Following on from our ‘What’s Normal?’ piece we chat to nutritional therapist, Tracy Tredoux who offers some advice on identifying the nutrition-related patterns in your diary, and discusses what they may mean for your well-being.
Congratulations to those of you who have embarked on this 4-week journey. There is a paradigm shift occurring in the medical world from conventional to functional medicine which is shifting the focus from your doctor to you as being the main protagonist in your own healthcare. Functional medicine understands that you are as unique on the inside as you are on the outside and that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to health does not always apply. By completing a 4-week health diary, you will become more mindful of your own health and more able to tap into your own health issues.
This week we are going to look at what part food plays in your health care. There is a huge amount of conflicting advice out there on the latest diets; whether you should eat grains or meat or both; high-fat or low-fat; how long you should be sleeping; daily fruit and vegetable quotas; how much exercise is good for you, and what type etc.
The truth is, we are all individuals with individual needs and responses. Some people may need more healthy carbs in their diet, others do best on a grain free diet; some may need to optimize their vitamin D levels, others their magnesium levels; some may be over-exercising and others may need to incorporate more exercise. Keeping a health journal is the best way of figuring out what works best for YOU. The more information you record, the better, especially if you are trying to make health changes.
By tracking your food intake, you will start to notice patterns and connections. Are certain foods causing digestive issues such as bloating, gas, pain, acid reflux and/or heartburn? Do you find, after eating certain foods, that you have a burst of energy for a couple of hours followed by a slump? Which foods seem to aggravate your system? etc.
Food Intolerances v Food Allergies
One in three people have hidden food allergies/ intolerances, which often cause unexplained weight gain through fluid retention. A food intolerance means either that the body cannot properly digest the food that is eaten, or that a particular food might irritate the digestive system. Symptoms of food intolerance can include nausea, cramps, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation, irritability, nervousness or headaches. A food allergy, on the other hand involves the body’s immune system which sees a particular food as a foreign invader that needs to be attacked. The immune system releases chemicals such as histamine. This can cause symptoms like throat tightness, hoarseness, breathing problems, abdominal pain, coughing, vomiting, hives, swelling or a drop in blood pressure. Symptoms of a food allergy or intolerance can also be accompanied by mental and physical symptoms such as mood changes, chronic tiredness, depression, increased appetite, sleepiness after meals and an inability to concentrate. Make a note in your diary of any adverse symptoms you experience after eating certain foods and look out for patterns that appear. If you notice a pattern, it may be helpful to speak to a nutritional therapist in order to help you investigate the problem further. The most common foods that cause reactions are cow’s milk, yeast, eggs, wheat, gliadin grains and nuts. Look out for cross-reactivity; this occurs when the proteins in one substance are similar to proteins in another and as a result, the immune system sees them as the same. Some individuals with pollen allergies can develop symptoms around and in the mouth and throat immediately after eating raw fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts or seeds that contain proteins cross-reactive to the pollen.
Balanced Blood Sugar Levels
Symptoms of blood sugar imbalance include regularly experiencing food cravings, mood swings, irritability or fatigue. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is crucial for optimal health, minimizing your risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. When glucose is released into the bloodstream very quickly from eating sugars and simple carbohydrates, this causes your blood sugar levels to spike. In response, the pancreas produces insulin which has the job of taking the glucose out the bloodstream and into cells where it is needed. If the glucose is taken out too quickly, blood sugar levels plummet. This causes feelings of low energy and your body to crave the very foods that will put glucose back into your bloodstream the quickest i.e. sugar and refined carbohydrates. Over time, when insulin levels are repeatedly driven up several times a day, the pancreas gets worn out and cells become insulin resistant, unable to accept any more glucose. Excess sugar in the blood gets stored as fat. This leads to visceral (abdominal) fat, weight gain and unhealthy cholesterol.
Here are some steps you can take to help balance your blood sugar levels:
- Learn about the glycemic index. Foods low on the glycemic index release energy slowly into the bloodstream causing blood sugar levels to rise more steadily. These include animal protein, healthy oils and fats, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, whole grains, many vegetables and some fruits (such as all berries). Foods to avoid and which will spike your blood sugar levels are those high on the glycemic index such as bread, crackers, corn, white rice, white potatoes, muffins, biscuits and fruit juices. If you are going to eat any of these foods, pair them with healthy fats or protein which will slow down the release of sugar into your bloodstream.
