Does your gut talk to your brain?

Sometimes, we have a “gut feeling” that maybe we shouldn’t be doing what we’re about to do. Sometimes, when we’ve been very scared we admit to our friends that we’ve been “shi***ng ourselves”. When we’re in love, we experience “butterflies in the stomach”. Some of our decisions are not thought through, but “gut reactions”, which doesn’t mean that they are bad decisions. They may be just the right thing to do. Our language has many such figures of speech, referring to the relationship between our emotions and the digestive system. But that’s all they are: figures of speech. Or are they?

In the last few years, science has rediscovered the gut-brain relationship as an area of research. The brain is one of our most secure organs, encased in bone, shielded by a membrane – the blood-brain-barrier – to protect it from undesirable substances that may be circulating in the blood. Via the nervous system, it collects information transmitted by our senses and reacts accordingly.

A12863500_photo_jpg_xs_clipdealer.de

Continue reading “Does your gut talk to your brain?”

Is the Paleo Diet the only diet that is right for humans?

 

A lot is being written and said about the blessings of the “Paleo Diet”, aka Stone Age Diet, Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Caveman Diet. Supporters claim that this is what we evolved to eat and that this is the path to follow, if we want to lead a long and healthy life.

So, what is the “Paleo Diet”? The idea is, in a nutshell, that our genes haven’t had time to adapt to a diet based on agricultural product. We evolved as hunter-gathers, and the foods available to us for millions of years were meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and occasionally wild honey. With the advent of agriculture, grains and dairy were added to the human diet and have become staples, meat from domesticated animals largely replaced game. However, if we squeezed the history of humans into 24 hours, agriculture has only been around for mere minutes.

It makes sense then, that going back to the roots, relying on fresh meat, fish, seafood, eggs, fruit, veg, nuts, and seeds, will do us good. And indeed it does: A lot of research has been done on the Paleo Diet, and the results sound promising. Subscribers to the Paleo Diet reportedly feel great, and many have been able to improve chronic conditions or even reverse disease. It seems that the Paleo Diet has a lot going for it.

A16234556_photo_jpg_xs_clipdealer.de

But (of course there’s a ‘but’) I have a few issues with it – before even going into whether or not the health benefits are real (I think they are, but that’s beside the point). Because the thing is: It is not sustainable. Even now our planet is struggling to provide the huge amounts of meat we are asking for. Even now, while many cultures around the world have a diet that is not based on meat – largely because they cannot afford it -, and even with factory-farming and mass-produced meat, Earth is struggling. If we were all to switch to the Paleo Diet, as allegedly we are designed to, this planet would definitely not be sufficient to feed us. For now though, this is the only planet we’ve got.

At the moment, of course, we’re ok. Rich Westerners can afford all the meat they want – but for how much longer? And isn’t it rather selfish to adopt this ‘natural diet’ at the expense of everyone else and ultimately the future of the planet?

These were the thoughts that were on my mind when I first read about Paleo. Although the concept sounded convincing, it also sounded all too simple. Did hunter-gatherers really eat meat every day? Where they always lucky enough to catch something? Did everyone, no matter where on Earth they lived, eat a similar diet? I was thinking of the Inuit today, whose diet is very low in fruit and veg, but high in meat and fish, because the Arctic climate doesn’t have much else to offer. Surely, the diet of mountain tribes would have differed greatly from those living in coastal areas

As it turns out, there never was one paleolithic diet. And even if we decide to go Paleo, it is impossible for anyone today to recreate the Stone Age Diet.

1) What they ate does not exist anymore

Everything available to us today is a product of agriculture, perhaps with the exception of game (even that is not necessarily as wild and un-tempered with as it was then). We have enhanced the size, shape, flavour and nutritious value of fruit and veg through cultivation and lately genetic modification. We get our meat from domesticated animals that are largely grain- or soya-fed, which has an impact of the fatty acid composition of the meat. We have to rely on fish from polluted oceans, we pasteurize honey.

