There are several lab tests I recommend for every woman to assess how her eating habits are impacting her health. The first two measure blood sugar levels directly; the third is related and was discussed earlier in relation to heart health. I recommend that you ask your health care practitioner to work with you to get these tests and interpret the results.
1. Insulin response test. Also known as a glucose tolerance test, this measures both your fasting blood sugar and your insulin levels one and two hours after consuming a 75-gram glucose drink. Since fasting insulin levels will be the first thing to become abnormal with a high-sugar inflammatory diet—long before your blood sugar starts to change and long before diabetes can be diagnosed—this test is really valuable as an early warning that you can do something about! An alternative is to purchase a glucometer yourself and test your own blood sugar. Fasting blood sugar should be 70 to 85 mg/dl. And two hours after eating, you don’t want your sugar to go any higher than 120 mg/dl.
2. Haemoglobin A1C. This test measures your average blood sugar over the prior six-week period. Anything over 5.5 percent is considered elevated. Over 6.0 percent is diabetes.
3. NMR lipid profile. This is the most up-to-date way to test your cholesterol. Unlike the standard but obsolete lipid profile, this test identifies the particle number and particle size of each type of cholesterol, LDL and HDL, as well as giving you a triglyceride count. The NMR lipid profile can be obtained only through LabCorp or LipoScience. Ideally you’ll want to work with a health care practitioner who understands nutritional and functional medicine to help you interpret and act on your results.
How to Avoid Food Addiction
Are you a sugar addict? A sugar-fat-and-white-flour craver? Or are you addicted to a different type of treat? Notice the foods that “sing” to you—the ones you’re tempted to overeat. One of my friends recently posted on Facebook that she was finally facing up to her chocolate addiction. She’s realizing that when it comes to chocolate, she can’t eat it in moderation, whether it’s organic cocoa nibs or a chocolate bar. She knows that the only answer is to go cold turkey and never eat it again. Announcing it publicly is helping her gain the support she needs to stick to her decision. For others, the addictive food might be mashed potatoes, or brown rice, or anything salty. If you’re tempted to overeat a food, it’s probably addictive for you. Don’t battle yourself and your cravings—just avoid the food completely. If it’s hard for you to commit to that, decide to avoid the food for at least a month and then see what happens. Getting it out of your system and breaking the habit might make you realize that you’d rather be free of the addiction than continue to fight it. If you’ve been addicted to sugar, you’re likely to find that fruits and vegetables taste much sweeter than they did before because you’ve down-regulated your sweet taste receptors. And by eating more natural foods and ensuring you get enough blood sugar–stabilizing protein, you will retrain your taste buds to appreciate real foods and your cravings will be reduced too. If you don’t deal with the feelings that drive you to look to foods for life’s sweetness, to caffeinated beverages to get energy, and to a bottle of spirits to find Spirit, your underlying issues will make you crave these substances again.
It’s well established that food manufacturers tinker with the chemistry of foods to make them more addictive. Knowing this, be conscientious about choosing which foods to eat—and be honest with yourself about whether you really can handle them in moderation or if you have to let them go altogether. The only long-term, sustainable cure for food addiction is to generate natural feel-good chemicals in your body and at the same time work on your emotional body and the issues of your soul. Then you can align with the goddess within you. If you have very powerful cravings for sweets, there are two reasons. The first is that you ate something for breakfast that spiked your blood sugar temporarily. After that breakfast bagel sends your blood sugar up, it inevitably comes down in a blood sugar crash. The second reason is that your taste buds have become used to all the highly processed foods out there that have thrown off your gut flora balance and your brain chemistry. As you eat healthier foods, you’ll crave sugar less. Then a handful of berries really will satisfy you in a way that a cupcake or ice cream won’t. And if what you’re really craving is the sweetness of life, go outside, sit in the sun under a tree, and have a conversation with someone who makes you laugh. By now you know there are plenty of ways to experience pleasure without reaching for a substance that will spike your mood artificially. And if you love your soda pop, you’ll have to cut that out. It’s liquid candy and it’s common to be addicted to it. Don’t drink the diet versions, either; they use artificial sweeteners and trick your brain into craving real sugars. Diet soda with aspartame has been linked to obesity, probably because that no-calorie drink tends to make you crave something like a high-calorie piece of bread with a sugary spread on it, or a cookie. But aspartame is also an excitotoxin that kills brain cells and is associated with everything from seizures to multiple sclerosis.
Many women become addicted to caffeinated diet colas and mistakenly believe that because these beverages have no calories and less caffeine than coffee, they are no problem. Wrong! Drink water as your main beverage. If you want a little variety or fizz, try some natural mineral water, or put a slice of lime or lemon in your water, or drink a little seltzer with juice flavouring or fresh mint and stevia (which is low calorie) or herbal tea. You have plenty of choices. Don’t make regular soda or diet soda one of them. As for alcohol—and yes, alcohol is a sugar—it’s not going to kill you to have wine once in a while, but are you having it once in a while? Be honest. You don’t need it, and it has a greater downside than upside. If you’re telling yourself that research shows moderate drinkers live longer and enjoy better health, remember there are plenty of things those healthy, long-living wine drinkers could be doing that simply correlate with drinking a little alcohol. It’s probably the relaxation time on the porch, or the time spent with friends, that makes their drinking health-protective. The fact is that even moderate alcohol use significantly increases the risk of breast cancer. Thousands of women “run for the cure” and wear pink wristbands, yet they drink enough wine to double their risk! And recent studies have indicated that most women are not interested in hearing about the alcohol–breast cancer connection. Alcohol, which can be highly addictive, is also a depressant. What’s more, when your oestrogen levels are low during perimenopause or after menopause—or during the few days before your period—alcohol is especially effective at lowering your mood by depressing your brain chemistry. What is your mood before, during, and after drinking? Do you need the drink to find the courage to be charming and witty, to dance on the bar or flirt with a stranger, or to say no to someone else’s idea of what should give you pleasure? Ageless goddesses don’t need an excuse to have fun! If you’re a recovering alcoholic, avoid sugar. It will trigger cravings for alcohol and depress your brain chemistry. Don’t substitute one for the other. And keep in mind that alcohol, like other sugars, also worsens and even causes hot flashes.
Grain Brain and Wheat Belly
The culprit is probably grain, as two terrific books—Grain Brain by neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D. (Little, Brown, 2013), and Wheat Belly by William Davis, M.D. (Rodale, 2011)—explain in detail. For most of human history, people ate very few grains—perhaps a little wheat, barley, rye, kamut, spelt, and other grains that grew here and there. People weren’t planting and harvesting crops, so these grains weren’t a major part of their diet. When the agricultural age came in thousands of years ago, we started eating considerably more grains and our bodies adjusted to them—to some degree. But as Dr. Perlmutter explains in Grain Brain, using glucose from grains as our brain’s primary energy source, and using grains as our primary food source, is not ideal. As I said earlier in the chapter, fats are brain food: it’s better to fuel our brain cells and the mitochondria, or power stations, within them by using dietary fats, mostly from plants. All that grain in our diets—even when it’s eaten in whole form, with the hull mostly intact—turns to glucose and acts like sugar in the body and brain. The extra sugar from grains is also stored as excess fat in the body. Cattle are fed grain to fatten them for market; our bodies grow fat on grain too. There’s increasing evidence that most of the diseases we’re experiencing in the West lately, from cancer to autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s, and autism, are caused by inflammation related to our diets. Think about how you eat grain. Are you eating a whole-grain slice of bread smothered in honey or concentrated fruit spread for breakfast or a snack? Cereal with dried fruit? Do you have grains at most meals in place of vegetables? You’ve probably taught your brain to run on regular, not premium, fuel.
Another reason we’re not doing well with grain in our diets is because we changed the grain after World War II. Most of us are eating what’s called dwarf wheat, which was introduced to alleviate starvation around the world because it’s very high yield. It’s also very high in gluten—and we all know someone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Many people are now gluten intolerant to some degree. Eating so much of this new wheat that’s highly processed and loaded with gluten, in addition to all the refined sugar and toxins we’re consuming, has tipped the scales. These aren’t Grandma’s grains. And you’ll have plenty to eat without bread, cereal, and pasta made from wheat in your diet. You won’t miss bread and pasta if you’re getting a little sugar from fruits and natural sweeteners and eating plenty of healthy fats and fresh foods, because your food will taste good and you’ll enjoy it. You really don’t need grains at all as long as you’re eating plenty of vegetables and getting healthy fats to feed your brain.
