Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How You Eat may be just as important as What

When it comes to a healthy diet we’re constantly told to watch what we eat, but what about the how? By now we know that the choices we make when we’re at the grocery store doing our weekly food shopping are important; so much so that it can be the difference between a strong immune system and constantly using those sick days at work…when you’re actually sick! It could be the difference between being able to spend your hard earned money on what you want to spend it on while enjoying life, and generously giving it to any one of the large pharmaceutical companies in return for that blood pressure, cholesterol, or antacid medication that you may be on. There’s no denying it, the “what we eat” is very important, but what about the “how”?

You can eat healthy foods and still experience some unhealthy side affects; bloating, gas, constipation, or loose stool. All of these point to one common culprit, digestion. I was once told by my kinesiologist, a man whose knowledge and experience has played a key role in my overall wellness that optimal health starts in the gut. Whether you’re trying to overcome some illness or condition, or simply just trying to maintain a healthy state, your digestive system must be doing its job and doing it right. This of course takes some cooperation from you. You make the decisions of what to eat, but if you’re experiencing any of the common irregularities mentioned above, then it’s time to pay attention to the “how” you eat.

Based on some reading I’ve been doing, how or when you eat certain foods plays a big role in whether or not it’s digested properly. The two books that come to mind are “Healing with Whole Foods” by Paul Pitchford and “Never Be Sick Again” by Raymond Francis, where both authors dedicate a section on the importance of “food combinations”. They both start by classifying foods by which the environment they require within the stomach for proper digestion, acidic or alkaline, as well what foods can (or should) be combined in order to achieve this. They go on to explain how the stomach can accommodate either environment, be it acidic for the proteins or alkaline for the starches, but not at the same time; fruits being the exception since they are meant to travel quickly through the digestive system. Both authors lay down the same foundation “vegetables with proteins ok, vegetables with starches ok, eat fruits alone”, with a few special cases noted, but differ slightly in their approach; Raymond Francis taking a more strict approach. Thankfully Paul Pitchford’s approach lays out some looser guidelines that appear to be more relevant to today’s many menu choices; “one for better digestion and one for ideal digestion”. The rules for “better digestion” states that if proteins are eaten with starches as are the case with most meals “eat the proteins first and keep the ratio of protein to starch to at least 1:2”. This means don’t make the protein portion of your meal the biggest portion, about half that of the starch (ideally whole grains of some sort), and vegetables go well with both so a generous portion should be eaten with every meal. I think it’s safe to say that most nutritionists would probably agree.

So in order to drive the point home let’s take a look at a typical restaurant meal. Based on the information above this means that if that proportionately large piece of protein (chicken/fish/beef) on your plate requires an acidic environment to properly digest, and that generous portion of starch (grains/potatoes) next to it requires an alkaline environment, neither will have the chance to digest fully or properly if eaten together. Thankfully those vegetables, that I hope are taking up much of that plate, can digest well in either environment. Add to that a piece of cake or pie typically eaten immediately following the meal, and you haven’t even given your stomach a fighting chance. Now in today’s world with all the meal options and menu varieties we have come to enjoy, the strict approach is probably not for you. With that said though you can choose to take the key points on how to properly approach a meal, and put it to use within your own diet as you see the need; as I did with mine.

For instance despite my healthy diet I noticed that when I would eat oatmeal, I would experience some bloating and a bit of a lethargic feeling that would last until this meal was digested, and I use the word “digested” loosely. What I didn’t realize at the time is that what I was adding to the plain oatmeal was the culprit. I always liked to jazz it up with some sort of fruit, a peach, a banana, or some berries, and a handful of nuts topped off with some honey. Although it sounds like a healthy meal, the food combinations I had chosen simply were just not working for me. This is of no surprise of course, knowing what I know now.

When examined individually, the generous portion of starch (the oatmeal and sugar from the honey), the sizable helping of fruit, and some protein (the nuts) all appear to be smart meal choices, but when combined and eaten together were nothing short of digestive trouble. Now the small amount of protein, especially considering the food source, was probably not the problem, which leaves only the fruit. It is recommended that fruit be eaten by itself since it is meant to travel through the stomach rather quickly, but when a substantial portion is eaten with other foods the digestion of this fruit is slowed down considerably allowing the fruit time to ferment. This fermentation causes gasses to be released which can lead to bloating, not to mention create an undesirable environment for proper digestion. If the meal is of a sizable portion and digestion is already compromised, a feeling of tiredness or laziness afterwards would be expected.

I have since used what I know about “food combinations” to adjust this meal, to ensure proper digestion and ultimately optimal health. I now eat a handful of nuts and some berries (an “acid fruit” that can be eaten with nuts and seeds) first thing in the morning, go about my morning routine, and then eat the starch portion of my breakfast (usually whole grains of some sort) a good half hour to forty-five minutes later; I’ve yet to experience the bloating or lethargy since making the switch. My body is now getting the benefit of my healthy food choices do to “how” I eat them. I try to remember Paul Pitchford’s rules for “better digestion” with every meal, and apply those for “ideal digestion” when my body is showing signs of poor digestion. So if you don’t want to have to reach for the antacids after the next time you dive into that giant burger with fries, think about these rules. It may be the smartest move you make all day.

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