2) We reject large parts of our ancestors’ diet

When it comes to food we – especially us in the Western world – are incredibly spoiled. We can go and buy what we want, when we want. And we can afford to reject what we don’t want. 50,000 years ago, humans would first have to catch something. They would then eat all the edible parts of the animal – including the intestine, thus enriching their own gut microbiome. If they weren’t able to catch anything, they might have had to rely on the scavenging of whatever the lions left behind or on meat from animals that had just died. They would have picked insect larvae from behind tree bark, and dug up bugs from the ground. None of that appeals very much to us today (although insects are coming back into the shops now).

3) They did actually eat wild grains and pulses

Stone tools – mortars and pestles – have been found that are 30,000 years old. Fossilised plaque from teeth shows abundant evidence of plant matter, including starches from fruits, grains, barley, tubers, and pulses.

4) There never was the Stone Age Diet

Just like I assumed before I read up on it, there were indeed multiple diets, as people had to make do with what they found wherever they lived. Our great advantage as a species is our flexibility and adaptability, which allows us to thrive on all sorts of different diets.

What’s the bottom line?

There is no doubt that the paleo diet has its merits, particularly for people suffering from chronic illness, especially auto-immune diseases. If you are sick, it is worth a try and it can be very beneficial. But it certainly is not the only road to good health: Studies find again and again, that people on vegetarian and vegan diets are at lower risk of chronic diseases. The Mediterranean Diet, too, gets very good reviews and results, especially – but not solely – in the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure.

What those diets have in common is that they all rely on natural, whole foods – or at least as natural and unprocessed as they can be in this day and age. It is important to eat a varied diet with as many different foods as possible. The wider your variety of foods, the wider the range of nutrients you are getting from them.

Eat fresh! The whole point of preserved foods is to prevent bacterial growth. Might such foods then have an impact of the good bacteria in your gut? They may well do.

All of these diets – paleo, vegan (or even ‘pegan’, a combination of the two), vegetarian, Mediterranean or other natural, wholefood diets – are rich in fibre. Low-fibre diets are associated with digestive disorders, diabetes and obesity.

Yes, the paleo approach works, but it isn’t the only one that works. If you need to eat paleo to be healthy, then by all means do it, but you may not need to. You may be able to live a long and healthy life on a diet that the planet will be able to deliver. For ALL of us, not just the rich countries, and FOREVER, not just now.

For more on the real paleo diet, watch this TED talk by archeogeneticist Christina Warinner.

Interesting articles here from The Guardian, National Geographic and Scientific American.

 

 

What’s the deal with quinoa?

 

It’s not new – even outside of South America -, and it has been around for a few years now, but have you tried quinoa (pronounced: keen-wah) yet? Yes, I know it has a bit of a health-nut and trendy reputation now, but if you can get past that you might find that it is a great addition to your larder.

First of all, it’s not a grain, even though it is often listed among the grains, or at least in the ‘starchy carb’ category. Quinoa is a ‘pseudo-cereal’, but really it’s a seed, just like buckwheat.

Couscous with vegetables

Continue reading “What’s the deal with quinoa?”

Enjoying the processed?

When asked what ‘processed foods’ are, most of us would probably think of ready meals, biscuits, crisps and other snack foods, chips, pizzas, fizzy drinks and the like.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “processed foods” are “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”

This definition seems to include pretty much anything we eat. Even if we do own a farm or garden, we never really eat anything completely unprocessed, even if we are consuming our food raw: We’ll wash and chop lettuce, we’ll shell and chop nuts, we’ll crack and whisk an egg. Usually our home-processing would go further than that: We’ll chop, whisk, blend, cook – and yes, we might also can, freeze, dehydrate or mill at home and throughout history, home-processing did not seem to cause any major health problems.

young woman shopping

Such problems arose only once we started processing foods on an industrial scale. Additives are now used to save money, prolong shelf life, preserve colour and texture despite processing, make sure that the same brand of food always tastes the same – and this doesn’t apply just to packaged food, but also restaurant chain foods. The food industry invests a lot of time and money into research to make sure that they find the “bliss point”: the right combination of sugar, salt and fat that will make the product irresistible to consumers.

