What you eat has been implicated not only in obvious health risks like obesity and heart disease, but also in a whole range of other conditions like inflammation. There is little doubt that eating healthy can help nearly everyone live longer. However, even though this has been known for years unhealthy eating and the resulting health conditions like obesity have affected more and more people each year. It is not easy to start eating healthy.

In this from the book The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Foods by James A. Duke and Bill Gottlieb, CHC the authors explain how to start breaking free from processed foods and how to start eating healthy.

Eating for Optimal Health

Breaking Free from Our “White Bread” World

Getting people to add healing foods to their diets can be challenging. And the low-quality foods typically available in American supermarkets certainly don’t make that challenge any easier.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of a delicate way to phrase this, but there’s really no getting around it: The current state of the American diet is terrible. I think it’s fair to say that our dietary choices are among the primary reasons that two-thirds of all Americans are overweight, and half of that number are obese. What’s even more frightening is that our children are now paying the price for our poor eating habits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 20 percent of America’s children are now overweight, and kids born in the year 2000 or later have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes in their lifetimes.

This strongly suggests that the way we’re eating today actually causes disease. Read on to see how this is happening and what you can do to change it.

The Problem with How America Eats

Consider this: Almost every edible item we buy comes with a label on it. The problem with a label, of course, is that it often indicates that the food is processed in some way, and often, the more processed it is, the more unhealthful it is. The implication is that we’re surrounded by unhealthful foods—and, in fact, they’re so pervasive in our supermarkets that unless you live on a farm, as I do, they’re often difficult to avoid.

The first problem with processed foods comes down to simple vs. complex carbohydrates. By design, most of the processed breads and snack foods in the American diet are simple carbohydrates. You can often identify them by their color: white. White bread, white rice, white cookies, white cakes. This means they’re easy to eat and easy to digest, and they have an immediate impact on your body’s blood sugar. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, often take longer to chew and swallow, so you tend to eat less of them. Also, once they’re in your body, you digest and metabolize them more slowly and less efficiently, so they affect your blood sugar more gradually and don’t cause it to spike.

There’s a fairly new tool called the glycemic index that makes choosing the right kinds of carbohydrates a whole lot easier. It ranks foods based on how drastically they affect your blood sugar level. Foods ranked low on the glycemic index are generally better choices, and foods ranked higher are poor choices. We Americans seem to rely on the glycemic index less than Europeans do, though I’m sure it’s useful. (For more information, visit www.glycemicindex.com.)

Of course, carbohydrates aren’t the only problem with processed foods; they’re also often full of unhealthful fats. Granted, some whole foods, like red meat and dairy products, contain cholesterol-raising saturated fats, too. But many processed foods contain man-made trans fats, created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation, which is why these fats are often listed on food labels as “partially hydrogenated.”

Like saturated fats, trans fats elevate levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. Some studies even indicate that trans fats may lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, as well as contribute to smaller LDL particle size, which raises your risk even further.

Of course, when you get beyond all the science, there’s a very simple reason that all these processed foods are bad for your health and well-being: They’re taking up space on your dinner plate that should be occupied by healthful, nutrient-dense foods that are good for you.

The choice is plain and simple: Eat the right foods, and you can prevent disease. Eat the wrong ones, and you actually promote it.

Dieting Don’ts

It goes without saying that the glut of unhealthful foods in America has contributed to our obesity problems, so it’s no surprise that everywhere you turn, there’s a diet that promises dramatic overnight results in creating a new, thinner you. While many of these diet plans are not without merit, the most popular ones are far from perfect.

Low-carb diets such as the Atkins Diet gained traction for helping people lose a lot of pounds, but critics argued that they put too much emphasis on unhealthful saturated fats. It’s also important to mention that carbohydrates are not inherently bad—they’re essential components of any healthful diet. The key, of course, is to choose the right carbohydrates (whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead of processed and refined carbs) instead of cutting them out entirely.

In contrast to the low-carb diet, a more time-tested approach to weight loss is the low-fat diet. Fat is incredibly calorie dense, so it makes good sense that restricting it from your diet would help you lose weight. But here again, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Just as with carbohydrates, it’s the type of fat that can make a big difference in your health. For this reason, the American Heart Association recommends limiting overall fat intake to around 30 percent of your daily calories, with monounsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados) making up 15 percent of total calories, and saturated fats (found in red meat and dairy foods) making up 5 to 6 percent.

Also, be wary of “low-fat” foods at the supermarket. While these may be better for your health than the full-fat versions, they’re often poor substitutes for healthier choices like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. And they’re often full of sugar. Considering my background in the area of plant research, you might think my dietary leanings would be more toward vegetarianism. The fact is, while I definitely emphasize plants heavily in my overall diet, I must admit that I’m not a strict vegetarian.

Studies have shown that when followed diligently, a vegetarian diet can have incredible health benefits, including significantly reduced rates of cancer and heart disease. However, what these studies don’t take into account is just how difficult it is for the average person to adhere to a strict vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Granted, if people are very skillful about making the right food choices, vegetarianism can be one of the most healthful diets you can follow. But many vegetarians don’t make the right choices, and as a result, it’s not uncommon for them to have dangerous deficiencies of vitamin B12 and protein.

For all of that, I’m far from being a meat-monger, though I do take a slightly different approach to vegetarianism, which I’ll outline in greater detail below.

How to Eat Today

Moderation in all things: It may be a cliché, but there’s really no better way to describe how we should tailor our diets to live healthfully and disease free.

