The Building Blocks of Nourishment
Is there a time you can remember where you felt a genuine sense of satisfaction, joy and presence around eating? It most likely recalls a memory of a meal shared with loved ones or a particular dining experience that you eagerly anticipated for your favorite restaurant or holiday. And did this feeling of complete presence leave your whole being feeling cared for and nourished, or did you later say "it was worth it" amongst all the belly aches and evening woes you experienced in the following hours? What is true and whole nourishment anyways? Well today I want to explore where real, holistic nourishment comes from and the building blocks that will allow you to receive it time and time again.
To be nourished has a clear definition of "to nurture and rear," "to promote the growth of," and "to maintain or support." And this is exactly what our food, and everything we intentionally consume, should be supplying us with on a daily basis. It seems there are endless fads and diets that continue to pop up in and become mainstream culture. Yet these are often so easily depicted as something they are not and many of us will hold very little understanding of where these trends actually originate from and who they are good for.
One of the most commonly misunderstood diets today is the "keto" or ketogenic diet. This encourages a diet primarily in healthy fats (almost 60-70%!), moderate protein intake, and very low carbohydrates. Its become popular for many looking to burn fat and lose weight, as it puts the body into a state of ketosis, which begins to utilize the fat stores in your body for energy, and rewires the need for the bodies systems to run primarily off of sugars (hence the removal of many common carbohydrates). Although many may see some exciting results on this regimen, it is like all others – a diet – and cannot be sustained for long term benefits. In fact, the ketogenic diet was actually conceptualized in the 1920's for children with epilepsy. This extreme nutritional balance allowed the body to begin to rebalance itself and allow the circuitry in the brain and nervous system a rest as chronic inflammation began to heal. And was done so under direct supervision of a team of 24/7 doctors and nurses. But most would not know this, and may believe it's just another idea to try for themselves. I think we can all understand how this unsupervised and commonly under researched way of eating could be harmful to the mass population over time.
In spite of all these new concepts, there are so many beautiful and traditional ways of nurturing and feeding our families out there. Traditions that we can begin to pull from in this modern day of eating. And we can find these timeless truths in the ancestral wisdom as well as traditional methods of preparation and of sharing food as a celebration or ceremony, which has become so misconstrued and lost over time. But our bodies needs have not changed. What we thrive on has not changed. Yes, there has been adaptation and new stressors and environmental factors that we are faced with. But this is even more reason to go back to the basics and really root ourselves in the timeless wisdom that is available to us. So below I would like to offer 7 simple and highly logical ideas that support nourishment for your whole being in a time of nutritional chaos and confusion.
1. Simply put, simple is best.
Don't overthink it. Yes, it is incredibly important to be informed and to do your own research, but overwhelm will only lead you to reach for the convenience foods more often and put off the healthy alternatives. I believe this is the epicenter which poor food decisions originate from for so many of us. A place of confusion and discouragement which easily leads to lacking the energy to put into our food and our whole body nourishment. Convenience foods are more accessible than ever, and often made cheaper than other wholesome choices because the big corporations know that our mentality around food is weak. We are easily swayed with advertisements for "quick and easy" options. Microwavable meals and fast food can be just as lacking in nutrients as health-conscious protein shakes and meal replacements. Simply put, convenience is not our friend. Nothing worth while ever came from cutting corners.
In my opinion, the simpler the better. Even I can easily be overwhelmed by intensive recipes and long ingredients lists. I much prefer methods such as one-pot cooking, which provide total nourishment much more often than expecting myself to take the time and energy required for a fancy meal. The more foods in their whole form on your plate, the better. The more things you can easily recognize as how they grew from the earth, the better. In fact, so many people these days are so completely disconnected from their food, they couldn't even tell you how something grows or what kind of plant it comes from. Many do not associate their food as a plant at all. But this also applies to our meats and animal products. The less processing, the more the nutrients are available to you and in greater quantity and quality.
Helpful Tip: Steer clear of substitute meats and other "fake" foods such as soy chicken and Impossible or Beyond burgers. Although I appreciate the desire for people to look towards alternatives and try something plant based (and of course these can be fun treats on occasion), these are not simple foods and in fact can be far worse for you than a good ol' steak. Just begin to implement moderation whenever possible.
2. Supporting local is essential.
This one isn't just a trending hipster Sunday ritual. It's in fact a key to unlocking our health and vitality. Our bodies are meant to be supplied the required nutrition from the land around us. To go even deeper, your unique body has been evolving for generations to work best with the foods and resources that are most available to you and your ancestors before you. We can explore this through learning about our own ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and the traditional foods that were plentiful to our lineage. Most will never take the time to understand where their ancestors came from, but it can create a huge shift in how much ease and lack of discomfort you experience when eating. This understanding can hold a lot of clarity for your future.
