How to Eat Mindfully
We all eat. And it would be a sad waste of opportunity to eat badly. — ANNA THOMAS Recently I enjoyed dinner with some family and friends. We sat down before a bounty of delicious, gorgeous food: baked organic chicken breasts seasoned with garlic, herbs de Provence, and sea salt mixed with rosemary; baked sweet potatoes with some coconut oil; and onions, carrots, and kale sautéed in coconut oil with a bit of balsamic vinegar added at the end. Dessert was slices of organic honey crisp apples sprinkled with cinnamon. Before we feasted, I lit some candles, we joined hands, and I performed my usual ritual of saying an impromptu blessing. I thanked everyone and everything who had contributed to this meal, and threw in some humor and choice details from the day. After grace, all of us dug in. The meal had taken my sister and me 45 minutes to prepare rather than my usual 15. We ended up lingering around the table, savoring the meal and the company, for a good hour. When you eat like this, you automatically feel satisfied and “fed.” You don’t spend the rest of the evening “grazing” in an attempt to bring into your body the sweetness, love, and belonging that are missing. Study after study shows that the age-old ceremony of “breaking bread” together is an effective way to combat stress, build solid relationships, keep your family together, and bring joy and pleasure into your daily life. The longer I live, the more aware I am of just how important this ritual truly is. As my Greek friend Leftari always says, “Food brings people together.” It’s simple and so true. We were not designed to eat alone watching bad news on television. We are creatures who seek connection, and when we sit down to enjoy a meal together, our differences melt away. The emotional bonding allows us to rebuild our tissues and organs with a sense of love and belonging. Enjoying a home-cooked meal prepared with love and pleasure always feels good. And the energetic imprint of love and caring in those who prepare the food can even override the adverse effect of some less-than-ideal ingredients that you might find yourself being served from time to time.
If you read over the menu for the dinner I described, you will note the following: no dairy, no grains, no soy, no sugar, and no sweeteners of any kind. At the time, I was following a one-month nutritional reset program called Whole30, with meals that included meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit, with some healthy oils and herbs for flavouring. The only thing I missed was having a little stevia in my coffee or iced tea, but now that I have a sweet life, I don’t need to import as much sweetness via my food as I used to. I’m back to using stevia now, but much less than before. I see I was mindlessly consuming it more than I really felt the need to. Enjoying life makes it easier to enjoy food that nourishes your body. You don’t have to look to food to be your friend or therapist. If you have a love/hate relationship with food, this chapter will help you learn to make peace with it. It can be done! If you want to live agelessly, break the old habit of mindlessly tossing processed convenience foods into your grocery cart. By knowing what healthy and delicious foods to enjoy (think creamy avocados, fresh nuts or blueberries, and so on), you’ll find it easier to make changes in your diet. Eating well is never about deprivation or being “bad.” And it’s simple to eat for your heart, your brain, your hormones, and your overall health because the right food takes care of the entire body. What’s more, you’ll find that healthy food is delicious and satisfying, not boring, repetitious, or lacking in taste and texture. I want you to notice something. I purposely started this chapter with a description of a pleasurable dining experience complete with candlelight and good company. It sounded good, right? Though I was describing a meal created within dietary “restrictions,” I wasn’t telling you what I was depriving myself of and what I was “allowed” to eat. I was describing a meal that tasted wonderful and was rich in delightful textures, colours, and smells. It was a meal I shared with others who weren’t following the program but who also enjoyed it and had a wonderful evening. The language and thought forms of restriction, deprivation, and shame when it comes to food will hold you back from flourishing. They have to go!
