There are a lot of opinions on what constitutes a healthy diet, and many of them are quite extreme. I am a big believer in moderation but also in individualisation, determining what is best for you specifically. There are a lot of fads out there. But not everyone needs to stop dairy and gluten, for example, unless you’ve been tested for food intolerances. Not everyone should be vegan; for some, completely going off animal protein can have serious health effects, but for others, a vegan diet is exactly what is needed. Not everyone should be paleo, but this diet can be very useful for those with blood-sugar issues.
In general, however, there are certain rules to what constitutes a healthy diet:
- Savour a diet rich in real whole foods. Ditch the processed foods, colourants, additives, preservatives, flavourings and artificial sweeteners. Look at labels and avoid anything that has E-numbers. Stick to the fresh-food sections at supermarkets and avoid the aisles in the middle. Try to buy local, organic food as much as possible to avoid pesticides, hormones and antibiotics.
- Eat three balanced meals a day and only snack in between if you really need to. Make sure each meal contains protein, whether animal or plant based, which helps to keep blood-sugar levels stable. In turn, this helps with mood, concentration, energy and food cravings.
- Don’t eat too much animal protein. Try to limit your animal protein intake to once a day or every second day. If you do eat red meat, aim for grass-fed/pastured. For chicken, it should be pastured or at least organic, with no hormones or antibiotics. For fish, avoid those high in mercury like tuna and high in PCBs like farmed salmon. My general rule of thumb is to stick to Alaskan, Tasmanian or New Zealand fish. The reason for this is twofold: for the environmental impact but also because animal protein is generally more inflammatory for the body.
- Eggs should be organic and from pasture-raised hens. These eggs are also not high in hormones.
- Try to include plant-based proteins in your diet. Quinoa and amaranth are great grains that are high in protein. Legumes like beans, lentils and chickpeas are recommended sources too. Organic tofu or tempeh are also fine in moderation. Nuts and seeds – especially almonds – are good sources of protein as well.
- Drink enough water. Many people often misinterpret thirst for hunger. The general rule is about 30mL per kg. Drink mineralised, clean water. Do not drink distilled water. It is very bad for you over time as it causes the body to leach minerals. Ideally, get a good filter on your tap at home that you can use to refill bottles and for all cooking purposes. Plastic water bottles also leach chemicals like BPA that are endocrine disruptors, especially if they get heated or are exposed to sunlight. Water bought in glass bottles is much better, both for your health and the environment.
- Do not heat up food in plastic. Always use glass or another material.
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- Vegetables are our friends. Eat at least 5–9 servings a day, with each serving being half a cup. Choose a variety of colours to include all the phytonutrients. All research points to vegetables being one of the greatest benefits for our health. Green, leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale and cauliflower are especially good for detoxing. Try to buy organic as much as possible. The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list is a good resource to choose which vegetables are the most important to buy organic.
- Fruits are also important. However, I would recommend only two servings of fruits per day as they are still high in sugar. Steer clear of dried fruits, which are extremely high in sugar. Berries have the highest antioxidant values of all fruits. Kiwis are another great choice as they are high in vitamin C.
- Limit sugar. There is no nutritional value to sugar, and research finds that it stimulates the same area of the brain as cocaine, so it is highly addictive. It's very inflammatory to the body, excitotoxic to the brain and feeds on the wrong critters in our guts. Sugar is hidden in a lot of foods, so take care and read the labels. However, natural sugars like fruits and good-quality honey and maple syrup can be eaten in moderation. A bit of high-quality dark chocolate is fine too as it is high in magnesium. Coconut sugar, agave and the like are still sugars and not any healthier.
- Dairy can be dangerous. Even if you are not allergic or intolerant to dairy, it is good to avoid it when you are sick with a cold or flu as dairy feeds mucous. For those who can eat dairy, this is one food group where having organic is essential in order to avoid exposure to hormones and antibiotics that are routinely used in dairy cows.
- Be wary of your choice of cooking oil. I believe the influx of vegetable oils like sunflower and canola in our diet has been a big cause in the increase in cardiovascular disease and inflammation. Instead use olive oil, coconut oil or grass-fed butter and ghee. Odourless coconut oil is excellent for cooking food at high heat (and doesn’t flavour the food with a coconut taste). Other recommended sources of the right oils are avocados, nuts and seeds and oily fish. Good, clean sources of fish high in omega-3s include sardines and Alaskan or Tasmanian salmon.
Supplementing Your Diet
Even with a perfect diet, it is often still not possible to get enough of the right nutrients. Especially living in Hong Kong when we rely on food that is flown in, the nutrient quality is significantly diminished. Added to that, the soil quality has diminished in many countries, so many nutrients are lacking. Preservatives are added to many foods to enable then to survive longer. We also live in a toxic environment, which means our bodies require more nutrients for our biochemical processes.
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It is often difficult to find organic and clean food, which is usually very expensive. I therefore recommend that to optimise health, supplementation is needed. At a minimum, most people living in Hong Kong would benefit from a good-quality multivitamin, fish oils (purity is essential) and a well-sourced probiotic to help to maintain overall health. Yet people are also unique, with differing health profiles and needs during varying phases of their lives. Rather than overprescribe supplements that may not be needed, I advise people to take simple yet effective tests to obtain their nutrition profile so that any deficiencies can be picked up. The right supplements or herbs can then be recommended for a period of time.
Like food, quality matters for supplements. Many supplements are inferior – not only in how they are produced but also in how they are transported and stored. Most probiotics, for example, need to be alive to work yet they are extremely sensitive to heat and humidity. Often you get what you pay for, but in the world of supplements, it’s best to go for less, preferably those that are clinical grade, pure and that have been shipped or airfreighted under the right conditions.
For more information on the Integrated Medicine Institute, including the holistic services offered and the practitioners, go to www.imi.com.hk.