Why do we like them?

And those efforts do indeed pay off. We struggle to resist donuts, crisps, chocolate, cheese or our favourite brand of lasagne. In part, this is due to our brain’s “reward system”. For our species to survive and prosper, we need to eat and procreate, so when we eat or have sex, we feel pleasure and are encouraged to do that again. Sweet and/or fatty foods are rich energy sources, so we evolved to particularly like them. When we eat sweet or fatty foods, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine causes us to feel pleasure. It is, in fact, the same neurotransmitter that is released when we use recreational drugs and plays an important role in addiction. The problem is that when we evolved, sugar was hard to find. It’s not anymore.

Another reason why we struggle to say no to our favourite processed foods is that we grew up liking them. Taste preferences begin to form in the womb, are transferred through breast milk after birth – influenced by what the mother is eating – and then by what we are fed as babies and toddlers. Once formed, they become habits that are hard, but not impossible, to break.

Why shouldn’t we like them?

Industrially processed foods are thought to be at the root of most of our common chronic health problems today. They contain more salt and sugar than we are designed to tolerate, trans-fats, which we are not meant to be consuming at all, and a mix of additives that may perhaps have been tested and passed as safe individually, but nobody could ever test for all possible combinations.

Obesity, ADHD, heart disease, auto-immune diseases (including diabetes II, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancers have been associated with processed foods.

 

What is ‘processed’ to you?

The American writer Megan Kimble decided that an acceptable level of processing for her is what she could – at least in theory – do herself. People who decide to “eat clean” may not eat anything that has a nutrition label, some don’t buy products with more than five ingredients (all of which they can pronounce). The German doctor Max-Otto Bruker said: “Do not eat anything that is being advertised.” And if you think about it, when did you last see a commercial for apples, nuts, or cauliflower?

Despite our evolutionary predisposition and our early childhood experiences, we can learn to love real foods by forming new habits. Strangely, we seem to think that the food industry provides a lot of choice, but really it doesn’t. Processed foods focus on satisfying our reward system by supplying sweetness, saltiness and fat, paired with a certain texture that researchers have found is well received. The world of real foods offers actual variety, and frequent exposure will help appreciate it and form new healthy eating habits.

People who prefer healthy foods (which doesn’t mean that they never eat chocolate or ice cream) don’t feel deprived and they don’t need willpower. Fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, eggs, yoghurt, fresh fish, seafood and meat are their preference, which makes healthy eating effortless. Anyone can achieve that by retraining their taste buds. Just keep trying new, nutrilicious foods. Why not look at it as an adventure that will broaden your horizon?

For more on food processing and convenience, read my tomorrow’s newsletter, Nutrilicious News. There is still time to subscribe. Of course it’s completely free!

Have a glowing 2016!

The festivities are over, and here we are with a brand new year! The New Year is a great time for fresh starts, and in January most of us don’t even mind giving our bodies a break after all the indulgences of Christmas. Maybe now would be a good time for a gentle detox.

Freedom

We don’t think about our liver very much, least of all in December, and yet it is such a busy and efficient organ. It is the body’s chemical factory that builds and recycles substances we need and breaks down those we don’t. About 4 pints of blood pass through the liver every day, and a healthy liver is able to filter up to 99% of bacteria and toxins from the blood. Said toxins do not just enter the body from the air, water and food we take in, but also occur as normal waste products generated by a healthy metabolism. Continue reading “Have a glowing 2016!”

Fresh into 2016

With Christmas and the Christmas Party Season behind us, most of us have by now had their fill with rich food and alcohol. But one great party night – New Year’s Eve – is still ahead of us. Yes, most of us will have a few drinks – again -, but armed with a few tips, you may be able to welcome 2016 as fresh as a daisy anyway.

