Anyone else find it hard to navigate through the (often conflicting) healthy eating advice constantly surrounding us online, in magazines and on TV? Is it best to fast, go keto or become a vegan? We asked the wonderful Dee Copland, Naturopath and Nutritionist, to help demystify the conflicting messages around healthy eating we seem to be flooded with on a daily basis.
Forget the complicated and often very restrictive fad diets. Eating ‘clean’ is always the best place to start. This means removing highly processed foods from your diet, and basing each meal around vegetables with some lean protein (eggs/fish/chicken/beef/lamb/nuts/seeds). “Processed foods with vegetable oils or colours, flavourings and preservatives all put an extra load on the body, particularly the liver, as they are so foreign so removing these is a great start.” Including plenty of fresh vegetables and flavouring foods with natural ingredients (lemon juice, chili, garlic, fresh herbs and spices) will mean you can make flavourful meals without highly processed sauces and dressings, which are usually full of sugar. As an added bonus, avoiding ready-made sauces, dressings and processed foods will also save you money at the supermarket.
But what if you are eating ‘clean’ and still not feeling 100%? This could be an indication of a food intolerance. According to Copland, signs and symptoms of food intolerances vary from person to person and can range from headaches and fatigue, to bloating diarrhoea and/or constipation. So how should we deal with a suspected food intolerance? “Complete avoidance for 6 weeks to 6 months can be a good way to see if you feel better both mentally and physically. You would then reintroduce it and see if you are still intolerant. Some people find that some foods can have a cumulative effect, therefore if they just have a milky coffee at the weekends, they may be fine with it. Correcting gut bacteria can be useful if there are several suspected allergies.” It is also important to address stress, as stress drives inflammation and affects digestion and therefore creates all sorts of imbalances in the body. Regular exercise, meditation and making sure you have some ‘down time’ away from work and family stress can all help.
Gut health is also something we are getting used to hearing a lot about. The gut microbiome is made up of tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria. To keep the gut flora balanced, we should include probiotics into our daily diet. According to Copland, “probiotics are very popular at the moment and this is for good reason. We have ten times the amount of bacteria to human cells in our bodies and research is only scraping the surface on the incredible effects that different strains of bacteria have. We now know that some specific strains can reduce allergies, anxiety and depression, blood sugar levels and obesity, digestive issues, inflammation in the body.. the list goes on.” She recommends eating fibrous fruits and vegetables and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kombucha, as these foods provide the right environment for a healthy microbiome to flourish. Antibiotics are known to destroy the gut flora, so it is important to look after our health to avoid getting sick. Also, avoiding anti-bacterial cleaners and handwash, artificial sweeteners and highly processed foods is important, as these all disturb the gut flora.
Lastly, what about all these different diets popping up on our social media feeds? We are constantly seeing ads for keto/paleo/intermittent fasting/vegan diets that all promise great results and optimal health. But do they really work, and are they healthy? Copland says “ketogenic diets are popular, as is intermittent fasting, and each have their merits. It is a good idea to seek guidance to ensure you are eating a balanced diet and burning fat in a healthy, maintainable way.” Making an appointment with a nutritionist to implement a personalised plan that will work best for you is a good way to begin. Copland also cautions against the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of the trend towards going vegan, as a consequence of our raised awareness around sustainable living and looking after the planet. “While a vegan diet is beneficial for the planet, it does not suit everyone. I have also seen people use this title as a mask for eating disorders. It is important to listen to our own bodies and the signs and symptoms - energy levels, menstrual cycles and mental wellbeing - are all good indicators of what is working for or against us.”
So while we may sometimes look to a quick fix for our weight or health goals, any diet that is too restrictive or too low in energy will leave you feeling depleted, lethargic and at risk of illness. And any regime that promises fast weight loss will probably be unsustainable (and unhealthy) over the long-term - it is always best to seek advice from the experts rather than trust a Facebook ad. Like most things in life, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is!