For decades I have been interested in nutrition and healthy eating. Several months before I got pregnant with my son (now a healthy and thriving 15-month old) I began to do intensive research on nutrition. I knew the importance of a healthy diet to increase one's fertility, to ensure the health and proper development of the fetus as it grew, and then, once born, the importance of the mother's diet in relation to breast milk quality and quantity. So I was strongly motivated to dive even deeper into food as the ultimate medicine.
My research, combined with my prior knowledge of health as a holistic healthcare practitioner, led me to finally have an answer the perennial question so many people ask of "what is a healthy diet?" The answer: a nutrient-dense, traditional foods diet. Unlike the countless trends of "diets" that rise and fall throughout the years, this way of eating is based on the diets our ancestors ate, before industrialized and processed food was introduced. Different traditional cultures across the globe had very different diets, but they also shared some very key aspects: food wisdom passed down through the generations prior to the advent of industrially processed and denatured food. The modern Traditional Foods Movement is a return to these principles of eating. I'd like to share some of these basic principles, as I know so many people who are confused about what they should be eating and feeding their families for optimal physical and mental health. Below is a list of the basic foods that comprise a whole food, nutrient-dense diet.
1.) Pasture-raised meats, eggs, and wild-caught fish. While I think many people can thrive on a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (one that includes eggs and dairy, but no meat), from a nutritional standpoint I cannot recommend a strictly vegan diet for anyone, and ESPECIALLY not for growing children. There are no traditional cultures that followed a strictly vegan diet, and this is not a coincidence. There are many nutrients, absolutely essential for mental and physical health, that simply cannot be obtained from a purely plant-based diet. As a teenager, I was a strict vegan for five years of my life, and it was primarily because I was appalled at the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture, and this a valid point that needs to be addressed. At the time of my veganism, I was not aware of a movement towards traditional agricultural farming methods that uphold ethically and environmentally responsible practices. It also turns out that the meat, eggs, and dairy that comes from animals raised in the old-fashioned, pre-industrial way is actually superior from a nutritional standpoint. The Traditional Foods movement is adamant about obtaining animal protein from small farms with traditional farming methods and NOT from animals raised in factory farms and CAFO's (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).
It would be unheard of in an indigenous culture to throw away some parts of an animal that was killed for eating. One of the principles of a traditional diet is making use of the whole animal--bones, skin, organs in addition to the commonly eaten muscle meats. This is both a way to respect the animal who has been killed, by not wasting any part of it, but it's also a way to get an incredible amount of nutrients. Making a broth out of the leftover roast chicken carcass is a great example of how to enact this principle. There is an entire book written about the healing properties of bone broth--it is such good medicine!
2.) Dairy that is full-fat, raw, non-homogenized from cows or goats raised with traditional farming methods. Our ancestors didn't have skim or low-fat milk! The low-fat/non-fat dairy products came out of a widespread belief (propagated by the industrial food industry) that eating animal fats will make us fat. Wrong! The biggest contributing factor to obesity (besides a sedentary lifestyle) is a diet high in sugars and refined, processed carbohydrates (more on this below). Low-fat and non-fat dairy, in addition to being denatured by unnatural processing methods, is higher in sugars and much lower in the fat-soluble vitamins that are so essential for mental and physical health and wellbeing. "Milk alternatives" are also highly processed food products devoid of nutrients (which is why they will add synthetic vitamins A and D to these alternative milk products and to low-fat dairy). So it needs to be full-fat and it really should be raw, if possible
Pasteurization came about in a tme when there were dirty and unsanitary farming practices and people were getting sick from contaminated milk. Modern day raw dairy farmers have access to equipment and practices that prevent such contamination (such as stainless steel tanks and refrigeration). Most modern raw dairy farmers are also regularly inspected by government agencies to ensure they are following completely safe and sanitary practices. Because it retains its natural enzymes, raw milk is easier to digest than pasteurized (I for one get a lot of mucus, sneezing, and sometimes stomach pain when I drink pasteurized milk-- symptoms I never get from raw milk). I drank raw milk throughout my entire pregnancy and now I give my toddler the same milk. I attribute his phenomenal health largely to this wonderful superfood that we get directly from the farmer at the weekly farmer's market. Some people find raw goat milk easier to digest, and some people can only tolerate dairy in its cultured forms (i.e. yogurt or kefir). Every body is different, so I suggest people find what works best for them, within the context of traditional dairy products.
3.) Organic, seasonal, and locally-grown fruits and vegetable. Local and seasonal means you're not eating blueberries or tomatoes in January! By eating produce that is grown on small local farms, without pesticides, you are getting the optimal vitality and life-force from your fruits and veggies. Right now, in the dead of winter, the only fruits that are really in season here are citrus and kiwi. And guess what? They are wonderful sources of Vitamin C, right in the midst of cold and flu season! Balancing the nutrient-dense foods we get from the animals with the lighter, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables is the perfect balance of foods that are building and foods that are cleansing. When people forgo all animal foods for only plant foods they are basically eating a diet that is cleansing without building. This may feel good at first, and can be therapeutic for short-term seasonal cleanses, but in the long run it is a recipe for serious deficiencies. So while it's good to enjoy a fresh organic salad from the farmer's market, don't neglect getting your nutrient-dense foods in as well!
