One Step at a Time
Start your healing journey with a whole foods diet
By Jen Donovan
Many people are turning to nutrition for answers to their chronic health issues and learning to use food as medicine. So let’s discuss a major issue that leaves a lot of people stalled in their attempts at healing. Keto, paleo, autoimmune paleo, primal, carnivore- there are many types of therapeutic diets that are becoming popularized, but there are more and less healing ways to do these types of diets. And that comes down to eating unprocessed, whole foods.
You will not experience the full benefit from your attempts at healing with food if you don’t clean up your consumption of processed foods and additives first. Because yes- you can absolutely do the diets mentioned above while still including junk food. A diet like GAPS is the exception, where it says explicitly in the protocol that all food must be home cooked from whole food sources. But there are many products out there on the market that proudly exclaim they are “[insert your diet here] friendly”- and maybe technically are- but are still filled with additives that could be stalling your healing progress.
My recommendation is to not worry about picking the perfect therapeutic diet for your condition yet if you are just getting started. Really clean up your fridge and pantry first and get yourself in a sustainable pattern of eating only whole foods- then decide if you want to take the next step. This means eliminating foods that come from most restaurants, or that you pull off the grocery store shelves in a box, bag, package or bottle. It doesn’t mean you can never eat foods in these forms, but it should be a small minority of the food you consume and needs to be critically analyzed. Your grocery cart should be full of meat, eggs, dairy, fats, fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds in their whole form, as minimally processed as possible and bought as single ingredients.
Why is this step so essential before you embark on a deeper healing journey with food? Because this might be all you need to do to see major changes in your health! I am not a fan of restricting whole foods unnecessarily. So dedicate yourself to this foundational step first, and then assess what else is necessary.
Food additives, which are by definition non-food substances that we eat, make it into our meals if they are “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the FDA. What does this mean? In reality, it doesn’t mean a whole lot! The food industry is run with lots of money and politics at play. You will see that same additives defined as safe and then get taken back years later- and then being put on the safe list again! And this is usually not because new scientific evidence has surfaced. Rather, because of new lobbying campaigns and corporate interests getting involved.
We always want to look at food from an evolutionary perspective. What have our bodies been recognizing as food for millions of years- versus what have we been putting in our bodies for the last hundred years or so. This is a huge difference in time scale. And it has only been in the last hundred years that we have seen major upticks in what are known as “diseases of civilization” such as heart disease, diabetes, mental illness and neurological disorders, cancer, and autoimmune disease. Our bodies do not recognize these new additives as food on a cellular level, which sends a threat or invader signal to the nervous system. A negative cascade effect can spread to any system in the body from there.
So how do we begin getting these dangerous additives out of our diet? The first step is a mindset shift. Start viewing food additives for what they are: non foods! Equating them with eating plastic or other industrial by products is actually more accurate than viewing them as foods. Once you start viewing additives in this manner, it becomes much easier to mentally let go of products that may have been “comforts” in the past. A toxic substance to your body is never a true comfort.
The second is an action item. Start reading the ingredients lists on EVERYTHING. It is very easy to be fooled by colorful advertising imagery, or meaningless phrases like “artisan”, “natural” or “heart healthy”. But you do not actually know what is in it until you turn that package over and read the actual ingredients list. Be prepared for a shock!
There are some great, simple skills you can start to cultivate when assessing ingredients lists. A wonderful outline of these skills is provided by Mira Dessy’s book “The Pantry Principle”. It has a comprehensive overview of the history and current state of food additives, as well as practical tools to help you learn how to assess your food purchases for toxin load. If you want to dive deep into this subject, “The Pantry Principle” is a well researched guide. In the mean time, here are some basic tips:
If you don’t know what an ingredient is, or you can’t pronounce it- don’t eat it. Similarly, don’t eat any ingredient that includes numbers, capitol letters, or a chemical sounding name. Just this simple step will reduce the toxic burden in your food consumption immensely! Things like Red 40, BHA, benzoates, sorbates, and many others will automatically be eliminated, all of which have research indicating their problematic effects on the human body.
The second step will be to look for anything that says “coloring” “flavoring” (yes, even if they are “natural”), “enriched”, “fortified”, “low/reduced fat” or “fat free”. These all indicate that the products either has unnecessary additives or that the food has undergone extensive industrial processing. Once a food has been heavily processed or enriched with synthetic ingredients, it can become an irritant to the nervous system as our bodies no longer recognize it as food.
The third step will be to look for refined seed oils and added sugars as ingredients. These are food items that are totally new in the last hundred years with the construction of the industrialized world, and have well documented problematic effects on our cellular functioning, which can trickle all the way up to the day to day symptoms of mental and physical health problems. Here are some names to look out for:
Refined seed oils: soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, rapeseed oil, corn oil, anything that says “hydrogenated” or “refined”.
These oils under go intensive industrial processes for extraction and are highly unstable, especially under light and heat. These oils often go rancid quickly and are filled with chemical deodorizers to hide the unpleasant scent. Salad dressings, packaged snack foods, and restaurant foods are common sources of these problematic oils.
Added sugars: While eating a small amount of refined sugar on occasion is generally tolerated by healthy people, it is amazing how these little bits of refined sugars in various products can add up over the course of your day when you are not paying close attention to ingredients lists. Companies often list added sugar under many different names so that they do not appear to be high sugar products at first glance. Here are some common names of sugar in processed and packaged foods:
Agave nectar, Agave syrup, Beet sugar, Brown rice syrup, Brown sugar, Cane sugar, Carob syrup, Caster sugar, Confectioner’s sugar, Corn syrup, Date sugar, Date syrup, Demerara, Dextrose, Evaporated Cane Juice, Fruit juice concentrate, Golden syrup, Grape sugar, Grape syrup, High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), Invert sugar, Malt, Maltodextrin, Maltose, Molasses, Muscovado, Palm sugar, Panela, Rapadura, Rice syrup, Surcrose, Treacle, Turbinado, White sugar
These three steps will put you on a clear path towards healing with food. Before jumping into any type of therapeutic diet, building this foundation is essential. It doesn’t matter what “protocol” you are following- if the food you eat are adding to your overall toxic burden, your health will continue to be compromised on a cellular level.
The reality is, if you take these three steps seriously, you will find yourself mostly relying on simple, home cooked, whole food based meals for your fuel. And that is really the baseline of all healing work. I recommend dedicating yourself to a whole foods way of eating for at least several months before deciding if you need to dial things in further and commit to a more disciplined protocol.
An important thing missing in the book “The Pantry Principle” is the acknowledgement that depending on the complexity of your health issues, eating a balanced, whole foods diet might not be enough to put your symptoms into remission- and that’s okay. Sometimes with severe imbalance the body needs even greater support. Regardless of where you end up, however, this is the best place to get started on your journey.