You may already be aware that the food choices you make may profoundly impact your health. On a basic nutrient-function level, we need fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and an array of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) to build and maintain cells and the function of every organ in the body. We're also learning more and more about the impact of different food choices on health and wellbeing in some surprising ways, ranging from the negative impact of chemical fertilizers on gut health and gluten intolerance (Samsel & Seneff, 2013) to the demonstrated link between processed "junk" foods and depression (Lassale et al., 2018).
There's no one right diet for everyone—dietary choices are both highly personal and highly individual. The whole grains that cause one person to thrive may leave someone else feeling lethargic and bloated; a coconut milk and hemp seed smoothie might leave one person energized all day, but make someone else nauseous and itchy! There are a few benchmarks that most individuals can use, however, regardless of the specifics of their diet, to choose foods that support the body's vitality.
Wild-harvested foods are gathered from their natural habitat, rather than produced under controlled conditions on a farm. Wild foods have to be tough—the individual plants are both cooperating and competing with weather conditions, soil microbes, fungi and viruses, and other plant species around them. They've had millennia to develop adaptations, and in many cases the chemical compounds that have health benefits for humans, like flavonoids and organic acids, are actually part of the plant's defense system against browsing insects and larger animals.
In contrast, agriculture favors cultivars that have often been selected for their sweetness, size, uniform harvest time, or storage characteristics. This may involve a trade-off for content of vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients; wild-harvested plants often have higher amounts of minerals and other micronutrients and contain a more diverse array of nutrient compounds than farmed produce (Milton, 2003).
There's also an educational benefit—and, it can be argued, an energetic or spiritual benefit—to harvesting some of your own food from the wild. It requires you to attend to the rhythm of the season and to learn about your immediate bioregion, the specific plants and ecosystems that surround you:
When does this particular plant bud, bloom, and die back?
How does the health of the plant population change year after year?
What other plants are growing nearby? Whole Food "
Whole food" has become quite the buzzword in the last few years, thanks in large part to Michael Pollan, the eponymous supermarket chain, and, of course, the Internet and its vast number of food blogs. What's most surprising about whole foods is not that they're trending—it's the fact that we ever strayed from eating whole foods as the "norm!" Just two or three generations ago, food was food; it might have been dried, pickled, or preserved with salt or sugar, but that's about it. Now we do
need to talk about whole foods, to differentiate them from a glut of inexpensive, readily available, ultra-refined processed "food products," which sometimes include more additives than actual food ingredients.
There's little room left to doubt that the overload of sugar, corn syrup, salt, and chemical additives in many highly processed foods are contributing to the modern epidemic of chronic metabolic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and even some types of cancer (Rauber et al., 2018). And, as mentioned above, recent research has shown that high consumption of processed foods isn't just associated with depression, it actually increases your risk of developing depression (Lassale et al., 2018). The big problem with highly refined foods is that, first, they generally lose many of the original nutrients during the refining process—for example, when refined into white flour, whole grains lose almost all of their fiber content, along with vitamin E, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron (Haas, 1992). Another major problem is that highly refined, nutrient-poor foods simply crowd out more nutrient-rich foods from the diet—we're often eating highly processed foods instead
of nourishing whole foods, not in addition to them.
The point here is not to demonize all processed foods—for one thing, "processed" is a relative term: even homemade sprouted sourdough bread is a processed food, since we had to mill the wheat berries to produce the flour! The occasional packaged snack won't cause a heart attack and busy modern lives necessitate compromise, but regardless of the basis of our diet—Mediterranean or paleo, low-carb, Whole30, or vegan—emphasizing whole foods is possibly the best dietary choice we can all make.
Does eating organic really
matter? In 2012, a widely reported meta-analysis of published research concluded that there is no clinically relevant difference in nutrient content between organic and conventionally grown produce, but they did find, not surprisingly, that conventionally grown foods carry a substantially higher risk of contamination with pesticide residues (Smith-Spangler et al., 2012). The study's authors concluded that there was little health benefit to consuming organic food, but if you're concerned about the strong association between pesticide or herbicide exposure and neurological diseases, endocrine disorders, antibiotic resistance, and cancer (Sanborn et al., 2007; Benbrook, 2012) you might well beg to differ! In a published rebuttal to these conclusions, one pesticide researcher outlined the evidence for his claim that replacing conventionally grown fruit with organic fruit confers a 94% reduction in health risk (Benbrook, 2012)! A more recent population study also determined that consumption of organic food is inversely correlated with cancer risk—in other words, eating more organically produced food is associated with a lower rate of cancer (Baudry et al., 2018).
