Forget the fads, listen to your body
Several years ago I spent two weeks in India on a yoga and study retreat. We were fed a diet based on the principles of Indian medicine or Ayurveda. Ayurveda alongside Chinese medicine is one of the oldest medical sciences and respected in the West for prolonging longevity.
The diet recommended for that particular course was vegan and sattvic, meaning calming. Gentle alkaline foods, nothing to overstimulate the system while doing yoga or meditating — that is, dal. boiled rice, gentle roti flatbread, mild cooked vegetables, anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric. No dairy, no eggs, very limited fruit. In the beginning I thrived, being nourished by abundant vitamins and minerals. And given my feelings on animal cruelty, I loved being vegan.
In the first week my skin was glowing. I was full of energy. I was getting out of bed at 4am (unthinkable) and standing on my head and doing rigorous postures.
The second week I started to grow gaunt and turn a strange yellowy colour. My energy started dwindling and I chose to do more meditating than movement. Despite eating hearty portions, weight was coming off too fast. By the time I left I could see blue veins through translucent skin. I felt very cranky and tired.
It wasn’t until I was in front of a good mirror that I could see the dark rings around the eyes and what had happened. As I slowly introduced different foods back into my diet, I got stronger and healthier. I went back to being vegetarian rather than vegan, putting back eggs and dairy, and lots of fruit and good fats. I feasted on baked potatoes in their jackets with dollops of butter, ate chocolate … and added a tiny bit of fish. I felt my body recuperate rapidly.
Of course the ashram diet was not simply vegan, as vegans eat lots of good fats such as avocado, oils and fruits.
But the point is that despite how much I desperately wanted to stop eating any animal products, and still do for ethical reasons, not all diets suit all body types. Not all diets even suit what our minds want. As a vegetarian I still eat a little seafood because of my battles with depression — the fish oil undoubtedly helps.
But what this story is about is my frustration with the one-size-fits-all philosophy that surrounds today’s annoying diet fads: paleo, raw food, fructose-free, gluten-free, low-fat, high-fat, 5:2 caloric restriction — it’s enough to drive you crazy with all the contradictory science. Here is the only truth: The body never lies. Yet we are being groomed to not listen to our body’s voice, but heed the words of someone else with a constitution that allows for that particular diet.
We are told over and over how we should be eating. As I said I love veganism, love everything about it — enjoy pea protein, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and nuts as dairy and egg substitutes. Yes, I watched the BBC show How to Stay Young recently, showing that vegans live the longest and healthiest. I’ve been to many health symposiums around the world, including the academically respected International Conference on Healthy Ageing & Longevity three times and the science is sound: low-calorie, high-vegetable diets are best at sustaining health and life.
The life expectancy of people in Okinawa is among the highest in the world (more than 100). The diet is almost entirely plant, grain and tofu-based with no dairy or eggs and only occasional fish or meat.
I wish I could go the whole vegan (and caloric restriction) way. But sadly at this stage and age, my body won’t allow it. I have a big healthy, happy appetite and a fast metabolism.
Then there is the other extreme, being bullied by many paleo people around me about the virtues of meat and the repeated use of the word “ancestors”. N o guys. I’ve found eating meat and chicken even worse. I become sluggish. With meat fermenting in the digestive tract for up to 72 hours (red meat takes longest to digest), it affects my system, clogs it up, gives me indigestion, drains my energy.
It is most annoying that on the web there are a zillion paleo diet chat sites with people nervously asking: “Are melons on the paleo diet … are peas … are shoelaces?” — perhaps expecting a booming voice from beyond to say: “Yes, my children, shoelaces are paleo approved. Thou shalt eat shoelaces.”
Having studied a subject called “food as medicine” and spoken at several conferences on the topic, I’ve tried many diets on myself and others and can concur that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Call it genetics, geography, climate, constitution, metabolic speed, ethnicity or age group, but there is no one path to good health. I gently slap down proselytisers with: “I just come from a different species of ape.”
So it frustrates me that we get sucked into dietary fascism. We should empower ourselves as masters of our own biology.
Even the time of day we eat is under scrutiny, as is the mealtime temperature.
For a while I tried being a raw foodist. Cold food and salads didn’t feel like eating dinner. In fact it didn’t touch the sides. Whether winter or summer, my body needs, warm, heavy foods.
