Eating for Optimum Health – My Food Philosophy
What constitutes a healthy diet? Should you be eating mainly low-fat food? Raw food? Avoiding gluten? Food combining? Avoiding soya? Avoiding dairy? Eating meat? Going vegan? Cutting out sugar? Drinking red wine? Eating super-foods?
It can feel hard to keep up with the ever-changing dietary advice that we are bombarded with these days. It seems like every other a week, a new report on the purported benefits of eating this food or not eating that food is published. Well guess what: I have an answer to solve any confusion you might have about what to eat for optimum health:
“Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants”
This quote is from one of my favourite food writers, Michael Pollen, who wrote about this deceptively simple premise in his book “In Defence of Food” (Penguin Press, 2008). The book outlines a remarkably sensible and easy approach to healthy food choices and is a philosophy that has shaped my food choices my entire life.
So what does it mean? Pollen breaks it down like this:
- FOOD is stuff that your great-great-grandmother would recognise as food. You know, actual raw ingredients like avocados and nuts and rice, not heavily processed food with a list of ingredients longer than your arm, (most of which have been made up in a food lab somewhere). Growing up with a mother who was a nutritionist, I was taught at an early age to look at ingredient lists on the back of products to see if I recognised what was being put in food products and choosing accordingly. Eating ‘Food’ means taking things back to basics and cooking with ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible. It means eating meals that don’t rely on chemically laden ingredients whose impact on our overall health is questionable at best, and dangerous at worst.
Pollen’s guiding principle on food choices is to “avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed” Once you start eating with awareness in this way, you change your entire food purchasing strategy and enrich your health and your well-being immensely.
- NOT TOO MUCH means that you should eat enough to satisfy your mind, body and soul and no more. This principle is incredibly liberating – nothing is off bounds! It enables me to eat all the yummy and delicious kinds of food I want including desserts, carb-heavy meals and the occasional fried food but, importantly, in moderation. By employing this principle you never need to deny yourself food that you think is ‘bad’ (I’m not sure there is such a thing anyway) and you don’t need to feel guilty around food. Simply enjoy it. Just, you know, not too much.
- MOSTLY PLANTS means that most meals should be made up of plants and plant-based products. Nutritionists might contradict each other on some things, but one thing that everyone seems to agree with: if you eat a diet is full of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole-grains you are less at risk from chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. You also won’t be contributing to the damaging effects the meat, dairy and fishing industries have on our planet’s eco-system. That isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy small amounts of meat, dairy and fish; but for optimum health for yourself and the planet, then eating more plants, at more meals, is the way to go.
Another great observation that Pollen makes is about ancient food cultures and their impact on health and well-being:
“Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communalmeals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.”
Traditional Persian food certainly fits this bill. It is based on grains, nuts, vegetables and copious amounts of fruit. It doesn’t feature desserts or cakes and is light on meat, using it more as a flavouring for rice and vegetables dishes (kebabs aside of course!). Traditionally, Iranians eat their main meal of the day at lunchtime and eat lightly in the evening, which is much better for digestion. Most importantly of all perhaps, traditional Persian food involves cooking from scratch using natural ingredients. As long you are doing that, you control what is going into your food and what is going into your body and that is the best overall contributing factor for your health.