By Jana Soeldner Danger
City & Shore Magazine
We’ve all heard it: You are what you eat. What we put into our bodies can have not only long-term health benefits, but also affect how we feel physically and mentally. We can, in fact, eat our way to better health.
During the pandemic, many of us have been preparing more meals at home. That can have advantages, says Lucette Talamas, registered dietician, at Baptist Health South Florida. “We have more control over what goes into our food, and working from home means commuting times can be cut. We have more time to make meals. Cooking is a skill that’s been disappearing, mostly because of time.”
Restaurant meals may have added ingredients like sugar, saturated fats and salt that make them taste good but often aren’t good for you, says Dr. Michelle Pearlman, gastroenterologist and nutrition specialist, at the University of Miami Health System. That can be true even for roast chicken purchased at a market. “People think they’re eating just the chicken, but they’re actually eating all the other ingredients too.”
Besides, cooking can be a creative outlet and stress-reliever, Talamas says. “It’s time away from the news and your phone. You can bring the whole family together to help with all parts of the cooking process, including cleanup.”
Of course, while eating at home can be beneficial, it can also be tempting to fight stress or boredom with too many treats like ice creams and chocolate, or simply eating too much. “Some foods may cause temporary enjoyment, but if we keep overindulging, there are usually negative feelings in addition to the feeling that drove you to them,” Talamas says. Instead, practice mindful eating.
“Mindfulness is being present in the moment. Before you eat something, pause and ask yourself: Am I hungry? If yes, what have I eaten all day? Have I chosen nourishing foods? If no, what am I feeling? Are there nonfood behaviors I can use to deal with those feelings?”
Whenever possible, choose whole foods – those as close as possible to their natural forms, Pearlman says. Think fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
Why? “Processed foods tend to be high in saturated fats, sugar and refined carbohydrates and low in fiber,” Talamas says.
Learn to read labels. “Many people never learned how to read labels and interpret the numbers,” Pearlman says. “We’re not taught to do it in school.” The front of the package may be enticing and feature health claims. But the nutrition label on the back may indicate something different. A product labeled Keto-friendly may be high in saturated fat. Some yogurts have added sugar. Look at the fat, fiber, sugar, protein and sodium content, as well as any other ingredients, Pearlman says.
Of course, not all fats are bad. Healthy fats help maintain both the heart and brain, Talamas says. “But saturated fats do the opposite. They cause more rigid cellular membranes and can affect the function of cells.”
Be conscious of portion size. “Portions are out of control,” Pearlman says, noting even plate size has changed to accommodate our tendency to eat more. A standard dinner plate used to be nine inches in diameter, Pearlman says. Newer ones can be 11 inches. “People have had to remodel their kitchens because 11-inch plates don’t fit in their cabinets.”
While what you eat can be a factor in long-term health issues like heart disease, it can also affect how you feel today. Foods can cause symptoms like heartburn, bloating and fatigue. “I hate to give medication to treat symptoms caused by food,” Pearlman says. “I treat food as medicine. People want to feel well, and you can do that with food. As a society, we’re eating ourselves ill.”
But what’s right for one person may not be right for another, Pearlman adds. For example: “People who become vegans because they want to feel better may eat beans and lentils as protein sources and find they develop bloating,” Pearlman says. To discover what foods cause you to feel unwell, keep a food diary. “Otherwise, it can be very difficult to remember what you’ve eaten,” Pearlman says. “Make notes on how you feel afterwards and you’ll be able to identify foods that give you symptoms. People need to be more in tune with their bodies.”
Food also affects emotional well-being, something that can be especially important with all the stress associated with the pandemic.
“There’s a food-mood connection,” Talamas says. “Food is energy. When blood sugar levels drop, hunger may come across as moodiness or affect concentration and focus.” She adds, “We’re finding in animal studies that bacteria in the gut may influence production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, chemical messengers that affect mood. Gut health is important.”
Probiotics can be beneficial for gut health, Talamas says. Natural sources include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt.
The gut also affects the immune system, Pearlman says. “If you have the wrong kinds of bacteria in your gut, it can lead to health issues that affect it and also other organs. When you want to increase gut biodiversity, begin by eating a wide variety of fiber: fruits and vegetables in all the colors of the rainbow.”
Food, not supplements
It is better to get nutrition from foods rather than supplements. “When you consume nutrients in foods, there’s a synergy,” Talamas says. “They aren’t isolated like they are in pills.”
Supplements are not regulated by the FDA in the same way drugs are, and amounts of ingredients, as well as types of fillers, may vary. “Taking too much of one vitamin may interfere with the absorption of another,” Pearlman says.
Now is a good time to create eating patterns that can lead to long-term better health. “What we feed ourselves day in and day out affects every aspect of our lives,” Pearlman says. “Eat better to feel better.”
Photo: Stock Creations