Food is the first to hurt and the first to help.
Fundamental to most everything I treat is how my patients care for themselves. In fact, the longer I am in clinical practice the more convinced I am that lifestyle will always offset even the best medical intervention. And what is often most within my patients’ control to change is how they choose to nourish their bodies. Unfortunately, there is so much conditioning and misinformation these days about food that a big part of my role in working with patients is to get back to basics and help them rediscover a deeper understanding and connection with their food. And the very first step in that process is doing a 7-day Food-Mood Journal to see where they are at with their choices and help them make connections between those choices and how they feel in their bodies.
Here is how it works. For 5-7 days, you write down:
- What you ate and drank;
- When you ate and drank;
- How you felt after you ate and drank-- any physical, mental, emotional symptoms regardless of whether you think they are food related or not. This is the all-important Mood part;
- And Why you ate and drank what you ate and drank-- i.e. tired, hungry, thirsty, bored, lonely, etc.
For example: Tuesday 8am cereal with milk, coffee. Hungry. Bloated afterwards. 8:15am loose bowel movement. 10am protein bar. Low energy and headache, anxious.
When you bring me your 7-day Food-Mood Journal, we go over the What in great detail. What did you eat and drink for each meal and for snacks? And how can we modify your choices to not just be better for your health, but also realistic for your daily life? There is no point in giving you goals you cannot achieve.
- If you are going through drive-thru’s and eating Big Macs, why not hit a Subway instead? And once you get comfortable with that, go get some fresh cooked food at a Whole Foods prepared food section.
- If you are snacking on muffins and coffee, why not bring carrots and celery with peanut butter to the office and have a cup of tea instead?
- If you are eating various shades of yellow and white foods, start exploring all the colors on the spectrum.
- If you need coffee to wake up in the morning, until we can successfully address your sleep issues, double up on your black tea bags in your morning cup to equal the same amount of caffeine in your coffee.
See my Basic Food Guidelines for a more detailed list of the What, including ZERO Coffee, ZERO Dairy and minimal sugar. For 800+ healthy and delicious recipe ideas, check out my Pinterest page!
I attended a conference a few years ago on Brain Repair and Addiction with all these noted Ph.D.’s and researchers discussing neurotransmitters and the use of amino acids to help patients through withdrawals and addiction recovery. But the single best piece of advice all weekend came from a nurse who said, “Get your patients to eat breakfast. And once they do that regularly, get them to eat three meals a day.” Brilliant and simple! Messing with your blood sugar levels is a slippery slope toward poor eating habits, disease, depression, self-medication and addiction.
Every grandmother on Earth is right: breakfast is the most important meal of the day! If you skip breakfast, your lunch becomes your breakfast and your dinner becomes your lunch; you are at a deficit all day and are desperately trying to catch up to your body’s energetic needs. We all know what it feels like when our energy crashes: we can’t think clearly, we are irritable and anxious, and at the next meal we choose poorly, eat quickly and are tired for the rest of the day as our bellies scream at us with displeasure!
Another common When problem is eating late at night, within 3 hours of going to sleep. It takes 2-3 hours for food to pass through your stomach. When we eat too late and then lie down to sleep, we don’t digest well, are prone to heartburn or acid reflux, have dream-disturbed sleep, and gain weight easily. So if your schedule is such that you are hungry when you get home from your work day, choose something light to eat like a piece of fruit, some soup, something easy to digest and satiating. It will satisfy your hunger, stabilized your blood sugar, and will not interfere with your sleep.
- How often?: Do you skip meals or wait too long in between meals? Grazing with three substantive meals and a couple of quality snacks is a good way to go.
- How much?: It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to begin to distend upon eating, which sends a message to your brain telling it that you are getting full. So if you eat your entire meal within 20 minutes, chances are you overate.
- How quickly?: Digestion begins in your mouth as you break apart food and coat it with saliva, which contains a digestive enzyme called amylase. Even the best food choices will be hard to digest if you swallow them whole. Try chewing each bite 20-30 times. The food will actually dissolve in your mouth!