4.) Grains. Boy, is this is a hot topic these days! Grains have become vilified in recent years, and actually with good reason. When not prepared properly, grains are extremely hard to digest and can pose a lot of health problems for people. This is where Traditional Food wisdom comes in handy. Our ancestors knew that grains needed extra preparation if they were to be nutritious and digestible foods. So they soaked and soured their grains a long time, and then cooked them a long time, often into watery porridges. Through proper preparation, they found a way to make a food, which in its raw form is virtually indigestible, into a highly nourishing staple.
But in modern times we've lost this food wisdom in regards to grains, and are now paying the price, health-wise. There are a few ways we've been eating grains our modern culture that pose health threats. On the one hand, there is the industrially processed flour products (such as crackers and boxed cereals) which are completely denatured by a process called extrusion, so that they can get into those shapes. These flour products also often contain rancid vegetable oils that promote inflammation in the body. "Whole grain" and "natural" crackers and boxed cereals do the same industrial processing, so don't be confused! The other way we've gone awry with grains is to eat a lot of "whole grains", but without doing the proper soaking and long-cooking methods essential for improving their digestibility.
In response to all the grain-induced health problems, many people have opted out of eating them altogether (as in the Paleo diet). While this works well for some people, I actually advocate including in one's diet some whole grains--just prepared in the proper, traditional manner. Eating a diet primarily comprised of meat is not a financially viable option for many people, nor is it a very sustainable option from a planetary perspective. Grains can be a nourishing and affordable part of a whole foods diet, as long as they are prepared correctly.
5.) Legumes, nuts, and seeds. These also require soaking and thorough cooking to optimize digestibility and nutritional value. I recommend cooking them all day in a crockpot, after soaking them. Avoid canned beans, which are not prepared in the traditional method. Like grains, lentils and beans can be very nourishing and versatile staples in a diet. Nuts and seeds can be soaked in salt water and then put into a food dehydrator to make "crispy nuts" as a healthy snack. Be sure your nuts and seeds are fresh, not rancid. They are best stored in the refrigerator.
6.) Healthy, traditional fats. Long vilified, traditional saturated fats such as butter, ghee, coconut oil, and even lard provide valuable fat soluble nutrients such as Vitamins A and D. These fats have been used for cooking by traditional cultures for countless generations. Cholesterol, which most of these saturated fats contain, is actually and important nutrient for hormone production, fertility, cognitive function, and many other functions in the body. Cholesterol is especially important for children and their developing brains. A delicious and nourishing food for toddlers and children is steamed vegetables tossed with pasture-raised butter (the more yellow in color the more nutrient-rich) and sea salt. Extra virgin olive oil and some nut oils also play important roles in a whole food, traditional diet. The oils we should be avoiding are the modern industrial vegetable oils that do not have a history of traditional use: canola, soybean, and corn are some of the most commonly used of these unhealthy oils. They create inflammation in the body, and oxidation of the cells.
7.) Fermented foods and drinks. The mainstream medical world is finally catching on to the important role that beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, play in one's overall health. Not only limited to digestive health, more and more research is revealing that having balanced internal flora has a lot to do with emotional health and cognitive function. There is an entire field of research emerging in regards to the "gut-brain axis" and the "human micro-biome." Probiotics also play an important role in immune system health.
Traditional peoples didn't necessarily have hard science proving that naturally fermented foods were good for you--but they had generations of experience. Yogurt, kefir, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, kim-chee, beet kvass, miso, real sourdough... virtually every traditional culture regularly consumed some form of naturally fermented food or drink, rich in this beneficial bacteria and live enzymes. I suggest having a little glass of a fermented drink like kombucha or kvass, or a little scoop of sauerkraut with every meal. It will improve digestion and ensure that your own internal micro-biome is thriving in balance. This is especially good for pregnant moms, as the health of your flora will be passed on to your baby at birth and through breastfeeding. When babies are introduced to solids it is a good idea to introduce some of these foods in small amounts as well. It will get them accustomed to the sour taste at an early age, and it will ensure they too have a healthy internal ecosystem. My little toddler loves kombucha, sauerkraut and unsweetened yogurt!
As you can see, getting people to eat a nutrient dense, traditional, non-industrialized diet is something I am very passionate about. In my acupuncture clinic I strive to help all my clients start to understand how food is medicine, and how eating healthy isn't about deprivation--it's about nourishment and enjoyment. Healthy food tastes and feels good in the body. My nutritional guidance is something my acupuncture clients can rely on, included in the cost of their acupuncture sessions. I offer this because I see the best results in people's healing when they are eating nutrient-rich medicine three times a day!
There are some great resources out there if you want to learn more about real, nutrient-dense foods and the Traditional Foods Movement. Here are some of my favorites:
Cookbook: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
Cookbook: Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice (so much more than just a cookbook, I love how she explores food from so many angles)
Cookbook: Nourished Kitchen by Jessica McGruther
Organization: The Weston A. Price Foundation www.westonaprice.org
Organization: Nourishing Our Children www.nourishingourchildren.org
I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a Heart-centered practice in the Santa Cruz mountains. See my About page for more about me and the work I do.