‘Lord, not another article on food!’, you might well exclaim. Well, read on. It’s only a short blog and I think that some of my insights are useful and different.
Let me say at the start that I’m not an expert. I just read a lot, especially about the emerging science of the microbiome (the 2-3 kg lump of different bacterial species that inhabit your large bowel – your colon – and which do an astonishing amount of work to keep us healthy).
But I do spend a lot of my time with patients chatting about food, and I thought I would summarise my current ‘world view’.
The following principles are not so much about the quality of your food, though the bulk of what you eat should be fresh, low chemical and ideally zero-antibiotic!
You are always eating for two. What do I mean by this? The microbiome needs feeding, and feeding it well should be your first priority. These bacteria – especially the ‘good’ bacteria – eat soluble and insoluble fibers. Without fibres, bacterial numbers shrink. Less bacteria might mean they do less of the good work or even let other ‘baddies’ move in and take their space. It’s a competitive compost heap, down in your large bowel.
So the broadest range of non-starchy vegetables, of all the different colours, and with maximum variety, is your first objective.
That is the primary reason for eatings lots of veg (fibre). The traditional reasons your mum told you (“you need to eat veg for the vitamins and minerals”, or to ‘scrape’ your gut clean) are either secondary or just plain wrong. Remember that gut bacteria can produce certain vitamins – you can get enough vitamins directly by the food you eat, but also by feeding the bacteria with the food you eat.
Once you have taken care of your microbiome, then what else you eat is for you.
You eat carbohydrates (spuds, rice, breads etc.) for energy. Important, don’t just eat the same carbs all the time, have variety please!
You eat protein foods to build and repair the machinery of your body. Kids need a lot, and adults who work out a lot do too, but everyone else – probably not as much as you think.
You eat fats because without them you die! Fats are essential as raw material for all kinds of important processes and functions in the body. Some fats are better than others, for sure, but you do need them.
Fats, per se, do not make you fat.
I think ten years ago the above would have been hugely challenging, but one can say this now. It is consuming excess energy that makes you fat. So a low fat diet, but with excess carbs, will make you fatter just as happily as a diet of excessive fat.
Don’t mix carbs with high fat / protein meals.
Ideally, if you want to eat fish or meat (and don’t worry about it being too lean, remember) then don’t have it with big carbs. Salads or veg please. The stomach and digestive process evolved to specialise. Digesting meat requires a different approach to digesting carbs.
Don’t drink with a meal or for one hour after a meal. Hydrate ten minutes before. This is especially important for protein meals. Why dilute the acid your stomach lining is producing to digest the meat or fish? Sure, a glass of wine is fine, but a large glass of water with your steak? No!
Use probiotics or fermented foods for tactical correction of an upset stomach (recent travel, antibiotics, illness) but not as a replacement for Principle 1.
Vitamin and mineral supplements should be used judicially and selectively. Multi’s are probably not necessary, except for people with really bad diets. Low Vitamin D is a big thing in this country.
Mindful chewing and eating. You know what I mean! Your gut has its own brain – let it work properly. Enjoy food and try and let go of any guilty feelings about eating. They don’t achieve anything positive.
That old adage your mum drummed into you? “You’ve got to have three square meals a day”.
Well, ignore. Depending on how well you can cope with not eating (and it’s a big emotional and physical thing for some people) your body really likes getting a break from food from time to time. The metabolic benefits (5/2 diet, intermittent fasting, etc.) are important.
Eat when you feel hungry. Otherwise don’t. Ideally keep food consumption within a 12 hour window of the 24 hour day.
Fruits are great – but either as a meal on their own or as a snack. Don’t eat lots of fruit with other food, especially fat or protein meals. So no fruit salads after a steak, please.
Finally, and this is not a principle, but there are currently tests available to analyse how good your microbiome actually is. Hard data, if you like. Google “microbiome testing uk”, for example. We can only expect these tests to get cheaper, better and more useful (in terms of prognosis and treatment) over the next few years.