Bowl of healthy vegetables

Learn Ten Basics about Food

This series of articles doesn’t prescribe a single system that everyone can or should follow. That would undermine its underlying premise of making your own choices. However, since we strongly advocate eating well for living well, some consideration of the components of sound nutritional practice is needed if you are to develop a diet that will truly support your well being. Although a mass of conflicting data surrounds this subject, certain recommendations are almost universally accepted, and these food basics warrant your attention.

Nutrition Basics

1. Choose your food based on its life force. Doesn’t it make sense that the less your foods are processed the more their essential nutrients will be available for use? When you overcook fruits and vegetables, for example, they lose many of their enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. When you eat foods that have been grown in devitalized soil, food that has been genetically engineered, or fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with poisonous chemicals and then waxed to look good on the shelf, you are multiplying your health risks.

Decreasing your consumption of highly processed foods, especially those that contain additives and preservatives, is one simple step in support of commonsense nutrition. Over time, these food additives take a cumulative toll on your liver, which must break down, detoxify, and excrete or store the unusable substances found in processed foods.

Many products (like rice or bread, for example) are “enriched” with vitamins and minerals because they have been so devitalized in their preparation. Develop your taste for simple, lively food. Shop for organically grown produce whenever possible. Enjoy steamed or fresh veggies and fruits in all their wondrous forms.

Eat more fruits and vegetables, five or more servings a day. These foods contain vitamins and minerals in their natural form as well as fiber, which markedly reduces the risk of bowel cancer and other diseases of the intestines.

Fruits and vegetables, and other plant foods that have phytochemicals, aid the body in its defense against illness. “Phyto” means “plant,” and phytochemicals are those functional components found in plant foods that are responsible for a plant’s color, aroma, and flavor, and for protecting the plant from disease. Chlorophyll and beta-carotene are two examples among hundreds, maybe thousands, of phytochemicals that are currently being researched, and more are still being discovered. These wondrous substances are contained in micro amounts in all plant foods. When we ingest them, they impact specific life functions, such as strengthening the immune system or aiding in the production of hormones.

As you increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables, remember to treat yourself to a whole palette of colors to eat from. Look to the sea for vegetables rich in trace minerals that have been lost from our depleted soils. More and more Americans are developing a taste for sea vegetables such as nori, dulse, and wakame.

2. Eat foods that are rich in the antioxidant phytochemicals that absorb free radicals (unpaired electrons produced in various natural and artificial processes, such as cooking with fats and oils). Free radicals encourage peroxidation in the body (which destroys cell walls) and have been linked to cancer, premature aging, degenerative diseases, and many conditions of the hormone systems.

Well-known antioxidants like vitamins A, E, C, the mineral selenium, and the enzyme CoQ10—all of which are found in various vegetables, grains, and nuts—actually slow down the aging process and strengthen the immune system.

3. Eat whole grains. Brown rice, and other varieties of rice, and grains like wheat, millet, buckwheat, barley, and corn have been the staple foods of people around the world for ages. The complex carbohydrates (starch) found in whole grains make them an excellent source of body fuel, and the natural fibers in grains assist the process of elimination, acting as a preventative to bowel cancer and other intestinal diseases. Brown rice is one of nature’s most perfect foods.

The USDA Food Pyramid that has replaced many previous systems of nutritional information suggests that grains and foods made from grains (breads, cereals, and pasta) form the basis of the pyramid, the largest food group, and should be eaten regularly.

4. Decrease your consumption of animal products. That especially includes red meat, which is unnecessary in a carefully chosen human diet. Diets high in red meat are linked to heart disease and bowel cancer. The chemicals used to fatten and prevent disease in cattle are extremely reactive with the human immune system.

The same applies to dairy products, which are highly questionable from a health perspective. Like meat, milk contains high amounts of hormones and other substances fed to cattle to make them more economically productive. Animal milk is a highly allergenic substance for human infants. If you do buy meat and dairy products, educate yourself and search out sources of these products that are produced without homogenization, hormones, or disease-preventing antibiotics.

5. Reduce your overall consumption of saturated fats, particularly animal fats (organic butter is a notable exception), while becoming aware of the “good fats” necessary to good health—like the essential fatty acids found in olive oil, flax oil, and certain fish. A high intake of saturated fats is implicated in heart disease, cancer, and obesity.

