Today, eating healthy is trendy. More than ever, information on healthy eating is readily available. It’s everywhere. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, online blogs and on the telly. From qualified experts and celebrities to the general public, everyone is sharing their views on healthy eating. We’re a generation of foodies; and that’s great. After three decades of feasting on fast food and a stark rise in obesity, the buzz around ditching sugar and eating well is something to celebrate (thank you Jamie Oliver).
Yet, more so than ever, eating healthy can seem rather strange and confusing. Smoothie bowls, protein balls and green juices. Superfood powders, supplements and intravenous vitamin injections. Where do we draw the line between eating well and eating trendy? We know that our grandmother’s shepherds pie might not look as sexy as a bowl of ‘courgetti,’ but in our thirst for a lifestyle that’s facebook worthy, are we really eating better? And if we are, do we need to take supplements?
"If you have a family history of high blood pressure, it doesn’t mean you’re on the waiting list too."
Epigenetics. It’s the latest buzzword in the practice of nutritional therapy. It involves taking charge of your health by following a lifestyle and diet that influences your genes. In short, we can switch them on and off with our food, environment and daily activities. It’s revolutionary. It means that our health isn’t exclusively determined by genetics. So, if you have a family history of high blood pressure, it doesn’t mean you’re on the waiting list too.
But how does this help us decide what to eat for dinner today? We all know that our genes are unique to each and everyone of us. They evolved based on the lifestyle practices of our ancestors over hundreds of years. This means that our genetic make-up is more likely to thrive on a lifestyle that’s similar to your great great grandmother’s. So it’s not a bad idea to rustle up those family recipes that have been handed down. Don’t worry if you don’t have any. There are a number of foods that our ancestors were eating across many different societies that we should aim to include in our diets everyday. Here’s five.
1. Fermented food & probiotics
Healthy digestion leads to a healthy body. It all starts with good gut bacteria, found in fermented foods. They help to fight off infections, make B vitamins and break down some of the nutrients we eat for better absorption. Fermentation is a method of preserving food that dates back thousands of years across many different societies. So it’s likely that most of our ancestors were eating them. There’s fermented cabbage known as kimchi in Korea and sauerkraut in Germany; parmigiano reggiano in Italy; yogurt in Turkey and even fermented raw fish, funazushi, in Japan. Aside from a little parmigiano reggiano sprinkled on our pasta and the occasional yogurt, we just don’t eat enough fermented food to support our gut health. Nowadays, you can find fermented foods such as sauerkraut, tempeh and miso soup in the international isles of most supermarkets and health food stores. But if you just can’t see yourself eating any of these foods it’s worth getting a good quality probiotic supplement.
High fibre bread. Photograph by Monika Grabkowska.
Fibre is essential for keeping your bowels regular and supporting your gut bacteria too. Some of our food choices today are much more refined than our ancestors. As a result, they don’t include as much fibre. We eat white bread, pasta and rice, while they were more likely to eat their wholegrain alternatives. So it’s worth making a switch too. Even better, try replacing two to three meals that are made with bread or pasta with lentils, chickpeas or beans.
3. Oily fish and fish oil
Dr Michael Crawford at the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition suggests that the evolution of our intelligence is the result of eating large amounts of DHA Omega 3 from oily fish. Both EPA and DHA Omega 3, are essential for our health. They’re anti-inflammatory, support depression, anxiety and macular degeneration. They help to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol too. Unlike other fats such as Omega 7 and 9 our bodies can’t produce it. We have to get it from our diet. The difficulty is that they are found almost exclusively in oily fish. Sardine, mackerel and anchovy are your best sources. While our ancestors ate plenty, our modern palates just don’t seem to enjoy them as much. Also, because of environmental pollution, the UK government recommend we limit our intake to 4 portions a week. For most of us, that’s not enough. That’s why supplementing daily with a pure and accredited fish oil is essential. Our grandmothers weren’t far off when they insisted we took cod liver oil.
4. Vitamin D
In the UK we’re severely lacking in Vitamin D. Very recently the UK government put out a new health warning suggesting that we supplement with this vitamin. It’s important for bone health, mental health and fertility. You can get vitamin D from salmon, dark green leafy vegetables and mushrooms. However, the best source is from the sun. Unfortunately, we just don’t get enough sunshine in the UK. And while our ancestors were more likely to work outdoors, we spend most of our time in offices, which doesn’t help. So it’s worthwhile to take a daily supplement.
5. Bitter greens and herbs
Avocado toast and spinach. Photograph by Mariana Medvedeva.
Rocket, watercress, spinach and kale. These are some of the dark green leafy vegetables we should aim to eat everyday. Aside from being rich in vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, manganese, iron, vitamin C, D and A, their bitter taste supports digestion. It stimulates the release of digestive enzymes that help to break down our foods for better absorption and energy. If we can eat more of them, it’s unlikely we’ll need to take a multivitamin. But, much like oily fish, we don’t seem to eat a lot of bitter greens anymore. Eating at least 1 cup with each meal is recommended.
Kay Ali, Co Founder of You Need A Nutritional Therapist
FdSc, DipION, mBANT
If you'd like to support your health and work on a one-to-one basis with Kay, you can book a consultation with her here.
This article was originally written for Time & Leisure Magazine. The edited and published version can be found here.