eat/ what not to eat/what I eat in a day” videos on YouTube. To detox or not to detox; that is the question. All very inspiring and educational, but sometimes one would almost forget what was food’s original purpose; to sustain life!
Digestive system & Microbiome
In order for our body to maintain homeostasis through nutrition it relies on the functioning of our digestive system and the microbiome of the intestinal tract. Even though we eat food, our digestive system does not absorb food; it absorbs nutrients. Digestive enzymes, which are produced in the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas and small intestines break our food down into nutrients so that our bodies can absorb them to build healthy cells and tissue. Homeostasis maintains while our digestive system works optimally. However, there are conditions through which our digestive system can become sluggish and will start functioning poorly overtime:
- Chronic stress: the most common problem for digestive issues. Chronic stress leads to a constant mode of fight-flight. In this mode digestion is given a low priority by the nervous system (sympathetic: fight-flight/parasympathetic: rest- digest)
- A poor diet of overcooked and (over)processed food.
- Low grade inflammation in the digestive tract: such as caused by food allergies, intestinal permeability, parasitic infection etc.
- Low levels of hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
- Decrease of metabolism as one gets older
Common symptoms that will indicate a sluggish digestive system include:
- Acid reflux
- Gas and bloating after meals
- The feeling of having a constantly full stomach Feeling full after just a few bites
- Heartburn and indigestion
- Reactive skin conditions (Acne, rosacea, eczema, etc.)
There are a few ways in which we could try and improve the functioning of our digestive system and that is to be aware of what and how we eat. Eating foods that release energy quickly can cause us to feel tired, hungry and irritated. A diet full in refined carbohydrates and refined sugars cause a spike in blood sugar, which means they release glucose in a sudden rush. However, what goes up, must come down, so blood sugar spikes rapidly and then comes crashing down. Remember, when we have those croissants with jam for breakfast? We will be eating the wallpaper of the wall by 4 o’clock in the afternoon? Research shows that having a combination of fibre, protein and fats at every meal prevents spiking and crashing throughout the day. In order to compose a nutrient rich meal we should include where possible fresh produce and whole-foods (organic or at least non-toxic, find more information in chapter toxins), such as:
- Fruits and vegetables for fibre rich food
- Seeds and nuts for healthy fats (ground flaxseeds, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower, chia, almonds, cashews, macadamia, walnuts)
- Protein (legumes: lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans, etc. as part of a vegan/vegetarian diet) or lean meat, eggs, chicken, turkey, fish (pasture-raised, organic) in limited amounts when eating animal protein
- Grains: Quinoa, buckwheat, millet, teff, brown and wild rice (non-gluten) / Oatmeal, spelt, barley (gluten)
- Dairy/dairy substitutes: pasture-raised goat or sheep yoghurt, kefir nut milks, coconut milk, ghee
- Other healthy fats: such as avocado and extra virgin olive oil* and virgin coconut oil* (*in moderate amounts)
Additionally, our digestive system might be better of if we do not have our drinks during our meal. Drinking fluids whilst we eat interferes with the production of hydrochloric acid produced by our stomach to digest its content. Especially digestion of protein (whether vegetable or animal) requires optimum levels of hydrochloric acid. Whereas the digestion of carbohydrates/starches already starts in our mouths through our saliva, the digestion of proteins takes place in the stomach.
Which brings us to the topic of chewing: as our modern-day lives go faster, so do the activities we engage in, including eating. Take time to sit down and properly eat and chew your food and Yes: preferably without any screen to distract us from enjoying our meal! Of course, when we do not drink during meals it remains essential that we stay optimally hydrated. The best moment to drink is half an hour before a meal or one hour to one hour and a half after a meal. In making sure to stay hydrated gradually throughout the day, one could take one or two glasses of (lemon) water upon waking up, then herbal teas and water between 1-1,5 hrs after breakfast to half an hour before lunch. Then between 1-1,5 hrs after lunch to half an hour before diner we could have some more water, herbal teas or add something to our water to make it more hydrating, such as a pinch of Celtic or Himalayan salt, lemon or cucumber. Be careful with caffeinated drinks as they have a diuretic effect which removes water and nutrients from the body.