- Eat three well-balanced meals a day. A balanced meal includes all three macronutrients: protein, carbs and fats. Pick a lean protein such as chicken, fish, eggs, beans, tempeh, protein powder etc. Add a healthy source of fats such as coconut oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, butter, ghee. Then add a natural source of carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits or whole grains.
- Do not skip breakfast. Breakfast sets your metabolic tone for the day and lays the foundation of your blood sugar stability for the rest of the day. Make sure your breakfast includes protein and fat (scrambled eggs and avocado, vegetable omelette cooked in coconut oil, full fat yoghurt with nuts and seeds etc.). Proteins and fats help with a slow release of energy keeping you feeling full longer and stabilising your blood sugar stable.
- Avoid the refined sugar roller coaster. Refined sugars and processed carbs (pastas, cereal, breads, bagels, chips, cookies) cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash. Symptoms of low blood sugar include brain fog, difficulty concentrating, feeling anxious and/or fatigued. This is then accompanied by a craving for “pick-me-up” foods such as more carbs, sweets or caffeine.
Once you start including healthy fats, low GI foods and protein with each meal and reducing foods high in sugar, refined carbs and processed foods, you will begin to stabilise your blood sugar levels. You will reap the benefits, waking up full of energy. Your mind will be clear. Start the day with a healthy breakfast and throughout the day your mood will be stable and your energy levels will be high. You will concentrate better at work. You will be less irritable. You will no longer be having food cravings and or energy dips. You will feel mentally and physically better.
We all know the hallmarks of depression – low mood, lack of motivation and feelings of hopelessness. Do you frequently feel depressed and suffer from low moods? Once you are keeping a health diary it’s important to know what to look for that can be causing or contributing to your low feelings. There is no single cause of depression: many factors can trigger the biochemical changes that cause us to feel miserable. However, there is now substantial evidence that the food we eat can affect our brain function and therefore our mood.
- There is a direct link between mood and blood sugar balance. The more uneven your blood sugar supply, the more uneven your mood. Sugar has been implicated in aggressive behaviour, anxiety, depression and fatigue. Eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates is linked to depression as these foods provide very little in the way of nutrients but also use up the mood enhancing B vitamins.
- Stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine will throw your brain chemistry awry. Alcohol, in particular, acts as a depressant.
- Be mindful of any food sensitivities you may have identified while keeping your diary. These will also impact brain chemistry.
- The brain communicates via chemical neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and GABA). A deficiency in these will most likely have a negative effect on your moods. These neurotransmitters are made from the food we eat. For example, serotonin comes from eating chicken, eggs, bananas, dairy and dates. Dopamine comes from eating grains, eggs, meat, almonds and soybeans.
- Most of the brain is made of fat and requires Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), essential because our bodies do not make them and we must get them from our diet or supplements. EFAs help improve mood. If your mood is low, ensure you are eating foods such as sardines, mackerel, or wild/organic salmon three times a week.
- Examples of happy meals are: oat porridge; small baked potato with tuna/cottage cheese and salad; chicken breast, brown rice and green beans; whole wheat spaghetti with bean/tofu/meat sauce; salmon, quinoa and lentil pilaf.
Around 1 in 5 people are diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) at some stage. This figure is so high because it is actually a catchall term for undiagnosed digestive issues. Once the available tests have ruled out cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s and colitis, we are often left with this rather vague and unhelpful diagnosis, along with our very real and debilitating symptoms. What’s more, we are often given no indication of what is causing this ‘syndrome’. Causes of I.B.S can be wide ranging and can be as simple as not chewing our food properly, to more complicated factors such as stress, parasites, yeast, bacteria, dysbiosis or SIBO. The good news is that, in many cases, the cause is dietary and, using your diary, you can start to isolate the food, or foods, that are exacerbating your symptoms. Make note of what you eat on the days your I.B.S is especially bad. It may be that you need to cut out, not only a particular food, but the whole group to which it belongs. For example, if you find that bread sets you off, you may need to cut out wheat entirely. Be as strict as possible until you notice the symptoms easing, then gradually re-introduce individual foods to help identify the culprit. Again, if you are struggling with undiagnosed debilitating digestive issues, it may be worth consulting a nutritional therapist to help uncover the root cause(s).
Other things that are most helpful to journal, especially if you are trying to make health changes, include:
- water and liquid intake;
- illnesses, allergies or reactions;
- pain or fatigue;
- skin changes;
- use of pharmaceutical drugs.
Tracy Tredoux is a Nutritional Therapist, working in London. When not consulting with clients, she posts health articles, tips and recipes on her website, at https://tracytredoux.com. Follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyTredoux