“What do you want for dinner?” How often have I asked that question” or been asked that question?
It’s often followed by, “I don’t know; What do you feel like eating?”
And then: “Well, what’s there to eat?” And here is where it gets tricky.
“What is there to eat?” can be a profound question.
Perhaps you are thinking, “I know exactly what to eat!” “There is a Burger King down the street and I can feed my whole family for 10 bucks!” I get it. I grew up eating things that I wouldn’t even consider food today: I liked to dip my french fries into my vanilla shake. Did anyone else eat like this? And don’t think we got away with it either; just about everyone in my family had heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Still, no one made the connection between what we ate and what happened to our bodies and our health. In fact, what you eat before you get pregnant and during your pregnancy will affect the health of your child and even your grandchildren!
Even as an OBGYN, I wasn’t aware of this connection for most of my career, as we didn’t completely understand the effects of diet on our children. We didn’t really believe that diet and lifestyle changes could reverse our number one killer, coronary heart disease until Dr. Dean Ornish published his Lifestyle Heart Trial in 1990. What we decide to eat on a daily basis affects everything, from the smallest single-cell creatures that inhabit your colon, to our entire global environment.
Humans must be the only animals on earth who don’t instinctively know what to eat. Sure we root for our mother’s milk as soon as we are born, but soon after that, all bets are off! In its natural environment, every animal knows what “food” is. Yet, we lose our innate food knowledge as children... What 2-year-old human wouldn’t tuck into a hot fudge sundae, with its dubious nutritional benefits? Children are fed processed, sugary and salty foods from a very early age. As a result of that conditioning, by the time we grow up, we find it challenging to feed ourselves. Now, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study, diet is the number one cause of disease and death. Yes! What we eat is the most common cause of disease and death in this country and around the world.
How did we forget what food was? We have governmental nutrition guidelines that are created by our agriculture department and heavily influenced by corporate interests. In addition to a health care system that doesn’t care about nutrition. Medical education is more concerned with disease management, using drugs and surgeries than it is with prevention using Lifestyle Medicine. We have lost our basic health compass as a result of forces beyond our control: Mass production of cheap, hyper-palatable food, government subsidies of crops not grown primarily to feed humans; entirely inequitable distribution and availability of healthy food; entirely inequitable exposure to sources of toxic waste, and widespread use and availability of products containing harmful chemicals.
Did you know that you were an unwitting participant in the Great Food Experiment of the 20th Century? We have been seduced by 1000’s of colorful and addictive food-like substances, manufactured in plants, not made by plants. Our knowledge of nutrition has been thwarted and our instincts about what would be nourishing have been temporarily misplaced.
I believe our instincts are still intact, but the challenges to follow them are huge. In even the finest grocery stores, processed food lines the majority of the shelves, and probably makes up most of what is available in our less affluent communities. These very imaginative products are designed by food scientists to be hyper-palatable and have “craveability,” appealing to what is left of our innate drive for easy calories and color. Who can eat just one M&M? Our senses are bombarded by so many processed food-like substances with their addictive qualities that, even if there is a choice, we allow them to stand in for more nourishing food.
Our bodies are primarily drawn to edible products that bring us pleasure, allow us to conserve our energy, and cause the least conflict. If you had donuts in your house or could walk to the store to buy an avocado and salsa to make guacamole, what would you do? Most of us would agree that both are satisfying, high-calorie-dense foods, but I would bet money that most folks would just simply eat the donut. If your family was sitting down to a meal of baby back ribs, how many of us could feel justified in just eating the salad, and even defending that choice to our carnivorous companions? That pleasurable dopamine hit is so powerful that people will allow themselves, really cause themselves, to be sick and require painful treatments and even die, rather than change course and regain their innate food knowledge.
I want to end this 70 year biochemical and nutritional experiment on humans in America. I want it to end with this generation, which is already destined to live fewer years than the previous one. We need to rediscover our nutritional instincts and be guided by a health compass created for humans millions of years ago. If we center our diets around whole, unrefined, and unprocessed plant foods (vegetables, fruit, intact whole grains, legumes, and all beans, nuts, seeds, and spices), and we avoid the chemicals whose names we cannot even pronounce, we will absolutely be healthier!
