Monday, May 4, 2009

Some Lessons Learned from Seeking a Healthy Eating Style

I have spent the past almost three months analyzing my eating style by using CRON-O-METER. I have decided to stop using the program for now, but think that I have gained lots of good insights. In fact, for the past two years I have been a student of nutrition and have considered myself an experiment of one. One is not a statistically significant sample size, but nevertheless, I have learned lots. So, I decided to record here what I consider to be some of my overall lessons learned from my quest.
  • A whole foods, plant-based eating style is an excellent way to build good health and maintain a desirable weight. During my period of study I have learned a tremendous amount from a few professionals who have devoted their lives to prevention and wellness. The ones that have had the most impact have been Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., T. Colin Campbell, PhD, Joel Fuhrman, M.D., John McDougall, M.D., Jeff Novick, Nutritionist, and Dean Ornish, M.D. These experts do not agree on every issue, for example, whether to take supplements, how much healthy fat per day is healthy, and whether or not a small amount of animal foods is acceptable. Nevertheless, by studying all of their work, the student will be rewarded with a smorgasbord of ideas from which to choose. Not only have these professionals demonstrated the preventive health value of a whole foods, plant-based eating style, the physicians have clearly shown in their research and their patient practices that serious illness can be reversed. If even a small percentage of the U.S. population would adopt one of these approaches, or some combination, the health of the nation would be substantially improved. The approach that I have adopted is one based upon eating lots of fruits and vegetables (including starches), beans/legumes everyday, a moderate amount of nuts/seeds for healthy fat, whole grains and daily supplements. I do not eat any animal foods or any processed foods with the exception of pasta and bread on occasion.
  • The eating style that works the best to keep weight under control and maintains optimal health requires some substantial change from the status quo. Dr. McDougall likes to quote the author Oscar Wilde, "Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess." Moderate change leads to modest results, major changes lead to major results. The reality seems to be that most of us must make a substantial journey to arrive at an optimal state of eating. My own journey has lasted over 25 years and has culminated in the past two years or so when I transitioned from a vegetarian eating style to one based solely around plant-based high nutrition whole foods. We are now very fortunate that the state of knowledge about healthy nutrition has advanced. Good fresh plant foods are readily available and even many restaurants are 'getting with the program.' Nevertheless, I do not think there are any short cuts or easy ways to achieve healthy nutrition. It requires hard work, substantial changes in habit, going against the cultural grain, and establishing a strong sense of individual will. The rest of society is a long ways from the ideal and those of us that are committed to this lifestyle have to work very hard at it and resist a lot pressure all around us. Drs. Ornish in The Spectrum and Fuhrman in Eat for Health have, I think, done an excellent job of showing how people can phase into an ideal eating style. Both physicians recognize that most people cannot 'turn on a dime.' These physicians are sensitive to the difficulty of the challenge and provide sound guidance how to advance one step at a time. Let's face it. Ten years ago this information was not available, but today we have a wealth of information on how to navigate to a healthy eating style.
  • Accept the fact that food has a powerful impact on your health. I believe that most people have not accepted that fact. The average person is very casual about what they eat and has no idea of impact that what they put in their mouth has on their health. The common chronic illnesses heart disease, many cancers, diabetes, stroke and many other diseases are preventable with a healthy lifestyle, especially an excellent diet. Once having accepted this powerful link between nutrition and health, it becomes easier to make the substantial changes necessary. The books that I have referenced in this post all reinforce the powerful link between food and health.
