Beyond Diet: Good Health is About More Than Chemistry

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It’s everywhere these days. The perfect diet that will help us get healthy, lose weight, and be better people: Paleo, LCHF, Atkins, Dukan, Blood Type, South Beach, Low FODMAP, correct food combining, and the list goes on. Then there are the “free” diets, gluten-free, carb-free, dairy-free, sugar-free. All these different paths to structured eating!

With some, you’ll precede every bite you take with a quick bit of research. With others, you whip out your calculator. While you eat, you’ll count mouthfuls, or maybe you’ll record what you eat after you eat it. But with all this work and angst before, during, and after you put food into your mouth, what is actually going to work?

Actually, any diet that restricts carbohydrates, in particular high-sugar foods and added sweeteners, results in weight loss and works well for diabetics. Since what we once considered good for diabetics is now good for everyone, that’s a plus. But the truth is both simpler and more complex than these diets suggest.

The best diet isn’t a diet at all, but rather, a lifelong style of eating real food with an emphasis on less starchy vegetables. One physician, a doctor of functional medicine, describes this style as “nutritarian.” A diagram presents this eating style simply and graphically. Plant foods make up 80-90% of the diet, with non-starchy vegetables predominating over starchy veggies and fruits. A scoring system grades foods by their nutrient density, that is, the maximum number of nutrients with the minimum number of calories.

The charts are great to get an idea of where various common foods stand in relation to nutrient density. One good look at it makes the governing principles very clear: eat real food, mostly plants, and mostly non-starchy vegetables. Easy. No research, no bite-counting, no calculator, no data entry as you’re chewing. Just enjoy the food, as long as it’s real and not from boxes and bags. Popeye famously gulped his spinach from a can. You can skip the can with its BPA lining, but enjoy the spinach.

So here are a few tips for healthy eating:

  • Eat real food, mostly plants, mostly non-starchy veggies.
  • Avoid commercial food products, refined carbohydrates, and added sugars.
  • Keep a supply of beans, seeds, grains, and nuts on hand to eat daily.
  • Be sure to include fermented foods, like kimchi, in your meals for the probiotics.
  • Drink adequate water.

Easy? We thought so! But that’s not all there is to the story of good health. Good health isn’t just about what you eat but also how you eat. Moving beyond the actual substance of your diet, one great healthy eating habit you may want to consider is bringing back family meals.

These days, there are a lot of obstacles to the family meal, including long work hours, busy extracurricular schedules, and a society that favors fast, convenient, packaged meals.

However, it was only a matter of time before some wanted to explore the potential links between the vanishing old-fashioned family meal and increased antisocial behaviors among teens, as well as other health issues. To put it another way, is there a correlation between sharing family meals, decreased antisocial behaviors among teens, and better health?

The answer to that question is yes! Here are some of the not-so-surprising benefits of bringing back family dinner:

  • A 2011 study in the Health Education Research section of the Oxford Journals reported that the frequency of family meals compensates for differences in family structure (intact families vs. alternative structures) and associates to reductions in six risk behaviors: smoking, drinking, smoking cannabis, bullying behavior, fighting, and sex.
  • A 2004 study found that teens who regularly have meals with their families are less likely to get into fights, think about suicide, smoke, drink, and use drugs. Academic performance is better.
  • Research also shows that family meals associate with higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, as well as lower risk of obesity among teen girls. Another report indicates that teens, especially girls, who participate in frequent, structured family meals with a positive atmosphere are less likely to have eating disorders.

The obvious benefits of well-prepared, frequent family meals demonstrate the critical importance of finding a way around these obstacles and encouraging your family to sit down together in a structured, positive environment.

A few simple rules and techniques will help get your family meals underway and make them an important part of your health plan:

  • Plan as many family meals as possible in the course of the week at whatever time works for your family, morning, midday, or evening. If every day doesn’t work, find as many regular days as possible, and stick with the schedule so that everyone recognizes, plans for, and counts on the times.
  • Choose a regular place that accommodates everyone in the family.
  • Keep electronics away from the table and out of the room. The focus is on the group at the table.
  • Find ways to keep meal preparation quick and easy, while still using healthy, real ingredients. Give everyone a part in getting each meal to the table and removing it.
  • Don’t engage in conversations or make comments during a meal that might create controversy or start arguments. Make meal time something to look forward to.
  • Encourage story-telling, compliments, humorous reports of the day’s events, discussions about something each person learned that day, and planning as a group for the next meal.
  • Consider the sources of your food, and be sure to enjoy a moment of gratitude before or after your meal.

For more thoughts about how to bring back the family meal and enhance the physical and emotional health of your family, please contact us.

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