- How you felt after you ate: This is where the first “A-Ha” moments come. When you can begin to equate your eating habits with how you feel, you have just taken your first step toward changing your life and learning to be empowered. Sometimes it is obvious, and sometimes it is not. In my own personal case, I had been having “mysterious” indigestion every single day at 3pm regardless of what I ate for lunch. I had 3 months of acupuncture and herbs all to no avail. It was not until I was away on vacation eating a different breakfast that I had my epiphany. My breakfast cereal was causing my problems. By then, I had been off dairy for 6 or 7 months, so I knew it had to be the cereal itself. I don’t think it was the grains or the wheat. I think it was the fact that cereal is basically dead food; it is uncooked, hard and lifeless. Starting the day with such energy-vacuous food somehow set the stage for my lunch to trigger my indigestion. I switched to oatmeal or brown rice and all my indigestion went away! Once again I realized that there is no such thing as “healthy” food, only healthy food for you. And you don’t get to that understanding until you think critically about your choices and how they affect your health.
Satisfy the body’s need and the mind’s want will disappear. If you are cold and I give you that beautiful watch you are craving, I could give you 12 beautiful watches and it would never warm you up. Instead, if I give you a nice thick winter coat, how important do those watches become? You now begin to see them for what they are: a distraction and compensation.
There is no more challenging question to answer than the Why we eat what we eat. Do we eat because we are lonely, sad, angry, or stressed? Do we “reward” ourselves with supposed “comfort” foods? Have you ever noticed that the foods we define as “comfort” foods are typically fattening, rich, and heavy? Do you consciously or unconsciously choose foods that are harmful in order to reinforce a negative self-image?
Or let’s go even less deep dark wound-like. Are you, like most of us, a product of effective marketing and cultural propaganda? Do you think dairy builds strong bones? “Milk: it does a body good,” right? Do you believe that coffee is a healthy way to deliver anti-oxidants? Scientific research proves otherwise.
As you build your food awareness, you begin to unravel and disentangle your life-long deeply ingrained relationship with your food. You begin to understand the Why. And once you do, you then have the opportunity to make a conscious choice: to re-define comfort food as food that actually nourishes you and gives you energy rather than robbing you of it and damping down your inner feelings.
Where to Begin
Just because I have some letters after my name, don’t believe me. Believe your own experience in your body. Here is the step-by-step process that I have found works best for my patients:
- Start a Food-Mood Journal for at least 5 days. Think critically about EVERYTHING you eat. Begin to answer all the questions above;
- Be honest with yourself, consider what your mind is telling you with a grain of salt, but trust your body’s wisdom-- it is never wrong;
- Once you have identified some of your most problematic eating habits, take a look at my article, The Five Stages of Better Food Choices. This explains the natural evolution that you will likely go through as you commit to making better food choices culminating with your taste buds changing, liberating yourself from the darkness of confusion into the light of awareness.
I have found, personally and through my work with patients, that when you identify harmful foods, you must go cold turkey for at least 4 weeks for your body to begin to recover. Adding dirt to a glass of dirty water, you will not notice the dirt. But add dirt to a glass of clean water, you will certainly notice the dirt! Then after 4 weeks, if you are still curious about that food, re-introduce it and only it and then note how you feel. Welcome to awareness! THAT is how coffee or dairy actually makes you feel! There is no turning back now!
For Step 2, please read my article Building a Pantry: Cultivating Awareness, Step 2. Yep! It's time to start cooking!!
When you need further assistance, come and see me. We can just address your food and if more intervention is needed, we can begin a course of Chinese Medicinal herbs and Acupuncture. I am always happy to help.
For additional support, these are my favorite resources for nutrition information:
- The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, a leading epidemiologist in the US who participated in the largest study on food and disease ever conducted. Too much animal protein!! A very enlightening and compelling read all about the What!
- In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” It does not get any simpler than that! Covers the What, the When and the How.
- Mindful Eating, by Jan Chozen Bays, MD. A pediatrician and Zen teacher who identifies 7 Types of Hunger. The book comes loaded with practical awareness building exercises and a CD of useful meditations. All about the Why!
- www.NutritionFacts.org: A website from Dr. Michael Greger who creates short easy-to-understand videos commenting on nutrition research. Uses science to uncover the What.
- www.DrMcDougall.com: A website from Dr. John McDougall, a western trained physician with over 30 years of experience in nutrition and disease. Plenty of the What.