By Peter Kozlowski, MD
It’s no secret that people who are truly functioning at their best link their sense of well-being to feeling satisfied with their diet. But it’s not uncommon to have a love-hate relationship with food.
Experts and so-called authorities alike have copious opinions on what you should eat. Most people in the U.S. eat the Standard American Diet (a.k.a. the SAD diet), which is full of processed foods and trans fats. Ample evidence shows that this diet leads to poor long-term health outcomes. In fact, on a score of 1 to 10, nutritionists rate it a 1.
Finding the right diet for you involves gathering information about the food you’re eating and then considering what’s working and what’s not. I encourage patients to go on an elimination diet to find out if they have any food sensitivities affecting their health. If so, they should avoid those foods for six months, work to functionalize their gut, and then try introducing them again.
But what if an elimination diet uncovers no food sensitivities, and you also learn that you have no small intestine bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) or Candida (fungal infection)? What, then, is the optimal diet for you?
A diet we use in Functional Medicine follows core principles of healthy eating to maintain health, prevent disease and maintain a healthy relationship with food. It can be altered to be vegetarian or vegan.
Use these principles of the Functional Medicine Core Food Plan to change any SAD eating habits:
1. Focus on whole, clean, and organic foods.
Strive to eat food high in fiber, low in simple sugars, and diverse in phytonutrients. Ensure adequate quality protein and balanced quality fats. This is the diet that I try to follow. Avoid refined carbohydrates. Remember: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead!”
2. Eat the rainbow.
Your plate of food should be diverse and colorful. Make it a goal to eat 9 to 12 servings of vegetables and fruit per day, with the majority being vegetables. Sadly, the USDA estimates that an average American’s diet is mostly made up of bread, cereal, rice, pasta, dairy, added salt, refined vegetable oil, refined sugar, processed meat and alcohol. What a mess! When you eat 9 to 12 servings of vegetables and fruit each day there’s just not enough room for all the other junk we tend to eat.
3. Join the healthy breakfast club.
The SAD breakfast selection entails pancakes with butter and maple syrup, omelets filled with cheese, fried bacon, hash browns, breakfast burritos with eggs and beans, breakfast sandwiches with eggs and cheese, toast with butter and jam, bagels and cream cheese, or sugary cereals with milk. What do all these foods have in common? Not a single vegetable! It’s challenging to keep up with eating 9 to 12 servings of vegetables and fruit a day if you don’t have any to start the day. I frequently eat a salad for breakfast — really! Or, use your blender to make smoothies loaded with greens and berries, which are great antioxidants, and your favorite vegan protein powder. Or, sauté a few cups of your favorite non-starchy vegetables like spinach, tomatoes, and broccoli in some olive oil and top with two over easy eggs.
4. Start tracking your macronutrient intake.
There are three macronutrients you need from your diet to produce energy: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Different food plans can be broken into their macronutrient content. For example, a Mediterranean diet — similar to the Functional Medicine Core Food Plan —is typically composed of 40-50 percent carbohydrates coming mostly from vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and limited grains; 35-40 percent fat (minimally processed, omega-3-rich, monounsaturated fat is okay!); and 15-20 percent protein.
5. Cut back on added sugars.
If there is one thing to cut back on or eliminate, it’s added sugars. When sugars are added to foods and beverages to sweeten them, they contribute to excess calorie intake without contributing to diet quality. They’ve also been shown to cause inflammation, fatter liver, and insulin resistance (Diabetes Type II).
With some dedication and discipline, it’s possible to change the habit of SAD eating. Learning to think holistically about macronutrients — protein, fats, and carbs — is a good place to start.
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Peter Kozlowski, MD, is a Family Medicine Residency graduate who has devoted his career to helping uncover the underlying cause of chronic disease through Functional Medicine. He serves patients in person and online via his Montana- and Chicago-based practices. His new book, Unfunc Your Gut: Boost Your Immune System, Heal Your Gut, and Unlock Your Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Health (Citrine Publishing, May 19, 2021), empowers readers to start their healing journey. Learn more at www.doc-koz.com.