Thanksgiving is right around the corner, so if ever there was a time to radically change your diet…Now is not it.
We repeat: Now is not the time to drastically alter your diet and eating habits.
If you were expecting this blog to be a diatribe on all the foods you should be cutting out, this might come as a surprise. For seasoned readers, the fact we walk the middle path of wellness in the realm of food won’t be shocking.
Dr. Neal — our founder and resident wellness wizard — has a balanced approach to holistic nutrition, based on both the reality of the clinical data available and that of human nature. Does that mean you shouldn’t stop eating gluten? Not necessarily.
It just means that removing a major part of your diet, limiting your nutrient intake, or changing your gut microbiome just before the biggest feast of the year might not be sustainable or healthy.
Instead, you can learn how to enjoy your food consciously and be a discerning shopper by building a strong foundation of nutritional education. Sound appetizing? Scroll on, fellow wellness seeker.
In This Article:
- How diet factors into overall health and well-being
- Dr. Neal’s dietary Jenga analogy
- Eating to fuel your fire
- Improving food quality
The Wellness Pyramid: Diet’s Role in Holistic Health
Fad diets, falsified facts, and fanatical fasting have been the central focus of the wellness world for some time now, and for good reason, too. The diet and nutrition arena of holistic health is where we can see some of the most profound changes in our quality of life.
That, and the fact that the natural health landscape is a trillion-dollar industry — there’s a lot of money to be made on food marketing and fear-mongering.
So let’s cut through the chaos of misinformation and establish a scientific framework for diet via our favorite nifty tool: Dr. Neal’s Wellness Pyramid.
Diet, an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, finds its home at the base of the pyramid.
A nutrient-dense, diverse, filling, and fulfilling diet is foundational to overall wellness. Full stop. And yet, it’s only 1/5th of the 5 lifestyle domains that make up the pyramid’s largest section.
Because, as much as we hate to say it, even the best diets can have some unsavory side effects if not approached correctly. It doesn’t matter if you drink bone broth every day if your bone broth research is keeping you up at night.
It doesn’t matter if your fridge is filled with local meats and fermented treats if your mental health suffers from the stress of food sourcing.
We have a distinctly perfectionist — or else, defeatist — attitude towards diet here in America, and it’s worth reminding that it’s never really black-and-white. Exercise, sleep, stress management, and external lifestyle changes are still crucial parts of our wellness routines alongside diet.
To boil it all down: Take your diet seriously, but don’t go so bananas that you forget to care for yourself in other ways, too.
Dietary Jenga: Understanding What’s Actually Important in Holistic Nutrition
To avoid putting all your wellness eggs in the diet basket, Dr. Neal formulated another exceedingly nifty concept for approaching nutrition.
(Thanks for that, Dr. Neal!)
The concept, if you missed the title of this section and this episode of the podcast, is called dietary Jenga. We know what you’re thinking though, and no, this isn’t the perfect time to educate your family on food quality via a friendly game of Jenga.
Dietary Jenga is a visualization tool and road map for navigating the overwhelming concept of nutrition. If you’ve played the game IRL before, then you know that the fun of Jenga lies in making risky moves — pulling out structural blocks from the tower’s base with fearless finesse.
In dietary Jenga, we don’t actually want to threaten the strength of the tower, as it represents our health and our lives literally depend on it.
Instead, we start at the bottom — like in the Wellness Pyramid — staying at Levels 1 and 2 for as long as it takes. This allows us to construct a robust, well-built foundation for food, eating, and fueling our fires.
Level 1: Education & Re-Education on Holistic Nutrition
General information, definitions around what’s healthy and what’s not.
Remember all that conflicting information on healthy eating we mentioned? Sifting through it to find grains of scientific truth is no small feat. That’s why education — and yes, re-education for the health experts, too — is the first level of dietary Jenga.
We have to learn the basics. We can’t take our black belt test if we don’t know how to do a roundhouse.Dr. Neal Smoller
The best part about this level of the sustenance game doesn’t have to be complicated. We can get into organic vs. non-organic, GMOs, grass-fed, and all that jazz down the road, but this part of the journey is easy as pie.
Here in Level 1, the basics to focus on are:
- Healthy Food: Is rich in at least 1 of the 3 crucial and nutrient-dense macros — proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbs.
- Healthy Meals: Look like a balanced blend of all 3 macronutrients — 50% complex carbs, 35% protein, and 15% healthy fat.
- Healthy Snacks: Are, essentially, a small meal — they should also be a combination of proteins, healthy fats, and complex cards.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of these healthy foods and meals, though. Eating well is, indeed, very straightforward, but as Dr. Neal always says: It’s simple, not easy.
Level 2: Eating to Fuel Your Fire
Overcoming timing and lifestyle challenges to healthy, regular eating.
So healthy snacks are small meals, healthy meals are big snacks, and healthy food has something to offer macronutrient-wise. Not so hard, right?
The next hurdle is timing your meals and snacks for optimal energy levels, brain functioning, and metabolism. A truly healthy day of eating typically follows this kind of pattern: Small, frequent meals with snacks every few hours.
And yes, we know, nobody has time for that.
The hardest work is the work around our behaviors. At some point, we have to put our foot down and stop the “go-go-go” mentality we’ve built. We need to slow down, or at least adopt new behaviors that help us do what’s most important, best caring for our own health.Dr. Neal Smoller
In our fast-paced world of constant productivity and instant gratification, stepping back to prepare and enjoy your meals (and snacks!) every day is actually pretty radical. That’s why we recommend staying in Level 1 and Level 2 for as long as you need.
