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Research increasingly indicates that watching caltories isn’t as critical to maintaining good health as being selective about what goes on your plate.
Remember when you were a kid and your mom told you to eat everything on your plate or you wouldn’t get that gooey dessert tempting you from under a glass dome in the middle of the dining table? Those days are gone—or at least they should be unless what’s on that plate is lean protein aloft in a sea of colorful fruits and veggies, anchored by whole grains.
Overly processed foods saturated in salt, sugar and fat are the dietary scourge of our times. Research increasingly indicates that watching the number of helpings consumed (calories) isn’t as critical to maintaining good health as being selective about what goes on your plate.
Nutrition 101: Getting back to basics
Overindulging in bad foods or eating too few healthy foods can negatively impact essential nutritional intake, which includes energy (or kilojoules), protein, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, fiber, fluid, vitamins and minerals.
“The [human] body is an amazing machine that is constantly building, restructuring, repairing and healing,” explains Robin J. Simpson, DO, a primary care physician with Christiana Care Springside Family Medicine in Newark. “In order for the most basic components of our bodies to work at the simplest cellular level, our bodies need the fundamental building blocks and fuel to drive these processes, which are derived from the nutrients in the food that we eat. The body requires both saturated and unsaturated fats, cholesterol, protein and fiber to support the cells—the body’s workhorses—and meet the demands required to function as a well-built and maintained machine.”
Simpson likens the importance of good nutrition to architectural integrity. “To build a solid, strong structure, you cannot provide a foundation of toothpicks and soft clay,” she says. “There must be a firm foundation of concrete and steel in order to not only stand strong but function in the capacity for which it was built. If our food choices are suboptimal, in that they offer no real nutrient value and are highly processed, then our bodies cannot meet the demands that we require in just our daily functioning.”
Microgreens pack more nutrients–like potassium, iron and zinc–than mature
Through her work as a primary care physician, Simpson has seen first-hand the effects of poor food choices, from general fatigue and depression to insomnia, headaches and joint pain. Despite the relentless marketing of weight-loss products and programs, as well as the nation’s well-documented obesity epidemic, she says her practice has evolved to treat clinically obese patients who suffer from potentially life-threatening ailments caused by obesity, such as diabetes in both adults and children.
“This management is often complicated by additionally co-managing concomitant medical conditions like heart disease, sleep apnea, arthritis, hypertension, high cholesterol, fertility issues and even cancer—all of which can be impacted and even reversed by choosing healthier foods that are nutrient-dense and by limiting processed foods,” she explains. “I have also treated the other side of nutritional deficiencies and suboptimal food choices in patients who simply just don’t eat enough for a variety of reasons, which results in malnourishment and being underweight.”
A change in diet in addition to other positive lifestyle adjustments, like regular exercise, invariably yields favorable results, Simpson stresses. Among the benefits of choosing “foods that heal” can be reversing diabetes by lowering blood glucose; reducing heart disease and the potential of a serious cardiac or neurologic event by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure; and even normalizing liver function tests, which can become abnormal when excess fat tissue deposits in the liver as a result of overly processed foods laden with sugar and fat.
When constructing dietary plans for her patients, Simpson first underscores the importance of understanding the components of good nutrition and recognizing which foods may be detrimental to overall wellness.
“Set simple goals,” she says. “Try to expand the variety of foods while not skimping on flavor and enjoyment. One of the biggest mistakes that I see patients make is falling into the deluge of fad diets, diet supplements or whatever their favorite celebrity is trying to sell as a ‘quick fix.’” For example, she discourages cutting out any single fuel source, such as carbohydrates, which is the cornerstone of the much-hyped ketogenic (keto) diet.
“Many would argue that weight loss always happens on these popular low-carb diets,” Simpson says. “However, the body needs this essential fuel source to function properly. It is recommended that 50 to 60 percent of our daily caloric intake come from nutrient-dense carbohydrates, such as berries, whole grains and beans.”
The only long-term panacea for a body damaged by unhealthy eating habits is incorporating high-quality, nutrient-packed foods with minimal processing, Simpson explains. Making basic adjustments in meal selection can improve your health in as little as 24 hours, she adds.
The rising popularity of veganism and plant-based meat substitutes, such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat’s expanding product line, is in step with Simpson’s approach to healthier eating.
“Plant-based diets are consistent with less-processed eating, which is always a better option,” she says. “I often tell my patients, ‘If it came from the ground, it is not processed and is nutrient-rich, real food.’”
However, Simpson still recommends eating at least four ounces of lean meat a few times a week to properly support muscle in the body. “You can eat all the plant-based, protein-enriched foods you want, but it is important to remember that our muscles, skeletal and smooth, are built of amino acids comprised of protein,” she explains.
