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 Healthy Kitchen: Foods, Diets, and The Environment 

Our dietary habits that is and the way we eat probably influence our health even more than the foods we choose to eat. Developing good dietary habits should begin as early as possible, because these habits will help or hinder us for life. Once they are "under our belt," so to speak, they are very difficult to change. For example, obesity is as much a result of how we eat as it is of what we eat. Overeating, eating late at night, or eating too many different foods at a meal can weaken our digestive functions and make it much easier to gain weight. Overeating at meals and snacking between meals are common eating problems, and often these habits are picked up from other family members during our developmental years. The focus on food and the socialization around eating are family dynamics that become deep-seated very early. Our psychological and emotional states are often tied into habits such as these. Equating food with love or prosperity, and eating for emotional satisfaction or security, are powerful psychological factors which are influenced by eating patterns and problems. Thus, weight reduction is a significant challenge that encompasses major shifts in our psyche, attitudes, emotions, and, hopefully, our physique.

Specific food attractions are also part of our personal eating pattern. These likes and dislikes often develop when we are children and are usually difficult to change. They also influence our health and weight. Breads, pastas, meats, peanut butter, chips, ice cream, fried foods, sugars, hot dogs, hamburgers, and french fries are not our most healthful foods, but these are surely in greater demand than carrots, celery, and apples. The Western family?s attraction to fatty foods continues to influence children, teenagers, and young adults, toward the trend of obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Tastes for specific flavors, such as for salty or sweet foods, also develop when we are young, and are accordingly difficult to change. Occasionally, people become attracted to sour or spicy foods, to bitter foods, such as leafy greens, or to other, less common, flavors. In our culture, abuse of or addiction to sugar and salt is very widespread and influences health significantly. From sugar added to baby food, cereal, coffee or tea, and salt added to almost everything else, to further hidden salt and sugar in most restaurant or fast foods, we are constantly bombarded with these two flavors. The Chinese consider that there are five flavors?sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter?all of which must be balanced to create a healthy diet (see further discussion in Chapter 12, under Flavors [Balance]).

The abuse of sugar and salt in America and even worldwide is significantly influencing the types of diseases seen. Too much sugar affects the teeth, contributes to obesity, and may be an important factor in the development of adult diabetes. Extra salt affects the body?s water balance, thereby affecting the kidneys, blood pressure, and, eventually, the entire cardiovascular system. Most of these problems could be greatly reduced with a more balanced diet.

During the last quarter century, we have seen a dramatic increase in fast foods, snack foods, artificial foods, and foods containing excessive amounts of sugar, salt, or fats. Though these foods may be less expensive for the consumer, the overall costs are more than just what it takes to pay for big factories, expensive equipment, and many employees; it affects the health of our internal and external environment, and that?s a high price to pay! Nowadays, nearly 40 percent of the food dollar is spent in restaurants. Fat intake is more than 40 percent of the average diet. A large portion of the American diet consists of those poor-nutrition foods with their empty calories and excess fat, salt, and sugar?hamburgers, french fries, soft drinks, pizza, hot dogs, fried chicken, bacon, potato chips, candy, pastries, and so on. The attraction to and regular intake of these foods because of their flavors, consistency, availability, or social acceptance easily become ?habits??we seek them out without thinking, and they become a regular part of our diet, often in place of more nutritious foods.

Luckily, we can change these habits. We can change what we eat, how we eat, and when we eat. We can shed addictions to sugar, salt, or other specific foods. We can gain new attractions to more wholesome foods, and lose weight, allowing our body to find its more optimal shape and metabolism. Any change, however, does require motivation and time to allow for physiological readjustments and even withdrawal to take place; this usually takes at least a few weeks. But more and more people are choosing natural foods and losing their tastes for unnatural, oversweetened, salty, greasy, meaty foods. Preparing simpler meals with simpler foods in modest quantities spread out through the day is a healthful way of eating that has come back into vogue.


Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How
There are many factors involved in eating to achieve a balance of physical nourishment, mental relaxation, and emotional harmony. These goals are easily undermined when we let certain patterns develop and lose our sense of eating as a way of nourishing body, mind, and spirit. When we do not take the time to prepare wholesome food, or if we hurry our meal or eat in unpeaceful settings, we risk creating difficulties in digestion and assimilation and losing the basic nurturing potential of our food. Let us take a brief look at a healthful way to approach food and our relationship to it.