Taking The “Die” Out of “Diet”
I know you’ve probably tried many of them only to go back to unhealthy eating, bouncing between deprivation and plenty, frustration and indulgence, pride and guilt. Food has become too much of a drama for too many of us. I’ve personally been on dozens of diets, fasts, and juice fasts since the age of 13. Back in my 30s, I was a macrobiotic vegan until I noticed that my hair and nails were brittle and I was gaining weight on all that grain. I’ve done Atkins, HCG, Fuhrman—the list goes on and on. And because of my large bone structure and ease at building muscle, I’ve always weighed more than the “ideal” that my five-foot-four self is supposed to weigh. I happen to know that if given the choice between being fabulously healthy but 20 pounds heavier or being glamorously slim, most women would choose slim. That’s why women continue to smoke and take diet pills. My weight is now stable—and all my clothes fit. I ditched my daily weighing habit about a year ago because I realized that I was treating my body like an enemy who would betray me with weight gain if I didn’t keep her on a really tight leash. Talk about a setup for shame and failure! Yes, I’m probably five to ten pounds heavier than I’d like to be, the same five to ten pounds I’ve battled with for the past 30 years. I would “lose” them, but they would inevitably “find” me again. I had a cold war going on with my weight for decades! But today, those pounds and I are coexisting in peace. And after a year of “recovery,” I can now step on the scale without a surge of adrenaline or self-recrimination.
I have said again and again that women need to think and talk about health differently. Constantly expecting that something will go wrong, and watching for it warily, is a sign of not trusting your ability to remain healthy. The same thing can happen with weight. You have to trust that your body is capable of reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. Otherwise, what you resist, in the form of “forbidden” foods and excess weight, will persist. You’ll feel deprived and eat the brownies and chips, or stress yourself out over your weight, which will end up causing soaring stress hormone levels that, all by themselves, result in weight gain and inflammation—no matter what you eat. I now realize that by resisting that “last five to ten pounds,” I was cementing them into place. For some women, weighing themselves daily keeps them feeling in control of their weight. They see the number on the scale go up toward the top end of that five to ten pounds and they become a little more mindful of what they eat, how much they exercise and sleep, and how well they’re handling stress (since stress and weight gain are often related). The number goes down a little after some minor adjustments to their choices for a few days or weeks. Other women rarely weigh themselves and rely on how their pants fit as an indicator of whether they need to be a bit more mindful about making healthy choices. However, for many women, stepping on a scale every day just adds to their stress over their weight. As you develop a healthier attitude toward food and your body, you’ll know whether you want to get rid of the scale or not. Trust yourself. Trust your body to do what it needs to do with the food you eat. And take pleasure in preparing and eating good food fit for a goddess.
What to Eat
In recent years we’ve learned so much more about food and nutrition that it can be hard to keep up with just what constitutes healthy eating, so let me start by keeping it simple. I love what author and food activist Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He also says if your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, you probably shouldn’t eat it. While it’s important to eat whole foods—mostly plants—you do need to be moderate when it comes to eating grain because our bodies rapidly turn grain into sugar, which causes all sorts of problems, including weight gain. Believe it or not, there’s evidence that even the ancient Egyptians got overly fat on grain. We eat far too much sugar to burn it off quickly, and too often our meals centre on bread, pasta, cereal, muffins—you name it. Even whole grains are problematic and too easily become a substitute for vegetables and healthy proteins. Because of addictive and ubiquitous fast foods, along with the combined effects of high insulin, blood sugar, stress hormones, and our current culture, eating well takes more planning than it used to. My father, who was a holistic dentist, used to give his patients who were on antibiotics natural yogurt that my mom made at home. He understood that the probiotics in yogurt would counteract the negative effects of antibiotics, which kill bacteria that cause infections (a good thing) along with bacteria that are beneficial for digestion (not so good—and you’ll learn why in a bit). Nowadays when you go to a typical grocery store to buy yogurt, if you read the labels, you find that what’s in those little plastic cartons is very different from what yogurt used to be. You can even get yogurt that’s neon pink and green and comes in a plastic tube with a cartoon character on it—and they sell that at health food stores! You have to read labels and understand them, or prepare foods yourself with ingredients you trust that are whole and fresh. The more processed a food is—the further removed it is from nature—the more likely it is to spike your blood sugar or contain toxins. You may already know that if the label for a simple food has 12 ingredients, most of which you can’t pronounce, it’s best to put it back on the shelf. It’s likely to sit there unspoiled for many months, because bacteria can’t break down something that really isn’t food. It’s also important to avoid food dyes and artificial flavours (which sometimes are called “natural flavourings” because some lawyer for a large company got the food labelling laws changed). All of these ingredients are better off remaining in the chemist’s lab where they were created! And too much refined sugar, artificial sugars, and processed sugars from corn (think high fructose corn syrup) aren’t good for you either. Now add to that the adverse effects of MSG, which is added to huge numbers of foods, and you have a perfect setup for weight and health problems.