  • After gaining knowledge and committing to an eating style, develop a plan for not overeating and giving your body rest periods between meals. Dr. Fuhrman in his book Eat for Health presents some very sound advice for avoiding overeating and taking mini-fasts each day. In his book, The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner describes how the Okinawan elders "intone this Confucian-inspired adage before eating: hara hachi bu - a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. Dr. David Kessler, the former Director of the Food and Drug Administration recently published a book titled The End of Overeating, which has some sound advice about how to change behavior to prevent overeating. I try, but do not always succeed, to follow the hara hachi bu approach. My approach is to identify periods during the day when I'll eat and periods when I will avoid eating. From 8 pm at night until 10 am the next morning I do a minifast, based upon Dr. Fuhrman's advice. I eat breakfast/brunch from 10 - 11 am on most days and then have dinner from 5 - 8 pm. The long period for dinner involves eating a little bit before the formal dinner, then sitting down for dinner, and maybe an hour or so after dinner having a healthy dessert. I am retired and have a very flexible schedule, which might not suit most people. But, finding a structure to eating is very important. I also have done well with an approach that allows several hours (usually 6) to pass between meals and then having a 12-14 hour period from dinner to breakfast without eating.
  • When faced with the prospect of restaurant meals, or eating in another person's home, plan carefully. I always have a game plan for meals out. It is almost like an athlete mentally visualizing the upcoming competition. For restaurant meals, I always help pick the restaurant, trying to steer away from those that are hardest for me to deal with - fish houses, steak houses and Italian restaurants, for example. Most restaurants now have a website and I check the menus that appear on the websites and develop a strategy for what I will order, or how I will modify a dish that is on the menu to meet my needs. Do I always succeed? No. But, usually I leave the restaurant satisfied that I did my best. With meals in other's homes, my wife or I have a conversation with the host(ess)/cook in advance, and, again, I do the best I can.
  • Be comfortable that the eating style is nutritionally excellent. I implemented my eating style and let several months go by without knowing for sure if my program was nutritionally sound, although I strongly suspected that it was. One of the best bits of advice that I received was from Jeff Novick who, during an exchange of emails suggested that I download the free nutritional analysis program CRON-O-METER. As I stated above, I used this program from February 7 until April 30, 2009, inputting each meal and snack for that period. The results showed that I on average exceeded the RDA for vitamins and minerals. My average daily calories were about 2300, with a range of 1900 - 3000, depending upon activity level and other circumstances. My average protein intake per day was 65 grams, and my average fiber intake per day was 71 grams. I lost 5 pounds during this period. The pattern of eating that I established produced very good results and further reinforced my commitment to eat like this for a lifetime. I will now take a break from the daily use of CRON-O-METER comforted by the assurance that I am on the right track. I tried very hard to record my eating accurately and now have a strong sense of comfort that my eating style is producing excellent nutritional results. I still, however, have two major questions that I will explore more fully. One, do I need to take daily supplements? Two, am I eating the appropriate amount of fat(about 21% of calories) per day. If I take out the supplements and look at the nutritional results, I am not deficient in any vitamin and mineral except selenium, vitamin D and Vitamin B12. The experts agree that if you choose not to include animal foods in your eating, you should supplement with B12. There is debate over whether we get sufficient Vitamin D from sun exposure. Given my cycling, I am out in the sun a lot. I know that selenium can be obtained from plant foods, especially Brazil nuts. I also supplement with DHA, but know that I get sufficient Omega 3 lipids from ground flax seeds. So, for now, supplements are an insurance policy, but I am not sure that they are needed. A summary of my nearly 3 months of nutritional analysis appears below.
  • Be a gentle navigator to guide other people to healthy eating. When you achieve excellent health results from an eating style it is hard not to preach to others. People do not react well to preaching, but I do think that sharing knowledge and serving as a role model is important. The goal is not to convert the world to healthy eating, but rather to be another person out there with something helpful and useful to say about eating. I want to be a good resource for others. That is one of the reasons I have developed this blog. The medical establishment is a wasteland for good information about nutrition. I firmly believe that those of us who have devoted time to gaining an understanding of the correct approaches to healthy eating should share that knowledge, even if it doesn't win popularity contests or huge results measured in successfully changing peoples lives. I will have lots more to say about this topic in future posts. It is hard to overstate how good I feel about the positive results that very healthy eating has produced.

No comments: