Clean Eating: How to eat for a sharp mind and healthy body

Healthy dinner, lunch setting. Flat-lay of vegan superbowl or Buddha bowl with hummus, vegetable, salad, beans, couscous and avocado, smoothie.

Just like luxury cars, our bodies and brains function best when given the best fuel. Eating foods rich with vitamins and minerals nourishes the brain and body and can also help to protect it.

Consuming less processed foods and more whole foods can also lead to better emotional health, helping one to feel their best when they eat their best.

Etosha L. Farmer, registered dietitian and owner of Dietitians of Northern New York, stands in the kitchen preparing a simple, healthy meal with swiss chard, edamame and beets on a Thursday afternoon. She started the practice in 2017 following a lifelong love of food. After being into sports in high school, Ms. Farmer was interested in how food fueled the body and took a nutrition class in college. The rest, as they say, is history.

A master’s degree in food science later, the registered dietitian operates the practice with one other dietician and generally does one–on–one consults, with people coming to her with various ailments and conditions they’d like to work on.

“A lot of my clients are people who have either been just diagnosed with something or people that just want to lose weight,” she said. “They come in and we talk about what they’re currently eating; I go through ways that you could make that better and then we come up with a plan.”

She said she really likes when someone comes into the practice without really knowing much about what they’re walking into, and leaving feeling empowered and ready for the challenge after she shares her knowledge and helps them come up with a personalized plan.

If someone comes in with pre-diabetes or diabetes, Ms. Farmer will talk to them about foods that they can eat to change their diet to help lower their blood sugar. In some cases, they get off medication or don’t have to go on medication at all, which she said is pretty exciting for her as their dietitian.

Ms. Farmer is a supporter of clean eating, which to her means getting more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants out of whole foods rather than processed food.

“It’s going to lead to, as far as brain health goes, increasing those foods that are brain boosters so you’re going to be getting things like your B vitamins that are going to help with mental health and decreased mental decline,” she said. “The omega-3s that are in fatty fish are really good as far as cognitive function, as well, where if you’re doing processed foods, usually you’re not getting as many vitamins and minerals out of those foods. You’re also getting more sodium and sodium which leads to cognitive decline.”

Ms. Farmer also recommends increasing hydration for cognitive function and overall health because it is often overlooked, or water is substituted for things full of sugar and caffeine. Foods with healthy fats can also help with brain function, especially omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish like tuna, salmon and mackerel are good places to start, as well as nuts, flax seeds and chia seeds, which are easy to sprinkle on various dishes to add them in to your diet.

Whole grains are high in B vitamins, Ms. Farmer said, and have a lot of benefits, including mental clarity. In terms of vegetables, dark leafy greens and deep reds are where it’s at. Things like berries, beets, radishes and eggplants contain anthocyanins, which help to slow down mental deterioration.

For fighting off or preventing illness, antioxidants can usually help and can be found in fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and they also get rid of the free radicals in your body to help decrease inflammation.

Salads are easy meals to incorporate things like dark leafy greens and deep red vegetables. Ms. Farmer recommends, instead of doing basic tossed salads, switching things up and adding in different vegetables or toppings to keep meals interesting while also getting your body a range of nutrients. Speaking of switching things up, Ms. Farmer shared a recipe she had come across for salmon burgers rather than those made with beef. Overall, the salmon burgers will be higher in omega-3 fatty acids, but with less calories and less saturated fat.

“I generally do find people tend to feel better when they eat this way, I think a lot of times people are chronically tired all the time but I think it’s because they’re not fueling their body properly,” Ms. Farmer said. “So, once they start eating healthier, generally a little bit more fiber, generally a little bit more protein, they tend to feel better, because you’re fueling your body. If people are going to fast food they’re not getting the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.”

In total, Dietitians of NNY has 965 clients, averaging over 300 per year. Ms. Farmer said she thinks people sometimes overthink eating in general, but clean living doesn’t have to be complicated-- it can be basic whole foods in their natural form, not always having to come up with elaborate recipes for meals. She noted that people don’t always want to take the time to cook, but there is a huge value in it, knowing what is going into what you’re eating.

