Thinking about food for many people means thinking about their weight, but there’s so much more to it. Our eating habits are deeply engrained and not easy to change. Clearly, food plays a central role in our lives and wellbeing. We now know that almost all chronic diseases are in some form or shape related to our eating habits. Even conventional physicians are gradually recognizing that just counting calories, à la Weight Watchers, has very limited success in helping people achieve and maintain a healthy weight. But weight is only half the story. Certainly, keeping your weight in a healthy range has many tangible health benefits, but the quality of your food matters even more.

An interesting research study led by Christopher D. Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and published in JAMA, one of the top medical journals, confirmed the benefits of focusing on whole foods rather than calorie counting. To find out if genetics play a dominant role in weight gain and loss, a large number of overweight participants followed either a low-fat or a low-carb whole foods diet but needn’t worry about calories. They avoided processed foods and sugars. Participants in both groups were able to lose weight, some substantially (a few gained weight). It turned out that genotype and insulin levels were not the determining factors.

For most people a whole foods approach will be the foundation of good health. Here are the key points of this strategy:
Eliminate processed food as best you can. This is really where you will be making the biggest health gains. Processed food has lost a lot of its nutrients, is laced with chemicals used during farming and processing, and contains added sugars, salt, preservatives, coloring agents, etc. that you don’t want in your body. Return to foods in their original state, preferably organic, local and in season, and prepare your own dishes. If you’re used to TV dinners and take-out, this may be a steep learning curve. But don’t despair, there are lots of great resources to learn how to cook, from cookbooks to classes, or consider hiring a personal chef. Nothing beats your kitchen smelling of delicious food you’ve prepared.

What should you cook? Your home base will be a wide range of vegetables—think all the colors of the rainbow. Don’t overindulge in fruit, especially the sugary kind. If you’re not a vegan, choose your foods from animal sources carefully. Opt for grass-fed, pasture-raised and organic whenever possible. If you eat out, ask the chef where their meat is coming from. Same with seafood. If you don’t eat much or any foods from animals, you need to be more invested in having a wide range of ingredients in your dishes, not only high quality proteins but also healthy fats that are important for your hormones and nervous system.

Many people eat too much grain-based food. It’s a good idea to reduce grains, especially wheat, and opt more often for any of the ancient grains, including brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, millet and oats. Whole grains have more fiber and micronutrients than your typical bagel or breakfast cereal.

With all the publicity, it should be a no-brainer that beverages like soft drinks, fruit juices, caffeinated beverages, alcohol, etc. contain an enormous amount of so-called “empty” calories, so ditch them! Make filtered water and unsweetened herbal teas your main sources of hydration.

All these great strategies won’t be as effective if you don’t consider this last point: mindful eating. Cooking your own meal, your body has 20-30 minutes to prepare your digestive system for food. Sitting down in a quiet place and eating your meal unrushed and without distraction goes a long way toward feeling nourished and satisfied without overeating. Lastly, sharing meals with friends or family provides its own benefits that nourish your social bonds. Cooking with each other or for each other can be a great way of fostering happiness in your life.

© 2023 Christiane Siebert