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5 steps to a healthier diet.

The hottest new recommendations for eating healthier are, in fact, nothing new. Eating more organically grown food, for instance, was among the common dietary practices of most Americans until the last century. While they may be simple ideas on the surface, adopting them consistently in our modern fast-paced culture of convenience can present real challenges. If you're living closer to the land and enjoy preparing food, you know that eating healthy is easy. But if you're like the rest of us and are riving closer to mortgage payments, deadlines, and endless to-do lists, you can upgrade your diet without overhauling your life by following these five steps.


At the same time that we've become more connected to the global community through the internet, cell phones, and other devices, we've become less connected to our local community and the signals of our own body. We eat by the clock, choose foods that disagree with us, and are not tuned in enough to regard symptoms of discomfort as early warning signals. In fact, we're encouraged by advertisements and many physicians to completely override these inconvenient signs with medications, as if little purple pills are really the solution.

What we focus on expands. The mere intention of being more attuned to our bodies and our food stirs our awareness. We have forgotten that eating is about nourishing our cells with the nutrients they need to function so that we may thrive. It takes only a few minutes to get tuned in with your food by pondering where it might have originated and how far it came to be with you. If you are already in the practice of pausing to give thanks before you dive in to your meal, an additional moment of reflecting can go a long way in making the mind-body-food connection.

Getting your hands in the soil, if this is not your regular experience, will quickly ground you and move you in the direction of awareness as well. If you have ever grown your own food, you are familiar with the unique sense of satisfaction, pride, and yes, connectedness, you have unearthed in this process. One study found that children who participate in gardening as little as thirty minutes per week eat more vegetables. (1) It seems that their experience and exposure simply opened up the children's awareness, bridging the gap between the food's production and its place at the table.


I didn't need to go very far to learn how much our food has changed in the last century; I just listened to the stories of my father. A mere sixty years ago, my dad grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, living in a small house without indoor plumbing. Though he was dirt poor, he never went hungry, and oddly enough, never ate better. The quality of his food can hardly be matched today. All of the food produced on the farm, including the animal products, was 100% organic, not for any intentional reason, but because that's how food was produced. The dairy products he ate--butter, milk, cream, buttermilk, sour cream--were not only organic but also unpasteurized (there are many today that go to great lengths for "living" dairy products). During the winter months, the family fermented in a large ceramic crock the cabbage that had been grown on the farm. Today, sauerkraut and other beneficial bacteria-rich fermented foods are highly cherished by those striving to optimize their diets.

Our ancestors ate a wide variety of in-season, wildcrafted, and organically grown plants. By the estimates of anthropologists, our prehistoric diet consisted of several hundred different plant species. Today, the average American diet consists of only twenty to thirty different plant foods. Consider what phytochemicals and other nutrients are lost from such a limited selection.


Take inventory of the plant variety you're currently eating and devise ways to increase these numbers. You can easily bump up your intake by ten Or more by adding less common spices to your diet. By focusing on different types of tea, you can expose yourself to even more of these plant foods. Google a list of fruits and vegetables and identify those that you enjoy but rarely eat. Count the variety of these items the next time you are at a quality salad bar and experiment with finding new favorites. Create your tally sheet and make a game of increasing the variety, if not the amount, of plant foods in your diet. Are you eating a diet that consists of quality food? Don't be shocked by the question. Many of us are routinely eating diets that are chock full of convenience, not nutrients. Imagine eating--as most Americans do--a diet that consists of mostly refined carbohydrates, unhealthy oils, foods containing artificial sweeteners and preservatives, products from medicated animals, and a limited variety of plant foods. While good nutrition starts in our kitchens, more of us are dependent on foods prepared outside the home. Restaurants, as a general rule, place an emphasis on taste with little regard for nutritional viability. Quality whole grain choices are absent from most restaurants and they routinely cook with vegetable oil, soybean oil, and other highly processed oils that are stripped of important nutrients. Meat and dairy products are produced intensively, grown with the aid of lower quality feed, antibiotics, hormones, and other medications.

