Many of us are relieved to see the end of 2020 and are looking forward to a fresh start in 2021. A new year often prompts a commitment to changing unhealthy habits.
COVID-19 has shown us that the most vulnerable to the ravages of the virus are those with underlying health conditions or those of us who are older. Many of the diseases that make us more vulnerable can be helped or prevented with diet.
How do we know what is the best diet for us? When I did my training as a holistic health coach, I studied many different dietary theories and concluded that no one diet works for everyone. Some thrive on a vegan diet, while others feel better with some animal-based food. Your own ancestry, genetics, age, activity level, environment, and metabolism all impact your individual nutritional requirements.
There are certain habits that I’ve seen benefit everyone.
Lots of leafy greens. It is widely accepted that eating more vegetables is one change that will improve your health. Increasing the amount of leafy greens in your diet, either cooked or raw, is particularly important. Eating dark leafy greens helps kidney and liver function, strengthens your immune system, and promotes healthy intestinal flora. Rotate different greens, and — especially in the winter months — eat more cooked greens: bok choy, napa cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Arugula, watercress, mesclun, microgreens, and dark leafy lettuces are best eaten raw.
More water. When I first wake up in the morning, I drink water with a little fresh squeezed lemon. It hydrates me after a long night of sleep. Have some lemon water before coffee or tea, which is dehydrating. In the winter, I drink warm lemon water and drink it throughout the day, sometimes with a bit of honey.
Change your sweets to whole foods. Everyone loves sweets. A habit of eating sweets (such as cookies, ice cream, desserts) can be hard to break. Try substituting less damaging sweeteners for white sugar: honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. Be mindful about your salt intake, as eating salty foods can cause a sugar craving as our bodies search for balance. Crowd out unhealthy sweets by eating more sweet vegetables. You don’t have to just rely on your willpower to resist foods. Instead, increase your consumption of the foods that support your health and fill you up. There are so many wonderful sweet squashes. Other sweet cooked vegetables are corn, carrots, onions, beets, sweet potatoes, and yams. Some semi-sweet ones to try are parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas.
Eat complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates get a bad rap these days, but you have to separate simple carbohydrates (highly processed and containing simple sugars) from the carbohydrates that come from nature, such as vegetables and whole grains. Complex carbohydrates provide much of the energy needed for normal body functions. Focus on eating a variety of complex carbohydrates, like whole grains and beans, which can often be purchased more cheaply in bulk.
Upgrade your food choices to the extent your budget allows. If you eat meat, find a source of local organic pastured meat. The same goes for dairy products — organic if possible and pastured. Fruits and vegetables are best when organically grown; however, it is better to eat more fruits and vegetables no matter the source. All of these items can be more affordable if bought at the farmers market or directly from a farmer. If you choose to eat sweets, make them yourself and substitute natural ingredients, such as whole grain flours, alternative non-grain flours (almond/coconut), and natural sweeteners.
Eat seasonally. The taste of a tomato in the summer is so much better and a locally grown tomato is more nutritious than one shipped across the country that is weeks old. I never eat strawberries until they are in season. Our bodies naturally crave soups and stews in the winter when all those yummy root vegetables and squashes are available. In the summer, I eat a salad every day and in the winter I eat lots of my vegetables cooked. If you adopt this habit, you will find yourself naturally eating more vegetables.
Cook at home. Many of us have been forced to cook at home more during the COVID-19 pandemic. I love eating out and am eager to get back out into restaurants. I enjoy eating chefs’ cooking, getting ideas, the atmosphere at restaurants, and relaxing while being served, but I also know that I eat the healthiest when I cook and eat at home. I can choose the ingredients, as well as the amount of salt, sweetness, or fat that I want to consume. Cooking at home is an important step in improving your health.
Improper diet can put stress on the kidneys and liver as they work harder to eliminate toxins that can weaken the immune system. To reduce toxicity and restore health and vitality, health practitioners often recommend drinking fresh juices and water only for a period of time. I have never been great at fasting even though many in the health community recommend it. One way I have incorporated fasting into a habit is by fasting every day. I make note of what time I eat my last bite in the evening. I try for 6 or 7 p.m. I don’t eat anything (water only) until at least 14 hours later. So I give my digestion and my body a break before I have my breakfast. Sometimes I can stretch my fast for 16 hours. I wait until I am really hungry.
In addition, it is important how you eat. Digestion starts in the mouth, so to get the most nutrition out of your food you need to start by chewing well.
There is a funny story about a guy who hired a health coach but told her that he wasn’t going to give up his McDonald’s burger that he bought at a drive-up for lunch every day. She asked him just to pull over after getting his lunch and turn off the car and slowly savor every bite of that burger. The next day he bought his burger and ate it slowly, trying to savor every bite. He found that it tasted awful and he couldn’t believe that he had eaten one every day for so long!
When we are not eating mindfully we often eat too much or consume food that isn’t healthy. This step alone can bring weight loss, better digestion, and better choices. After you prepare your food, use your senses: look at it, smell it, and really chew and taste it. Most of all, be grateful for all the work that got it to your plate. Turn off the TV, close the book, and just eat.
Suzanne Weaver-Goss has been studying, practicing, and educating about healthy lifestyles for over four decades, including as a certified Holistic Health Coach. Her small family business, Gimme the Good Stuff, www.gimmethegoodstuff.org, is a resource that helps families identify and avoid toxins in their homes.