A Little Healthy Protein Goes a Long Way
Healthy protein keeps blood sugar stable, and protein sources that contain fat provide essential fuel for the brain. And you don’t need a lot of protein—about 45 grams a day. A serving of meat, which is three ounces and the size of your palm, has about 21 grams of protein, so you don’t need to go overboard with fish, poultry, or grass-fed beef on your dinner plate. There’s no “clock” inside our bodies that suggests we limit ourselves to three meals a day. Some people do fine with two while others need five. It all depends upon your metabolism. Between meals, eat some protein-rich snacks and add a little fat. A handful of nuts, a hard-boiled egg, a spoonful of coconut oil, some blueberries, an apple with peanut butter, or a slice of cheese will keep you from feeling light-headed or ravenous between meals. It is the refined sugars—especially when mixed with fat—that do the most damage. So avoid those foods. (You know the ones—they’re from the vending machines!)
A Word about Beans and Legumes
So now you know you can enjoy the bounty of the earth in the form of vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy products from animals that live close to the land as they did back in your grandmother’s day. What about beans and legumes? These plant foods quickly boost blood sugar for some people but not others. They’re not a part of what’s called a Paleo diet, which has been highly touted lately, but let’s get real. Pinto beans and navy beans are not exactly cupcakes or white bread, and they’re a cheap, readily available form of protein. A bean or split pea soup, hummus, and bean salad aren’t out of the question if you’re eating healthfully to reduce inflammation and keep blood sugar levels stable. As long as they don’t lead to cravings and dips and peaks in mood and energy caused by uneven blood sugar, go ahead and eat them. You can consider them like root vegetables such as carrots and beets (which have a lot of sugar): they may not be your top choice, but in moderation they’re probably fine for you. Tofu and edamame are made from soy, and they can be very healthy for most women. Refined soy is a problem for some—not all.
The truth is that we’re really designed to eat vegetables, some meats and fruits, and some nuts and seeds. Try to make sure vegetables take up most of your plate. Fortunately, there are an infinite number of ways to prepare them so you don’t get bored and order up pizza to be delivered (although organic, whole-grain-crust, all-vegetable pizza can be a delicious, occasional treat). You can even make pizza dough and pasta from ingredients such as zucchini, cauliflower, and coconut flour. I’m a big fan of quinoa, which is a seed, not a grain. And it’s gluten-free. If you’re not used to eating a mostly plant-based diet with healthy proteins and fats, here are some ideas for what to eat: Notice the pattern here: fill up on cruciferous (crunchy and fibrous) vegetables with plenty of texture, color, and flavor, and use moderate quantities of healthy fish, meat, dairy, eggs and fruit. Use the highest-quality, freshest ingredients you can for the most flavor. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water—cold or room temperature, whatever makes you more likely to drink it. Enjoy tea, and if you like a little caffeine and your body can handle it, upgrade your coffee to be the least processed type or switch to green tea, which is loaded with antioxidants that prevent inflammation and oxidative stress.
Where the Food is
More and more, you can find healthy foods in the most unexpected places. I’m thrilled with the new fast food options that are springing up around the country: Chipotle Mexican Grill, Tender Greens, and Elevation Burger are examples. You can also find healthy food at farmers’ markets, or sign up for what’s called a CSA (community supported agriculture) share. With CSAs, you pay at the beginning of the growing season to get a weekly delivery of fresh produce right off the farm. This is a fantastic way to get the best of local, organically grown produce and support the farmers in your area. I adore my local farmer Justin, who also happens to be a very accomplished salsa dancer. Get to know your farming neighbours! CSAs are also a great way to get creative about your cooking because you’ll get a box full of vegetables you’ve never eaten or prepared before. Search online for “recipes kohlrabi” or “recipes beet greens.” You can also grow your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your yard, in containers on your porch, in a rented garden plot—you can even grow them in hay bales or in your basement. Eat up and enjoy! Regardless of where you buy packaged foods, it’s important to read the labels. Sauces, salad dressings, and frozen foods often have hidden ingredients. Gluten’s a common one, but sugars, MSG in all its many guises, and extra salt are added too. Watch how much you use.
