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 Picking GrapesThe brain is a physical organ, just like the heart, lungs, or liver.   Not surprisingly, then, brain function can be impaired by the wrong diet - just as heart, lung, or liver problems can result directly from consuming the wrong substances.   And brain function can be enhanced - or even healed - by consistently eating the foods designed for optimal human health - just as physical illnesses, such as diabetis or heart disease, can often be turned around with a health-promoting diet. 

In an age of so many diverse opinions about health and nutrition, it can be difficult to know what to believe - what to eat or not eat.   Should you go "Paleo," eating only plant foods and a little grass-fed animal meat?  Or follow the plans of Dr. Dean Ornish and others, who have shown a low-fat vegeterian diet to be optimal for turning around otherwise terminal illnesses like heart disease?  Should you opt for the Atkins plan that suggests a meat-heavy diet for quick weight loss; or Weight-Watchers, with its portion-controlled sampling of all the food groups? Worst of all, should you follow the advice of the advertising world, consuming anything that tastes good, smells good, or looks good - regardless of its calory load, fat content, or nutritional quality?

As a mom and mental health counselor, I have long researched these questions, in order to guide myself, my family, and my clients in creating a health promoting (and mental-health promoting) lifestyle.   After sifting through a mountain of books, websites, and online programs - after field testing these various approaches over the process of years, looking for those programs with the best results for myself and for others, I began to assess the value of the various programs by the following criteria:

 

1) Energy Level:  Does this food plan improve - or diminish - my energy for life?  A few minutes after eating this food or that meal, do I feel light, energized, happy, ready for a run or a workout?  Or do I feel depleted, heavy, depressed, and in need of a nap? How do I feel five minutes after eating?  How do I feel thirty minutes - or 2 hours - after eating?  Food should fuel and facilitate positive activity.  If it does - I trust it.  If it does the opposite - I don't trust it, and I don't choose it again.  Energy for life is just too valuable.   

2) Physical Wellbeing:  Does this food improve my physical health and strength - or does it tear it down?  As I eat this food, both in the short term and in the long term, does it make me leaner, stronger, healthier - or fatter, weaker, and sicker?    Do I feel nourished, strong, and energetic after eating - or do I feel bloated, nauseous, or even in pain (most commonly headache or stomachache) afterwards?    Am I preventing or reversing diabetis, heart disease, cancer, and other debilitating "diseases of civilization?"  Or am I inviting and feeding these destructive conditions, which can decrease my life not just in longevity but in quality?  Food should nourish, strengthen, and heal the body.  If it does, I trust it.  If it does the opposite, I set it aside.  Life is just too precious.

3) Mental Wellbeing:  Does this food help stabilize my mood - or does it set off an emotional roller coaster?  Does it keep me feeling emotionally satisfied, tranquil, and confident? Or depressed, jittery, and unstable?   Can I concentrate, remember, and process information well after eating?   Or am I distracted, forgetful, unfocused?  Food should nourish positive brain function - mood, memory, learning, and information processing.  If it does, I trust it.  If it doesn't, I run the other way.  My brain is just too crucial, for every activity and function of my life. 

4) Spiritual Wellbeing:  Does this food increase my spiritual receptiveness - or cut it off?  After eating this food, do I feel peaceful, connected, and open to positive spiritual influences?  Or am I so overstimulated, bloated, distracted, or even in pain that the quiet voice of the spirit cannot reach through to me?   Food should leave me more connected to the Giver of all good things - and to my own inner soul.   If it does, I trust it.  If it doesn't, I don't trust it - and I look for better options.  My spiritual life is just too important to me. 

5) Weight Control and Appearance :  Does this food help arrive at and maintain my ideal weight - or not?  Am I reducing down to a healthy weight and then staying there - or am I getting fatter and sicker by the day?  Are my clothes getting looser, fitting me better, allowing me the freedom to wear whatever styles I desire, feeling confident and attractive?  Or are my clothes getting tighter, pulling in the wrong places,  distorting my desired silhouette?   Am I finding myself buying clothes in smaller sizes, with a trim, defined design?  Or am I having to buy clothes in bigger and bigger sizes - or with stretchier and stretchier fabrics and waistbands?   Is my skin becoming radiant, clear, and soft - or dull, acne-infested, and dry?    Food should develop and maintain healthy muscles, skin cells, bones, and body structures, producing a lean, strong, radiant appearance.  If it does, I trust it.  If it does the opposite, I dump it in the garbage, and go seek out actual nutrients.   My weight and appearance can either facilitate or get in the way of everything else I do.  While it is not the most important reason for choosing the right foods, it is a motivating and visible one. 