The trend toward low cost, low quality food has simultaneously created a dilemma and a promising opportunity. On one hand, Americans have grown accustomed to spending too little of their disposable income (money available after taxes) on food. In fact, government statistics indicate that in 1930, average Americans spent roughly thirty percentof their income to feed their families; today we're just under eleven percent. (2) A glance at our European neighbors, known for placing a greater emphasis on quality food, reveals that they are spending twenty percent of their earnings.

While there are no signs that the quantity-over-quality, assembly-line food machine is slowing (rather, it is accelerating down that road by introducing genetic engineering), those seeking high quality food are fueling the organic movement, sales of which have grown 1500 percent since 1990. While most supporters do not need to see scientific evidence that food is more nutritious when it is produced without irradiation, sewage sludge, genetic engineering, most pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers, there is such proof. In a review of 41 different studies and 1,240 food comparisons, organic crops were found to contain significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus as well as fewer nitrates than conventional crops. (3) But organic, in its true sense, goes far beyond the nutrition value of the food being produced; it encompasses the health and viability of the soil, ensures that farm workers are not exposed to toxic chemicals, and provides animals and people with a healthier environment in which to live.

Genetic engineering (GMO) is a technology that bypasses the natural order. By mixing genes of different species that never could cross naturally, scientists hope to create greater crop yields and increased pest resistance. With only a primitive understanding of how these alterations might adversely affect our health or the environment, the industry has plowed ahead quickly, unwilling to conduct long-term safety tests before introducing these foods to the public. Already, 70 percent of all processed foods contain at least one GMO ingredient, most likely a derivative of soy, canola, or corn. What's sorely needed is labeling requirements identifying foods with GMO ingredients. Find out how you can effectively voice your opinion at


Imagine being told that you could reduce both your heart disease risk by thirty five percent and your diabetes risk by nearly thirty percent by making one simple dietary change. You'd expect this news to still be on the front page of the newspaper as a reminder, but it isn't. As shown by two large studies, eating a handful of nuts or seeds five times or more each week can go a long way in protecting you from two of the leading causes of death in this country. (4)

What other small changes can you make that will provide significant benefits? Plan on joining a CSA farm (community supported agriculture) this season or next as a way to increase your intake of locally produced fruits and vegetables. If you eat away from the house most of the time, consider preparing a few more meals or snacks at home with good nutrition in mind. Seek out restaurants that provide healthier options. In addition to the benefits of adding nuts and seeds to your diet, you can shift the quality of fats you eat by making a few alterations: Switch your salad dressing to extra virgin olive oil at home or, when available, in restaurants; replace vegetable oils or other oils used for high heat cooking at home with quality coconut oil or grapeseed oil; buy organic butter since environmental contaminants are stored in animal fats; replace supermarket eggs with organic "designer" eggs or those produced locally by free running chickens (analyses have shown that four designer eggs contain the same omega-3 content as a serving of salmon); and upgrade snack foods to healthier versions (see your natural food stores) that are made with healthier oils (instead of partially hydrogenated oils) and more whole grains.


A popular Zen proverb reminds, "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water" (Wu Li). Likewise, healthier eating is an ongoing practice that requires a sustainable approach. It is important to distinguish between short-term "healing" diets and long-term lifestyle ones. While there is a time and a place to eat as pristinely as possible, to eat healthy most of the time is ideal. Although the primary design of eating is to nourish our bodies, food is to be enjoyed. But it is as much cause for celebration as it is what we tend to do when we are celebrating. You may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself enjoying healthier, more wholesome foods simply as a result of remembering this.


(1) Lorenz, S.G. et al. Vegetable gardening and preschoolers' attitudes towards vegetables. J Am Diet Assoc. 2002;5102:A-59.


(3) Worthington, V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine. 7(2001):161-73.

(4) Hu FB, et al. Frequent nut consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in women: prospective cohort study. Br Med J. 1998; 317(7169): 1341-1345; Jiang Ret al. Nut and peanut butter consumption and risk of type-II diabetes in women. JAMA.

Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD, is the nutritionist for the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine and author of The Best Natural Foods on the Market Today: A Yuppie's Guide to Hippie Food (
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Title Annotation:going organic
Author:Hottinger, Greg
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Previous Article:Letter from the editor.
Next Article:Live, laugh & learn.

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