Another mayor player in our digestive system is our gut microbiome. Trillions of bacterial cells form populations all with their own size, characteristics and purpose. Our microbes vary with gender, diet, climate, age, occupation and hygiene and exist throughout our entire body, with the largest numbers found in the small and large intestine. Our gut microbiome is of vital importance to our physical and psychological health via its own neural network: the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of approximately 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut. The ENS is sometimes called ‘the second brain’ and stems from the same tissue as our central nervous system during foetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain. Hormones, neurotransmitters and electrical impulses through a pathway of nerves create communication back and forth between both ‘brains’. These pathways include and involve endocrine, immune and neural pathways.
Apart from this intricate connection to our brain, locally in the microbiome of the intestinal tract a balancing act takes place between the symbiotic gut microbes (where both the human body and microbiota benefit) and pathogenic (promoting disease) gut microbes. Within the body, both symbiotic and pathogenic microbiota should coexist harmoniously.
Everybody’s microbiome is entirely unique and originally determined by one’s DNA. Then, as a new born, one is first exposed to microorganisms during delivery in the birth canal and through the mother’s breastmilk. As we move through life our microbiome changes due to lifestyle (nutrition/exercise) and environmental exposure (toxins). A disturbance in the microbial balance could easily occur through infectious illnesses, nutrient deficient diets, or the prolonged use of antibiotics or other bacteria-destroying medications.
In her book ‘Renegade Beauty’ author Nadine Artemis quotes after a research by dr. Bruce Agnew of the National Genome Research Institute “If the microbiota is sick, the human host will probably get sick too”.
Good flora vs. Bad flora
A healthy gut flora performs a multitude of tasks. Probiotics such as Lactobacillus, which resides in the small intestine, Bifidobacteria, residing in the colon, together with another number of friendly microbes’ main task is to keep the bad bacteria in check by destroying them and preventing overgrowth. Also, they are responsible for boosting immune system’s function, assist with vitamin synthesis (vitamins B and K in the small intestine), breaking up gas bubbles from fermentation processes and keeping our colon “clean” and our bowel movements regular. If our gut flora gets compromised, our bad flora (such as E. coli, Klebsiella, parasites and viruses) could rapidly outnumber our good flora. It is therefore imperative to help our gut flora stay balanced by helping out our probiotics and ‘feeding’ them with prebiotics.
We can populate our probiotics by taking a supplement, such as probiotic powder, and by including fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yoghurt, kefir and pickled vegetables. Always make sure these foods are organic, pure and unsweetened.
We can get these prebiotics by eating raw garlic (or chopping it up on a teaspoon and swallowing with water so we need not worry about bad breath), raw and cooked onion, raw asparagus and underripe banana.
Influencing our digestive system and helping out our microbiome through nutrition is of great value to our bodies. However, discernment is very important! We need to ask ourselves the question ‘where does our food come from’?
Previously we already mentioned that it is important to be aware of what we eat. The “what” not only implies which food we eat, but also what food it is in terms of sourcing. For instance; we could eat an apple. We can pluck this apple from the tree, buy it in a conventional supermarket/farmers market or at buy it at an organic supermarket/farmers market. What’s the difference, one could say, and why does it matter?
The distinction lies in the farming method and practices used to grow the item, in this case the apple. The most natural circumstance for fruit (or vegetables) to grow in soil that is rich in minerals, in its natural state (au contraire to genetic modification) and to have it grow until the moment of harvest without intervention of pesticides (man-made chemicals such as herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.). In its most natural state it can fully develop its richness in terms of vitamins and can be fully recognized by the body as a nutrient. Would the fruit or vegetable be grown otherwise, by which we mean grown in contaminated soil and sprayed with pesticides, our bodies would have a hard time dealing with it. The same goes for meat/poultry and dairy with its controversies over anti-biotics and growth hormone use as well as processed foods (preservatives, artificial dyes and flavours).
Our body will recognize these substances as alien to the body, but will process accordingly anyway. A healthy body confronted with a small amount of toxins every now and then should be able to automatically and naturally remove these toxins via normal excretion. However, if we expose our bodies constantly to bad food choices overtime (3 meals a day and sugar/caffeine laden drinks in between, day in day out) in combination with a weak digestive system forces the body to move toxins into our fat stores, instead of properly processing and removing them from our system. Consequently, we might be overloading our bodies with way too many toxins interfering with cellular function, causing cellular inflammation.
