As a holistic nutritionist, I work to bring each of my clients to optimal wellness of the mind and body.
We dissect their food and lifestyle habits and uncover the root causes of their health issues. Vitality is what we strive for, which to me is about feeling lively and vibrant, not just being alive.
With the wide selection of nutrition-lacking food available in our modern world, many people go through life not knowing how good their bodies are actually able to feel. We are often overfed but undernourished. Our lives lack the vitality that would be possible if we deeply nourished ourselves with what our bodies need. This vitality translates into greater energy levels, more productivity and a happier everyday lives.
I have found that the way in which we nourish ourselves is the way we nourish our lives. Our diet affects more than our physical health, but our emotional health, quality of life and our ability to make shit happen in our lives.
When I used to embark on a health kick, my head was filled with the idea of deprivation, things I couldn’t have or reasons why I needed to punish myself by making better food choices. This approach was not gratifying, nor did it allow me to create a sustainably healthier lifestyle. It wasn’t until my perspective around food and healthy eating shifted that eating well became easier and actually enjoyable. The quality of my life increased as I began to take care of myself, starting with what I was fueling myself with.
I now understand that making changes is not an easy feat with all of the nutrition tips and tools that are available to us now. Contradictory information is everywhere, and deciphering what is right for you can seem next to impossible. I am going to share with you some ideas that can help to transform your health, regardless of where you are on your path to health.
Nutrient dense, not calorie scarce.
I encourage people to ditch the “diet” mentality and eat real food.
The word diet, by definition, simply means the foods habitually eaten by a particular population or person. In our society, the word has acquired negative connotations relating to restriction, scarcity and punishment in order to achieve a given goal. We often take the approach of counting the macronutrients like carbohydrates, protein and fat. Then there are many of us who use a simpler method of measuring the health of our food: by counting calories. The trouble here is that the vital micronutrients that our bodies require at a cellular level to grow, move and mend, are being overlooked.
As a holistic nutritionist, I understand that our health is not defined by numbers. Not in pounds, grams of protein or number of calories eaten. A healthy diet is one that provides nourishment and energy in the form of vitamins and minerals from whole foods. A healthy diet should leave you feeling energized and alive, not sluggish and heavy. If we fill our plates with real food and eat until we feel satisfied, we supply our bodies with the nourishment necessary to thrive.
By real food I mean food in its most natural form: unprocessed and unrefined. This is the number one simplest and most important change that you can make to the way you approach food. We fill our shopping carts with foods in packages, boxes and bags. Food that has been manufactured, designed, and tinkered with, rather than food that has been grown, nourished from the soil, and eaten fresh. The difference between these two kinds of foods lies in the difference in nutrient content. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains are a rich source of the vitamins and minerals that our bodies require. Coincidentally, if you eat a diet rich in real food, it is generally lower-calorie, lacks unhealthy trans fats, and is low in refined sugars that love to grow our waistlines.
Whether you add an extra serving of vegetables onto your plate, or mix in a new whole-food focused recipe, bringing in new leaves less space for the old. Allow the good to crowd out the bad. Focusing on what we “can’t do” or “shouldn’t have,” brings about resistance and makes it more difficult to maintain a healthy change. In contrast, if we focus on the good, we create a positive mindset that allows us to feel the physical and emotional benefits of making healthy choices. For example, instead of focusing on not ordering takeout pizza every Friday night, focus on creating a new ritual of vegetable loaded pizzas at home on these nights.
Fewer labels, more listening.
While attaching a label can help us understand values and needs, it often becomes restrictive when the label no longer serves what our bodies actually need. Whether we choose to eat a paleo or a vegan diet, the most important thing is to do what is right for us in that moment, while being receptive to the flexibility of our needs.
We recognize when our bodies are hungry, sick or tired but often we are not aware of the ways in which different foods actually affect us. A heightened awareness of the body and its symptoms can lead us to the right choices for our own biologically unique systems. Eating is one of the most personal things that we do for ourselves—providing nourishment to our bodies, organs and cells, while also fueling our minds and emotions. The intuitive aspects of eating have been stripped away for a more mechanical process of eating to silence the grumbling in our bellies. Where we can all grow is from listening to what foods make us feel good, leaning in to how different foods affect our energy levels, and learning to navigate and nourish our bodies as the vessels that carry us through our lives.
There is no one perfect diet. No one size fits all.
The ways in which we eat should fluctuate to meet the needs of our ever changing lives. They should change seasonally, yearly, or whenever the demands of our lives dictate. While one specific framework or paradigm of eating may suit you for the majority of your life, it is important to listen to the ways in which it may or may not be serving you. One way to connect what you’re eating to how you feel is to keep a journal for a week, and after each meal or throughout the day, track how you are feeling. Check in with your mood, and digestion and notice if any patterns emerge throughout the week. Pay attention to habits that aren’t nourishing your body in a way that supports the life that you desire. The way that we choose to feed ourselves ultimately serves to help or hinder us in achieving the things we want in our lives. So why not leverage this in your favour?
Ancient food pyramids.