Enjoying Earth’s Bounty
Begin with rich greens and reds and oranges and yellows that burst forth in the garden at harvest time. It turns out that most of the members of my Argentine tango community are foodies. That makes sense. Those who savour the pleasures of close-embrace dancing also savour the pleasures of eating. Our potlucks are legendary feasts. Sometimes you may get stuck having to order something off the menu of a fast food restaurant known for its high-salt, high-sugar, highly processed food that has been factory designed to be addictive. This is the food responsible for the obesity and sickness epidemic all over the world, so do your best to avoid it. However, if you are going to eat food that isn’t of the highest quality because you’re stuck with nothing else to eat, take a moment and imbue the food with Divine Love. When you sit down to unwrap your meal, say to yourself, “Thank you for this food. May it nourish my body.” Then eat it without guilt. Take your time as you chew. Let your body recognize that you’re slowing down and providing it with the nourishment to keep it going. Feel gratitude for the fact that you have a healthy body and food available to you. Give yourself a moment to breathe and feel relaxed. For one thing, if you engage in this ritual, you’ll realize you really don’t want to make a habit of eating lifeless food! Real food filled with life force feels so much better in your body. And a little goes a long way because your body feels satisfied with far less than you might imagine. If it feels easier to get takeout than to cook for one, start thinking about how cooking simple foods that nourish you might be possible. The key is planning ahead as though you were planning what to serve to guests. You can assemble a meal of protein and vegetables in as little as 15 minutes, and make soup to last you a few days—and swap a few portions with someone else for variety. Prepare and eat meals with others when it’s easy and fun.
The Fat-Sugar Relationship
We’re born to enjoy fats, and the body and brain need them, but they’ve gotten a bad rap in recent years. Some experts have even recommended consuming as little as 10 percent of calories from fats when we probably need more like 50 to 70 percent. Here’s the truth: you don’t become fat from eating fat. A 2010 meta-analysis of the research on fats showed no significant evidence that eating saturated fats (the kind associated with meat and dairy foods) increases your risk of stroke or heart disease. Unfortunately, many women have taken saturated fat out of their diets and reduced their overall fat intake under the impression that this is the way to health. But when you take out the fats, the food isn’t as tasty or satisfying, and you end up eating more sugars and simple carbohydrates like bread and pasta. As low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets have become popular in the U.S., obesity rates have skyrocketed. Not all fats are alike, so it’s important to understand that fats per se don’t make you fat. It’s the trans fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils), highly processed vegetable oils, sugars, starches, and MSG (in many different forms) that pack on the pounds and lead to all sorts of health hazards. There’s no reason to fear healthy dietary fats. In fact, fats are brain food. Your brain is made up of mostly fat, specifically fat called DHA.