While no one food can prevent or cure cancer, certain foods associated with a balanced diet can help to strengthen the immune system, along with helping to maintain a healthy body weight, which can be factors in protecting against cancer. Some vegetables to utilize include broccoli and dark leafy greens like swiss chard, and fruits including blueberries and bananas. Broccoli is a strong source of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin A and folate, and dark leafy greens provide vitamin K, fiber, folate and carotenoids. Blueberries are a source of vitamin C as well as fiber, vitamin K and high levels of antioxidants. These kinds of nutrients work together to keep the immune system working properly.

According to Northwestern Medicine, it is best to eat a healthy and nutrient-dense, plant-based diet including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. People should include low-fat dairy and lean proteins moderately, and eat whole grains while limiting red and processed meats.

Mark Simon, founder and director of NORI, the Nutritional Oncology Research Institute, eats a fully plant-based diet and has for almost 40 years.

Mr. Simon started NORI, in 2011 after losing his wife to breast cancer. With a diverse background including clinical and plant-based nutrition, and highly focused on cancer, he discovered that there were a lot of things that cancer patients could incorporate into their treatment plan beyond the conventional approach.

“I saw the limitations of oncology, because they offer nothing nutritionally at all,” he said. “In fact, pretty much all oncologists say it doesn’t matter what you eat. I knew that diet does make a difference because I studied that.”

Since the founding of NORI, many affiliations have been made, including one with Dr. Robert Hoffman, who has studied methionine dependence in cancer for over 55 years. According to Mr. Simon, when looking at cancer cells compared to normal cells, there are two things that stand out, which can be exploited in cancer therapy. One of them is methionine dependence.

Without sufficient methionine, cancer cells can’t grow and divide and make more cancer cells.

“This is a real Achilles heel that we need to exploit to develop really good, much less toxic or nontoxic ways of treating cancer,” Mr. Simon said. “This is based on very powerful science, and it has applications outside of cancer. Methionine restriction has applications in anti-aging, in treating other diseases. Studies show that a methionine restricted diet can increase lifespan 30 to 40%.”

In terms of methionine, there’s a target level of two milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day that you want to be at or below. That translates basically to your weight in pounds- if you weigh 125 pounds, you’d want to stay at or below 125 milligrams of methionine per day, but the lower the better.

Most people, when faced with cancer, will do what they can to help themselves, which includes dietary changes. The first step, according to Mr. Simon, is eliminating all animal products since they are all very high in methionine, especially chicken and fish. Once a person gets to that stage, the diet is refined a little bit further, and balanced in such a way to limit methionine, which includes eating a lot of fruits and vegetables.

Fruits have the least amount of methionine, with vegetables being just a little higher. Potatoes are a really good food, fairly low in methionine, and nutritionally robust, Mr. Simon said.

“We don’t need to eat animals,” he said. “It’s not necessary, and it’s totally counterproductive to our health. There’s nothing missing in a plant-based diet nutritionally, other than possibly vitamin B-12 that you can easily supplement.”

The other vulnerability of cancer cells is oxidative stress. Cancer cells are known to be under a fairly high state of oxidative stress, and it just takes a little bit extra to push them over the edge. NORI protocol uses a small handful of agents, such as sodium selenite, which is a very powerful oxidizing agent. There are a bunch of other compounds that work together, along with it, synergistically.

For cancer treatment, antioxidants are not beneficial and oncologists have known that for a very long time, Mr. Simon said; they don’t want cancer patients to take any antioxidants because they will interfere with chemotherapy. A whole different mindset, Mr. Simon says the less protein, the better.

While he considers grains and beans to be fairly high protein foods, they fall more in line with what an appropriate protein intake would be; though the less protein we eat, the healthier we are, Mr. Simon contends. As he explains it, a person can survive just fine on 10 to 20 grams of protein.

“Most of the serotonin in our body is produced in the gut,” Mr. Simon said. “If you don’t have the right foods, you don’t have very good bacteria, and you’re not going to be producing the right compounds and your neurochemistry is going to be off balance. A fruit and vegetable diet really helps maintain healthy and balanced neurochemistry.”

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