The “slow food movement” is all about slowing down to savour your food and be mindful of how it comes from the earth, through animals and farmers and people who sell and distribute food, so that you support sustainable ways of growing food and consuming it. When you slow down to eat, instead of grabbing something on the go or distractedly ploughing through whatever’s on your plate while thinking about what’s next on your To Do list, you’re less likely to overeat. You start to realize how ridiculous food portions in restaurants can be and how little food it takes to fill up if you’re eating good food slowly, enjoying every bite. Remember, ageless goddesses take pleasure in food. When you talk to people about food and healthy eating, watch your language and your tone. Are you turning into the food police and judging yourself and everyone else? That will just give everyone indigestion. And don’t get into an organ recital about how you can’t eat this anymore because of your heart troubles and you’re supposed to eat that now because of your stomach issues. Make it easy for someone to invite you over for a meal by bringing the foods and condiments and digestive supplements you need without having to rattle off a list of foods you can’t eat. A funny cartoon I saw recently made the point—and cracked me up. A woman is talking with a friend, saying, “I’ve been gluten-free for a week. And already I’m annoying.” Don’t be that person. When you’re with friends and family, talk about a new food or recipe you tried. Go apple or berry picking with your friends and their grandchildren. Walk over to the neighbour’s with some extra basil or peppers, and when she hands you some tomatoes, swap growing tips. Food growing, buying, preparing, and enjoying can all be communal experiences. So try to “break bread” with others even if you’re not actually eating bread! There’s a folk tale about stone soup, in which a village of people come together to add something to a pot on the fire that contains only a stone. It’s not the stone that makes the soup delicious but what everyone adds: the love that forms a community. That’s the best kind of nourishment.
Supplements to Ageless, Healthy Eating
Eating whole, healthy foods will nourish your goddess self, but for truly optimal nutrition, food supplements are important. They’ll bring balance back to your body and replenish it more quickly. They’ll also improve your brain chemistry, which affects your moods and outlook, so it will be easier to plan for healthier eating and stick with your program for self-nourishment. You’ll find specifics on what supplements to take to quickly replenish yourself—and you’ll be familiar with some of them, such as vitamin D3, from reading this book. But let me give you information on a few more that are important and that you should be taking along with the supplements I mentioned already. The first is turmeric, containing the active compound cur cumin. This spice is found in many Asian foods, including curries, and is an incredible anti-inflammatory. In fact, it turns on the body’s ability to produce the super anti-inflammatory biochemical BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a type of enzyme) and glutathione (a combination of three amino acids). You can cook and prepare foods with turmeric, but think seriously about supplementing with it too. (By the way, if you want to help your brain produce BDNF, cut the sugar in your diet). Another important nutrient is magnesium, which most women are low in. You can’t accidentally overdose on magnesium because too much results in loose stools, which you’re bound to notice. (You’ve heard of the laxative milk of magnesia, right? Enough said.) Still another nutrient that women need is iodine, which helps alleviate breast pain and contributes to healthy hair, nails, and hormone balance. Most women in the U.S. aren’t eating sea vegetables or kelp, which are good sources of iodine. In the U.S., the average woman consumes 240 micrograms a day compared to Japan, where the average woman takes in 45 milligrams a day (a milligram is 1,000 micrograms). It takes about 3 milligrams a day to support healthy breasts, so clearly most American women don’t even come close to getting enough. But according to some sources, the typical Japanese woman gets about six times what a woman in the U.S. gets through her diet because of seaweed consumption.
To ensure you’re getting enough iodine, I recommend supplementing. Be sure to add iodine to your diet slowly, especially if you have a thyroid condition such as Hashimoto’s disease or you are taking a prescription drug with bromides. Otherwise, you might experience rashes, increased heart rate, and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). A good multivitamin is important too. The label should say “guaranteed potency” and “manufactured in a GMP facility.” GMP stands for “good manufacturing practices,” and for a facility to make this claim, it has to check out with NSF International, a public health and safety organization. There is also a very good resource called NutriSearch Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements by Lyle MacWilliam, M.Sc., F.P., that rates supplements for quality. I also recommend that you start taking some probiotics. As I said earlier, probiotics are in yogurt and other fermented foods such as tempeh, tofu, miso, sauerkraut, and pickles, but most women need to supplement with them. Let me explain a little more about what they are and what they do for your gut.
Probiotics, Prebiotics, and a Healthy Community in Your Gut
Your gastrointestinal (GI) system, or gut, plays a crucial role in your health at every level. It’s actually part of your brain, making neurotransmitters such as serotonin—in fact, most of that’s made in your gut. Your gut is also part of your immune system, protecting your body against foreign microorganisms, whether they’re bacteria or viruses. We don’t live in a sterile world, so your GI tract is actually filled with microorganisms. You have more of them there than you have cells in your entire body! In other words, your belly is a community. Are the neighbours getting along? Or do you have an imbalance where the bad flora, like yeast and unhealthy bacteria, are crowding out the good flora?
