Are you confused about what you should eat? If so, you are in good company. With so many diets and ways to eat, it can certainly be confusing. The one thing I know is that at midlife and beyond, many women (and men) want to eat foods that will help them balance their hormones and stay healthy and fit, so they are able to do the things they enjoy. And more and more people want to feel good about their impact on the planet. That’s a lot to think about!
For decades I have given women specific advice on what to eat and how to use their bodies’ responses to food as information. Here is my updated advice on how you can consume the healthiest food for your body in light of so many diets and so much conflicting information.
10 Food Rules to Help You Flourish
When you are young, your body is forgiving. That’s why many women can eat pizza, drink alcohol, and exercise infrequently and still remain thin, relatively healthy, and have enough energy. But, when you approach perimenopause, what you eat and how you live make a huge difference in how you feel and how you experience menopause and your later years. For one thing, making poor food choices and being constantly on the run can set the stage for hormonal imbalance. When insulin, estrogen, and eicosanoids become imbalanced, you are at increased risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, and cancer.
Here are my suggestions for how to eat to flourish:
- Remove sugar from your diet. This means remove – or really cut down – on the refined and high-glycemic index carbohydrates. But, remember that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Whether certain foods with a high-glycemic index, such as baked potatoes or bananas, can be part of a healthy diet for you depends upon your unique metabolism. If you are a true carbohydrate addict, you need to find what foods are healthy for you. I find that eliminating refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, white rice, bread, alcohol, and foods made with white flour, such as muffins, bagels, pasta, pretzels and other snack foods, helps the body burn stored fat and keeps insulin and blood sugar levels normal.
- Enjoy plants. Fruits and vegetables should make up at least half of your plate at mealtime. Think color, and you’ll be on the right path because the deep pigments in these foods contain powerful antioxidants. Go for broccoli, green leafy vegetables, berries, red, yellow, and green peppers, and tomatoes, and vary your choices through the seasons. You may also want to take inspiration from other areas of the world where much of the food is plant-based, such as China and the Mediterranean.
- Eat some protein. Eating a little protein can go a long way to helping you feel full and may prevent over-eating. Good options for protein include organic eggs, fish, lean meat, and full-fat dairy. Vegetarian alternatives to animal protein, such as whole, non-GMO soy, tofu, or tempeh are also good for some people. In addition, beans contain protein but also contain a considerable amount of carbohydrates. If you are a true carbohydrate addict and you are perimenopausal, beans may be too high in carbohydrates for you.
- Don’t be afraid of fat. The low-fat diet fads of the past, which reached their peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, had women brainwashed into believing that fat was the enemy. In their attempt to eliminate saturated fat from their diets, many women eliminated all fat. I watched my patients complain of sallow skin, brittle hair and nails, susceptibility to infection, inability to concentrate, and weight gain despite their rigid diets. None of these women were getting enough essential fatty acids, namely omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which are needed to assist the body in many important functions, including those of the brain and nervous system. Good sources of EFAs include eggs, high-quality flax seeds, soy, walnuts, and wild-harvested cold-water fish.
- Consume whole grains in moderation. Even if you have eliminated refined grains, if you are a carbohydrate-sensitive person, you may still have problems with whole wheat, whole rye, whole oat, or millet flour. Research shows that the degenerative diseases that currently plague Americans didn’t arrive on the scene until agriculture became widespread. In fact, archeologic evidence show that many ancient Egyptians were fat and had dental disease associated with a grain-based diet.
- Protect your body with antioxidants. Antioxidants combat cellular damage from free radicals, which are known to be a cause of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cataracts, macular degeneration, and cancer. Antioxidants are found in fresh fruits and vegetables, especially brightly colored ones. Food is the best source for antioxidants, but if you don’t always get enough in your diet, high-quality supplements can provide significant protection.
- Try intermittent fasting. For many years, doctors, including myself, recommended eating at least three meals per day. Now, we know that our bodies were designed for periods of intermittent fasting. That’s because intermittent fasting helps to lower your insulin levels. There are different ways to incorporate intermittent fasting into your diet, and everyone’s body is different, so be sure to use your intuition. Learn more about intermittent fasting here.
- Employ the 80-20 rule. I have always been a huge proponent of the 80/20 rule, which means that it’s okay to give in to cravings 20 percent of the time. When you do, try to indulge with high-quality choices. A good strategy is to find a healthier substitute. For example, I use Stevia in place of white sugar; I savor a square of organic dark chocolate instead of gulping down a pile of stale, leftover Halloween candy; or I eat a thin crust pizza with lots of veggies instead of a deep-dish pizza with a thick crust. What’s important is you’re still choosing a better quality of life.
- Remember your heritage. Reaching and maintaining a healthy body composition and vibrant health through the right food choices has a lot to do with your heritage. For example, people of European heritage may do better on milk, rye, and yogurt while people of Asian heritage do fine with white rice.
- Drink more water. Optimal hydration is crucial to maintaining every organ and system in your body. You have probably been told that you need to drink eight glasses of water per day (eight ounces each) and even more if you exercise. This is partially true, but believe it or not, eating your water is the best way to get hydration to all of your cells. In fact gel water from plants is far more hydrating than plain water and more apt to get to the right places in the body, including your cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that bathes your brain), your bloodstream, your gut lining, your respiratory system and your fascia.
