Life is replete with rules that govern our behaviour within various systems. We have rules in sport, rules at work and rules in relationships. They say that rules are there to be broken, and I kind of agree with that. But only rules set by other people for their own benefit. Some rules are there to help us and make us stronger, and we should be wise to their words. Break these beneficial rules and failure often awaits. Nutrition has a series of rules that act as a guide towards optimum health, and if applied correctly, can lead towards a better body shape, more energy and improved mood. However, deviate from the pathway set out before you, and weight gain, ill health and degeneration await. I like to call these steps the ten rules for optimal health, and I have set them out below.
1. Do not become excessively hungry
The key to maintaining healthy weight is to become master of your hunger levels. The drive to eat originates in parts of the brain called the hypothalamus and the brain stem. This drive to satisfy hunger is a very powerful signal and almost impossible to override long term. Of course, this signal is part of everyday life and it is this signal that reminds us to search and acquire food. Problems arise when you wish to cut down on the amount of food you eat, perhaps because you need to lose some extra pounds. With all the food around us in the modern age, it is very hard to decrease energy consumption in order to be able to shed this extra weight. When you cut back, the body ramps up the desire to eat and suddenly the desire becomes the overriding drive of the day.
Therefore if you wish to control your weight you must ensure that this signal does not become excessive. Once it is engaged you will eat. If you have suppressed the desire to eat for a long time, the rebound effect will result in overeating. Anyone who has attempted to lose weight with a crash diet will have experienced this effect. So if you are on a reduced calorie diet and are feeling hungry, then the diet is destined to fail because at some point, you will overeat to satisfy your hunger. Any regimen designed to lower or control calorie intake, must address the hunger signal and switch it off or turn it down before that diet can be successful. The best diets are the ones that do not make you feel hungry. Small frequent meals containing protein is a key principle in achieving hunger moderation.
2. Do not buy junk food
If it is in the cupboards in your house, you will eventually eat it. This is fairly straight forward and something we have all had experience of. Looking through cupboards for something to eat when hungry. It may be after a stressful time at work, or when you are bored, or it may simply be because there is nothing else available. But I assure you, even with the best intentions, if it is in the cupboard it will eventually find it way into your mouth. The trick here then is to make sure you do not place the junk food in the cupboards to begin with. Leave it on the shelf at the supermarket. If other members of your family have junk food in the house then you will have to try to convince them to make other arrangements, but in reality your loved ones should not be eating this sort of food anyway.
3. Do not go shopping on an empty stomach
This one sounds a lot like a famous ancient Chinese proverb. A wise man once said ‘never go shopping with an empty stomach’. Again, it is something we have all experienced. This is an absolute no, and related to point two above. The consequence of food shopping when hungry is that you will buy more food than you need because of the strong desires from the hunger centres of your brain, and often it will be the types of food you should not be buying anyway such as junk food and treats. Make a list before you go to the shop and stick to it. And remember, if you buy it you will eventually eat it, even if you convince yourself that you will not. So never go shopping if you are feeling hungry and plan ahead so this eventuality does not occur.
4. Accept the fact that modern food is devoid of minerals
Modern farming techniques strip foods of their nutrients. The soils in most extensively farmed agricultural areas of the world are becoming deficient in minerals and this problem is slowly lowering the nutrient content of food. The crops you eat today are not the same nutritious foods that out grandparents enjoyed. Other areas never had soil with the minerals in to begin with. New Zealand for example has very low levels of selenium naturally. When plants grow they draw up minerals from the soil through the roots and when we eat the plants we eat the minerals, which keeps us healthy. However, if year after year the soil is farmed and the minerals are not replaced, the soil becomes mineral deficient, the plants become mineral deficient, and then we become mineral deficient.
Because plants can grow in soils deficient of many of the trace minerals, the resultant fruit and vegetables may look tasty, but that does not mean they can provide you with the levels of nutrients you require for optimum nutrition. Plants do not need selenium in their tissues to grow to be healthy. But you do need it. Studies have shown that even trained professional find it next to impossible to create diets that are able to supply the average person with the trace minerals they require. Selenium and chromium are particularly problematic and research continually finds them deficient in large numbers of people. As a basic requirement for optimum nutrition in modern age, you almost certainly require a high strength multivitamin and mineral as a supplement to your diet.
5. Avoid exposure to pollution and toxins
You are surrounded by pollution, so protect yourself. There is pollution in the sky, pollution in the water and pollution in your food. Animals are fed all sorts of chemicals and drugs while they are growing and food is blasted with pesticides, herbicides and radiation. Additives such as colourings and preservatives are present in many foods, and fluoride compounds and chlorine are added to the drinking water. Other chemical residues and drugs also build up in the drinking water supply. Damaging chemicals are present in plastic bottles and the lining of tin cans. If you live in the city you will be exposed from even higher levels of pollution from the traffic and industry. As well as this, electromagnetic pollution in the form of microwaves and other damaging radiation bombards us daily.
All of this pollution can have a damaging effect on your body and lead to cellular damage. Pollution is a form of stress to the body and you must protect yourself with nutrition. Many pollutants cause free radical damage to the body which can lead to premature aging and chronic disease. Foods high in antioxidants can neutralise free radicals, and certain herbs can help illuminate toxins before they have time to build up to damaging levels in the blood or cells. If you are exposed to higher levels of pollution making sure you have high amounts of antioxidants and protective herbs in your diet is essential. However, the best solution is to avoid as much unnecessary pollution as possible. And, if you smoke, stop. But if you simply cannot quit, load up on plant foods rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients.
