How to Eat for Optimal Health

Our diet provides all of the nutrients to fuel our entire body ~ every metabolic process, every movement, every thought is powered by the foods & drinks that we consume. When we find ourselves outside of an optimal state of health, we often need to reevaluate our dietary habits if we want to see improvements in the way we feel. From frequently catching colds to chronic exhaustion, eating well can dramatically improve the state of our health and, in turn, our immunity. We are only as resilient as our diets allow us to be. 

What we consume makes up just half of the picture. The other half is how we eat: this encompasses our rituals and habits around eating, and whether these patterns contribute to the best assimilation of our food. The following suggestions all focus on this latter aspect, and offer guidance on how to feel the best from what you're eating. Each point has been gathered and implemented into my own routine over the past several years; most of them come from my Traditional Chinese Medicine graduate education, which radically benefitted many areas of my life but especially my digestion. All of these tips took time for me to put into practice, but I am a true believer in each and every one.  

1. Start each day with a warm, simple breakfast.

Chinese Medicine thinks of the digestive system as a 'burner' ~ and this concept is so central that the character for Qi {or the sum of our energetic processes} symbolizes our digestion as a pot of steaming rice over a fire. After our system has been in stasis all night, eating a breakfast that is warm and nourishing helps to wake up and reactivate our digestive organs, getting them ready for the day ahead.

You can keep your first meal super simple with a bowl of oatmeal, or prep a batch of congee that can last your whole work week and be reheated daily by the serving. There are plenty of congee (also known as jook) recipes online but the simplest way is to cook one cup of grain of your choice (rice is traditional, but I've used almost every kind) with 6-8 (I stick with 7) cups of water in a crock pot on high heat overnight, or on the stove for about 2 hours. Feel free to add your choice of veggies (dense & starchy ones hold up well) and herbs or spices ~ I love adding warming flavors like ginger & cinnamon.

In general, foods that are especially cold or damp in nature ~ like dairy & yogurt, smoothies & cold drinks, or unheated leftovers & cold foods ~ are usually best avoided in the morning {save them for lunch}. If you can't eat anything at all, try to at least have a hot cup of tea or even warm water to get your stomach into gear. 

2.  Eat raw or cold foods in the middle of the day ~ for lunch.

If you love your green juices and salads, enjoy them during the most Yang or warmest time of the day. By lunchtime, we are usually feeling active and energized, and our digestive system is functioning at its peak. This serves as the best time to consume all those foods that are most difficult to break down. Cold foods require extra energy because our body has to heat them up to our internal temperature as they assimilate, while cooking hasn't broken down raw foods so our organs have to work harder to extract nutrients from them. 

People who run Hot ~ or generally feel hot and always have an abundance of energy ~ are usually better able to tolerate a diet with more cold and raw foods. People who run Cold ~ or often feel cold, and tend toward lower energy levels ~ may be better off opting for foods that are warm and cooked. 

3. Chew like your nutrient absorption depends on it.

The mouth is the only mechanical part of our digestive system, as our teeth allow us to physically and effectively break down food. The rest of our digestion is chemical, and therefore relies on good chewing habits to extract the most out of what we eat. Starch and sugar absorption begins in the mouth, while grains and vegetables need to be chewed and mixed with saliva for their nutrients to be absorbed later on in the gut. Whatever we're eating, it should be chewed into a mush before swallowing. 

Get into the habit of chewing well by becoming mindful of how beneficial it is for your digestion, and begin each meal by chewing your first bite 30 times to make yourself more aware. 

4. Avoid drinking while eating.

This certainly wasn't a habit of mine growing up, but I've heard it from just about every herbalist I've studied with. Drinking liquid with meals can dilute gastric juices, making our digestion less efficient. Consider enjoying your drinks separately before or after meals, and stick to small sips of {ideally warm} water while eating. Over time, you'll get so used to it that it will become your new normal ~ I promise! 

5. Eat less diversity within meals, and more diversity between them.

When we put too many ingredients or flavors in one meal, it confuses the enzymatic breakdown of food and may lead to insufficient nutrient absorption. Stick to simpler meals, with ingredients that complement each other well in aroma and taste. Vary what you consume in each meal throughout the day, so you still getting a great range of nutrition. Incorporate different colors of vegetables, fruits, beans and grains ~ every color represents unique nutrients! Always opt for produce that looks fresh, vibrant and appealing. 

6. Finish eating your last meal (or snack) at least 3 hours before bed. 

Sleep is a time for deep bodily restoration. From muscle repair to tissue growth, memory reorganization and toxic waste removal, restful sleep is crucial to our wellbeing. When we eat too close to bedtime, the body is still spending energy to metabolize food instead of being fully dedicated to regenerative processes. Late night eating can mean less energy the following day, accompanied by cloudy thinking or even feeling hungover. 

If you are a perpetual late-night eater, start small. Avoid eating at least an hour before bed, then eventually two hours. Once you experience the difference of eating late versus not, you won't want to ever go back. Adapt your schedule to start eating your last meal four hours prior to bedtime on a regular basis. If you get hungry late into the eve, drink some warm water or relaxing tea, or have a just a few bites of something simple. Your next day self will thank you tomorrow. 

7. While you're eating, be present. 

At mealtimes, spend your energy on eating. Avoid watching tv or reading, which takes your body's focus from your digestion to your eyes. Make every effort to sit while you eat, to chew well, and to enjoy your food. When we eat with intention we help our body to relax, thereby encouraging our digestive organs to function optimally. 

8. Listen to your digestive system, not your taste buds.

Your favorite food may provide the most delectable experience in your mouth, but if it's causing acid reflux once it reaches your stomach than it is not serving your body. Pay attention to the way your system reacts within the hour after your meal. Do you feel energized and refueled? Or sluggish and bloated?

If you sense that a lot of foods may irritate your digestion, start keeping a simple food journal. Write down all of the ingredients in each meal and when you ate, as well as any noticeable symptoms regarding digestive discomfort, energy fluctuations, and mood variations along with the time you experience them.

Keep this up daily for at least 2 weeks (the longer, the better), then see if you notice any patterns of foods that may consistently be triggering a negative reaction. Start slowly removing potential culprits from your diet, one or two at a time, to help determine what is not for you. When choosing what to eat, imagine how your stomach and digestive system will react to a given food, instead of considering only the flavor. Tap in to the inherent - and very real - intuition of your gut, and make a conscious decision to choose only foods that truly feel good to you. 

A note from the herbalist... 

After struggling with digestive distress for most of my life, I am well aware of the challenge that can surround eating well. Over the years I realized that 'eating healthy' and 'eating right for my body' were in no way synonymous. While today's world offers almost every food grown under the sun on your local grocery store shelves, we are each of different food cultures, different ethnic backgrounds, and different gut flora biomes. The perfect diet for someone else is very unlikely to be the perfect one for you, and if you are on a quest to find yours please remember to be patient with the process. Trust that every intuitive decision you make surrounding food, and every conscious connection you cultivate with your gut, will help guide you on the path to dietary wellness. 

Interested in learning more on this topic? Sign up for my free live webinar on How to Eat for Optimal health on Sunday, May 17th 2020 from 1-2pm Hawaii time ~ see the details & register here!

This article is intended to serve as general information, not medical advice. If you would like to work on your diet with Deanna in a clinical capacity, please see the Work with an Herbalist page. Feel free to reach out to Deanna@indigoelixirs.com with any questions or feedback. 

April 20, 2020 — Deanna Rose