Shifting Standards

Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.-Hippocrates

Food most certainly has the power to be medicine. It also has the power to be disease-causing (which, in my book, makes it not food). I have been interested in nutrition and healthy eating for about 10 years now. And during these years, my definition of what is healthy has clearly changed.

I remember during my vegan days I used to be very anti-cheese because of its fat and dairy content. It was a topic my college roommate and I could not discuss without getting into an intense disagreement (along with abortion).Now, I learn that aged cheese is low in lactose and doesn’t spike one’s blood sugar. And I cannot deny its deliciousness. I won’t be eating cheese anytime soon, but in my dietary evaluation schema, cheese has been upgraded from “bad” to “okay.”

Another thing I have noticed that people often say foods are healthy, and then they support this statement by saying something like, “It’s has no cholesterol or trans fat.” The absence of a [so-called] negative ingredient is not enough to characterize a food as healthy.

Here are some ideas for criteria measuring how healthy of a food is:

1. Nutrient Density: Nutrients provide our bodies with what they need to function. Essential nutrients like vitamins A, D, B12, glutamine, protein, calcium, etc cannot be produced by our bodies, so they must be derived from food. If a food only provides one or two nutrients, then it’s not really nutrient dense. The more nutrients per serving, the more nutrient dense a food is.

2. Blood Sugar Impact: Low sugar and low carb is usually the best choice. Why? Because insulin resistance plays a central role in weight gain, prediabetes, diabetes, heart disease, etc.  When you ingest sugar, blood sugar rises, and the pancreas releases the amount of insulin needed to take the excess glucose and store it in the liver and muscles as glycogen.

But if your glycogen reserves are already filled up (depending your activeness and the amount of sugar you ate), then there is no room for that excess glucose in the liver or muscles. This begins the process of insulin resistance: the pancreas needs to pump out more insulin to get the same effect, the excess glucose and insulin remain in the blood stream for longer, and the sugar is eventually stored in fat cells. Furthermore, high blood sugar levels are inflammatory (which relates to the 4th point listed below).

Simply put, eating less sugar creates less of a need for insulin. Not all sugars affects our blood sugar levels the same, however. Each food’s blood sugar impact has been quantified by the glycemic index.  Foods with a lower GI rating are less likely to quickly assault blood glucose levels; this staves off accumulating insulin resistance, weight gain, inflammation, and ultimately diabetes and heart disease.

3. Authenticity: Did the food grow out of the earth, or was it processed and put in a box? Was it grown with pesticides, or was it grown organic? Were the animals treated and fed well (grass-fed), or were they oppressed and pumped with hormones? Are there ingredients you struggle to pronounce, or do you know what’s in it?

4. Immune-friendly: Do the foods contain any ingredients that trigger allergic responses? Do they create oxidative stress or contain lectins and consequently require an immune response? Allergens such as gluten, lactose, peanuts, soy, etc. can be quite problematic. And polyunsaturated fats are prone to oxidation.

5. Bioavailability: How fresh is the food? How far did it travel to get to your plate? What kind of preparation and/or  heat heat does it require to maximize one’s benefit? How easily can the body assimilate the nutrients in the food? Are there anti-nutrients?

For example, most grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain varying amounts of anti-nutrients known as phytic acid. They are anti-nutrients because they bind to minerals and take them out of the body with them. In other words, they prevent our bodies from getting the chance to gain benefit from minerals. Soaking, sprouting, and cooking these foods can reduce this.

I almost miss the simple days of simply counting calories, carbs, fats, proteins, etc. But I’m happy knowing that I’m getting closer and closer to a more accurate, holistic paradigm of what it means to eat in a way that keeps the doctor away.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by JB on March 6, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    Nice post! Isn’t “bioavailable” sort of a snooty term? ;p

    I think those are some good criteria for picking healthy foods. And cool guacamole picture. I mean avocado!


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