And your brain, like those of humans who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, will fuel itself on fat unless glucose—sugar—is available. If the brain has sugar to keep its engines running, it will switch to that for energy. Because we have a lot of sugar in our diets, our brains are running on glucose and storing a lot of fat as fat, even as we’re also storing a lot of sugar as fat. We’re also storing toxins within the fat, so our bodies are holding on to pesticides and heavy metals that affect us at a cellular level. Now, this system of storing fuel for lean times worked out beautifully when humans were living in caves and had to live off stored fat when food was scarce. It’s not such a great system now that we lead more sedentary lives and can get low-quality, highly processed carbohydrates everywhere. We can even buy candy and chips in the vending machines at health clubs and hospitals, and get free cookies in bank lobbies. And fast food advertising supports the mainstream media. The commercials are for chips, not carrots. With all those cheap carbs staring you in the face, you have to pay much more attention to the amount, quality, and types of fat and glucose you eat. Otherwise, you just end up consuming what’s easily available—typically foods that are very bad for your body and your brain. You have to be vigilant so you don’t snack constantly on cheap carbs when you’re distracted or upset. The more stressed out you are, the more your body will cause you to crave fats laced with sugars, because the primitive part of your brain thinks that what you need are sources of energy to outrun whatever is chasing you! What you really need is to rebalance your brain and body chemistry. When the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in your body are what they’re supposed to be, you won’t crave the high-carbohydrate comfort foods such as mashed potatoes, French fries with ketchup, cookies, pasta, breads, and sugary cereals. These highly addictive foods boost your mood and energy temporarily but then cause an inevitable crash in energy later, along with a host of other problems I’ll talk about shortly. Are you surprised by the news about fats and sugars? There’s been an incredible amount of confusion about the pros and cons of low-fat/high-carb diets and moderate-fat/low-carb diets. Let me explain why you don’t need to worry about healthy fats and why it’s best to consume healthy sugars and whole grains only in moderation, if that. I’ll talk about fats first, and then sugars and grains.
Fats from plants, such as avocados and raw seeds and nuts, aren’t a problem. And minimally processed oils from organic plant sources—extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, sesame oil, flaxseed oil, hemp oil, and so on—aren’t a problem either. Be aware that heating some oils changes their chemistry and makes them less healthy, so cook with olive or coconut oil. You can also use clarified butter, known as ghee, a staple food in India, for cooking or flavouring food. Don’t use canola oil, which is highly processed and derived from seeds likely to be genetically modified. Avoid any oils or spreads that contain trans fats, which contribute to type 2 diabetes. If you are of the generation that gave up butter for margarine, let go of that old habit and go back to healthier, more natural fats.
Animal protein is fine, even though meat, fish, and poultry have saturated fats. If you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, go ahead and eat wild fish—not farmed—and beef, chicken, pork, or other meats from animals who moved freely in a natural environment and ate their natural food (grass-fed beef from cows raised on a small farm, for example). If you eat dairy foods such as yogurts and cheeses, the ones made from raw milk are the best, but know your sources and the laws in your area; raw milk products are illegal in many places because of fears of foodborne illnesses. If you can’t find or aren’t comfortable with raw milk products, choose milk from cows raised by organic farmers who don’t add hormones such as rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) to the animals’ feed. Usually, it’s the processing involved with dairy foods that makes them hard to digest, although you might be intolerant of lactose (the sugar in milk) or casein (a milk protein). Listen to your body. If you feel good eating clean, organic meat or cheese in small quantities, use those as protein sources.
You’ve probably been told for years to cut out saturated fat, but that advice could not be more wrong! Avoiding fish, meats, healthy dairy foods and oils, and nuts and seeds is likely to lower your so-called “bad” cholesterol (your LDL) on a standard, obsolete lipid profile, you have to think about cholesterol very differently. LDL is not inherently bad. It’s not even cholesterol. LDL transports much-needed cholesterol to cells, while HDL, so-called “good cholesterol,” transports unneeded extra cholesterol away from cells to where it can be processed and recycled by the body. Think of your LDL as your delivery trucks and your HDL as your garbage trucks. When you avoid healthy fats, such as fats from fish and coconut oil and nuts, all you do is reduce the good LDL—the less-dense particles that do a great job of getting much-needed cholesterol into the cells and are not easily oxidized. When you cut sugars and include healthy fats in your diet, you won’t have as much bad LDL, the delivery trucks that have been battered by too much sugar in your system. The bad LDL particles are indicators of progression toward insulin resistance. Your good HDL can transport away extra cholesterol, but not if you don’t have enough of it (and you can increase HDL through meditation and regular exercise). Please don’t worry so much about HDL and LDL and cholesterol. I’ll fill you in a bit later on accurate tests for cholesterol and HDL and LDL levels, but for now, just remember that the old advice is obsolete.
