lose the labels: listen to your body

I have a gripe.
When did people (or certain “health” enthusiasts) lose their identity to their nutritional persuasions, and begin to define themselves by whatever popular food philosophy they follow?


“Hello, my name is (Jack/Jill) and I am a _______ (fill in the blank) Vegetarian / Vegan / Paleo / WAP / Macrobiotic / Raw-foodist / Primal …”

At an organic “health-food” convention I attended a few years ago in New York, I met a young man who introduced himself as being “85% Raw Vegan” and then proceeded to ask what “percentage” I was?  I responded (baffled) that I hadn’t calculated that lately, ah sorry.

Have we modern Westerners gone mad?

It’s an unhealthy trend, this fixation on food labels.  Over years of client work I see that the more attached to a dietary label a person is, the more disconnected they are with their body (it’s signals and nutritional needs).

Nutrition wasn’t meant to be religion.  It should be based purely on your biological and metabolic needs, to nourish, fuel, replenish, repair, build and satiate, to function optimally and asymptomatically, whatever that needs to be for you.

But if you’ve fallen in love with a philosophy first, you aspire to (for example) a “Primal” tag (whatever that really means), you’re following the rules and it’s working for you, then great.  By “working for you” I mean that if after eating a certain way consistently for an extended period of time, you …

  • feel balanced, satisfied, in control and free of cravings
  • experience streamline, efficient, quiet digestion (food in, nutrients absorbed, tummy flat, waste out)
  • have deep, restorative, uninterrupted sleep and wake replenished
  • maintain a core body temperature of at least 36.6° through the day and a resting pulse between 75-85  (indicating your nutrition is meeting your metabolic needs, stable blood sugar is maintained, thyroid hormone is being converted along with youth hormones such as Progesterone, adrenalin is not unnecessarily triggered that causes tissue breakdown accelerating ageing)
  • (as a female) glide through the monthly cycles comfortably  (without menstrual tension or any other hormonal discomforts or fertility struggles)
  • maintain a healthy weight and natural muscle tone without extreme exercise and your body retains no unnecessary fat stores  (especially not around the belly – equates to adrenalin excess; or on the back – equates to excess estrogen)
  • have joints that are supple and agile
  • have a temperament that is calm, content; mind is clear and focused (not plagued by anxiety or tension)
  • experience consistent energy
  • have nails that are smooth, un-ridged, gently curved, spotless and strong
  • have a strong appetite from the moment you wake up
  • manage stress well and recover from exercise painlessly
  • are able to live happily, eat out on occasion, socialize and still feel great (without food-related stress or obsession)

….. then it’s working for you!

If not, or if after a while you notice undesirable changes, then you need to adjust, tweak, reassess, question, dig, learn, shift and continually tune in to your body.  Any symptom is your body signaling that it needs help and its needs are not being met. Don’t ever ignore these signs.  If your dogmatic dietary discipline is failing you, yet you’re still hell-bent on believing it’s “healthy”, then you’re headed for trouble, and you’re missing the point.  Your attachment to this belief will in fact be stunting your progress and inhibiting critical thinking.

How to tell if you’ve become too entrenched in a philosophy and you’ve diverted from prioritizing your body’s basic needs?  Listen to your internal dialogue.  Question your perceptions of a certain food and where these responses are coming from.  Does it stem from a theoretical ideology that you’d like to believe or from clear, concise, educated understanding?  Challenge yourself and question your beliefs.  And listen to your gut, literally!

It’s an increasingly common trend I’m seeing in new clients: they’ve read a book or attended a seminar, then become engrossed in a philosophy that has seen them shift their eating in an extreme way.  They love the concept, but my goodness some of them are struggling as far as health is concerned.  Some of the issues that present: Macrobiotics with bloated bellies and lethargy, Paleo advocates with inflammation, hypoglycemia, liver burden and eventual weight-gain, Vegans and Vegetarians with wasting muscle, prematurely wrinkled skin, infertility and low libidos, Weston A. Price disciples with nausea, cholecystitis and indigestion, and Raw-foodists with damaged thyroids, loss of pallor, skeletal frames and IBS.  Once they let go of their dogmatic ways, and address the body’s needs at a cellular level intelligently, they begin to see the body balance and heal.

And caution speculating on some ancestral wisdom.  Who’s ancestors are we talking about? From where and when exactly?  Yes of course we’re better off eating meals that more so resemble what our great grandmother might’ve prepared, but we need to address the needs of who we are now, and how we live today. It’s definitely a positive start but not the complete answer for most. The stressors of today didn’t exist back “then” (xenoestrogens, dioxins, radiation, sedentary work, inherited genetic damage etc, etc).  And in terms of looking even further back: how do we really know what and how Paleolithic man ate?  And I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t describe my body or lifestyle as being anything like that of a caveman or Ice Age being …?

Of course you can take “healthy” elements from any philosophy but it should only ever be taken in the context of the person.  Person-specific always.  Don’t just follow mindlessly.  Eat to function optimally and be open to what ever that might require for you.  Don’t pigeonhole yourself with a diet label; it can end up controlling you and isolating you from others, which is counter-productive and more often than not, unhealthy.  Your aim should always be to restore health and repair metabolism, not to belong to a nutritional movement.  Let food be your fuel and medicine, not your obsession, and even if you feel your health is not perfect, be open to challenging and unconventional information.  Ask questions.  Be informed.  Learn anatomy and chemistry (after all, that’s what we’re talking about here), you should understand the basics of a human body if you have one.  Read, read, read: reference reputable resources – independently funded scientific research (as opposed to industry funded research).  Focus on facts.  Familiarise yourself with the works of brilliant researchers, scientists and experts of the workings of the human body like Broda Barnes, Constance Martin, Tom Brewer, Raymond Peat, Warburg etc. Check in on your body: “how am I feeling?”.  Be your own scientist. Food first (get that part right and you don’t need the powders, potions and pills).  Keep it real, simple, high quality, fresh.  Ditch the non-food and question what human food really is, and when you understand the human digestive tract the clues are all there. (Leirre Keith’s ‘The Vegetarian Myth’ gives an excellent comparison between the digestive tracts of humans and other animals.)

Always bring it back to physiology and keep things specific to you.  And if you’ve become too confused by it all and don’t know where to begin, that’s where I can help.

If I’m asked how eat, I suppose if I had to introduce myself with a “label” pertaining to my eating philosophy, it would probably go something like:

“Hi my name is Emma, and I am an eater-of-digestible-non-inflammatory-efficient-nutrient-dense-(and-antinutrient-devoid)-thoughtfully-sourced–quality-human-foods-that-suit-my-body-with-consideration-of-my-metabolism-and-intestinal-integrity-and-digestive-capacity-and-lineage-and-hormonal-profile-and-that-meet-all-my-needs-in-amounts-and-frequencies-that-work-for-me-(constantly-evolving)-that-I-also-enjoy-eating-very-much. Nice to meet you.”

Although, I’d prefer to define myself as a good person, daughter, wife, friend and mother-to-be than in regards to what I put on my plate.