To take my own background for example, I am most predominantly coming from Italian roots. Although, I also have a lot of European blood in me. If I explore this information, I will most easily identify with the Mediterranean diet, which consists of things like seafood, olives and olive oil, citrus, minimal but fresh meats and dairy, many fresh herbs straight from the garden and surrounding land, and a wide variety of vegetables and greens that grow in temperate climates. The fact that I live in California also comes to my aid because this way of eating and what is available to me now, although so far from the land of my ancestors, easily aligns in so many ways, as I have access to these foods without sourcing them from other countries (or even states for that matter). This also helps explain my tendency towards fish and seafood sources of protein as opposed to heavier meats and poultry. I simply have less capacity to digest these products on a regular basis and need to limit them throughout my week. A fact that has naturally led me to a pescatarian diet.
Another wonderful tool for living with the land and supporting your overall health is to purchase and consume local honey as this holds all of the wisdom of the native plants and flowers in your landscape. Did you know that this is also a natural remedy for things such as seasonal allergies? It introduces these varieties to your immune system and helps lower the chance of a negative immune response to the pollen and other allergens in your immediate climate. This could be an especially suitable remedy for someone who has just moved to a new area and needs to acclimate themselves to the seasons.
3. Seasonal foods support us through the seasons of life.
Just as local foods inform us of what best serves our bodies, the seasons act as the same guides to keep us healthy and thriving. Depending on the climate we live in, our bodies go through some major shifts and processes as the seasons of the year transition. Often our weather patterns are drastically different to what we experienced in the months that came before. We may have to adjust to a lack of sunlight as the days shift from hot summer months into fall and the darkness of winter. Seasonal depression anyone? This is actually due to a lack of Vitamin D from the sun, which is vital in caring for our mood and overall mental well-being. Lucky for us, we can now supplement for this as well as fulfill our needs through intentional eating.
Naturally, the cold tells our body to turn inwards, to rest and save our strength. We begin eating more dense meals that allow us to create warmth by harnessing the rich fats and spices we may consume more of at this time. All intuitively satisfying our natural rhythms as we shift with the seasons. It's no coincidence that many root vegetables such as sweet potato, turnips, carrots, and potato as well as gourds, pumpkins and squash are ready for harvest in late fall. It's also no coincidence that they just so happen to last for many months when stored in a cool, dark place. You could say it's natures way of providing for us just long enough for the spring to arrive with a new bounty of fresh greens, vegetables and fruits to awaken our intelligent body systems and organs.
4. Eat colorfully.
Did you know that the colors of our food, in all their varieties, are subconsciously speaking to us, helping us understand what we should and shouldn't eat? This is most easily understood, and has informed us as humans on what and when to eat certain foods, by observing animals and the choices they make in their natural habitat.
Plant foods create color to entice us and let us know when they are at peak ripeness. If you have ever grown tomatoes for example, you would know intuitively that green means they are still in their growing phase, and that juicy red hue stimulates a response to pick and eat your bounty. This is a learned experience we as humans grew into. Little did we know, that these plants are also keeping us safe by letting us know of the hidden dangers that may be present.
When plant foods are not ready to be eaten, they contain defensive chemicals known as phytic acid and lectins. These chemicals allow the plants their best chances of survival and act as a defense mechanism against insects and animals that may want to eat them before they have reached full maturity. Their survival is important and must be looked after as they cannot reproduce unless they are allowed to fully ripen and only then be eaten, which gives the best chance of their seeds being dropped and a new plant to grow. They too are trying to procreate and ensure the survival of their kind. And when we consume their fruits while these chemical aids are at their peak and not yet broken down, we can have anywhere from mild to severe reactions depending on the strength of our digestive and immune systems. This can wreak havoc by creating chronic inflammatory responses and is easy to see in modern day concerns such as gluten intolerances and issues with gas and bloating when consuming certain beans and cruciferous vegetables. These substances need to be broken down in order for us to properly digest them and receive their unique nutritional components. Yet another reason to eat with the seasons, as the plants will tell us exactly when they are ready for us.
Color also helps us to consume the wide range of nutrients that our bodies rely on. Variety is a key factor in maintaining optimal health as our blood can become dull and lack richness when we eat too much of the same things. So simply by adding many different colors to our meals, we are ensuring that we are nourishing our whole body and giving it many tools to build and fortify our health. In fact, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the colors of our food directly speak to the organs and body systems which they nourish. And can even help aid our food decisions when faced with specific ailments and seasonal discomforts.
5. Fermented foods keep the good stuff thriving.
I believe most of us are beginning to understand that our bodies are made up not only of human cells, but also play host to a huge population of beneficial bacteria as well as fungi and even select viruses. This is now known as the microbiome. This colony of other-worldly beings is most commonly understood as residing in the gut and playing a vital role in the health of our entire well-being. Researches have recently coined the term "the second brain" for the gut as it holds so much information in how our health plays out. This truth, however, has been known for thousands of years in other cultures and we in the western world are just beginning to catch up.
