Recently I learned that my cousin was diagnosed with pre-diabetes. He was embarrassed because he thought and hoped that he was practicing a “healthy lifestyle.” As a fitness advocate, he has struggled with his weight and challenging blood panels (high triglycerides). Now he is in what I call the “medical vortex” being treated with recommendations for a highly restrictive diet, medication, and instructions to count calories and protein. There are so many lessons in this story and I hope you take a few away for yourself.
I called this post Intuitive Nutrition because I am recommending this as both an alternative and complement to a medical approach to getting and staying well. I respect and acknowledge that it might seem difficult for many people to adopt what I am going to suggest here. At the very least, please consider this if you are intent on being vibrant, healthy, and free.
Regarding my cousin, it appears to me that what happened to create this perfect storm was the following:
- He had fallen prey to the mis-perception of the benefits of a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet. I used to call him the “low-fat king”. He often made desserts that were loaded with sugar and processed flour, but took pride in there being no fat. This is not his fault because since the mid-1980’s American’s were simply misled by well-intentioned health advocates who just had it wrong. (In case you don’t know how saturated fats belong in our diets and why the multi-grain craze helped cause the diabetes epidemic, I urge you to read Brain Grain and Wheat Belly.)
- Because of his dietary choices, my cousin had developed excess fat around the middle. All the exercising in the world did not counterbalance this “central obesity” which is the result of excess refined carbohydrates. Abdominal fat is problematic for a number of reasons. The biochemical process that deposited belly fat in the first place can be linked directly to increased triglycerides and oxidized LDL. Unfortunately, belly fat contains a variety of inflammatory markers and is linked to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
- Because my cousin thought that eating small meals about six times per day would keep the doctor away, his body was being continuously flooded with insulin, the result of grazing throughout the day. In this environment, his body was denied the ability to burn fat as fuel. (Our bodies will use glucose first when it is available. We need to literally turn on the fat burning mechanism, which is difficult to do in the presence of glucose and insulin. Long story… read those books.)
The registered dietician who is treating my cousin told him to count his grams of protein and eat three big meals without snacking. Okay, I understand that biochemically, and so should you. But this leads me to the purpose of this article, which is intuitive nutrition. And why I am having difficulty with this recommendation. And why I think that there is a bigger picture which represents a more sustainable practice.
- If you Google “How much protein should I eat to lose weight and cut abdominal fat” you will find two things. First, there is consensus that it is better for your weight and your waist to curb the carbs and add protein. However, the numbers are all over the map. What does this mean? That the number of grams of protein that my cousin should eat is not a universally recommended number. So, then what? Eat intuitively! Choose fish over bread, lean meat or tofu over pasta, and nuts over chips. Add alot more veggies and say no thank-you to sugary desserts. Pardon me for one minute. DUH!!!
- Because my cousin has developed a fear of meals that are not teensy weensy, now that the dietician has said to eat large meals, he is eating past the point of being full. Now he is afraid of not eating enough! He told me recently that he keeps eating past the point of feeling full because he is afraid of having to wait a few hours before being “allowed” to eat again. This is so terribly not-intuitive and does not solve the problem. Eating until we are comfortably full supports a cascade of healthy hormones that regulate satiety and hunger. Habitually eating more than what provides nourishment and a pleasantly full belly triggers the fat-storage mechanism in our bodies, and disables the fat-burning system. Any dietary theory that sets the patient up to be afraid of what, when, and how much to eat leads the patient away from knowing intuitively how to take care of himself or herself. Our bodies’ wisdom does not live on an info sheet handed to us by a dietician. It lives in our experience of tuning in, doing things that make us feel whole and balanced, and stopping things that make us feel unwell.
- There are foods that are forbidden on a restricted diet but should not be. There is a chocolate brownie dessert by Dr. Libby Weaver in her marvelous cookbook that contains heart healthy saturated fats in the form of cocoa butter and coconut oil; cashews for rich antioxidant protection: raw cacao which is a great source of antioxidants: raw coconut rich in healthy fatty acids: and enough pure maple syrup to be less than one teaspoon per serving, plus contains health benefits and is low-glycemic. It does not contain wheat, grains, or processed anything. If you compare that to “healthy waffles”, know that the ingredients in the former trigger different processes in your body than the ingredients in the latter. All desserts are not created equally. Eating desserts like the ones in Dr. Libby’s cookbooks promote health when eaten in moderation.
- This leads me to the last part of intuitive eating. Quantity. Since I am already risking being unpopular by challenging the “medicating and measuring” approach, I will go even further out on this limb. When we practice being in touch with our bodies, we know when we are hungry and we know when to stop. It is hugely important to overcome hormonal imbalance, which is a separate issue, but needs to be included in this discussion. When we make healthy selections (including eating veggies, lots of veggies; including about a card-deck-size of protein with our meals; cut the junk/processed
crap/wheat/gluten; drink clear water instead of sugary or diet sodas; get enough regular restorative sleep to encourage and support hormonal balance, and other habits) we begin a dialogue with our bodies that is sustainable. We practice habits that are enjoyable, that get our bodies to love us back, and that leads us to better and better health. When we quit pigging out and stuffing ourselves, we can turn the tides toward vibrancy, longevity, and optimal health.
Health is never the result of just one thing. And even here I have touched on just a few practices. But I hope I have pointed you in the direction of making better choices. It is never too early to start and it is always too late to wait.
I’m not saying that intuitive nutrition is easy, or that you can wave a magic wand and be suddenly different over night. But I am saying that it is doable and worth it. You may need the help of a Health Coach or perhaps a Functional Medical Doctor. In fact, if this approach seems utterly foreign to you, working with a professional can help enormously. Find someone who will make recommendations that include empowering you to make good, intuitive choices.
This just in: My cousin just sent me an email. He went to another dietician who said that the first one’s recommendation to eat three square meals a day was not prudent. My cousin’s reaction: Oy vey, which is loosely translated from Yiddish as are you freaking kidding me?
I wish for you what I wish for my clients. Peace, vitality, joy, confidence, and kick-ass good health. Love your body and get your body to love you back.
With love and encouragement,
Board Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach
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