By Dr. Mara Karpel
“If you start to shift and change the food you eat, then it’s easier to grasp onto new, positive thoughts and make better choices in your life.” ~ Louise Hay
I have been asked, on more than one occasion, why, as a psychologist, I focus so much attention on nutrition. My answer to that is that we are what we eat. Food has tremendous power over how we feel, physically and emotionally. One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings while I was growing up was, “The most important thing is that you have your health.” Isn’t that true? If we feel bad, physically, we have a harder time feeling happy. I’m not saying that, if you’re not in good health, you’re doomed to be depressed. I know many people in poor health who maintain a very positive outlook on life. But, this takes a lot more effort for most people than if your body is feeling healthy, energetic, and vibrant. And, the food that we eat has a direct effect on the health and vitality of our bodies. In addition, food also has a powerful effect on the health, sharpness, and vitality of our brains and a direct influence on the hormones and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that affect our emotional well-being. Food can cause depression and anxiety, and it can help us to feel happy and energized.
I become very excited when I talk about food because I love how we have the power to heal our bodies and our “soul” through the choices we make regarding what food we eat. I wish I knew about this power much sooner in my life. At some level, I always knew. You probably have also. For example, if I went crazy with eating too many sweets, I knew that it made me feel bad. Once the sugar “high” wore off, I just wanted to crawl into bed, with the covers over my head––and watch out if you crossed my path.
Fruits and Veggies Improve Mood
Recently, there has been a flurry of research studies showing a direct relationship between the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables one eats and our mood and level of energy. People who eat more produce feel significantly calmer, happier, and more energetic. A series of scientific studies performed by Dr. Michael Greger found that the reason for this better mood and higher energy is that fruits and vegetables have high levels of:
- dopamine, associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness,
- serotonin, responsible for boosting mood, increasing restful sleep, improving memory, and slowing down the affects of aging on our bodies and brains, and
- melatonin, a hormone important for restful sleep and for good mood.
In addition, plants are very high in antioxidants, which, as most of us already know, protect us from cancer and other illnesses. But, did you know that antioxidants also protect the brain from oxidative stress? Oxidative stress is associated with a greater risk for depression. Therefore, plants can help to protect us from depression.
Food and Health vs. Genetics
Until recently, it was believed that our genes are so powerful that they could determine if we become diabetic, develop cancer, or even become depressed. However, more recent research has found that how our genes express themselves is not set in stone. In fact, the research has shown that our thought habits, our life-style habits––including diet and exercise,––our environment, and our stress levels have a tremendous influence on our genetics and whether or not certain of our genetic traits are turned on or off.
“Once altered, your genes either support health or open the door to disease. There’s a high probability that you have some say in the matter,” writes cancer-survivor, speaker, and author, Kris Carr, in her book, co-authored with Chef Chad Sarno, Crazy Sexy Kitchen. “We have tremendous power to determine our genetics and whether or not we will become ill just by the choices we make, including the choices with regard to food.”
So many of my clients tell me that they expect to develop diabetes, if they haven’t already, because this is their genetic predisposition, since many in their family are diabetic. The fact is that only Type 1 diabetes, which is a very small percentage of those with diabetes, is caused by inheritance. Type 2 diabetes, which has become more and more prevalent in the U.S., is completely preventable, even if every one else in your family has it. Medical doctor, nutritional researcher, speaker, and best-selling author, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, wrote in The End of Diabetes, “Type 2 diabetes almost never occurs in people who eat healthy, exercise regularly, and have a low body fat percent.” He has helped patients, who already have diabetes, to “reduce the need for medications and, in most cases, reverse type 2 diabetes for good…through losing body fat in conjunction with maintaining high levels of micronutrients in the body’s tissues.”
Risks of Unhealthy Eating vs. Nutritional Excellence
When I had the chance to interview Dr. Fuhrman on my radio show, “Dr. Mara Karpel & Your Golden Years,” he spoke about how our eating habits not only affect each of us as individuals, but also as a society. “Literally, this country has eaten itself to the point of obesity. We’ve become addicted to food, and it’s ruining families, it’s ruining people’s intellectual achievement and development, it’s keeping people in poverty, it’s keeping our nation with a health care system we can’t afford, it’s degrading our economy, and it’s degrading the ecology and well-being of our world.” On the other hand, he was very optimistic about the difference we can make by making healthier food choices. “Nutritional excellence is significantly more powerful than medical interventions like drugs and surgery.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that those participants who ate seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day had a forty two percent decreased risk of death due to any cause, compared to those who ate the lowest amount of plant-based foods. Because of the health benefits of plant-based foods and the recent findings showing that animal products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy, as well as sugar, simple carbohydrates, including refined wheat flour, white rice, and white potatoes, and processed foods are often the root cause for most diseases, including cancer, hypertension, and heart disease, many nutrition experts recommend eating a mostly plant-based diet. In other words, it’s not recommended to follow the Standard American Diet (SAD).
