My recent columns have been focused on stem cell medicine, but let’s not lose sight of the fundamentals of aging well. One of the most important is healthy nutrition. With so much conflicting information out there, it can quickly get confusing, so here are my nutrition recommendations in a nutshell:
- Eat real food
- Watch the portions
- Turn off the TV
- Sit down to eat
Eating real food means avoiding processed pre-packaged foods, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup. If it comes in a box or a package it should generally be avoided. The food industry is not your friend, even if they print “heart healthy” or “low fat” on the package! The food industry is all about profits with artificially flavoured and sweetened foods that appeal to our cravings. Obesity has now reached “epidemic” prevalence in North America largely as a result of the refined grains and sugars in much of our Western foods. Many people misunderstand the cause of obesity, assuming it to be a simple matter of taking in more calories than we burn off. Some people will even assert that obesity is merely a matter of “weak will”! Fully one-third of North Americans are classified as obese, and this number has gone up 2.5-fold in the last 50 years. Of course, there has been an equally dramatic increase in the amount of Type-2 Diabetes we see also: 5.6 million Americans diagnosed in 1980 compared to 17 million today. Something dramatic has changed in the last 50 years. Is it simply that we eat more now and exercise less? No: obesity is clearly related to elevated levels of insulin, because of the abundant quantities of simple carbohydrates included in our Western diet. Insulin plays a key role in the regulation of fat storage. When we eat simple carbs, such as refined grains and sugars, our pancreas releases insulin so that these starches can get converted into fats for storage as “triglycerides”. This means that the most effective way to reduce weight is not to eat fewer calories and exercise more, as many of us were led to believe, but in fact to lower your insulin levels!
How can one lower their insulin levels you ask? Starchy foods consist of carbohydrates which are broken down into simple sugars for energy. The ease with which they get converted to sugar is referred to as the Glycemic Index. The higher the glycemic index score, the more these foods require a spike your insulin levels. The higher the insulin gets, the more these starches end up stored as fat (triglycerides). Try not to eat foods with a glycemic index score over 50. Table sugar, white potato, and corn syrup all score close to 100. Bagels, donuts and white bread score in the 70’s. Beans, nuts, yams, peas, and tomatoes all score well under 50 with green leafy veggies close to zero! Higher glycemic fruits include figs, dates, and watermelon; better choices would be berries, plums, and peaches. To lower your insulin levels you must lower the glycemic index of the carbohydrates you eat, as well as lower the amount. You can download a copy of the glycemic index from the internet here: http://alsearsmd.com/glycemic-index/, post it on your fridge and take it with you shopping. Eat a variety of whole fruits and veggies, aiming for 1-2 fruits and 6-8 vegetables daily, avoiding refined grains and packaged foods.
Additionally, try to make protein the focus of each meal. The glycemic index of protein is zero. (The glycemic index of fat is zero, too. It’s not fat that makes you fat; it’s the carbs!) Choose grass-fed beef, wild game meats, free-range poultry, and wild fish. These proteins will help you handle insulin better, build muscle, and repair tissues. Snack on nuts and seeds. Include some fats such as avocado, eggs, and high-fat plain yogurt. Most importantly, eat a high-protein breakfast every morning: it’ll stabilize your blood sugar and get your day off to a good start.
Turning off the media and sitting down to eat are important parts of a healthy nutrition plan. Families that eat dinner with the TV on tend to eat less healthy food and to enjoy the meals less than families who leave the TV off, according to a recent study1. Eating while standing up or running out the door is associated with less healthy choices also. Sitting down to enjoy a wholesome meal made with fresh, whole-food ingredients is one of life’s great pleasures and an excellent investment in aging well.
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Dr. Grant Pagdin MD
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