My journey of learning nutrition began over 20 years ago. Today I am 40 plus, but I am often told I look much younger. And this is partly because I have figured out how to eat well for MY body.
But that insight did not come to me easily. Over the years I have tried many ways of eating, mostly to help myself with certain chronic health problems. I have been vegetarian, vegan, raw, and even done the Zone and Paleo Diets. Then, most recently, maybe because I was ready for it, I studied at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) for 3 months, and now food finally makes sense! Now, today, I feel I am one of the few people who actually has a lot of clarity about this thing called food, and how that fits into our life. And here I will be giving you just a few of the basic, key ideas that I learned at IIN, that you might use to guide you in finding your best way of eating.
But first I want to tell you my story, because you might just see yourself in it...
My nutrition journey officially began when I was 19. At that time I had just got my first job in a whole foods store: Capers in West Vancouver was a place full of eccentric people and one of the first places in Vancouver to sell organic food. I met people who were vegan, raw, and everything else in between. There was even this one guy who was seriously waiting for the mother-ship to come pick him up…not even kidding! Remember, this was 20 years ago when the vegan option was not so well known, and you couldn’t yet buy vegan dog food.
So there I was exposed to everything…umm...healthy. From spelt bread to almond milk. And then one day as I perused the book section, I got my first direct nutrition lesson. Two books caught my eye, side by side on the shelf, but promoting two very different views. The first one’s title was something like, ‘Milk! Miracle Food!’ While the second one read, ‘Milk! Why It’s Killing You!” And what I learned that day was this: Nutrition is confusing…and someone does know not what they are talking about.
And it was around that time that I went vegetarian. And mostly I did the usual thing we do when we go vegetarian: I thought I was now very holy and tried to convert all my friends to this clearly superior diet! I told them how being veggie was easier on the earth (feeding cows uses tons of water, among other resources), and even how humans don’t have the same meat-tearing teeth as our carnivorous animal friends. I knew all the reasons, like most veggies do. And at the time, being veggie was for me, pretty easy to do. I was veggie almost 2 years.
A little while into that, I upped the ante and went vegan: no more dairy for this dog! And I recall that was pretty easy, too. I had to give up cheesecake and ice-cream, but once over that hump, I could now say, ‘I am vegan!’, and as I recall, I did that a lot.
Then a little later I decided: why not go raw? So I did, for about two weeks. And here two things are worth mentioning: 1. I did not go raw intelligently, and 2. I read no books to guide me. And the result of that poorly done experiment was that I got weak and cold real fast. And, to be fair, I should probably also mention that I am a very slim guy who does get cold easily. Jumping into a raw diet with no strategy was probably not the wisest thing for me to do. So being raw didn’t last long for me, and I concluded that either my body just isn’t good with a lot of raw food, or…I didn’t do it right. .
A while after that I did the Zone Diet and the Paleo Diet, but neither went very well either. Both diets were too much protein for me, and I found myself too acidic and sick more often then I cared to be. I tried replacing meat with the whey protein powders so popular with the body-builders, but they just made me very gassy and bloated – not good either. And since my chronic health problems still were as bad as ever, and seemed to react especially to what I ate…I was pretty frustrated. And I should mention: the doctors (I saw 3 of them) had no clue what to do with me…but it was really no fault of their own; I later learned that today's medicine is great for dealing with acute, serious illness, but not great with chronic illness. Doctors today aren’t trained in nutrition at all.
Next enter the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a school based out of NY that teaches health coaching. A friend mentioned them to me, so I read their book, ‘Integrative Nutrition’, and eventually studied their program. And IIN was like a breath of fresh air. IIN finally made sense of food for me. I had the definite sense that here is one of those rare guys (Joshua Rosenthal, head teacher of the school) who is very clearly living his life’s purpose. He’s here to make sense of food and health, and he’s doing a really good job of it.
So what did I learn from IIN?
IIN teaches two key ideas that they find makes the biggest difference to their students. They are: Bio-individuality, and Primary Food.
Bio-individuality: This is the idea that we all unique. And there are at least 5 dimensions of uniqueness. You have a unique metabolism, blood type, constitution, genetic heritage and more. Even your age, your sex, and the kind of work you do will affect how you will eat. Genetic heritage refers to where you come from, so for example Asians will feel better on a diet that includes rice and fish, while someone of Irish descent might feel better on a diet of potatoes, beer, and bar brawls. (just kidding about the bar brawls). Joshua, the head teacher there, also said that he sees a lot of truth in the blood type theory - and with thousands of students through his school and 25 years of health coaching, I'm inclined myself to give weight to his opinion.
Primary Food: This is the idea that, ‘Food can fill you, but it can never fulfill you’. We are really fulfilled by things like love, adventure, creativity, romance, achievement…and more. IIN teachers that those things are really our first food, our Primary Food, and nutrition is really secondary food.
So that’s bio-individuality and primary food. And they really work together. To create a truly great life, you need to have both working for you: your diet, and your life.
It’s funny, just last night I got really clearly what IIN is doing. IIN is helping people step up a level of consciousness in how they approach food, going from a rule-based diet, with all its limits, discipline and guilt, to intuitive eating. And this is valuable because responding to our body’s real needs (instead of our head's ideas about what we should eat) could be an important key to healing from many chronic illnesses, and to creating our best health.
So how does IIN propose we do this? Well I have found a food journal to be really helpful. I just write down what I ate, and then how it made me feel 15 min, 1 hour or 2 hours later. I notice many things feel great when they hit my stomach…and not so great when they get to my lower intestines. Then we can make simple substitutions, like almond milk instead of dairy, or rice flour pasta instead of wheat flour. We can also try abstaining from certain things for a while and see what that does, leaving out things like dairy products, wheat or animal protein.
In this way you can begin to leave behind diets and begin to simply discover what works best for your body, now.
Some people will find they will feel great on a vegan diet, while others will find that they will want to keep some animal protein in their diet (and I recommend the best quality you can find, preferably pastured aka grass fed). How much or how little will be up to you. Some people will eat whole-grains regularly. Others will find health problems, even mental and emotional problems, will clear up when they firmly avoid gluten, a protein found in many grains. And other people will even want to avoid grains all together, and just eat more vegetables. I hear that some people even find that going vegetarian for a while allows them to get cleaner and lighter inside, and later they return to a more conventional diet, but in a healthier way.
Today, I find that I feel best on a paleo-style diet, eating tons of vegetables, and eating high quality animal protein regularly but only in small amounts. I eat very little fruit, and very little grains, and I avoid wheat, dairy and sugar almost completely. But that’s what I am finding works for me, right now. It could change.
The question is, what is your best diet?
Also check out:
6 Steps to Healthier Eating