Tired woman sleeping on the coach at office
Probably the most common symptoms of a hangover are headache and thirst, closely followed by tiredness, listlessness and sensitivity to light and/or noise. Many feel nauseous and dizzy, some experience diarrhoea. Other possible symptoms are anxiety, depression, moodiness and irritability, not to speak of the very common ‘blackout’ – alcohol induced temporary amnesia. Altogether not a pretty picture. Nobody wants to feel like this, and yet we keep inflicting this avoidable condition on ourselves time and time again. Continue reading “Fresh into 2016”

Last Minute Tips for a healthier Christmas

Christmas is all about families spending time together, and food and drink are of course a major component of our biggest holiday of the year. There’ll be mince pies and ginger bread, salmon, turkey and stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, parsnips and carrots, Christmas pudding and brandy butter, Stilton and cheese biscuits, champagne and port … Who could possibly say no? I’m not expecting you to – I’m sure you’ve already been following my tips for the party season, so you’re all set up to get back into your healthy routine in January without any effort – but here are some last minute tips on how to survive Christmas itself:

  1. Breakfast

Have breakfast on Christmas morning, even if you are tempted to skip it, with the calories of Christmas dinner in mind. Your blood sugar levels will be low first thing in the morning, and having a healthy breakfast helps balancing your blood sugar, so you won’t end up starving and overeating by the time Christmas dinner comes along.

Christmas tangerines

  1. Fill half your plate with non-starchy veg

Non-starchy vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower, should cover half your plate – always, not just at Christmas. You can even pile those high! Your source of protein – most likely turkey – should only take up a quarter, with the other quarter being shared by starchy vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips and carrots (not piled high!).

  1. Chew!

As Gillian McKeith used to keep saying: “Your stomach has no teeth”, and neither has your small intestine. Chewing increases the surface area of your food, giving digestive enzymes better access, thus improving digestion. It’ll also cause you to eat more slowly, so that you have a chance to notice when you are full.

  1. Sample the Christmas Pudding

Christmas pudding is not only rich, but also quite high in saturated fats. You may find that a thin slice will do you just fine. Sometimes a little taster is all we need. You can always go back for seconds if it doesn’t satisfy you after all.

Go for a walk – come rain or shine
Getting out of the house – even if briefly – has got to be a good thing. With the gym closed, you’ll miss out on your exercise, but a brisk walk in the fresh air will make up for some of that. Find a walking buddy – sometimes the best conversations happen when out walking.

 

  1. Stay hydrated

There might be alcohol on offer over Christmas. Alcohol has a diuretic effect, and it is dehydration that is ultimately the underlying reason for hangovers. Make sure to drink a glass of water between alcoholic drinks. That way, you can ensure to remain hydrated and pace your drinking at the same time.

 

  1. Take a break

 

With all that rich food at Christmas, sugary snacks and alcohol, your liver will be working hard over the next few days, and with New Year’s Eve in sight, it soon will again. Why not use the few days between Christmas and the New Year to give your liver a break? Try saying no to alcohol over those days and top up your antioxidants by adding a green smoothie and/or a raw salad per day to your diet. The more colours you can get into your salad, the better, as different colours represent different plant nutrients. Go to bed early to give your liver the opportunity to detox – as that’s when it does most of its work.

 

  1. Schedule your return to the gym – and your healthy diet

 

It can be hard to get going again after an exercise break – whether that’s due to a cold, a holiday or the Christmas break. According to the American happiness expert Gretchen Rubin, it helps to schedule your return to the gym, to literally write it into your diary. If you need something even more compelling, consider booking a personal training session or arrange to go with a friend.

The same strategy might apply to your diet: While I wouldn’t advise you to throw all your healthy habits overboard for the festive period, you could set a date on which you will return to healthy eating.

If you need help, why not subscribe to my 14-day Online Gentle Detox Programme starting in January? Click here for details!