In the context of terrain and detoxification, consider that pesticides are one of the many exogenous compounds that must be metabolized in the liver before being excreted. Total body burden theory posits that an inability to efficiently metabolize and excrete these types of compounds is implicated in a range of health issues, from hormone disruption to autoimmune disorders; while we don't have sufficient clinical evidence to prove the connection between pesticide residues, metabolic detoxification, and health risks, we can choose to protect the terrain of our bodies—and of ecosystems as a whole—by choosing organically grown foods where possible.Turning our awareness to how and what we eat and how food affects us and the world is part of the holistic lens through which we as Nutritional Therapist view life.
What and how we choose to eat have enormous effects on our health and on the health of the planet. Even so, eating is often an unconscious act. Many of us find it difficult to find time to sit down and enjoy a meal without needing to multitask as we chew. The vast amounts of diet theories, books, and recommendations on what to eat that bombard us daily can contribute to anxiety about our food choices. In addition, many people struggle with food addiction and negative body image, which adds another layer of emotional complexity to the act of eating.
While it may take some effort, shifting from unconscious eating habits to more mindful ones is an essential step toward a balanced relationship with food. With that in mind, we propose that you consider the following questions as you weigh all aspects of food: nutrition, health, ecology, farm workers, plants, animals, and our own individual communities. In assessing how food or food preparation affects you and the wider world, some questions to ask yourself include:
- Where did my food grow?
- How was it produced and by whom?
- How do I feel when/after I eat this food?
- How does the production of this food affect the whole community—not only humans, but all other beings, rivers and streams, the atmosphere, and the soil?
- Did the agricultural practices used to produce this food harm the earth?
- Did the practices used to produce this food cause another being to suffer unnecessary pain, discomfort, and/or loss?
- Are whole, local foods affordable for all people in my community?
- Am I eating mostly whole, unprocessed food?
- Are the foods on my plate fresh, with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables?
- Am I listening to my body when I choose food to eat?
- Do I eat on the run or while engaged in other activities?
- Is eating a joyful experience, full of flavor, connection, and vitality?
While shopping or choosing foods, take time to consider a few of these questions. Making note of your answers or other questions that arise will help you gain clarity about your own food choices and help you recognize emotional patterns associated with the food that you eat and the way that you eat it. When we start to think about the impact that food has on our health, the opportunities for cultivating wellness in our own lives are extended beyond the apothecary and into the kitchen. Each meal we prepare is a chance to invite in wellness, connect with plants and nature, and fully realize our beautiful, vital selves!Fasting and cleansing
have been used therapeutically since at least the time of ancient Greek medicine and in our long agrarian past, early spring may have required a limited diet, at least in colder climates, as winter food stores dwindled and the first fresh spring greens came on. But do we need to fast, cleanse, and detoxify? (The Internet certainly thinks so!)
There is certainly an argument to be made that modern humans need support for detoxification even more than our ancestors did—we are exposed to a mind-boggling array of synthetic chemical compounds in our food, water, and environment, which our bodies may not be able to effectively process and fully eliminate. Fortunately, the human body has a built-in detoxification system: the liver.
As far as detoxification goes, the liver's job is essentially to clean out chemical compounds that the body can't use and repackage them so they can be sent out as waste through the kidneys and GI tract. In order to get these compounds "out the door," enzymes from the liver need to break them down into smaller molecules and then bundle them up again in a more excretable form. This two-step process is the basis of metabolic detoxification. If the liver can't do this work efficiently, unprocessed compounds build up in the body and can cause cellular damage and ultimately contribute to disease processes. When people talk about "cleansing the body of toxins," this generally means allowing the body to do a more efficient job of eliminating these damaging compounds so that they don't remain in the body and build up in various body tissues.
There are many different approaches to cleansing and detoxification, ranging from mild to extreme. The "Heroic Medicine" tradition used strong cleansing and detoxification practices, including violent purgatives and bloodletting on the farthest end of this spectrum. Today's popular, quick-fix cleansing programs that rely on a combination of juice or water fasting, laxatives, and diuretics can also fall into this camp, depending on how they're applied.
In contrast, we can also promote detoxification using a slower and more nourishing or building approach. Dr. Aviva Romm uses an excellent metaphor to explain this approach: if we want to keep the outside of our body clean, it's better to take a shower every day, rather than taking 10 showers a day for a week (Romm, 2018). That's not to say there can't be a time and a place for an intensive fasting or detox program—but it's not necessarily the best approach for everyone, at every stage of health. If we're already in a deficient state—poorly nourished, showing signs of depletion, exhaustion, cold or dry conditions, or burnout—intensive fasting and purification is generally contraindicated. Likewise, it can be helpful to take our cues from the rhythm of the seasons; winter may not be the best time for a detox diet of raw, cooling foods and juicing out-of-season fruits and vegetables! But in springtime, after we've spent a few months eating a protein and fat-heavy diet and building up our reserves, we may feel ready to spend a week or two grazing on fresh new green vegetables and enjoying the tonifying herbs that crop up in spring.