"I'm not going to tell you to stop eating bread, because you love it," my homeopath told me. This is a very important aspect of diet - food is a sensory and psychological experience, and if eating becomes about "giving up" the things you love and only eating foods you don't enjoy, then you begin to lose one of the great pleasures of life. My diet is not pristine, and that is not a goal for me. Modifying my eating so that I can develop a rapport with my body, and feel what my core health responds to, is my strategy. There are times when I can absorb "junk" food comfortably, when I can eat sweets or drink alcohol and still feel well, and times when all I want is kale and kimchee! And of course, there are times when I am feeling the latter but still go for the former; most of us occasionally choose to pay the price for an indulgence. The key, for me, is recognizing when I am doing that. If I woke up after a late night of drinking and socializing, and couldn't identify the reason that I felt off, that would concern me.
I prefer the "add, substitute, subtract" approach to diet modification. I add things that are missing, I experiment with substitutes for things I enjoy in the moment that seem to have negative effects on my body, and I eventually subtract the stuff that makes me feel bad later, or makes my symptoms worse. Here are four adds, three substitutes, and three subtracts, for a total of ten tricks to a healthier diet:
- Nettle infusion. Nettles can be purchased at the health food store, or online (you can harvest stinging nettles yourself, of course, but I have had some painful experiences). Nettles contain calcium, magnesium, potassium, silicon, boron, zinc, and vitamins A, D, E, and K. I find that they taste a bit strong, so I add some raw honey (I order mine in bulk from Honey Gardens, which makes it very economical), and I drink it in the afternoon when I might otherwise go for a cup of tea.
- Grated salad, or some sprouts. It is easy and cheap to make your own sprouts, either from sprouting seeds purchased at the natural food store or from organic lentils. Sprouts are a terrific source of vitamin C, as well as A and B-complex. I make a grated salad in the food processor, with carrots, cabbage, daikon radish, and sometimes beets (or whatever else sounds good to you), add some dulse flakes for the iodine (you can buy sea salt with dulse in it, which is a natural iodized salt), and then I dress it with miso ginger dressing. To make this dressing, combine 2T brown rice miso, 2T soy sauce, 1/4C olive oil or sesame oil, 2T rice vinegar or ume plum vinegar, 1T grated ginger, 2 cloves chopped garlic, 1t chile paste. Run the whole thing through the blender or food processor; I make a larger batch and save it, because I use it on everything. It is excellent on:
- Fish salad. Instead of tuna (I have enough mercury already with a mouth full of amalgam fillings), I buy canned Alaskan sockeye salmon and smoked kippered herring. I flake this into a bowl with chopped celery, red onion if you like it, sea salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and a splash of red wine vinegar, and some fresh curry powder (this is also fun and easy to make in a coffee grinder).
- Fermented veggies, such as Bubbies or Real Pickles sauerkraut, beets, carrots or kimchee. These foods are extremely high in a variety of beneficial bacteria, which will help balance gut flora. Plus, they taste really good. There are a lot to choose from, mostly available at the natural food store in the refrigerator case. Be careful to select fermented, and not pickled foods - pickled foods are preserved in vinegar and do not contain active microbes. Experiment until you find some that work for you.
- Instead of canned soup, make miso. Buy high-quality, organic miso, such as Miso Master or South River; there are recipes right on the container. Just carrots and garlic are all you need to make a satisfying, light soup, in about 10 minutes.
- Instead of cookies or bread, if you are craving sugar because you need some energy in the afternoon, keep some home-made energy bars in the freezer. I make mine in the food processor. Use dates, cashews, almonds, raw honey and unsweetened coconut; use them in that order and adjust the quantities until you have a flavor and texture that you like.
- Instead of canned beans, use dried. This takes a little planning, but not much. Buy organic, dried beans at the natural food store, and rehydrate them overnight in a slightly acidic medium (add a splash of fresh lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, raw milk or whey to the soaking water). I leave mine to soak until they have started to sprout, occasionally changing the water. Once they are soaked, I bag them and put them in the freezer until I want to use them; they can be "recipe-ready" in an hour on the stove. By soaking your beans, you make them more digestible and release more of the nutrients than are available in canned beans, plus you avoid the added sodium and preservatives in canned beans (not to mention the BPA in the can linings).
- Prepared foods with preservatives. All those weird ingredients are, well, weird, and the body has to put a lot of energy into processing and detoxing them. We lack an evolved mechanism for digesting them, because they are so new to our food. They are usually very expensive anyway - if you are spending that kind of money you can hit the buffet at Whole Foods. A better way to handle a quick meal is to use the freezer; even if you are not in the habit of making meals and freezing them ahead there are many preservative-free options in the freezer case. It makes a lot of sense to cook extra and freeze it if you have the space, though.
- Stop eating CAFO meats. It is true that organic, free-range food is more expensive. I will tell you that I know a lot of independent, organic and ecological farmers personally, and these folks are not driving Maseratis and laughing all the way to the bank when you pay $8/lbs for beef. I cringe when I hear folks at the natural food store ranting about the produce prices. Supply and demand drive all prices, of course, and if the consumers won't pay then the farmers won't be able to sell. But they also won't be able to grow the stuff; the margins are very slim and the producers and retailers aren't making a killing on this. They are often barely making a living. I could write a whole research paper on what makes the conventional alternatives cheaper, involving fillers, cheap drugs and your tax dollars at work. But I won't. I will just say that you do not want to eat anything that would kill a vulture. So buy fancy meat, and if it is too expensive, just buy less. Buy different cuts. I use a lot of soup bones, or I get overage from friends who have game meat. And lentils are cheap and really tasty.
- Avoid the "Dirty Dozen" conventionally farmed produce items (this list and these descriptions are from The Daily Green, but you can find it lots of places): 1. Celery Celery has no protective skin, which makes it almost impossible to wash off the chemicals (64 of them!) that are used on crops. Buy organic celery, or choose alternatives like broccoli, radishes, and onions.
- 2. Peaches Multiple pesticides (as many as 62 of them) are regularly applied to these delicately skinned fruits in conventional orchards. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include watermelon, tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit.
- 3. Strawberries If you buy strawberries, especially out of season, they're most likely imported from countries that have less-stringent regulations for pesticide use. 59 pesticides have been detected in residue on strawberries. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include kiwi and pineapples.
- 4. Apples Like peaches, apples are typically grown with poisons to kill a variety of pests, from fungi to insects. Tests have found 42 different pesticides as residue on apples. Scrubbing and peeling doesn't eliminate chemical residue completely, so it's best to buy organic when it comes to apples. Peeling a fruit or vegetable also strips away many of their beneficial nutrients. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include watermelon, bananas, and tangerines.
- 5. Blueberries New on the Dirty Dozen list in 2010, blueberries are treated with as many as 52 pesticides, making them one of the dirtiest berries on the market.
- 6. Nectarines With 33 different types of pesticides found on nectarines, they rank up there with apples and peaches among the dirtiest tree fruit. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include, watermelon, papaya, and mango.
- 7. Bell peppers Peppers have thin skins that don't offer much of a barrier to pesticides. They're often heavily sprayed with insecticides. (Tests have found 49 different pesticides on sweet bell peppers.) Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include green peas, broccoli, and cabbage.
- 8. Spinach New on the list for 2010, spinach can be laced with as many as 48 different pesticides, making it one of the most contaminated green leafy vegetable.
- 9. Kale Traditionally, kale is known as a hardier vegetable that rarely suffers from pests and disease, but it was found to have high amounts of pesticide residue when tested this year. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include cabbage, asparagus, and broccoli.
- 10. Cherries Even locally grown cherries are not necessarily safe. In fact, in one survey in recent years, cherries grown in the U.S. were found to have three times more pesticide residue then imported cherries. Government testing has found 42 different pesticides on cherries. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include raspberries and cranberries.
- 11. Potatoes America's popular spud reappears on the 2010 Dirty Dozen list, after a year hiatus. America's favorite vegetable can be laced with as many as 37 different pesticides. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include eggplant, cabbage, and earthy mushrooms.
- 12. Grapes Imported grapes run a much greater risk of contamination than those grown domestically. Only imported grapes make the 2010 Dirty Dozen list. Vineyards can be sprayed with different pesticides during different growth periods of the grape, and no amount of washing or peeling will eliminate contamination because of the grape's thin skin. Remember, wine is made from grapes, which testing shows can harbor as many as 34 different pesticides. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include kiwi and raspberries.
So there are ten tips. I tried to pick things that are fairly simple to do; certainly there are lots of other things a person can do to adjust his or her diet. I have a long way to go. But first, I need to eat some liver.