6. Decrease your consumption of sugar and foods high in added sugar. Eliminating or substantially reducing processed sweets from your diet may not be easy since sugar does provide a quick, short-lived burst of energy that you may have come to rely on. Sugar stresses both the liver and pancreas as they work to counterbalance the effects of the sugar rush.

Decreasing your intake of sugar will give your body a chance to rest from such chronic overstress. Less sugar will increase the efficiency of your digestive system, resulting in better physical energy in the long run. Many people who stop the processed-sugar habit find that they have significantly fewer mood swings, headaches, and erratic food cravings. Furthermore, the calories obtained from junk foods create a substitution effect and decrease your appetite for the foods that would give you the nutrients you need.

7. Use less salt. Your daily salt requirement is only about one-half gram (about three shakes of a standard salt shaker) and most likely the foods you eat contain more than that even before you salt them. Daily salt consumption in the U.S. ranges from 6 to 18 grams. Salt increases blood pressure in some people. Some research links high salt intake with changes in levels of gastric acid secretion, stomach cancer, and cerebrovascular disease.

8. Reduce or completely eliminate your use of caffeine. Caffeine continually overstimulates the adrenals, causing the release of adrenaline into your bloodstream. This is why you feel such a rush from caffeine products. The liver must overcompensate to minimize caffeine’s affect on your heart, and this ultimately depletes your energy. When their energy flags, many people simply ingest more caffeine. This erratic pattern is highly stressful on your liver and other organs. Caffeine is clearly an addictive substance, as anyone who has tried to withdraw from it knows.

For those who want the “buzz” that caffeine offers, green tea is a great alternative to other caffeine beverages. Green tea has such a high antioxidant content that it is actually a therapeutic substance.

9. Drink plenty of pure water, ideally eight glasses a day. Most people are chronically dehydrated and don’t realize it. One of the primary reasons for chronic constipation is a result of failure to drink sufficient quantities of water. That one change is a miracle cure for many people. If you are not sure that your tap water is pure, have it tested. Most tap water contains contaminants; we recommend using a high-quality filter or bottled water.

10. Eat consciously. Food has aroma, texture, color, form, temperature, and weight, both on your plate and in your mouth. Don’t miss it. Somebody prepared the food you are eating. Somebody worked to purchase it. Somebody harvested it. And so on. Eating is a way to appreciate the interdependence of living systems. When done with awareness, eating can inspire gratitude for more than simply relieving of hunger.

To eat consciously (which generally means more slowly) with others is an act of communion. Food and eating together are core symbols in many religious traditions, and feasting has always been connected with celebrations of significance. To eat or drink together can be a way to seal a commitment. To share food with others is an expression of common necessity, as well as common potential.

The healthiest way to slow down speed eating is to start chewing, a long-forgotten activity in the repertoire of most modern people—adults as well as children. Walt Whitman once advised, “Drink your solids and chew your liquids.” Chew your solids so well that they pass like liquids down your throat. Enjoy the sensation of liquids in your mouth. Chewing aids digestion because the saliva in the mouth initiates the breakdown of the complex carbohydrates in the food. Chewing can also be an outlet for stress, a training of your attention, and a means of strengthening your will. And that all adds up to increased patience and peace of mind.

Practice conscious undereating.

An Exercise in Good Nutrition

Think about your food consumption over the past two or three days. Does it reflect, essentially, the recommendations listed above? To which guidelines do you currently adhere regularly? Which ones are more difficult for you to implement in your daily diet?

Choose one or two of the ten nutrition basics listed above that you will implement over the next few weeks. Don’t burden yourself with trying to change everything at once. Write a contract with yourself stating what you will do, how long you will continue to do it, and what you will move on to next. For instance: “From now until the end of the month, I will eat at least one fresh fruit each day, and I will cut down on my use of table salt. Next month I will work on eating at least one serving of raw or lightly steamed vegetables every day.”

Never eat more than you can lift.

– Miss Piggy

You may find it helpful to tape this contract onto your refrigerator or to share this exercise with a friend— someone who will remind you of your contract and encourage you to uphold it. Invite your friend to do the same.


Reprinted with permission from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD,

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John W Travis MD MPH Written by John W Travis MD MPH

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