In March of 2016, a committee of senators conducted an extensive study resulting in forward-thinking recommendations including updating Canada’s outdated food guide. Specifically, it was suggested that the guide “prominently describe the benefits of fresh whole foods compared to refined grains, ready-to-eat meals and processed foods.” Additionally, it suggested moving toward a meal-focused guide rather than a nutrient-based.
These findings highlight that fact that deciphering how to eat is not easy, especially when the tools like food guides and pyramids provided to us by the government are vague and hard to apply to our actual plates.
Many of us likely don’t know what we are eating for each meal in the day ahead, so how are we supposed to know if we are going to total up to four servings of this and three of that.
The simplest guide for building a healthy meal is to aim to fill half of your dish with fruits and vegetables, one quarter with whole grains or starchy vegetables, and one quarter with a lean source of protein. Healthy fats often come in tow with our healthy sources of proteins such as eggs, nuts, seeds, fish, lean meats or as dressings and cooking oils. These fats are equally as important as the other nutrients that fill our plates. Choosing this ratio at each meal ensures a vitamin and mineral dense meal, with enough of each category of: carbohydrates, proteins and fats to sustain us through our busy lives. This ratio also serves to control blood sugar, which keeps our hormones in balance, stabilize mood and control weight.
This guideline can extend to your grocery basket as well. Fill it with half produce, one quarter proteins and one quarter whole grains or starchy vegetables. This will set your week up for success by filling your fridge with the right foods. One popular idea is that everything you need from the grocery store is in the outer perimeter, while the majority of the inner isles are filled with processed and packaged foods. Try shopping the perimeter first and then venture into the middle to fill any holes.
While there are different opinions on how much of your diet should be strictly the good stuff, and how much we should “cheat,” I’ll give you my perspective: It’s not all about what you eat, but how you eat it.
Your attitude toward food goes a long way, impacting the amount of nutrients you are able to absorb. Your body digests and assimilates nutrients properly in a state of rest, rather than a state of stress. If you are eating in a state fueled by stress and guilt, you are physically and emotionally doing yourself body a disservice. I often say that when we eat, we are fueling more than just our physical bodies. As humans, we have strong emotional ties to food and our emotional state actually impacts our physical ability to optimally digest food.
Rest and digest.
As I mentioned, it’s as much about how as it is what. If you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet, but you’re not allowing your body to be in the right condition to actually digest and assimilate those nutrients, then you’re doing yourself a real disservice.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the activities that fall under the categories of rest and digest. This is in contrast to the opposing Sympathetic Nervous System, which puts us in a state of fight or flight.
A body and mind chronically stuck in a sympathetic or excitatory state is not a body that is well prepared to digest and make use of our food. In a relaxed state, our digestive enzymes are secreted and activated, and food is broken down into microscopic usable parts and actively absorbed. Wastes are then eliminated in a timely fashion.
To stimulate good digestion, deep breathing or a quick meditation can be beneficial. Or even the simple act of putting away distractions or sources of stress such as our phone or email inbox, and letting your food be the focus during mealtime. Additionally, chewing stimulates the release of amylase, an enzyme responsible for the breakdown of carbohydrates, and gives food the head start it needs as it journeys into your digestive system.
Do your best, enjoy the rest.
Thinking of more indulgent foods, or foods that are not in alignment with our goals as a treat rather than a cheat makes it easier to remove the guilt component, and enjoy something that we know will make us feel emotionally satisfied. Would you rather treat yourself, or cheat yourself?
It is important to understand that when we eat, we feed more than our physical hunger. We feed our emotions, and our relationship with ourselves. While the satisfaction of giving ourselves the gift of a truly nourishing meal can not be overstated, sometimes there is something else going on that needs to be fed. Comfort food is aptly named and in my opinion, should be enjoyed when it is truly needed. Deciding when it is truly needed requires a practice of self-care in which you are able to distinguish the difference our true needs and our circumstantial desires.
Our relationships with food are just that. Relationships. Always fluid, sometimes complicated. Some are healthy, while others we would rather not talk about. Checking in on our habits and thoughts surrounding food is an important part of choosing to eat healthy diet.
We have the opportunity at each meal to take care of ourselves at the most fundamental level: to choose foods that deeply nourish our minds and bodies. When we create an importance in our lives around how we choose to eat, we are in charge of how we feel, and in turn the overall quality of our lives.
Nutrition is about more than the numbers, the labels and the calories. Living a nourishing life is about choosing real, whole food, to fuel a life lived to its whole potential. Nutrition does not have to be rocket science, and I have truly found that your best self does not emerge from a sequence of decisions grounded in self deprivation.
Ground your decisions in love and choose to fill your plate with nutrient dense, real food. Tune in and pay attention to the valuable messages that your body’s signs and symptoms are telling you. Slow down and learn to wholly enjoy the process of nourishment and finally, let go. Let go of your judgements, old ideas of what you “should” be eating, and be open to the process of transforming your life, one bite at a time.
Author: Haley Parrent
Image: Mike Haller/Flickr
Editors: Catherine Monkman; Emily Bartran