How to Eat Responsibly
With all the different ways of eating that are popular today – including vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, pegan, plant-plus, Keto, and more – an exciting movement that is catching on involves eating responsibly. This means that you choose to eat foods that have been produced sustainably and with respect for the people who produce them, the animals (if involved), and for the planet as a whole.
Whether you want to decrease your carbon footprint, are concerned about how much water and land is being used for creating our food, want to help lower the emissions and nitrogen released from food waste, or want to eat fewer pesticides and hormones, your food choices can make a difference.
Here are 6 easy ways you can choose to eat responsibly:
- Buy locally. Purchasing food from your local farmers helps to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gasses by reducing the need for transportation. Plus, when you buy local, you have the opportunity to get to know the people who grow your food and to learn how your food was grown.
- Eat seasonally. Eating seasonally reduces the need for transportation and thus reduces pollution. It also ensures that you are getting more whole foods in your diet.
- Try a variety of foods. Many people eat the same foods again and again. This is not only limiting from a nutritional standpoint, but it can also harm the planet. A recent study showed the average greenhouse gas emissions associated with different foods. Try substituting foods you eat frequently with a variety of sustainably sourced foods. When you eat a variety of foods, you’ll improve your nutrition as well.
- Plan ahead. Planning your meals not only helps you eat healthier, but it can also reduce the amount of food you throw out, which can help reduce the amount of methane emissions from landfills.
- Read labels. Look for environmental and ethical labels on your food packaging that tell you how your food was produced. Labels to look for include Fair Trade, USDA Organic, RSPO (Palm Oil Free), American Grassfed, Animal Welfare Approved, Best Aquaculture Practices, Bird Friendly Coffee, California Certified Organic Farmers – CCOF, Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Marine Stewardship Council, Protected Harvest, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Salmon-Safe. You may also want to investigate other certifications on your own depending on what you are passionate about and what changes you are able to make to your diet and routine.
- Dine at restaurants that buy from local farmer. The food-to-table movement has been around for a while, making it easier to find restaurants that support local farmers. The food at these restaurants is fresh and seasonal, and the menus often change more frequently based on what’s available from local farms. So, it’s a win-win.
One More Tip for Eating to Flourish
Eating high-quality food is one of the easiest ways to create health on a daily basis and to help the planet. And, the best way to enjoy your food to is eat mindfully. Mindful eating is the practice of deliberately noticing every sense associated with eating while leaving your emotions out of the experience. This rewires the brain and, over time, helps to restore your intuition around eating. It also reduces stress and creates a more positive relationship with food. This contributes to your enjoyment and to your overall well-being.
Here’s how to practice mindful eating:
- Put down your phone. Turn off all electronic distractions before eating, including the television and all personal electronics such as your tablet and phone. This will help set the stage for being able to focus on eating and help you pick up on your body’s sensations, including hunger, thirst, and satiety before you over indulge.
- Practice gratitude. Supermarkets make it easy to forget where our food comes from—the animals, the farmers who raised them, the people who prepared it and shipped it. Focus on the journey your food has made to get to your table and offer gratitude. This will help make each meal more satisfying.
- Focus on your food. Instead of mindlessly putting food into your mouth and gulping it down, take time to look at your food. Notice the colors and the aromas. Taste each bite and try to differentiate the unique flavors of the ingredients.
- Slow Down. Chew your food slowly. This will help you taste your food and will improve your digestion. You can also try putting down your utensils between bites while you chew. Take notice of how you feel after each bite. Stop when you are full to prevent overeating, indigestion, and bloating.
- Notice your emotions. Do you feel happy or a sense of guilt when you eat? Is mealtime stressful? If so, ask yourself “why?” Once you identify your emotions, accept them and, without fighting them, simply release them.
- Don’t eat and run. Instead of eating leftovers out of the container over the kitchen sink (we’ve all done this!), designate a place to eat and create a bit of ambiance. Plate your food (yes, even leftovers) and sit down to enjoy it. Stay seated for the entirety of your meal. This will help you focus on the act of eating.
- Include loved ones. If you want your family to eat mindfully, schedule a regular time for your meal (usually dinner is easiest for getting everyone together). Make a rule that no one leaves the table until dinner is over. This may be an hour each evening or once per week, depending on your schedule. While the family is congregated, encourage everyone to enjoy their senses of smell and taste while they eat. Be sure to show gratitude to your family for joining in the experience together.
- Eat purposefully. If you are an emotional eater or someone who is in the habit of eating a pick-me-up snack every day at 3 pm, ask yourself “why?” You may learn that you are in the habit of doing this out of stress or boredom. Try taking a short walk instead. If you are at work, you can do some desk stretches. Also, if you are someone who uses food as a reward – as in “When I finish this project, I’ll treat myself to a pizza” (or whatever), ask yourself “Is this really a treat?” In other words, is this how you want to treat your body?
I would love to learn what foods you eat and what are you doing to lessen your environmental footprint. Please leave your comments below.