A Word About Iodine
The amount of iodine (in the form of both iodine and iodide) that the body needs for optimal health is about 12.5 mg per day. Some individuals require more. A combination of molecular iodine and iodide is best. The current RDA for iodine is only 150 micrograms per day—just enough to prevent goitre but not nearly enough to provide optimal health for the rest of the body, including the thyroid. Iodine is known as a halogen; the other halogens—chlorine, fluoride, and bromide—compete with iodine, and when you first add iodine to your diet, your body may detox those other toxic halogens in the form of a rash. Many mistakenly take this for an allergic reaction to iodine instead of what it is—the body healing itself. The problem is easily fixed by simply replenishing iodine more slowly. Thyroid hormone is made up of iodine—the symbols T3 and T4 refer to the number of iodine molecules in the hormone itself. Many people who take adequate amounts of iodine find that their thyroid function normalizes by itself. But the thyroid isn’t the only gland that requires iodine. Breast tissue requires 3 mg of iodine per day for optimal health and prevention of cysts and pain, and the ovaries also require it. Iodine deficiency is a worldwide problem at this point, and iodized salt doesn’t contain enough of the right kinds to provide what is needed. Given that adequate iodine is absolutely essential for nearly every function in the body, I highly recommend adding it to your diet in some form. The best way to make sure you’ve got enough good flora is to eat plenty of cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and collard greens, because the fibre in them serves as a breeding ground for the good bacteria in your gut. You also want probiotics—the good bacteria—to enter your GI system and flourish there. A good probiotic supplement should be packed with beneficial microorganisms that support digestion. If you have frequent yeast infections in your vagina or your mouth or both, there are probiotic supplements with bacteria that are especially good for clearing them up. Getting the sugar out of your diet will help too.
A recent study showed that a cup a day of Activia yogurt, which has a relatively small number of beneficial bacteria in it and far too much sugar in my opinion, can boost a woman’s mood because of the relationship between gut health and the brain. If a little bit of sugary yogurt can do so much, imagine what high-quality probiotic sources can do. And you can support all those beneficial microorganisms (also known collectively as the microbiome) by eating your cabbage, greens, broccoli, and so on. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the idea of changing your entire diet, but you can significantly change your gut flora balance through changing what you eat in as little as 24 hours. Eating too many grains and sugars throws off the balance in your gut flora as yeast grows and good bacteria die off. You develop leaky gut syndrome and inflammation and oxidative stress, as I explained, and serotonin levels drop. You start craving sugars, and once you give in to those cravings, you make the situation worse. So while taking the probiotics is good, it’s not a panacea. You have to cut out the sugars too. If you’ve cut the sugars and the grain but your GI system is still off, it could simply be that you’re not drinking enough water or you’re eating too little fibre, or you ate something that doesn’t agree with you. The problem could also be emotional. Remember, the gut makes more neurotransmitters than the brain does, so it’s constantly talking to us! Pay attention to the subtle signs from your gut, because it responds to both food and feelings. If you’re anxious, angry, or depressed, you might have bowel movements that are too loose or too firm, or your intestines will cramp. Energetically, your digestive system is associated with your third chakra and issues related to personal power, self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence, and feelings of responsibility. When you’re nervous or insecure, afraid of being shamed for being yourself, feeling overly responsible for everything and everybody, your gut may respond by becoming agitated. We say “listen to your gut instincts” and “I just can’t stomach that situation” because on some level we sense the brain-gut connection—and scientists are now realizing it is stronger than we ever knew. Don’t neglect your gut! Take your probiotics, and if you’re having some digestive troubles, take an enzyme with your meal. For example, if you’re going to enjoy an organic rice-and-beans dish, an enzyme supplement will help prevent excess gas.
Happy Belly and Happy Body
If you’re unhappy with the shape of your belly, know that cutting out the wheat will reduce it, but whatever your belly looks like, you can make it happy. Let’s make it a happy belly, one you’re comfortable with, one that isn’t holding on to toxins buried in fat and creating a body shape that makes you prone to diseases like diabetes. Show love to your belly as you heal your gut. You might even take a belly-dancing class and get back in touch with this part of your body. Belly dancing, like any sensual dancing, makes it easier to reconnect with your beautiful, divine, ageless inner goddess. Give up the goal of achieving what our culture calls a “perfect” or “ideal” body shape. Only about 1 percent of women have that shape at any age. Besides, what is culturally idealized varies from decade to decade. It’s time to simply accept that and get on with it. Embrace the changes that arise in your body, and think about what they’re alerting you to. Do you need to make changes in your life? Have you learned to love yourself fully and embrace the physical manifestations that are your belly, your breasts, your face, your arms, your bottom, head, and feet? Pay loving attention to your body and nourish it. Trust your appetite and your body’s desire to settle into a particular weight and shape when you’re eating healthfully.