By Dr. Shawna Darou
I have had many questions in the past few weeks especially about healthy nutrition basics, and I hope that this article is helpful to you too. At the bottom the article you will find a downloadable PDF to keep with you for future reference.
For most of my patients, I discuss ratios on the plate as a guideline for how much protein, starch and fats to include at each meal. These ratios may be modified depending on your health goals.
- ½ plate vegetables – salad, stir-fry, steamed, sautéed, grilled, roasted, raw,…
- ¼ plate protein – palm of hand size serving of meat / poultry / fish, 2 eggs, high protein dairy (if tolerated), 2/3 cup of legumes, ½ cup of chopped, firm tofu (if tolerated)
- ¼ plate starch – sweet potato, squash, brown rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, potato, gluten-free or whole grain pasta, 1 slice of bread or small wrap.
- Healthy fats: 1-2 tablespoons – olive oil or other fats, ¼ avocado, olives, nuts and seeds.
- Proteins: For most people, I recommend including protein with each meal. The reason is that this will support your energy, blood sugar levels, mental focus and metabolism. The amount of protein that we need can vary, but a general minimum amount is 40 grams of protein per day. Some people may need more than twice this amount. Protein is found in meat, poultry, fish, egg, high protein dairy (yogurt, cottage cheese, whey protein), beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, and smaller amounts in nuts, seeds, hemp hearts, hummus dip and quinoa.
- Carbohydrates: The amount of carbohydrate foods that each of us need per day can vary too. Best choices for carbohydrates for most of us include starchy vegetables (carrot, beet, parsnip, rutabaga), sweet potatoes, yams and squash. Other good choices are gluten-free grains such as quinoa, brown rice, wheat-free oats and buckwheat. If you are not gluten-intolerant, you can also include grain such as wheat, spelt, kamut and rye. Most people do find that they feel better with less gluten in their diet, even if they are not gluten intolerant, and if you have any inflammatory health conditions (all autoimmune conditions, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and others), I would recommend a gluten-free diet.
- Fats: Fats and oils are an important part of a health diet, and especially important for hormonal health. Include fats and oils with each meal with the top choices being olive oil, coconut oil, butter, nuts and seeds and avocado. Avoid fried foods and processed fats as they dramatically increase inflammation in the body.
Cooking with oils:
- High heats: Certain oils sustain higher heat than others, so if you are baking, stir-frying or cooking a meal at higher than medium heat, choose: coconut oil, grapeseed oil (sustains high heat well, but not the healthiest choice), avocado oil or ghee (clarified butter)
- Moderate heats: for use at low-medium heat and in sautées: sesame oil, butter, olive oil, peanut oil, walnut oil
- No cooking: flaxseed oil, pumpkin seed oil, olive oil
Overall, I do not recommend using canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil or vegetable oil. There are far healthier choices!
Vegetables and Fruits:
- Vegetables are one of the most important things to emphasize in your diet, as they are the best source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients).
- Aim for at least 5 servings per day of vegetables, where one serving = ½ cup of chopped vegetables or 1 cup of leafy greens.
- Limit fruits to 2-3 servings per day, emphasizing berries especially.
- If you have any type of inflammatory condition (arthritis, any autoimmune condition for example), you may be better to avoid the nightshade family of vegetables: tomato, potato, eggplant, peppers.
- You can increase your intake of phytonutrients by adding green smoothies or vegetable juices to your diet.
- Increasing your intake of vegetables and fruits is one of the most powerful things you can to improve your health.
- Fibre is important for digestive health to support bowel health, detoxification, optimal cholesterol levels, and very importantly to help stabilize blood sugar levels.
- For optimal health, aim for a minimum of 25 grams of fibre per day, with an optimal number being between 30-40 grams per day.
- There are two types of fibre: soluble, which lowers cholesterol, and regulates blood sugar levels, and insoluble fibre, which supports healthy digestion.
- Sources of soluble fibre: beans, lentils, oatmeal, oatbran, nuts, seeds, psyllium, fruits, berries.
- Sources of insoluble fibre: whole grains, nuts, seeds, carrots, cucumbers, celery, green beans, dark leafy greens, raisins, grapes, tomatoes.
- To meet your daily requirements: increase your vegetable and fruit servings daily; include 1-2 tablespoons of ground flax or chia seeds daily; and if tolerated include beans or legumes regularly in your diet. There are many ways to increase your fibre intake other than a conventional fibre cereal, which is always loaded with sugar!
- In Toronto, our municipal water supply is not bad. The main concerns are the presence of fluoride and chlorine in tap water, which can easily be filtered out with a simple carbon filtration system. If however, you live in an old building, it is highly recommended to test your water, as you may have higher than acceptable levels of lead or copper from piping.
- If you live outside of the city and have well water, I would highly recommend testing your water quality for bacteria, chemicals and heavy metals as often as every 3-5 years.
- Please do not store your water in any type of plastic container. The best water bottles are glass or stainless steel.
- Water intake is optimally 6-8 glasses per day, and herbal teas and lemon water count here.
- For most people, a small amount of caffeine is tolerated well. Caution if you are under lots of stress, as caffeine will push on your adrenal glands and cause you to become run down much more quickly. Limit your caffeinated beverages to one serving daily (no more than 12 ounces of coffee).
- The interesting paradox with caffeine is that in almost all cases, when you stop your daily caffeine habit, your energy levels will increase and stay steady through the day. It can take up to a month to fully adjust without caffeine, but it is worth it!