It’s no easy thing to rewire your enculturated, psychological connection to food. And yet, shifting your view to see food as vital fuel for a happy life instead of a nuisance is…not really negotiable.
Here’s a protip: Don’t go to bed at night without planning your meals and snacks for the next day. By doing so, you can address the biggest obstacle for most of us in nutrition success: our busy lifestyle.Dr. Neal Smoller
And, to soften the blow of Level 2 a little more, here’s a list of our favorite healthy and easy snacks. Swap fruits, veggies, and dairy options for your preference, and don’t forget to chew your food.
- Nuts and Fruit(s) — add a square of dark chocolate, too!
- Peppers with Guacamole
- Greek yogurt and berries
- Apple slices with nut butter
- Celery and nut butter (A classic!)
- Cottage cheese with flax and berries
- Kale chips and nuts
- Hummus with veggies for dipping
- Mozzarella stick with fruit or veggie (Like cherry tomatoes!)
- Black beans with veggies
Level 3: Varying Your Diet
Getting into the nitty-gritty of holistic nutrition, food diversity, and portions.
Since you’ve, presumably, spent several weeks or months focusing on the first two levels and are now revisiting this blog, ready for the next step, welcome back! Level 3 is where we start diving into the best way to eat our healthy foods throughout our healthy days.
Remember, the bottom building blocks are the most important part of the Jenga tower because they keep it from being a heap of blocks.Dr. Neal Smoller
For our goal-oriented friends and number lovers, this is the stage where you get to go buck-wild on your portions, calorie tracking, and macro targets. Our core focus, here, is to diversify our nutrient intake so thoroughly that we can actually just throw away our multivitamins.
But don’t get us wrong — this level isn’t an excuse to veer into perfectionism.
Rather than micromanaging the numbers associated with your food, Level 3 is about creating an awareness of your calorie and nutrient needs. And then working towards fulfilling those needs with clearly defined goals that drive you toward a diverse, delicious diet of nutritious food.
Start by introducing new foods and spices into your regular rotation of meals and snacks:
- Expand your palate with nutrient-dense spices like cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, garlic, rosemary, parsley, thyme.
- Expose your body to new, healthy proteins with varied nutrients, like sardines, eggs, organ meats, lentils, quinoa, pumpkin seeds.
- Experiment with new fruits and veggies to fill your daily intake recommendations, like blueberries, strawberries, kiwi, grapefruit, spinach, turnip greens, Brussels sprouts, asparagus.
Keep in mind that these are general guidelines — if you already eat a bunch of grapefruit and cardamom, try branching out into even more rare foods like goji berries and kefir.
And here are those numbers we were chatting about at the beginning of Level 3 — no we didn’t forget about them. The digits you should be paying attention to aren’t just on the scale:
- General Daily Recommendation: 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight
- Dr. Neal’s Recommendation: 1 gram of protein per kg of weight per day.
- General Daily Recommendation: 8 glasses, or 64 ounces of water per day.
- Dr. Neal’s Recommendation: Half your body weight in ounces per day, accounting for dehydrating activities with an additional 8 ounces each.
- General Daily Recommendation: 21-38 grams of dietary fiber daily.
- Dr. Neal’s Recommendation: 30 grams per day.
- General Daily Recommendation: 5-10% of your daily calorie intake.
- Dr. Neal’s Recommendation: As close to 0% as possible.
- General Daily Recommendation: 2,000 calories a day for women and 2,500 for men
- Dr. Neal’s Recommendation: Use a calculator like this one because calorie needs are age, gender, height, weight, and activity-level dependent.
Level 4: Quality Control
Prioritizing higher quality foods from ethical and reputable sources.
Some people feel that we stress too much about the quality of food and that most of the information out there is really just marketing to sell higher-cost stuff to rich people.
I’m sure there’s a bit of that happening, but we also know the food supply chain is as American as ever. Meaning it’s optimized for profit, not our well-being.Dr. Neal Smoller
But before anyone panics, let’s simmer down, take a deep breath, and review our previous agreement to not be crazy perfectionists about our food.
We can, with a nuanced approach, begin to improve the quality of our foods without going as nutty as a fruitcake. There’s already a big jump from gas station chicken to grocery store poultry — to steal one of Dr. Neal’s favorite quips — so if you’re not shopping at Circle K, you’re already doing great.
The kernel of truth to keep at the front of your mind on Level 4 is: progress is progress no matter how small.
So let’s break down the steps toward higher quality food intake into bite-size pieces:
- Good: Fresh, healthy, seasonal food.
- Better: Organic, fresh, healthy, seasonal food.
- Best: Locally-grown, fresh, healthy, seasonal food.
Try your best to avoid additional exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in your produce to lower your body’s toxin burden.
Meat, Eggs, Etc.
- Good: Non-gas station sources.
- Better: Organic, antibiotic-free sources.
- Best: Free-range, grass-fed, or pasture-raised sources.
Try your best to avoid farmed fish, unethical manufacturers, and sources that use antibiotics and hormones in their animals.
Level 5: Geeking Out
Understanding the minutiae of optimal eating and nutrient intake.
If you’ve made it this far into the world’s silliest analogy for holistic nutrition — dietary Jenga — then congratulations! Your tower is probably dang close to indestructible.
If you’re here, at Level 5, and you’re ready to have your cake and eat it too, give us a call!
There’s an endless buffet of nutritional minutiae that we can dive into fork-first. Chat with one of our holistic nutrition experts via our free Counterside Consults when you’re hungry for more information on the finer details of food.