I was exhausted at one point in third year and found this article in Cosmopolitan – my bible at the time – that talked about how Vitamin B can help with stress. So I upped my fruit and veg, found a strong Vitamin B supplement, and while I can’t honestly remember ever feeling peppy during any of that time, at least coped and got the exam results I wanted.
And so it has been through the years. PMS, dry skin, insomnia… If some minor health thing bothers me, I’m more likely to find a nutritional answer than a medical one.
Believe me: I thought I was sorted when it came to food and nutrition.
But at the turn of the year there were a couple of things that were nagging me, without apparent solution. I’d tried a few things, including a trip to my GP to sort them. But nothing was making much of a difference.
The first was IBS which I’ve had on and off over the years, but which seemed to have become an everyday thing. The second was again just feeling tired. Hard to say if the pain of one was causing the other. Either way, I was at the end. And, sure, I could lose a few pounds. Couldn’t we all. But that wasn’t my primary concern.
On and off over recent years I’d seen a pretty good kinesiologist in London. But, when I decided it was time to sort this stuff out once and for all, I figured I’d try to find someone more local. Kirsty Shields, a Nutritional Therapist, turned out to be almost on my doorstep.
Before we met, she had me fill out a very comprehensive questionnaire, and keep a three day diary of what I was eating. I’ve seen her a couple of times now.
What has emerged for me is a way of eating that’s not just about fixing a problem but having a very healthy physical nutritional foundation. A minimalist approach to eating super well.
So, in the spirit of sharing what I’m finding as part of my Wellbeing Experiment, here’s what’s emerging for me:
Eat more whole foods
One of the things that’s really come home to me over the last little while is that I was not eating enough “real” food. By which I mean fruit, veggies, fish, meat, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, grains, yogurts… I’d imagined that I was, but looking at my food diary told a different story.
My food was not vital and so therefore neither was I.
So, for the last little while, this is what I’ve focused my eating around. They are all pretty easy to digest and so spot on from the point of view of the IBS symptoms that took me to Kirsty in the first place.
I’m not saying I haven’t had the occasional thing that doesn’t follow this principle (more on this later), but I am saying that this effectively rules out for me most of the marketing products in supermarkets and elsewhere that masquerade as food.
Eat protein at each meal
A key energy giving and sustaining food type appears to be protein. Eggs, fish, lean meats, yogurt, soft cheeses. I’ve been trying to make sure I have a little with each meal. That includes breakfast which was till now mainly carbohydrate based.
It’s amazing to me just how my energy, mood and performance is enhanced when I just follow this little principle.
Even if I want to snack I am more inclined to want to reach for a few nuts than, say, a biscuit. I know nuts have fat as well as protein, but they are way more satisfying.
Eat less carbohydrate
Carbs, it turns out, are a real health culprit. Particularly those that cause a rapid increase in our blood sugar levels.
For our bodies to be well, according to Kirsty, we need to keep a fairly even blood sugar level. To do this, we need to eat fewer carbs in general, and when we do eat them to make sure they are ones that are lower in GI. For instance, barley, quinoa, oats, and brown rice. And to eat them in proportion to the amount of protein and vegetables we’re eating. So, protein should account for about a quarter of what’s on our plate; low GI carbs for the same; veggies for around half of the plate.
So, watch out then for higher GI carbs. That’s those that you’ll find in white bread, bakery products, biscuits, desserts, sugar, sweets, full-leaded soft drinks. They’re going to make your body pump insulin into your blood stream to deal with the sugar content. Which in turn is going cause a blood sugar slump down the track, causing you to want to reach out for more of the same to try to maintain equilibrium.
Day to day you may not think that’s such a bad thing. But over time, there’s plenty of research now (eg this) that high carbs are worse than fat in leading to weight gain. And, in time, to more serious conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
At core, the one thing they cause is inflammation in the gut. So any underlying gut problems, as I have had, are just exacerbated if you feed carbs to them.
Even foods that say they have less sugar or less fat – for instance, the mountains of diet cakes and biscuits you’ll find in the shops – are still pretty high in GI.
Watch out too for carbs where you might not expect to find it. For instance, low fat yogurts attempt to create creaminess and sweetness by replacing starches for the fat they don’t have. So, they’re a nutritional con. Besides which, they don’t fit rule one of eating whole foods.
Cut down on stimulants
Coffee, tea, alcohol…
They’re all okay in moderation (thank you, God!), but too much of them act on your body like high sugar carbohydrates, and so have the same associated watch-outs.
Drink plenty water I’ve been trying to drink 2 litres of water a day for some time now on the basis that, if my body is well hydrated I tend to feel better anyway. We need water to help flush toxins out of our system and to keep inflammation at bay.
Also, we sometimes confuse body signals of thirst for those of hunger. Some of the time, you don’t need to snack, what you need is a drink.
Don’t let yourself get hungry
One of the things that I was doing pre-Kirsty was going for long periods of time without eating.
Sometimes that’s just how it was because I was busy. Other times, I was deliberately not eating because I imagined that to do so would cause weight gain.
Turns out that running on empty exacerbates the blood sugar thing again, leading once more to weight gain and health problems.
Also, for me, it was causing colic-like symptoms. Really unpleasant!
So, like I said earlier, I snack on a small amount of nuts now if I’m hungry. Keeping hunger at bay keeps my colic away and my energy good.
This way of eating is not a diet.
(As an aside, I hate that term. The idea of “a diet” sets us up to separate how we eat for weight loss from how we eat day to day. Shouldn’t they be one and the same thing?)
So, it does have to fit in with your life. That means there will be times when you don’t follow these principles. And that’s perfectly fine. In both the Chinese Medicine and Homeopathic systems, there’s a strong message about putting small amounts of poisons into your system to encourage healthy resilience to develop by itself. It’s all about balance.
For me that means choosing deliberately what your “poisons” will be. One of mine, for example, is dark chocolate. Or something delicious, eaten out. Last weekend, for example, I had fresh pizza with mozzarella and fresh basil, from a good quality pizza restaurant.
When these things move from being everyday to occasional, they become treats, and taste so much more delicious. You feel fed by them and not left hungering for what’s next.
Having done this for the best part of this year now already, I cannot tell you what a difference it’s making.
For a start my energy is way better. I traveled to New York last week and usually such a trip would exhaust me with timezone changes etc. As it was, I felt fabulous and ended up having an amazing week. With my fairly simple eating principles, I navigated the food there pretty well, and enjoyed eating.
Then, I’ve lost about 5lbs. My clothes are just fitting a bit better and that of itself feels good.
Finally, when Kirsty asked me the other day how I’d rate the stomach pain situation now, I had to think what she was even talking about. I’ve had two, maybe three episodes of bloating or discomfort since I started working with her, but the IBS symptoms have pretty much gone.
Which was what made me realise that I hadn’t just hit on a minimalist way of sorting my diet to fix a problem. I’d developed a simple, principled way of eating to stay well ongoing.
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