The science has never been in doubt and it grows stronger by the day. There is all manner of evidence from large ongoing population studies, randomized controlled trials, and metabolic ward experiments; a mountain of evidence all pointing toward the health benefits of a diet centered around whole plant foods.
It really is remarkable that in many cases, even after years of damage from eating the Standard American Diet, the human body will heal. Just get out of the way! Weight falls off, blood pressure, blood sugars, and lipids normalize. It happened to me, no effort required….and I didn’t just experience a change in the lab results and the numbers; there was something more: My feet didn’t ache as I walked down the stairs in the morning. I no longer needed daily allergy meds; no longer needed weekly chiropractic, no longer craved sweets, or needed my afternoon diet Pepsi. Certain vegetables that I had been unable to eat for 30 years, were now enjoyed without discomfort. I could kneel down to cut my toenails without difficulty!
And what an honor to help other folks throw out their medications, cancel surgeries, and do more in their lives than they ever thought possible as a direct result of their increased energy and self-esteem. It’s spectacular to treat and even reverse chronic disease in adults; However, I believe we will only be able to change the destiny of all humans, if we can make our offspring healthier from the moment of conception. When we start helping young women to improve their health in this way before they conceive, the next generation will be wiser and healthier and live longer.
What I find most elegant about this return to a healthier diet for humans, is that it is also a more environmentally sustainable way of eating. It allows us to enlarge our circle of compassion to all of nature, without having to discriminate between the animals we share our lives with and the animals we eat. When you take animal-based foods off your plate, you not only improve your own health, but you don’t participate in the mass breeding and slaughter of animals, you reduce your carbon footprint, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring that life on this planet will continue.
As an even more timely effect, your choice to leave animals off your plate will help reverse the very diseases that make you more susceptible to the current COVID-19 Coronavirus infection, such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. You will be helping to eliminate a filthy and dangerous meat processing industry that is a major source of infectious viral outbreaks. And you will also reduce the likelihood that there will ever be another zoonotic pandemic, caused by unsanitary conditions on factory farms and live animal markets. Help yourself, help others, help the environment....is this not an elegant solution?
Here’s the real magic, though: We didn’t sign up for this experiment. We don’t want our grandchildren to be part of this experiment. The good news is that women can get healthier before they conceive, allowing their children and grandchildren to be healthier too! I know from 27 years as an Obstetrician, that women will do almost anything to protect their fetus. Everyone happily gave up their cigarettes and alcohol for the health of their baby as soon as there was a positive pregnancy test. Now we know that maternal obesity, a high saturated fat diet, chronic stress as well as exposure to environmental toxins including Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (which I am not going to talk about now, as it would be overwhelming, but helpful!), all-cause damage to the fetus leading to a variety of mental and physical health challenges in the child, including autism, Attention Deficit, and Hyperactivity Disorder and lowered IQ, and increase the likelihood of obesity and diabetes among other conditions later in life. The myriad of chemicals that have become so commonplace today alter DNA expression in you, your embryo and fetus, and in the germ cells developing inside your fetus. Your cheeseburger, sunscreen, and plastic water bottle just don’t yet come with pregnancy warning labels; I think they should. However, I want you to know that you can do it! Every small step that you can take to improve your health and nutrition prior to conception will positively impact your pregnancy and offspring.
This is a blueprint for improved fertility, a healthy pregnancy, and a healthy child. Take the time to prepare for your pregnancy. Learn to love the food that will love you back. Eat a diet centered around mostly organic, whole plant foods; and don’t forget the few supplements that are needed to optimize your pregnancy nutrition.
Reduce your exposure to known toxic chemicals wherever possible. During your pregnancy, manage your stress, sleep well and move your body daily. This is how you heal your own body, create the optimal environment for a new life, and (maybe just) change the world.
At the very least, when asked, you’ll know what you want for dinner.