6. Avoid excessive and prolonged stress
Most people’s idea of stress is that it is bad, but the word is often misused in the modern language. The fact is that a small amount of stress is not just good for you, it is actually essential to optimal health. Exercise is form of stress for the body and can greatly improve your physical and mental health and well being. Small amount of stress in daily life help us remain motivated and allow us to meet deadlines. However, in order for stress to be a healthy thing, it must be in moderation and there must be adequate time to recover. This is why it is important to have a break between training sessions when on an exercise regime, and equally important to have time away from your job with a holiday or break every now and then.
When the stress becomes excessive and the rest periods disappear, the body uses up its nutritional resources and begins to enter a downward spiral of cellular damage, inflammation and eventually chronic disease and mental health problems. Having optimum nutrition will allow you to delay the damaging effects of stress, but even with a healthy diet, eventually excessive stress will overwhelm your system. The most common forms of stress tend to be job or relationship related, but overtraining through physical exercise can also cause degeneration. Some people cope with stress better than others and have a higher natural tolerance, just as with exercise. Everyone can develop short term coping strategies, but if you feel the stress is becoming chronic and long term, you need to plan an exit strategy before you become ill.
7. Vegetarianism can be healthy
Modern supplements and a wider range of food in shops mean that vegetarians can obtain optimum health much more readily than was once possible. High quality whey protein, creatine, marine algae, B vitamins and absorbable iron are all available in supplements and allow the vegetarian to maintain optimal levels of nutrients. In fact, because vegetarianism often avoids the chemicals and hormones found in meat and fish, it can actually be a better route to optimum health. Some very high achieving athletes both past and present have been vegetarians and the absence of meat or fish was no barrier to their ultimate success. I see no problem with people eating meat, but I also see no problem with vegetarianism, as long as efforts are made to redress the deficiencies of nutrients that can arise from avoidance of meat, fowl or fish.
8. Only eat high quality foods
As the expression goes, ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Your physical body is a very complex piece of biochemical machinery, far more complicated that any machine built by man. In fact your brain, or one like it , is the most complex device in the known universe. As you would expect, powering that delicate complex machinery with low quality fuel will lead to an invalidation of your warranty, and from this once in a lifetime sale there are no refunds. There are big profits to be made in farming and by supermarkets by cutting corners. Much of the cheaper food is cheap for a reason. Quality food that is grown in healthy soil using organic fertilisers and pesticides tends to cost money to produce and prepare. Cutting costs by buying cheap food is usually false economy as you usually get what you pay for.
You should therefore always buy the best quality fresh food you can afford. In some cases this is not a problem, because fresh unprocessed whole foods in local shops are usually cheaper than processed and highly packaged food in supermarkets. Organic food tends to be more expensive, so be selective and pick the most chemical laden foods as the ones you avoid in favour of organic. In addition, if you buy organic free range chickens and eggs, the animals tends to have had a better quality of life compared to their battery counterparts. A happy bird is a healthy bird, and that happiness is then passed onto you in the form of a healthier meal. The bottom line is that humanely reared animals have healthier meat and eggs, are of a higher quality, and this translates into improvements in your own health when you consume them. Always show respect for any animals you must eat.
9. Buy local produce
It’s common sense and self evident that transporting nutrient poor food halfway around the world is not the best policy in order to maintain the optimal health of the consumer or conserve the resources of the planet. Buying food that originated in far off lands is a recipe for ill health and environmental pollution. Buying locally supports your community and ensures the minimum time between the food being produced and it reaching your plate. The best way to ensure the highest quality food is obviously to grow your own, and more people are turning their hand to farming in their garden or using allotments. If you do not have the time or the skills, buying from a local farmers market is probably the next best thing. Local farmers will often deliver direct to your door which is another great way to save time and enjoy the benefits of local foods.
10. Eat things that go off, and eat them before they go off
Junk food tends to have a long shelf life, but real food goes off in a few days. If you have lots of food in the house that hangs around for along time in packets, the chances are it is not the right sort of food for optimum health. Fresh fruit, vegetables, organic grass fed meat and fish caught in the wild should make up the staple of your diet. All of these things go off in a few days and must be eaten fresh. These food also tend to use less packaging than their junk food counterparts which also means they are less damaging to the environment in which we live. The advantage of eating fresh foods is that you tend to naturally be eating foods that are healthier and you are also avoiding many of the chemicals and sugar that can be added to extend the shelf live of unhealthy food choices.
11. Everyone is different
Yes, I know the title is the ten rules for optimal health, and this is an eleventh. But this final rule is not so much a rule, but an explanation as you why so many fail to achieve their nutritional goals. Looking around, you have probably noticed that everyone looks different. Exterior appearances differ considerably, and just as on the outside, so on the inside. We all have an individual biochemical make ups that means that what is good for one person might not be good for another. This difference in internal biochemistry is reflected in quite different nutritional needs from person to person. While the ten basic rules on good nutrition still apply to everyone, to achieve optimum health following these rule you are going to have to acknowledge that you are an individual. This means you must fine tune your nutrition plan to meet your personal requirements.
Some people need more protein that others, some have a higher requirement for certain minerals and some people need to drink more water. Whatever the difference, you will never achieve your own personal optimum health unless you are prepared to listen to your own body and understand what it is asking for you to provide. Much of this process will be a combination of trial and error and intuitive guesswork. You will be able to achieve good health and improve your energy levels and mental capacity with a generic nutrition programme. But the last 10 or 20 percent, the attainment of optimum health, will require a fine tuning of this general plan into a customised individual regimen. If you do not have the expertise for this, then a trained professional will be able to guide you. But ultimately, you will need to guide yourself.