“Should I eat primarily plants or animals?”
“Is fruit okay?”
“How many grams of fat is ideal?”
“Is juicing good for you?”
I’ve been eating a paleo-based diet for nine years. So when people ask me these sorts of questions, they usually expect me to say something about our ancestors, the benefits of bacon, and how we should all be cracking open nuts with our bare hands.
However, my usual response goes something like this: “It depends” — followed a litany of questions about how they eat, how they live, and how well they sleep at night. This might sound like a total diversion, but the answers to these smaller questions are key to discovering how we, as individuals, should go about making diet choices that support our overall health.
So, in honor of the New Year, here are three simple, straightforward strategies for improving nutrition that ANYONE can implement into their lives.
1. Check ingredients, not labels.
Examining the quality of our foods is a good place to start if you want to improve health — and it’s relatively easy to do. With a few extra minutes reading labels in the grocery store, a little bit of common sense, and possibly a bit of financial reprioritization, you can come out on top and start feeding your body the kind of fuel that will help it thrive.
It’s easy to get caught up in pretty packaging and alluring labels. (“Oh look! These sea salt caramel brownie bites are gluten-, dairy-, gmo- and soy-free!”) The trouble is, while these products might be packaged to look right at home in the health section of your local Whole Foods, they are often poor nutritional choices. If we are looking to help our body optimize health and performance, we need the bulk of our diet to consist of high quality, nutrient-dense foods.
When purchasing your weekly groceries, ask yourself:
Does this come in a package?
Was this grown or raised organically, or part of the “Clean 15” list?
What are the ingredients listed?
Is this made of primarily whole, real foods or gums, flavors, oils, and sugars?
2. Digestive Support
Digestion should be a major consideration when we are trying to improve our nutritional health. Without a fully functioning and healthy digestive system, the human body is not able to effectively break down food, absorb nutrients, or eliminate waste in a timely fashion. Any disruption in the digestive process — from chewing and swallowing too quickly to a problem with enzymatic and bacterial activity in the intestines — can lead to inflammation and malabsorption. By using best practices to heal our gut and improve digestive function, we can significantly increase our nutrition and overall wellness. If you’re looking to improve your digestion, consider the following tactics:
Breathe and get into a relaxed state before eating meals or snacking.
Chew your food thoroughly before swallowing.
Try to avoid eating or grazing all day to give the gut a break between main meals.
Avoid gut disrupting foods like alcohol, processed sugar, and industrial oils.
Listen to your body — and stay away from any known food allergies or intolerances.
Incorporate a few healing foods or supplements into your regular diet‚ such as bone broth, aloe, glutamine, collagen peptides, and fermented foods.
3. Stress Management
If digestion is paramount to our ability to properly absorb nutrients from our food, then it seems silly to not address the topic of stress. You know how you lie awake all night, rehearsing your big presentation? The irritation you feel when you’re sitting in a nasty traffic jam? The pit in your stomach after an argument with your spouse/friend/boss/partner/roommate? That kind of stress doesn’t do anything good for our health. Digestively, it impairs us from efficiently assimilating the vitamins and minerals we are eating — regardless of how “perfect” your diet is. And (bonus) it also puts us in an emotional state where we are more likely to make poor food quality choices. (Donuts, anyone?) Nutritionally, stress is a lose/lose proposition.
Just like beginning to make healthy food choices or healing digestion, addressing stress requires us to form new habits and get rid of patterns of negative behavior. Here are a few good places to begin:
Start a meditation practice or join a yoga class. The key here is being mindful of the moment and attentive to your breathing.
Place boundaries around your technology use, especially around bedtime. Apps like Moment and the “Downtime”, “Screentime”, and “Sleep” settings are helpful to gauge and manage use of your device.
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday. Our circadian rhythm is important for regulating our release of stress hormones throughout the day.
Wanna have your cake and eat it too? Try this decadent blend for a healing winter treat. This recipe includes a healthy dose of collagen to soothe your gut, the anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric, and cacao is a natural mood booster which means that this feel-good hot cocoa works as a stress reducer!
10 oz. homemade almond milk
2 Tbsp. raw cacao powder
1 oz. chopped dark chocolate (80-100% cocoa)
3 tsp. coconut sugar
1 scoop collagen peptides
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
pinch sea salt
coconut whipped cream (optional)
In a small soup pot, add almond milk and heat on low.
Once warm, add remaining ingredients and stir frequently to combine well.
Remove from heat when smooth and at desired temperature.
Top with coconut whipped cream if desired.
Nikki Ledford is a certified natural foods chef, nutrition consultant, and fitness coach based in Southern California. She believes that physical health and natural movement can be best supported by a diet consisting of real, whole foods. In addition to cooking for private clients, Nikki teaches nutrition and cooking seminars, maintains an L1 Crossfit coaching certification, and practices yoga regularly.
Nikki lives in San Diego with her husband, her son, and her St. Bernard, Tiny.