Having healthy fats in your diet means you’ll be more likely to fuel your brain on fat—the superior brain food. Plus, you won’t get into the habit of experiencing low blood sugar and cravings and reaching for a sugary food to spike your blood sugar. Remember, when I say healthy fats, I’m talking about the natural, saturated fats in foods such as coconut oil, grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, and eggs from free-range chickens that eat organic foods. “Free-range” chickens can walk around and eat plants, their natural foods, which makes their eggs higher in omega-3 fatty acids. “Cage-free” chickens typically have little room to move around and don’t eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, which means their eggs are lower in this essential fatty acid that is very important for optimal brain health. Remember, what animals eat affects their flesh, milk, and eggs! What you really have to think about eliminating from your diet for health reasons isn’t meat and dairy but sugar and grains. Again, commit this to memory: fat, including saturated fat, is not a problem. It’s crucial for health!
Sweet Treats and Blood Sugar
From an evolutionary standpoint, a sweet tooth was a good adaptation we humans made to our environment. We are born preferring sweet tastes, and fruits and vegetables at the height of their ripeness and sweetness are packed with the highest amount of nutrients. Mother Nature puts plenty of sweetness in pumpkins and strawberries. Foods like these that are naturally high in sugar also have fibber, which slows your body’s absorption of their sugars. They’re not going to spike your blood sugar levels the way refined sugars will—and by refined, I mean any sugars that have been extracted from the fibrous fruit or vegetable. And chances are you’re probably not overeating pumpkins. You can have small amounts of real maple syrup and honey, but don’t go overboard on those. If you do want a little bit of sweetener in your food, at least take the processed sugars off the table. You can use a bit of stevia, which is natural and very sweet so a little goes a long way. Avoid the sweeteners you can find in little packets at a diner: refined sugar (white packet), aspartame (blue packet), saccharin (pink packet), and sucralose (yellow packet). And absolutely avoid high fructose corn syrup, which manufacturers have put into all sorts of foods. Read all labels, and look for the sugar content. You’ll be appalled at how much sugar is added to just about everything processed. I read the label of some organic squash soup sold at a health food store recently and the amount of sugar in it shocked me. Sugar is as addictive as crack cocaine, so the compulsion to overeat it in any form is almost impossible to resist—and that includes so-called “healthy” foods like granola and trail mix. The meal I described at the beginning of the chapter had plenty of sweetness—the honey crisp apples (an especially sweet variety) and sweet potatoes—without added sugars. Even that amount of sugar, though, will cause unhealthy blood sugar fluctuations in those who are no longer sensitive to their own insulin from years of unhealthy eating. If that’s the case for you, remove all sugars and sugar-producing foods from your diet for seven to ten days. One day every week or two, you can eat them. Reducing your consumption of these foods to this degree generally resets the insulin receptors, preventing type 2 diabetes and sometimes even reversing it. If you have an exhausted pancreas from the overproduction of insulin, you will probably find that getting rid of the sugars, breads, and pastas—and getting enough protein—will support your pancreas in keeping your blood sugars more stable. Maintaining stable blood sugar levels also prevents complications of diabetes such as neuropathy. And believe it or not, if you already have complications, it’s never too late to start improving your health with dietary change.