One tip given by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) for boosting brain health and decreasing the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease is that of eating plant-based foods. Making fruits and veggies, as well as beans, peas, lentils, and whole grains, the primary staples of our diet, rather than having animal products, such as meats and dairy products, as the main staples will likely ensure our health and vitality well into our golden years.
Tips To Make Small Changes For Big Results
Here are some tips, from the experts that I’ve interviewed, for making simple, easy changes in your diet that will make a huge difference in your mind and body health:
- Dr. Joel Fuhrman: “Greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds (GBOMBS)…If everyone included all of these in our diet every day, we could wipe out most cancers in America. At least one meal per day, eat a large green salad with all sorts of vegetables and maybe some beans. There should be a healthy dressing on it, maybe made out of nuts and seeds.”
- Dr. Scott Stoll, national speaker, member of the Whole Foods Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, team physician at Lehigh University and department chairman of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Coordinated Health: “When you eat a bowl full of a combination of berries, they all work together like a marvelous symphony. They work to create this great orchestra of health in your body. Also, at every meal, add as many vegetables as you can.”
- Chef Chad Sarno, consultant, speaker, co-author of the bestseller, “Crazy Sexy Kitchen,” and VP of Plant-Based Education for Rouxbe Online Culinary School: “Just minimizing processed foods and incorporating more fruits and vegetables, no matter what diet you follow, is a huge first step.”
- Malissa Schwartz, nutrition counselor and coordinator of Total Health Immersions: “Start by adding in a salad and two servings of fresh veggies each day. And then, one step at a time (or one bite at a time), you keep moving forward.”
- Elizabeth Castoria, author of How to Be Vegan: “It’s important to not panic. Don’t stress yourself out. Start somewhere. Pick one thing. If you eat chicken every day, then don’t eat it one day. And don’t eat it the next day. Then, see how it goes and adjust from there. Planning out weekly meals will keep impulse buys at bay.”
- Jeremy Robinson, personal trainer and owner of Austin Holistic Fitness: “Eat as little from a box as you can and consume four cups of veggies per day. Eat organic whenever possible. Decreasing chemicals will give your liver a chance to cleanse itself. This has the added benefit of helping with weight loss.”
A Few More Powerful Changes For Improved Health
- Avoid refined sugar. Consuming large amounts of sugar, obviously, increases our risk for diabetes. In addition, it also causes inflammation in the body, which makes us more susceptible to develop chronic immune diseases and osteoporosis. Sugar feeds cancer, and it speeds up the aging of our cells and increases our risk for degenerative diseases associated with aging. Sugar also increases the physical appearance of aging, by increasing inflammation and wrinkles in our skin.
- Drink plenty of clean water every day. Water is necessary for the best functioning of our body and brain, since the human body is made up of approximately 60% water and the brain is actually 95% water. The recommended amount of water is thirteen cups for men and nine cups per day for women. However, if you’re eating a diet that’s high in fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s not necessary to drink quite that much water, since plants are full of water. Read more about this in my previous blog, The Magic of Water.
- Start your day with warm water and lemon before eating or drinking anything else. This is something I’ve been doing for about a year and it feels so good that I try never to skip it. Lemons are good for balancing pH levels, which is important for immune functioning and reducing inflammation. Drinking this mixture on an empty stomach will also help to jump-start digestion, detoxify the liver and the urinary tract, increase iron absorption, increase the glow to the skin, freshen breath, and help with weight loss. In addition, this routine has also been found to energize and enhance mood. The scent of lemon is often used in aromatherapy to decrease depression and anxiety. Author, Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” also recommends adding a sprinkle of cayenne for an added boost to your metabolism and digestive health.
The number one reason for making these small, but powerful, changes to your diet? It feels good! As Venus DeMarco, cancer-survivor, speaker, and author of The Healing Journey of My Bodacious Ta-ta’s, said to me, “Personally, I love feeling great! Once you do, it’s hard to go back to eating and living unhealthy.”
[For more information, and interviews with expert guests, be sure to join me LIVE every Sunday, 5-7pm CT/6-8pm ET for “Dr. Mara Karpel & Your Golden Years.” Join the conversation by calling in, e-mailing, or tweeting, or you can listen any time on podcast.]