In normal circumstances inflammation is part of the innate wisdom of our body and acts as a self-healing principle when one is exposed to something harmful like an injury, a virus or bacteria. As our defence mechanism the immune system recognizes damaged cells, irritants and pathogens and it begins the healing process through inflammation. Without inflammation, infections and wounds would never heal and although signs and symptoms of inflammation can be uncomfortable (fever, pain, swelling, etc.) it shows that the body is trying to heal itself.
If inflammation persists overtime it could become chronic. According to Harvard’s Women’s Health Watch, “inflammation can become your enemy. Many major diseases that plaque us – including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s – have been linked to chronic inflammation.”
Another article appeared in Harvard Health Online suggesting that “a lot of chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation, and the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation, “says Dr. Fred Tabung, a visiting researcher with the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But diet is also one of the best ways to reduce it.” “Choose the right foods, and you may be able to reduce your risk of illness. Consistently pick the wrong ones, and you could accelerate the inflammatory disease process.”
Let’s have a look how we can discern between foods that are ‘wrong’ foods and those that we could consider ‘right’ foods.
The same article advises u to limit or avoid foods such as:
- Refined carbohydrates: white flour (white bread/pasta/pastries)
- French fries and other fried foods
- Soda and other sugar sweetened beverages
- Red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hotdog, sausage, etc.)
- Margarine shortening and lard
In addition to the above it would also be wise to try to limit and avoid:
- Processed foods that contain artificial dyes, flavors, preservatives and hydrogenated and fractionated oils):
- Any food that contains artificial sweeteners
- Any food that contains high-fructose corn syrop (aka glucose-syrop)
- Highly processed dairy and cheese
- Non-organic produce
If this seems rather generic; it is. So, let’s try and dive a little deeper. A fun start of what might result in the mastering of reading food labels and ingredient lists. The plethora of products at conventional supermarkets contain labels which make mention of the basic ingredients plus their additives. These additives are determined by food authorities. Through the mentioning of E-numbers they inform consumers what a product contains and that it has passed safety tests. However, these safety tests are mainly in terms of amounts permissible in a product and not safety tests in terms of what might be healthy for us as individuals.
A general overview of additives in existence would be the following:
Colouring agents : E100 through 180
Preservatives : E200 through E297 & E1105
Anti-oxidants : E300 through E321
Sweeteners : E420/421 & E950 through E967
Emulsifiers, stabilisers, Thickeners and Gelling : E322 through E495 & E1103
Others : E170 through E385
EDTA : E422 through E1520
The above list, which contain both ‘good’ additives and ‘bad’ additives in terms of health can be found in detail at http://www.ukfoodguide.net/enumeric.htm and is to comprehensive to cover here. However, I would like to highlight a few, which are widely used, but rather controversial.
E471/472 Mono and Diglycerides in fatty acids
Allegedly the most commonly used emulsifier in the food processing industry, it can be found in most processed breads, pastries, cookies, cakes and some butters. According to the booklet “Wat zit er in uw eten?” Will Jansen (Dutch translation of Corinne Gougets ‘Additifs alimentaires danger!’) this additive is a combination of different chemicals which could interfere with growth and the absorption of essential fatty acids.
E385 Calcium Disodium EDTA
Commonly used in vinaigrettes, mayonnaise, canned cooked beans & vegetables, frozen shellfish and canned shellfish. It is used as a preservative as well as a chelating agent, meaning that it binds to metals. When the metals are bound, they are prevented from taking part in chemical reactions that would lead to colour or flavour deterioration. On animal testing EDTA affected the cellular metabolism consequently damaging chromosomes. In some countries this is under investigation, in Australia already banned.
E621 Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Flavour enhancer found in (instant) soups, noodles, (instant) sauces, potato chips, …the list is endless. Being already controversial MSG influences our taste-buds to just crave more of the same, blocking the satiation signal between stomach and brain. Symptoms could range from headaches & migraines and obesity to brain damage. Neurosurgeon and nutritional expert Dr. Russell Blaylock explained in his book Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, that the glutamin acid in MSG is an excitotoxin. Excitotoxin is overstimulates braincells which could lead to damage and eventually the death of cells which could lead to permanent damage (Blaylock, 1994).
Aspartame. Aspartame is widely used as low calorie sweetener in many food products to replace sugar. Examples are carbonated beverages, jams, instant coffee, chewing gum, salad dressings, some vitamin-supplements and most, if not all, no-sugar/light products. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose and is, like MSG, an excitotoxin.