In the Ayurvedic dietary tradition, flighty people like me need grounding with cooked foods such as hearty soups: yep, makes sense. Sluggish people are allowed a small amount of coffee as medicine: yep, makes sense too. Indian nutritionists tend to look at a person holistically rather than prescribe one overarching diet.
But still the debate goes on. “Have a heavy breakfast and light dinner!” “Have no breakfast or dinner, just graze through the day.” “Don’t graze, calorie restrict.” I’ve found my own happy space or dietary sweet spot. But nonetheless we all get harangued by know-it-alls.
The most fascistic and foolish are the powder people — the staunch vitamin-supplement crew who think food is worthless due to the quality of our soil, and that we need to wolf down lab-engineered pills and powders. I wonder how we food eaters are still walking.
The paleos can’t believe I’m not dead from eating so much grain and high glycaemic food such as rice.
My body loves, craves, adores carbs in breads, rice, pastas, potatoes. I also like big helpings. Yet I’m lean — and, according to a recent medical report, lean on the inside too. All vitamins and blood sugar normal. Ironically, cooled potatoes/rice (“resistant starch”) has become a trendy “super food” that reduces internal fat. Gotcha! My body knows what is good for it. Doesn’t yours? Even if we ignore what it says — which we all do — it does know!
I admire chef Nigella Lawson, that gorgeous creature full of whipped cream, chocolate and nourishing smiles. Her sumptuous diet works for her body type. She wouldn’t be healthy any other way. Other people on that diet would put on internal fat, or age quickly. But she is glowing. As are so many of the happy Italians I met on a recent trip with their wines, cheeses, desserts and grain-laden Mediterranean diet. Culture and joy play a big part in healthy eating, and I follow the 80:20 rule to make sure I get plenty of pleasure from my diet.
As we reported recently in this section, a new trend in fitness technology is to have blood and saliva DNA tests to determine what diet works best for you, and then experts give you advice on how to eat and exercise. I think I would rather charge them the $300, and tell them myself.
I definitely agree that people should be cautious of making strong declarations about what’s healthiest when it comes to food, and also exercise. Individuals vary a lot, and we won’t all react the same. I went vegan very abruptly after eating meat twice a day and eggs for breakfast every single day for most of my life. I felt bloated for a couple of weeks (presumably because my gut flora populations were changing) and then I felt pretty much identical to how I felt previously with the exception that my digestive system actually feels better than it ever did before and my waist is slimmer as a result. I’m also a person with fairly high muscle mass that goes to the gym every day, and that hasn’t been affected. Just as strong and fit as I always was, energy levels just as high as they always were.
So yes, individual experiences vary, but I don’t think that means that it isn’t valid to draw attention to the ethical problems surrounding meat consumption. For some people it might be easier than others to move away from eating animals (or their products), but I’m not convinced it’s impossible for anyone, and if you have to work a bit harder at your diet I don’t think that’s justification for continued cruelty to animals. If it’s possible to live without harming others, then we should, given what we now understand about the cognitive capacities of animals that we commonly farm, often in quite cruel circumstances. Eating meat, eggs and dairy, particular when they come from high intensity production, is often defended as a “personal choice” by people when confronted by these ethical arguments. But it’s not just a personal choice, it’s a choice that affects the lives of animals and causes them suffering. Unfortunately many are out of step with current science when it comes to their views about animal sentience and intelligence, so they will readily dismiss the arguments of animal activists as ridiculous.
I don’t agree that the test in terms of diet should be based on longevity. There are so many other lifestyle issues and considerations such as happiness and general well being that are equally as important. Since when would an Indian diet be the envy of most people. Australians have the opportunity to have a vastly superior diet on a daily basis, although I do accept that many people make the wrong choices. I bet that there are a huge number of Indian’s who would love to be able to make the healthy diet choices that Australians take for granted.
@Lawrence Ruth says above “As a vegetarian I still eat a little seafood because of my battles with depression — the fish oil undoubtedly helps“. Obviously – well obviously to most readers – she meant that she is predominantly vegetarian – that is, that she enjoys a predominantly vegetarian diet. Nothing puzzling about it, unless you’re someone who is very black and white and requires that you can’t label yourself as something unless you are only always 100% of the time that thing. It’s amazing how easily people are offended these days …