Because every person is so unique, I don’t advocate one specific diet. Instead, I advise a diet of whole foods with plenty of variety. I do highly recommend eating small meals every three to four hours to stoke the metabolic fire while not overloading the digestive system.
Usually the hardest part is making sure you get enough protein and vegetables—most prepared or prepackaged food is generally high in sugars and low in nutritional value. One trick is to cook enough food at each meal so you always have leftovers on hand to eat later or mix in with other nutritious foods.
Let’s look at strategies for making each meal count.
Breakfast: Eat breakfast with protein; cereal and muffins don’t count. You must start the metabolic fire early in the day, otherwise your body starts hoarding and enters starvation mode. Breakfast supplies the nutrients for your day, so choose mindfully. A smoothie is a great place to start.
Lunch: Make a sandwich that’s heavy on the insides; in other words, the inner part of the sandwich outweighs the bread part. Pile on plenty of veggies: lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, bell peppers, sprouts, shredded carrots or beets, olives or pickles. Here’s a good place to use leftover steamed veggies cooked the night before. Add some freshly cooked or leftover nitrate-free meat. Slather on a spread to add some good fats that will stabilize the blood sugar: butter, pesto, cheese, hummus or whatever spread you like to add a little flavor and moisture.
Watch out for bad oils and added preservatives and sugars. Put it all together and slice the sandwich in half. Eat half at lunch and the other half two to four hours later. A sandwich is easy to take with you, too.
If you can’t pack your lunch, order a salad with some protein in it.
In the winter, I like to make a big pot of soup at the beginning of the week. Make it very simple at first and then add to it for different meals. In the spring and summer, I buy lots of fresh veggies so my fridge is like a giant salad bar.
Remember the key is to eat small portions often, using whole foods as much as possible.
Dinner: Keep it simple. Pick some veggies and steam or stir fry them. Use coconut oil or butter when making a stir fry as these won’t hydrogenate like other fats when cooking at higher temperatures. After the veggies are cooked, add a little olive oil and sea salt—unrefined sea salt should be pink or grayish in color. I like this combination with lightly cooked veggies because I can taste the subtleties of the food. You can also try lemon, honey and olive oil mixed with salt. Spices are good, too. Once you get the hang of it you can play with sauces.
Then pick a meat or meat substitute: fish, chicken, lamb, beef, tempeh, or some of each. Steam, bake, barbeque, or stir fry. Olive oil and sea salt are great flavorings for meat, too.
If you have time add a whole grain dish like quinoa, brown rice, millet or amaranth. Quinoa is a great whole grain with lots of protein and minerals that’s quick and easy, taking only 15 minutes to cook once it boils. If you’re unsure how to cook any of these grains, you can usually find instructions online. A rice cooker/steamer is very handy for cooking grains.
If you want something sweet, eat a piece of fruit an hour or two after dinner or chop up some fruit salad and mix it with unsweetened, organic yogurt. If you prefer your yogurt sweetened, use agave nectar.
Purchasing and preparing food is only part of the nutritional puzzle. Good digestion is key. Try to chew your food to a liquid form before you swallow it, which lets enzymes in your saliva predigest your food. This also stimulates the release of acid and digestive enzymes from the stomach and pancreas to aid digestion and absorption of important nutrients.
It’s also a good idea not to talk too much while you are chewing your food as this interferes with optimal digestion. Limit your fluid intake with meals, too, as it dilutes gastric enzymes, making it more difficult to digest the food. A small glass of room temperature water with your meal is plenty.
Simple Rules for Optimal Nutrition
To recap, follow these general rules to make the most of your food intake:
- Eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly and enjoy the act of nourishing yourself.
- Do not eat after 8:00 pm.
- Stop eating when you are 75 percent full. Give your food time to hit your stomach. If you are still hungry 30 minutes later, eat some more. Remember that you should be eating every three to four hours.
- If you find yourself craving carbohydrates and sugar, have a snack with mostly protein or fat, then wait 30 minutes. Protein and fat are more satisfying than carbs and sugar, and they are usually what your body is really craving. Fats trigger the satiety response, making you feel fuller.
- Throw away your scale. Measure your success by how you feel.
- Don’t count calories. Go by how clean and nourishing your food is. Eat what you like, but use moderation and variety. Most of all, get creative!
- Do not eat standing up or watching television. Sit, enjoy, relax and chew! When you do, your digestive enzymes increase naturally (by the way, thinking about food causes you to salivate and release enzymes in your stomach as well). Eating slower also helps you realize when you’re full.
- Start your new food routine with a friend, roommate or family member. Encourage and check in each other.
- Learn to say “no thanks” instead of “I’m on a diet” (besides, this isn’t a diet, anyway).
- Make your health a priority, even with friends and family. You can’t be of any use to anyone if you’re not in good health. After all, you only get one body.
- Set and stick to your priorities.
Tiffany Cruikshank, LAc, MAOM, E-RYT 500, combines more than two decades of yoga practice and study in holistic medicine with more than 10 years of working with patients. This post is excerpted from her book, Optimal Health for a Vibrant Life: A 30-Day Program to Detoxify and Replenish Body and Mind. Tiffany also teaches at Kripalu.