Even if you show no signs of diabetes, one of the most important things you can do to remain ageless is to keep your blood sugar levels from going haywire all day long. That requires avoiding sugars unless they’re in whole fruits or vegetables. If your levels are fluctuating wildly during the day, you’ll have high energy at some points and very low energy, and difficulty concentrating, at other points. You’ll also tend to crave cookies and candy, and if you make a habit of giving in and eating them, you’ll only worsen the situation. Over time, uneven blood sugar levels and high sugar consumption cause cellular inflammation and insulin resistance, and those lead to diabetes, cancer, dementia, and heart disease. In fact, sugar is more strongly associated with the development of type 2 diabetes than any other type of food—and it’s even more strongly associated with it than a sedentary lifestyle is. Eating lower glycaemic foods is associated with lower rates of diabetes whether or not you’re sedentary or obese. If you’re experiencing strong dips and peaks in your levels of energy and focus most days, or if you already know you have a prediabetic condition, you must start paying attention to your blood sugar and what you’re eating. Ideally, you want a fasting blood sugar of about 70 to 85 mg/dl and it shouldn’t spike more than 40 points after you eat. In other words, it should stay at 120 mg/dl or below in the two hours after eating. For years, 100 mg/dl after fasting has been considered the high end of normal, but that’s too high given that the PATH Through Life project study (PATH stands for Personality and Total Health), released in 2011, showed that the higher your fasting blood sugar, the greater the damage to the hippocampus in your brain (hippocampal damage is associated with dementia). Research shows a very strong connection between diabetes and dementia. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease may be thought of as type 3 diabetes.
To measure and monitor your fasting blood sugar, buy an inexpensive glucometer at the drugstore. Even if you’re not worried about your blood sugar levels, try it anyway for a few days in a row just to see where you are with your levels. Take the test before breakfast, and don’t snack during the night. (If you’re experiencing insomnia and middle-of-the-night cravings, or if you have bowel or stomach problems after eating sugar, you probably have unstable blood sugar levels.) You can also ask your doctor to do a haemoglobin A1C test to determine your blood sugar levels over the past several months, which is an even more accurate measure. If your blood sugar has not been stable, look at what you’re eating. Also, listen to your body. If around 3:00 in the afternoon you’re cranky and ready to eat the wallpaper, you’ve probably got uneven blood sugar levels. The food you eat early in the day sets the stage for your blood sugar level for the next 24 hours, so make sure you get some protein and fat first thing in the morning. Think eggs with avocado and maybe some berries. For sweetness, use stevia, as I’ve said. You have to have some pleasures in eating. If you make a ritual of enjoying small amounts of chocolate, sweetened tea or coffee, and the like, you’re less likely to eat so much of it that you develop inflammation and unstable blood sugar. But know yourself— Many people cannot stop after even one bite of chocolate.
Even if you think blood sugar isn’t a problem for you, it’s important to recognize that sugars affect your body at a cellular level. If you’re eating a lot of sugars and grains, even whole grains, your gastrointestinal system is probably leaking some food particles into your bloodstream in a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. Remember, the genetically altered grains of today are very different from those our grandparents enjoyed. They have much higher gluten content. That causes cellular inflammation, because the cells don’t know what these particles are and they want to neutralize them by surrounding them with fluid. Your hormonal system responds to all the sugars by having your pancreas pump out more insulin to get the extra sugar in your blood to go into cells, where it can be used. Some of that sugar is stored as fat, but much of it just travels around your bloodstream, looking for a cell that will take it in. Meanwhile, the inflammation in your body and blood vessels causes oxidative stress, which means you’ve got cells that are missing electrons scavenging electrons from other cells, destabilizing and injuring them. As oxidative stress and inflammation get out of control, everything goes haywire and your body begins to break down and turn on itself. The next step is a prediabetic condition known as glycaemic stress. This condition is reversible if you change your diet and release repressed emotions such as resentment and grief. Glycaemic stress causes cellular inflammation, which first shows up as physical discomfort, such as aching muscles, bloating, headache, insomnia, and weight gain. Over time, chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer are the result. Fortunately, this domino effect of sugar/inflammation/disease can be counteracted and reversed if you just lower your sugar intake and pay attention to the types and form of sugars you eat.