Who is it that is eating? Of course, it is each of us that is ultimately responsible for our nutrition, except when we are babies or young children. However, many of us never grow up when it comes to being responsible for what we consume and learning about healthful nutrition?how to shop, how to store food, and especially how to prepare it. It is not the responsibility of our spouse or the cook at the local restaurant; we all need to learn the art of food preparation so that we can ultimately nourish ourselves and others. Anyone who feels that their only role is to go out into the world and make money is selling himself or herself short as complete human beings. I am not suggesting that we all become gourmet chefs, but I would urge everyone to learn the basics of meal preparation so that when left to our own devices we will not just survive, but thrive. As we grow, we need to develop our sense of what is the best diet for each of us, and not live by the needs of our housemates, spouse, parents, or children. This individual process is an essential part of good nutrition throughout life.

With whom we eat is also important. Creating a peaceful setting around food preparation and food consumption is a vital part of the nutrition process. ?What goes in is what comes out? is a wise saying regarding the transformative powers of energy?and if love and a nourishing spirit go into food while it is being prepared, it is likely that the person eating it will experience those qualities. When a meal is prepared by someone who is frustrated or angry, it may take on a whole different nature. That is why loving mothers and grandmas are often the best family cooks?they put their love into everything they make.

This leads to another important aspect of eating?the social setting in which we eat. The family meal, with its members sitting around the table sharing the day?s experiences, is potentially wholesome and relaxing. But if there is more stress than peace, more argument than discussion, or too much coming and going, digestion and nourishment can be negatively affected. If we are particularly sensitive to others or easily upset, it might be best to eat in peace by ourselves or with another who likes to eat quietly. But many families and cultures use mealtimes to socialize, and I believe that we can adapt to this with the right attitudes. Everyone should make the time to relax and breathe before eating?before receiving new energy. To receive nourishment, we must be receptive. Eating on the run or while doing other things, even having an intense conversation during a meal, does not really allow us to pay attention to the whole process of eating?chewing, tasting, and swallowing our food. Overeating is common in these situations. I believe that when individuals, couples, or families have their main or primary contact around the dinner table, inappropriate attitudes toward food can be created?associating being social or close to others while eating, or even using food as a barrier against social interactions and closeness, are some resulting problems.

It is a good idea to ask ourselves with whom and in what kind of setting we like to eat?quietly alone, with a certain friend over an intimate dinner, or in a quick, move-?em-through meal. When we tune into our own preferences, we can nourish ourselves to the fullest potential.

What we eat is probably the most important factor. (However, even the healthiest diet will not be utilized properly if we are stressed, upset, or eat on the run.) A balanced diet is, of course, what we all need. What this actually is may vary from person to person. Our diet is ultimately based upon our individual needs, our cultural background, and our current knowledge and tastes. At best, we should eat moderately and eat a variety of foods.

A balanced diet in my ?book? contains lots of fresh foods?fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and nuts. More concentrated foods such as eggs, milk products, and animal meats, can be added as desired and tolerated, though they should make up a much smaller percentage of the diet than the vegetable source foods. An even smaller amount of manufactured, processed, or baked foods should be included?these are really not needed at all.

Food combining and rotating our foods so as not to eat the same things every day, may help alleviate or prevent such problems as poor digestion or allergies. We may find that certain foods feel very good in our body both short and long term, while others do not resonate very well.

The topic of ?what to eat? is really what a good part of this book is about. Also, see Part Three, Building a Healthy Diet.

When we eat is a fairly controversial concept in nutrition. Though most cultures have regular mealtimes, this is ultimately an individual choice based on body cycles, work, energy levels, and sleep patterns.

The first rule of eating is to eat when we are hungry. The message of hunger tells us that our body has digested and used the last food we consumed and is ready for more. Many people, especially those who are overweight, experience more emotional or psychological hunger than the physical feeling we are talking about here.

We need to balance this hunger response with regular eating patterns, as it is also important to plan meals and have food available when we are hungry. If our schedule is such that we have specific times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we need to eat sufficiently but not excessively, so that we are feeling some hunger at the time of our next meal. There are many people in the world, especially in Western cultures, who rarely experience hunger. There are also millions of impoverished people on this earth who rarely experience nutritional satisfaction.

When to eat what kinds of foods and how much food to eat are nutritional issues about which there have been a variety of theories. That we should not eat too much too late in the day is a pretty unanimous viewpoint. Eating a wholesome, well-balanced dinner in the late afternoon or early evening is a fairly well-accepted activity. Dinner tends to be the most social meal, a time to relax after a hard day at work, school, or home. In many parts of the world, particularly Europe, people tend to eat lightly in the morning, and then eat their main meal in the early afternoon. Dinner is usually light with soup and bread or salad, and often a social time with friends or family. See Chapter 9, the Italian diet, as an example.

(Excerpted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition ISBN: 1587611791)
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 About The Author
Elson Haas MDElson M. Haas, MD is founder & Director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (since 1984), an Integrated Health Care Facility in San Rafael, CA and author of many books on Health and Nutrition, including ...more
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