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Over the process of time, through much reading and experimenting, I have found the following patterns in studying and trying various food plans:

1) Sugar is NOT My Friend - Though It Pretends to Be.  Sugar and sugar substitutes have found their way into more and more of our modern food choices.   Certainly the obvious foods - candy, donuts, cookies, ice cream, and other sweets - and the obvious beverages - soda pop, energy drinks, fruit juice - can contain massive amounts of sugar.   But more and more, virtually every manufactured food product - anything sold in a can, box, package, or bottle - is laced with sweeteners (and often, also high amounts of salt, fat, and a variety of unnatural chemical additives.)  Even products claiming to be "healthy," "low fat,"  "gluten free," "heart-healthy," or other "nutritional buzzwords" of the day, often contain these destructive substances.   Sugar and its substitutes create bloating, destroy healthy cells, set off mood swings, and otherwise create havoc in the human body.   Sugar also sets off the creation of visceral fat, which develops as inflammation around vital organs, including the brain, in an attempt to protect vital functions - but creating extra weight and interference with proper function of the organ.   There are many excellent books, websites, and other resources identifying the negative impact of sugar.  Sugar has not been and never will be needed to maintain a healthy human body - and is often a significant distraction away from the nutrients that truly are needed.   A low-to-no sugar diet promotes both brain and body health. 

2) Processed, Manufactured "Food" is the Basis of Most Modern Diseases - And Is Best Avoided.  Just because something CAN be eaten doesn't mean it SHOULD be eaten. An ever-growing food industry yearly manufactures more and more packaged "convenience" foods,  fast foods, and restaurant foods sold more for profit and entertainment, than for health and nutrition.   This trend began in the US, which quickly became the fattest of all nations, leading the way with physical and mental illnesses and the pills to moderate the symptoms of these food-triggered afflctions.  As other nations progressively adopt this "fake food" plan, replacing natural food with manufactured, processed food, they likewise develop these "diseases of civilization" - both physical diseases such as diabetis, cancer, and heart disease; and also mental-health diseases such as depression, anxiety, and ADD.   Processed food is creating in many nations a condition of people being "overfed - but undernourished."   The body was designed to run on whole, natural, nutrient-rich fuel.  The farther we get away from this natural pattern, the more we invite disease.   The more we embrace and sustain a natural diet, the more we build mental and physical health in ourselves and those we love.   Grocery shopping is greatly simplified, and our health is greatly enhanced, by staying away from the aisles and aisles of manufactured "food" at the grocery store and the fast-food outlet, and choosing instead the whole, simple, natural foods that have sustained human beings since the world began. 

3) Vegetables are the Common Denominator of ALL Health-Promoting Diets.   Various diet plans, especially diets shown to reduce risk of disease, may vary from each other in how much flesh food, grain, or fruit they recommend.  But one thing they ALL share is - Vegetables are the basis of a healthy human diet - particularly when they are consumed in ways that preserve their natural nutrients (raw, juiced, or just very lightly cooked.)    Vegetables should be eaten DAILY, many times a day - ideally as part of each meal and each snack throughout the day.   There is a vast variety of vegetables - differing in color, density, texture, and nutritional composition.   We enhance both physical and mental health by drawing richly on the nutritional powerhouse of the vegetable world. 

4) Fruit is a Fabulous Health-Promoting Food - In Moderation.  Fruits are another natural source of nutrients, fiber, and energy, recommended in moderation by nearly all healthy-promoting diet experts.  However, experts warn that if fruit is eaten too abundantly, it can deliver more sugar than is healthy - and can distract from the less-sweet but more balanced array of vegetables and other whole foods.   I generally try to maintain about a 3-to-1 ratio - 3 vegetables for every fruit, in my own foods and natural juices.  

5) Pure Water Is the One Absolutely Non-Negotiable Crucial Nutrient.   One of the things making vegetables and fruits so nutritious is their high water content.  Water makes up a huge percentage of every cell of the body, especially the blood that flows throughout it, nourishing and enlivening it.   People die after a few weeks without food - but they can last only a few days without water.   Most experts recommend drinking AT LEAST 6-8 glasses of water a day, for proper nutrition, elimination, and nutrient distribution.  Do not substitute sodas and other manufactured beverages for pure water.   Would you shower or bathe in Diet Coke or root beer or Sprite?  Of course not - it would leave you all sticky and dirty on the outside.  Guess what - the same thing happens on the inside!    Water is needed to cleanse the body on the outside, and to cleanse, regenerate, and nourish it on the inside.  It should be consumed daily, multiple times a day - both as a simple beverage, and in the form of water-rich, nutritious natural food - particularly fruits and vegetables. 

6) Other Whole, Nutrient-Rich, Natural Foods.   Various health-promoting diet plans promote different ones of these - based on scientific bias, cultural preference, or other factors.   The general rule of thumb is - other foods, to be healthy, should be consumed in small amounts, in their most whole, natural state.  For example:

  • Meat and animal products, if consumed, should most often be in a low-fat form (such as chicken, turkey or fish, rather than a fatty steak or pork chop.)  A meat portion should not be bigger than the palm of your hand, and is best used as a "condiment" to flavor other foods, rather than "the main event" itself.  
  • Grains, if consumed, should also be consumed in small quantities - about 1/4-1/2 cup - in the most unprocessed, whole and natural way possible.  For example, whole brown rice or quinoa; or rolled oats as oatmeal, rather than flour-based products containing sugars and oils - such as breads, donuts, cookies, etc.     
  • Raw nuts and seeds are a great source of nutrients, including natural proteins and healthy fats; but must be eaten in moderation, due to their high fat content.  I eat a few of these naturally crunchy treats daily - usually as a quick breakfast or healthy snack, with a vegetable or fruit, and a glass of water.
  • Beans and legumes are a great source of healthy fiber and carbohydrate - but again, should be eaten in moderation  (generally about 1/4-1/2 cup per serving) due to their natural starches. 
  • Abundant sunlight, fresh air, exercise, and sleep - While not food-oriented nutrients, these all assist in nourishing and cleansing the body, including the brain, and should be included generously in a healthy lifestyle. 
  • A note :  Dairy products and wheat are among the most common allergens in modern society, largely because they have become so processed.  For example - Baby cows, the one creature clearly designed to consume cow milk, die when fed pasteurized milk.   Dairy is the most mucus-forming substance in the human diet, and some (including me) have found that abstaining from it prevents colds, loss of voice, aches and pains, kidney stones, and other health problems.  Wheat has become so massively over-produced and genetically modified that it has now become the #1 allergen for many people, composed of an entirely different system of chromosomes than a century ago.  See the books "Wheat Belly" and "Grain Brain" for more information about the impact of modern "wheat" on physical, mental, and emotional health, due to inflammation it generates.   Sadly, what once may have  been a life-sustaining, nourishing grain has now become one of the most common, overused, and sickness-triggering "Franken-Foods" in civilized nations. 

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A healthy brain can only exist in a healthy body.   A healthy body can only be generated from nutrient-rich, living, whole-food nutrients.   Factory-produced "food," designed for profit, convenience, entertainment, and long shelf-life, never has and never will be capable of generating radiant human health.   Only life can beget life.   For abundant life, both physical and mental, eat an abundance of living foods - and stay away from packaged, fattening, unnatural, manufactured "fake foods" that have been shown to increase obesity and disease, in civilzation after civilization. These tasty but chemical-laced, ultimately destructive counterfeit foods can only do you and your family harm.   Don't be seduced by slick advertising - and don't let your children be seduced by it.  Dead food can never build healthy new cells - including new brain cells. Only living food can do that.  

Physical and mental health can be massively improved, by this simple action of substituting man-made "food" for the real thing.   Weight control, physical and mental health, spiritual connectedness, and improved appearance and self confidence are among the many payoffs of such a program.   Have fun discovering a whole new world of nutrient-rich, varied, health-promoting, nourishment for body, brain, and soul.  The journey can be challenging at first - but brings benefit after benefit, payoff after payoff, year after year.  Discover the amazing variety and joy of whole, natural food!  It is food you can love - and it is food that will love you back.   

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Author: Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW,    counselinglibrary.org,    Aug. 23, 2014 

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