- For women’s health, the safe upper limit of alcohol is lower than most of us expect.
- Studies have shown that women who drink as little as one alcoholic beverage per day, have an increased cancer risk (cancers of the breast, liver, rectum, mouth, throat and esophagus). Breast cancer has the highest association with alcohol intake, and in one study it was estimated that as many as 11% of breast cancers can be attributed to alcohol consumption. The mechanisms involved are: 1) the production of acetaldehyde from breakdown of ethanol, which is a probable human carcinogen; 2) increased levels of estrogen; 3) generation of reactive oxygen species which damage DNA through oxidation; and 4) impairment of the body’s ability to break down and absorb many nutrients: vitamin A, B-vitamins such as folate, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E and carotenoids. (Allen NE, Beral V, Casabonne D, et al. Moderate alcohol intake and cancer incidence in women. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2009;101(5):296-305.)
- A recommended upper limit for alcohol intake in women is 4 drinks per week. If you have a personal or family history of cancer, the recommendation is much less.
- Our sugar intake in the past 50 years has skyrocketed, due to added sugar in almost every packaged food, and the great increase in the overall population’s intake of juice, pop, iced tea, other flavoured drinks, sugar in coffee.
- A safer limit to added sugar in your diet, is to aim to keep your grams of sugar below 25 grams. This does not include what comes from your vegetables and fruits, but does include sugar in juices.
- Start watching your sugar intake – you’ll be amazed at how quickly it adds up!
- I am a supporter of eating organic foods as much as possible, in order to lower your toxic burden. This is especially important during pregnancy, for small children and those with hormone-stimulated health conditions (for example: endometriosis, fibroids, infertility, breast cancer).
- To help with decision-making when shopping you can follow the Environmental Working Group’s list of the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/list.php). Here is a summary:
- Foods that are higher in pesticides (choose organic)
- Apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines (imported), cucumber, cherry tomatoes, snap peas (imported), potatoes
- Foods that are lower in pesticides:
- Avocado, sweet peas, pineapple, cabbage, onion, asparagus, mango, papaya, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, sweet potato, sweet corn.
- For the majority of my patients, I do not recommend high dairy-product intake. Dairy intolerance can be associated with skin disorders (acne and eczema especially), digestive disturbance, chronic sinus congestion, joint pains, ear infections in children, and more.
- If you tolerate dairy well, some unsweetened yogurt and cheeses are fine to include in moderation.
- There are many other way to meet your dietary calcium requirements, including: dark leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds and tahini, almonds and almond butter, sea vegetables, and fortified non-dairy beverages. In fact, dairy intake in studies does not prevent osteoporosis! It is far more important to increase your vegetable and fruit intake, and optimize vitamin D levels.
Organic and grass-fed meat:
- If you choose to eat meat, it is especially important to choose organic. The higher the food is on the food chain, the more toxins have accumulated, meaning that you are exposed to more chemicals in meats.
- The other concern with regular factory-farmed meats is the amount of antibiotics they are given to prevent infection. These antibiotics are a large part of the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, as we are exposed to chronic low doses.
- Animal welfare is an additional concern, as most meat products you find in the supermarket are factory-farmed meats often raised in extremely inhumane conditions.
- A quick note about grass-fed versus grain-fed meats, and this applies mostly to beef products, butter and dairy. Grass-fed meats contain less total fat, significantly more healthy omega-3 fatty acids, more conjugated linoleic acid, and antioxidants such as vitamin E.
GMO (genetically modified foods):
- Genetically modified foods have slowly crept into Canada’s food supply over the past 15 years, and they may be impacting our health.
- One of the main ways that they affect our health, has to do with the high amounts of a chemical called ‘glyphosate’ which is found in the “Round-Up” insecticide that is used on these crops. Glyphosate kills off our healthy bacterial flora similarly to antibiotics. (You can read more about the science in my blog article here: http://darouwellness.com/importance-avoiding-gmo-foods/).
- The way that this affects our health is:
- The main foods to watch out for on Canadian shelves include:
- Corn: found in corn flakes, corn chips, corn starch, corn syrup, corn oil and other corn ingredients in processed foods, sweeteners like glucose and fructose; eggs, milk and meat.
- Soy: soy oil, soy protein, soy beverages, soy pudding, soy lecithin, tofu; eggs, milk and meat.
- Canola: canola oil; eggs, milk and meat.
- Sugar beets: sugar
- The best action to take with foods that contain corn, soy, canola or sugar is to choose organic.
- gastrointestinal disorders (IBS, bloating, increased risk of colitis or crohn’s)
- higher rates of allergies and intolerance
- increased risk of diabetes
- weight challenges
- mood disorders
- I am a big believer in moderation, and also learning what moderation works right for your body. In order to learn what your health moderation is, it is best to be strict with your nutrition plan for a full month or two, in order for your body to adjust to it’s optimal state. From this state, it is much more clear where to put the boundaries with other foods. For example, if you are on a lower-carbohydrate nutrition plan, a meal that contains a gluten-free pasta may feel fine on occasion, but a full heavy pasta dinner out may not be worth it. Or a home-made macaroon as a treat sweetened with honey make feel great as your healthy moderation, but the brownie from your local coffee shop makes you really bloated and tired.
- Listen to your own body with this, and make sure that you build in some healthy moderation into your plan, so that you maintain some of the joy from great food, and eating socially.
For a printable PDF of this article, please click here.