We were recently visiting beloved old friends for a rare weekend away. Sitting together over a leisurely breakfast, we could see the warm Fall sunshine pouring into the dining room through the windows – fresh fruit, yogurt and croissants offered on a beautiful table made of reclaimed wood. Delicious coffee, warm hearts. Real talk.
One them said: “Now that I am almost 60, I have high blood pressure, some other health concerns and I am worried. I know that I need to make changes to my lifestyle, but I don’t know where to start! How do I introduce more plant foods in my diet? I hate veggies. My mom used to boil the life out of veg and I have never liked them. I feel stuck.”
Another friend said to me, just last week: “We are bombarded by information about what we need to do to stay healthy, 50 ways to lose weight, 75 ways to sleep better… and a great deal of the information actually contradicts the previous studies. I feel overwhelmed – Should we fast? Should we eat only protein? No protein? Bubbly water? Flat water? It’s too much!”
They are right – it’s confusing out there.
So many research papers, reports and books on healthy living, weight loss, anti-ageing, debt reduction, decluttering… it’s a multi-million dollar industry for a reason. Nothing sticks and some of the fads are so extreme that very few people can adhere to them for more than a few weeks.
However, there is a way to simplify the body of research to a few essential guidelines. I recently attended a very interesting training on the connection between gut health, the brain and the body. They explored the most recent science on chronic inflammation and its toxic impact on our entire body and soul and how it can have a powerful influence on our immune system, mental health and increase vulnerability to disease.
Here’s a cheat sheet for my two friends (and for you if you are feeling the same way).
Guideline #1 – Eat more plants. Every day
Try to gradually increase your fresh vegetable consumption – add chopped peppers, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers or whatever raw veg you enjoy to your lunches and snacks. Bring a small tub of hummus or tzatziki to dip them in if that helps. Add a fresh green salad or lightly steamed vegetables to your dinner. Make a simple dressing from oil and vinegar, not the stuff in the bottles.
Focus on colourful vegetables: beautiful squash, rainbow chard, sweet potatoes, fresh peas, and eat lots of leafy greens, the darker the green the better. If you’re not a fan of plain cooked vegetables, steam them briefly and lightly saute them in a small amount of olive oil and garlic. Start with a small serving and increase over time. Go to the farmer’s markets and try a new vegetable each week.
My family became huge fans of spiralized zucchini this summer (a spiralizer is a little hand-cranked machine that grates vegetables into spaghetti strands). We throw the “zoodles” into a bit of garlic and olive oil in a pan, toss around for about 5 minutes and serve with fresh tomato sauce or pesto I made from the garden with whatever I had around: fresh basil, spinach, arugula, or a mixture, walnuts, almonds or cashews, (doesn’t matter), garlic and nutritional yeast instead of parmesan for my dairy-free daughter, oil, salt and pepper and you’re off to the races. Add some shrimp for the meat eaters or pork tenderloin on the side or tofu for the vegetarians and vegans.
By the end of summer, my kids were eating one of those baseball bat-sized zucchinis each. Yes, each. That’s a lot of zucchini, but when the markets are full of them, it’s a cheap and quick source of vegetables.
Guideline #2 – Reduce sugar, go for simpler foods
Refined carbs are one of the main sources of inflammation-causing foods. Eating foods in their least transformed states will help you avoid refined carbohydrates, which are often full of sugar, trans-fats and excess salt (breakfast cereal, most store-bought breads, white pasta, crackers, for example) and avoid white sugar in drinks such as pop and anything sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFC). If you don’t eat stuff out of a package, can or a box, you don’t need to worry about this so much.
If you crave something sweet and transformed and full of refined carbs and other goo, go for it! Have a small serving of it. Just don’t do it at every meal.
Guideline #3 – Move at least 45 minutes a day
I have a friend who doesn’t seem to age. It’s weird. I know that she is in her fifties, but in the decade that I have known her, she has not changed at all. And, no, it’s not what you think – no weird injections and creepy fillers.
Her answer: she walks. A lot.
(Ok, and she most likely has great genes, probably avoided the sun and didn’t smoke).
But she makes a point of walking every single day, rain or shine. If she is somewhere where she can’t walk outside – like a hotel in the middle of an overpass (don’t laugh, that’s my weekly lot in life when I am on the road), she will do a few sessions up and down the stairs. If she’s in an airport, she takes the stairs instead of the escalators. During breaks, she walks through the hospital where she works.
How much walking? The recommended daily minimum is 45 minutes of walking each day – it doesn’t have to be all at once. You could do two or three shorter walking sessions a day if that works better for you. But you need to walk vigorously enough to be a bit out of breath and not able to carry out a conversation comfortably while you are doing it. So that’s pretty active walking for most of us.
My friend also has another trick: She always wears comfortable shoes that she can walk in. So, no stiletto excuses. Personally, I carry super comfortable little shoes in my briefcase at all times. So then I can switch out of my fancy shoes any time I want to walk.
How to stick to it
So that’s it. Three things: more plants, less refined carbs and sugar, more walking.
But please if you are new to this, don’t go all New Year’s resolution on yourself, just take a look at your daily habits and make one small change each day.
A study by Woolley and Fishbach (2016) explored why many resolutions – which they call “Long Term Goals” – don’t seem to work. They concluded that most of us mere mortals need immediate rewards to stay motivated. An immediate reward, the study explained, could be simply feeling a sense of enjoyment during or immediately after the activity.
An example of this could be listening to your favourite music while doing your power-walk or your favourite book on tape. I like to listen to a great podcast series while I prepare my veggies and healthy lunches for the week ahead. It has become a Sunday ritual and I look forward to it. When I am trying to solve a problem at work and I feel stuck, I make myself leave my desk and go for a walk down to the lake close to where I live. I always come back refreshed and ready to crack the problem that was stumping me.
So that’s it – to riff on Michael Pollan’s famous recommendations:
“Eat real foods, mostly plants and not too much, walk briskly at least 45 minutes per day, not necessarily all at once, and reduce/avoid refined carbs, white sugar and HFC from your diet as much as possible. Do these things while doing something else that you enjoy.”
Blackburn, Elizabeth & Epel, Elissa (2017) The Telomere Effect
Hamshaw, Gena (2015) Food 52 Vegan: 60 vegetable-driven recipes from any kitchen
Liddon, Angela (2014) Oh She Glows Cookbook: Over 100 Vegan recipes to Glow from the Inside out – (try the lentil sloppy joes, amazing).
Pollan, Michael (2008) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Websites for more plant-based cooking:
Oh She Glows – This Canadian author wrote her first cookbook to introduce her meat eating partner to vegan cooking. Therefore the recipes are highly accessible for omnivores as well as vegans and anyone in between.
The Full Helping – Gena Hamshaw is my favourite vegan food blogger but her recipes are a little more “intermediate” level than Liddon’s. Gena does a lot of batch cooking on Sundays for the week ahead. Her sweet potato hummus is fantastic.