“The problem with the American diet,” she continues, “is too much meat, too many processed foods, too-large portions and too many unhealthy foods that our bodies easily become addicted to and crave.”
People choose to be vegan for myriad reasons, from ethical conflicts regarding the treatment of animals to valid concerns about climate change. Most medical journals advise that vegan diets should be supplemented with B-12, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, iodine and zinc—all necessary nutrients found in animal products.
According to medicalnewstoday.com, vitamin B-12 is the most critical, as it is crucial in maintaining key processes in the body, including the formation of red blood cells, metabolizing proteins and supporting the nervous system. Research also indicates that vitamin B-12 deficiency can occur in non-vegans, as the body’s ability to absorb B-12 varies, especially as one ages. The National Institutes of Health recommends that anyone over age 14 consume 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B-12 a day.
While some vegan products, such as soy milk and certain cereals, are fortified with the vitamin, a daily B-12 supplement should be included when committing to a purely plant-based diet.
Superfoods, another trending term, seem to permeate the lexicon of food-marketing magnates and ad agencies. But when you deconstruct the buzz, most superfoods have been around for centuries and are commonly found in your local market. From colorful berries and vegetables to nuts and fish, these nutrient-packed foods are loaded with vitamins, calcium, fiber and healthy fats. They’re also rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Among more popular and readily available superfoods are blueberries, red raspberries, acai, bananas, pomegranate, kale, broccoli, squash, sweet potatoes, almonds, walnuts, salmon, mackerel and sardines.
“Superfoods are necessary building blocks for optimum health and can be considered the strong foundation foods that we all need,” Simpson concurs. “These foods are also super in that they do help to combat heart disease, diabetes, obesity and digestive problems.”
Tangential to superfoods, microgreens are sprouting up on restaurant menus, at farmers markets and in natural food stores with increasing regularity. These aromatic greens—sometimes called micro herbs or vegetable confetti—are essentially baby plants derived from seeds of specific leafy greens, herbs and vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, fennel, cucumber, watercress and endive.
Despite their delicate appearance, microgreens pack a more nutritional punch than mature vegetable greens. Most varieties contain significant amounts of potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium and copper, as well as antioxidants found in plant compounds.
Listen to your gut
Assimilating all this nutrient-dense food is best achieved when your digestive system is in optimal shape. Enter gut health: the delicate balance of tiny microorganisms that live in our digestive tract.
“These small organisms, which number in the trillions of bacteria, yeasts and viruses, are referred to as the ‘gut microbiome’ or ‘gut flora,'” Simpson explains. “To achieve good health and nutrition, it is important to keep the gut environment healthy and well-balanced. Prebiotics, a type of fiber that the human body cannot digest, serve as food for probiotics—the tiny living organisms that live in the gut.” Both prebiotics and probiotics support health by building and maintaining a healthy colony of bacteria to aid in digestion.
Increased gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea and heartburn may indicate compromised gut health. According to Simpson, the best way to ward off gut imbalance is to replace processed, high-sugar and high-fat foods with plant-based alternatives, lean protein and high-fiber foods like beans, legumes, peas, oats, berries and bananas. A handful of fermented foods— sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir—are excellent sources of probiotics with established beneficial results.
“In addition to our food choices, getting enough sleep, walking, meditating, drinking enough water and avoiding foods that we know do not agree with us are all important efforts in keeping our tummies happy,” Simpson adds.
As with all food, healthy or not, Simpson warns against overindulging. “Even superfoods should be eaten in moderation, as too much of any nutrient, no matter how healthy, can cause weight gain if consumed in excess.”
She suggests navigating the saturated market of dietary supplements with informed caution. “Supplements can sometimes cause adverse side effects when taken instead of, or in combination with, prescription medications,” she says, with the caveat that some supplements are warranted if nutritious foods are not part of one’s regular diet; ideally, supplementation should be discussed with a medical provider or licensed nutritionist.
The dirt on healthy foods
The proliferation of farm-to-table restaurants and supermarket space devoted to organic produce highlight a growing consumer demand for information on where their food originated and how it was raised or grown.
Riding the renaissance of small-farm practices, Coverdale Farm in New Castle County is a Delaware leader in regenerative agricultural methods—farming principles designed to increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve watersheds and resist climate instability. By focusing on soil health and minimizing the impact of farming on the land, this practice demonstrates environmental accountability while producing nutrient-dense food.
Part of the larger 377-acre Coverdale Farm Preserve, which is dedicated to conserving and enhancing the state’s biodiversity under the auspices of the Delaware Nature Society, Coverdale Farm comprises 177 acres of vegetable gardens, grazing land for livestock and an educational component that includes a professional kitchen hosting culinary classes.