In the pages that follow, you’ll find a treasure trove of information about specific foods that will prevent and even treat a number of diseases. But first, it helps to have a handful of approaches that will help you incorporate more of these healthful foods into your everyday routine. Here’s how to do exactly that.

Eat like your ancestors. Interestingly, of all the fad diets that have come and gone over the years, the one that has perhaps drawn the most criticism is the blood type diet devised by Peter J. D’Adamo, ND. Dr. D’Adamo’s theory is that different blood types evolved based on whether our direct ancestors were hunters, gatherers, or farmers or took some other role in primitive society.

While I can’t attest to the specific blood type theory, I think there’s something to this concept of eating like your ancestors did—a “Paleolithic diet,” if you will. In Africa, Zulus live healthy lives subsisting almost entirely on animal products. Even their herbs are often taken as a milk tincture. Other tribal groups subsist almost entirely on plants and have for a long time.

This seems to suggest that different people do have different needs. If that’s the case, then the best source of advice for what you should be eating is probably your own body. For the average person, this means that you shouldn’t restrict meat if it’s what you crave. Rather, make it part of a balanced diet with a good blend of fruits, vegetables, and healthful whole grains.

Be a Jeffersonian vegetarian. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a strict vegetarian, but meat isn’t a major part of my routine either. Instead, I consider myself more of a “Jeffersonian vegetarian.” Let me explain.

While our third president, Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t a strict vegetarian, his preference for vegetables over meat was well documented. As the president himself said in 1819, “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”

I try to tailor my diet the same way, viewing meat more as flavoring for a vegetablebased dish than as the main course. If you’d like to restrict your meat intake in favor of more vegetables, I think this centuries-old approach is a great way to do it.

Stick to the S’s. My approach to having a “Jeffersonian diet” leads me to my next tip for how to eat: Stick to the S’s. And by S’s, I mean soups, stews, and salads. All three are wonderful vehicles for incorporating as many healthful fruits, vegetables, and herbs as possible into a delicious, fulfilling meal. If you’re someone who craves meat, these dishes allow you to take the Jeffersonian approach with ease: You can use meat as a smaller component to flavor the meal rather than as the main course.

Go grazing—in both senses of the word. My last approach to healthful eating is becoming increasingly more accepted in nutrition circles, and that is to graze. In other words, eating five or six small meals throughout the day may be a better approach than the traditional “three squares” a day. And studies seem to support that this practice may actually help you consume less food overall.

That’s one definition of grazing, which I recommend. But here’s another: To many wild-food enthusiasts, grazing means eating a lot of wild vegetables and fruits. Many of my readers aren’t yet experienced in determining which wild foods are safe and which are dangerous, but I believe that we human grazers, in this latter, narrower sense, are more liable—like range-fed animal grazers—to have the right proportion of healthful fats in our diets.

I indulge in both senses of grazing. I incorporate healthful fruits, vegetables, and nuts into my diet by munching on them throughout the day. I take the same approach with healthful herbal teas, not just mint and ginger but dozens of different teas over time. Of course, Mrs. Duke certainly helps by keeping the house stocked with nuts and dried fruits instead of cookies and crackers. That way, when the urge to eat hits, the only grazing options are healthful ones. It’s an approach that can help anyone.

Then, as I walk through my garden and woods, I indulge in that second way of grazing, consuming lots of weird wild things that my ancestors ate but my parents didn’t— wild grape leaves and tendrils, greenbriar tendrils, dozens of edible weeds (some tasty, some pretty bad), and some wild fruits.

The Bountiful Buffet

Given the pace and pressures of modern life, taking the time to prepare and eat healthful meals may seem a praiseworthy but unrealistic goal. Not only are we surrounded by processed foods, but we often find ourselves eating in dining establishments, where we have no control over what’s offered and what isn’t. Well, I’m here to assure you that you do have control. In my experience, if you’re resourceful and determined, you can have a healthful repast pretty much anywhere you go.

When Mrs. Duke and I are on the road and eating in restaurants, I usually opt for the buffet breakfast and sample most of the fruits, cereals, and yogurts, with just a dab of meat and eggs. For dinner, Mrs. Duke likes to go to places where you sit down and order from the menu. I usually go for soup and salad. I actually prefer to go to those low-priced buffets where they offer several kinds of meat dishes; marvelously varied salad, fruit, and vegetable bars; choices of two or three soups; and—regrettably for those who can’t resist—dozens of dessert choices. This is good grazin’ for me. I take very small portions of most of the salad items, even mixing the salad dressings, and very small, Jeffersonian portions of the meats, along with minimal servings of most of the veggies. This is my first tasting, and then I return for more of the more pleasantly flavored items if they still appeal to me. Often though, the samplings fill me up so I don’t need to go back to the buffet. By grazing this way, I’ve probably consumed small portions of dozens of fruits and veggies.

Now think about this. Each of the 50 or 60 plants I’ve tasted may contain up to 5,000 identifiable “chemistries,” all biologically active. And because my genes have coevolved with many if not most of these chemistries, just as I selected what I wanted from the buffet, I maintain that our bodies select what they need from those thousands of chemistries. By grazing at the buffet, I offer my body thousands of gentle, natural compounds to choose from, many of which homeostatically get my body back to normal. That’s what I sometimes call Duke’s Diversity Diet. So if you’re forced by circumstance or seduced by opportunity to eat at restaurants, try to find places with great salad bars or buffets. They’re great opportunities to eat for health!

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