Dr. H.J Roberts explaines in his book ‘Aspartame disease, an ignored epidemic.”2001 how Aspartame is composed of 3 chemicals (phenylalanine 50%, asparagine acid 40% and 10% methyl esters) which, once ingested, are converted to methanol, then to formaldehyde, formic acid and DKP (diketopiperazine). All of which are highly toxic.
An independent Government department working across England, Wales and Norther Ireland to protect public health and consumers’ wider interest in food, funded research into possible links between food colours and hyperactivity in children. It found that consuming certain artificial food colours could cause increased hyperactivity in some children.
These artificial colours are:
- sunset yellow FCF (E110)
- quinoline yellow (E104)
- carmoisine (E122)
- allura red (E129)
- tartrazine (E102)
- ponceau 4R (E124)
“Food and drink containing any of these six colours must carry a warning on the packaging. This will say ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.” They continue to say: We encourage manufacturers to work towards finding alternatives to these colours. Some manufacturers and retailers have already taken action to remove them.”
The above shows how getting to know your products can be imperative to health, especially if you have some health challenges. Avoiding ‘bad’ additives and processed foods in general is a good way to start. Another good rule of thumb is the shorter the ingredient list, the better and if you cannot pronounce the ingredients listed, don’t eat it.
Let’s go back to the topic of inflammation. We now covered what would be good to avoid, but what then should we consume? Key is to eat as much as possible organic, anti-inflammatory foods. According to the Harvard Health article we should up our intake of:
- Olive Oil
- Green Leafy Vegetables (spinach, kale and collards)
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines)
- Fruits (strawberries, blueberries, cherries and oranges)
Especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables best choices would be to buy what’s in season and as much as possible organically sourced. The U.S. Environmental Working Group published an updated list of the ‘Dirty Dozen’: 12 conventionally grown fruits and vegetables which contain most toxic residues because of the use of pesticides.
- Sweet Bell Peppers
*One strawberry sample contained 22 pesticide residues. 1/3 of all conventional strawberry samples contained 10 or more pesticides.
It is important to note that E.U. regulations on the use of pesticides are more strict. For instance: 80% of conventionally grown apples tested contained diphenylamine, a pesticide banned in Europe. 30% of cherry samples contained iprodione, a pesticide not allowed in Europe, which may cause cancer.
There is also produce for which it is not so important to buy them organic as conventional methods do not use a lot of pesticides, which are the following:
- Sweet Corn*
- Sweet Peas (frozen)
- Honeydew Melons
*A small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from genetically modified seeds. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid genetically modified produce.
So far, we have been looking at the nutritional influences through which we can sustain our bodies and retain a healthy equilibrium. Another aspect to consider is that physical health and mental health are inseparable. Our thoughts and emotions cause chemical changes to take place either for better as with meditation, organized planning and relaxation exercises, or for worse as with (chronic) stress. Try to incorporate, if only 10 minutes, some time everyday to sit and ‘be with yourself’, observe your breath or go through your day and prioritize. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle advises “One deep breath is already enough to pull you into consciousness”. A state of conscious awareness is a state of being rather than a mindset and is highly effective and worth exploring. Journaling is also an excellent method to create an overview of what is going on in your life.
The last element essential for our cells and body is physical maintenance such as adequate rest/sleep, wise exposure to the sun, fresh air and exercise. If we dread the thought of rigorous exercise, be sure to know our bodies thank us for it afterwards because of the positive hormonal and metabolic response. Nowadays there is a plethora of exercise options to choose from, either outside of our homes or inside through the offering of online platforms and video’s. Try to move between cardio, strength training and flexibility exercises. There is really no excuse! Remember what cells thrive on besides quality nutrients? Removal of toxins! Exercising or getting our bodies to move in any which way possible, walking, dancing, yoga, jumping on a rebounder, stimulates our lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. Its primary function is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells throughout the body.
Other ways of stimulating lymph are dry-brushing, (infra-red) sauna’s and alternating hot and cold showers. For extra pampering massaging the skin with high-quality, pure oils is an excellent way to get the lymphatic flow in optimum condition.
Getting in touch with our bodies needs and being knowledgeable on the choices we can make throughout the day creates a happy, radiant and vibrant body and a peaceful state of mind. Pursuing such a lifestyle is worth your while and hopefully you will take your body on this journey of self-mastery.
“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
- Renegade Beauty: author Nadine Artemis ISBN 978-1-58394-969-6
- Wat zit er in uw eten: Will Jansen ISBN 9789077788585