“As an environmental organization, regenerative is the only way we should be farming our land,” says Michele Wales, Coverdale Farm’s manager. Instead of “forcing” agricultural products on the land, they allow the land to dictate what should be grown or raised. “We were determined to use our expertise, our knowledge of the land, and read the landscape. For example, our rolling topography is not conducive to a lot of row cropping, but is ideal for rotational or intentional grazing of livestock.”
The farm’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) program is the main distribution channel for its vegetable produce. Similar to a magazine subscription, members sign up in the fall and winter, and purchase their share of the program. Once the summer harvest begins, they visit weekly to retrieve their portion of that harvest.
“That investment up front allows us to purchase the supplies required to grow the food,” Wales says.
While vegetable production is currently the first priority, Coverdale Farm’s livestock program—still in its relative infancy—is an important component of the farm’s regenerative practices. Without livestock, Wales explains, it’s difficult to mimic nature effectively.
“To me, livestock are ecosystem service providers,” she says. “Through our grazing program, the animals are intentionally moved to new pasture in specific patterns. In this way, the animals deposit their nutrients evenly and the grazing ‘mows’ the land, thereby eliminating the need for heavy machinery, which compacts the soil.”
The science and application of regenerative farming is complex, but it starts and ends with the soil, Wales says. For decades, agriculture has been heavily focused on increasing production rather than ensuring food’s nutrient density. “In order to create these higher yields, the soil has had to work really hard,” she explains. “And it hasn’t been replenished; it’s been denuded. It’s critical that we treat the soil for what it is—a super dynamic, living ecosystem that needs a lot of organic matter as well as big and microscopic organisms that perform the nutrient cycling by breaking down dead, decaying matter and minerals into nutrients plants need.”
Beyond shrink wrap
Committing to a healthier diet is the first step. Then comes the sometimes-arduous task of constructing an eating plan that requires a new shopping strategy. While big-box grocery stores often carry organic and vegan items as well as free-range, grass-fed meats, figuring out which products to purchase can be overwhelming.
A visit to your neighborhood health-food store can help point you in the right direction. Many employ professionals versed in nutrition and supplements. In addition, these outlets generally offer a wider variety of plant-based foods, and some have organic or local produce.
At Good News Natural Foods stores located in Dover, Milford and Rehoboth Beach, staff are trained to address customers’ nutritional and health needs, and are also available for free counseling. The store provides customers with tips such as avoiding pre-marinated products, food that comes in a box and certain dishes served by restaurants.
“These all tend to be high in sugar, salt, and/or unhealthy fats,” explains owner Sam Mansoor. “This is especially troublesome when combined with foods that have processed out naturally occurring fiber.”
Processed foods tend to be easier to chew and swallow. This can mean more food is consumed before you feel full, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain, Mansoor suggests. He also strongly advises preparing the bulk of your diet at home.
“Learn to cook, if you don’t do so already,” he offers. “When you cook at home with unprepared foods, the amount of sugar, salt and fat are under your control.”
Berries are chock-full of fiber and antioxidants, which help protect cells from free radicals.
When busy schedules make home cooking a challenge, Mansoor recommends planning ahead by devoting two days each week to meal preparation.
“Making freezable double portions goes a long way in providing your family with the healthy nutrients needed for wellness,” he says, “without spending a great deal of time in the kitchen.”
Topping the list of products trending at his stores are probiotics; omega-3 fish oil, which most experts agree supports cardiovascular and brain health, helps reduce joint inflammation, stimulates triglycerides and contributes to glowing skin and shiny hair; food-based multivitamins; and vitamin D3, which helps bolster the immune system.
The ancient spice turmeric has resurfaced in recent years and has practically become a household staple for health advocates, Mansoor says. “Inflammation is at the root of most ailments, and turmeric [is believed] to help maintain inflammation levels in the body.”
Many health-food stores offer a fresh, diverse selection of superfoods. Mansoor believes that a conscientious health-food proprietor should constantly be researching and adding new products on the shelves, as well as expanding services when appropriate. To that end, Good News Natural Foods is on track to feature organic juice bars in both the Dover and Rehoboth locations.
Mansoor advises consulting a medical practitioner or nutritionist to assist in creating a diet regimen tailored to your specific needs. Proper nutrition isn’t a one-size-fits-all undertaking, he stresses. “Not all diets are safe for everyone; it depends on the person.”
Sound nutrition provides crucial ballast at a cellular level, but it also positively impacts our emotional well-being. In a world full of stressors, paying closer attention to the foods you eat may be the easiest—and most effective—pathway to greater wellness. Setting realistic goals, simplifying your execution, and reaching out to a nutritionist or medical practitioner can help you on your journey toward better food choices.
If all else fails, suggests Simpson, refer to that age-old adage: “You are what you eat.”