These little critters are absolutely vital to the function and health of our human cells. In fact, our bodies are made up of approximately 50% human cells in relation to these foreign, and very much alive, beings. Now more than ever before, we are beginning to understand that they also require great care to survive and support us on our journey. These bacteria are responsible for the incredible role of breaking down our foods so that we can properly absorb and benefit from the nutrients we are ingesting, amongst so many other tasks. Without them, it simply wouldn't be possible. And for them to do their job, we must feed them what they need.
Enter fermented foods. Most of us here in America have only come in contact with these amazing foods in the form of saur kraut on our hotdogs or an on-the-go yogurt. But they hold the amazing potential to feed and inform these bacteria and allow them to very efficiently do their job. Try incorporating more fermented foods into your daily meals, such as fresh pickles, whole fat yogurts, even probiotic rich drinks such as kombucha and some alcohols can be beneficial. It's just important to start opening up to these foods and seeing them for the magical health-aids they really are. Especially in a time of pandemic and a culture strongly reliant on antibiotics, which kill both the good and bad bacteria in our bodies. We need to be building and fortifying these flora as our defense system – as our immune system. And springtime is the perfect time to begin playing with these foods and allowing them to help break up any stagnation and clear out the bodies systems while strengthening us in every way.
6. Our relationship with food may be more important than the food itself.
Yes, I said it. What you eat may not be nearly as important as the mindset you have around food and consumption.
Our emotional and mental state when choosing to bring in nutrients plays an important role in how our body receives and interacts with what we are consuming. Most of us have experienced feeling stressed at one point or another and almost unconsciously reaching for whatever sweets or salty snacks we have in the house to naturally soothe. This habit has more intention behind it than we may think. The body begins to send out signals for "fight or flight" when in a state of stress, however big or small it may be. This is our natural response as humans to defend our lives when something we perceive as a threat to our well-being has entered the picture. And although we are not often exposed to preying animals and other life threatening factors these days, the pathways which signal this response in our brains has been engrained in us since the beginning of time.
Our brain tells us that we need to stock up on calories in the case that we don't have access to food for some time following the perceived threat. We also are looking to bring in the most amount of energy possible so that we can use it to either fight off this threat or run from it. And sugar and simple carbohydrates are the quickest and easiest way to create this energy in a short amount of time. The problem here is that our digestive system is not factored into this method, as we have little use for digestion when fighting for our lives. So our digestive processes are turned off while all of the energy and blood flow is pumped to our heart, brain and muscles to act quickly and efficiently. Our metabolism slows to sustain this energy level for as long as possible and we begin to feel the effects of poor nutrient absorption, abdominal discomfort, less than ideal elimination and mood swings, just to name a few.
To combat this, never begin eating in a state of stress. This can be easier said than done with today's high demands on our attention. But beginning to place an emphasis on being present with our food, even if just for a moment by taking a few deep breaths before eating, can have tremendous affects on our system. Also seeing food as medicine and nourishment as opposed to feeling a sense of restriction and deprivation around food and eating can be transformative in how our bodies accept what we are feeding it. A little change of perspective can do wonders.
7. There is no right diet. We are all unique.
And anyone that would tell you otherwise is not well informed. There are so many factors to a person's individual constitution, which is our inherited predisposition that informs everything from what foods we will be able to tolerate, whether we struggle with anxious tendencies, and how our genes are expressed as we age, including our likelihood to develop disease in the body. And this doesn't even begin to factor in the environmental conditions we are each exposed to, including the air quality of our cities, the chemicals in our homes, and our work environments, as well as the amount of stress we experience on a daily basis.
So how could there possibly be just one right way to care for the human body when we all live such different lives? You could say that in simpler times, it would be more accurate that the ideal foods being consumed for an entire community or tribe, or even geographical area, would mostly be made up of the same sustenance and habits. And this is largely due to what was available and the way they were required to adapt to their conditions. But even now as we should be living with our environments and climates in mind, most of us have so many options at our fingertips with the addition of one-click purchases and international shipping. And while foods and herbs from other areas of the world can be incredible tools to bring back abundant health when chosen and consumed intentionally, a surplus of options can make it harder than ever to know the way forward.
In minimalism, it is common to remove the majority of mundane options from our day, such as a closet overflowing with clothes, in order to focus on and be better equipped for the bigger decisions in our lives. In short, enabling us to avoid decision fatigue. And that is exactly what a simple, and wholesome diet can begin to do in your life. It allows you to cut the clutter and confusion around food while also relying heavily on personal experimentation. This can be such a freeing concept – to know that you hold the most intelligent wisdom available around what "nourishes" you. What will be your greatest ally in this lifetime. You already hold all of the information you need within. You just need to create the space and the curiosity for it to come out.
I hope these tips help you to more easily decipher the options we have available to us in a world of global variety. And allow you to find clarity and ease on your path to creating nourishment in your own life. I would love to hear in the comments if these ideas resonated with you or if you have any experiences with these simple truths in your own families and traditions.