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Eating Well for Optimum Health: The Essential Guide to Bringing Health and Pleasure Back to Eating
by Andrew Weil

by Andrew Weil

Excerpt from: Eating Well for Optimum Health

Chapter One: The Principles of Eating Well

When I use the words eating well, I mean using food not only to influence health and well-being but to satisfy the senses, providing pleasure and comfort. In addition to supplying the basic needs of the body for calories and nutrients, an optimum diet should also reduce risks of disease and fortify the body's defenses and intrinsic mechanisms of healing. I believe that how we eat is an important determinant of how we feel and how we age. I also believe that food can function as medicine to influence a variety of common ailments.

The American Council on Science and Health, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to "helping distinguish between real and hypothetical health risks," recently suggested ten resolutions for a healthy new year. The council included obvious ones, such as don't smoke, wear seat belts, and install smoke detectors, but addressed diet in only one paragraph:

Eat a balanced and varied diet. Avoid obesity and fad diets. There are no magical guidelines for good nutrition. Patients should resolve to plan their diet around the watchwords "variety, moderation, and balance." Remember: There are no "good" or "bad" foods. The primary danger from food is overindulgence.

I find this advice to be remarkably unhelpful. Eat a balanced diet? What is that? I meet people who think that adding a salad with creamy dressing to a cheeseburger and French fries balances the meal. Avoid obesity? Sure, that sounds like a good idea, but how do you do it? There are no "good" or "bad" foods? What about soybeans?They contain healthy fiber, a fat that may help lower cholesterol, and unusual compounds called isoflavones that may offer significant protection against common forms of cancer. Soybeans seem like a good food to me. What about margarine? For years I've been telling my patients to avoid it because it contains trans-fatty acids (TFAs), unnatural fats that promote inflammation, heart disease, and cancer. Sounds like a bad food to me — I won't eat it, even in moderation or in the pursuit of variety.

The primary danger from food is overindulgence? I'm sure my distant ancestors had no problem in that area, but what am I supposed to do when everywhere I look I see tempting offerings of food in ever more novel preparations, when many restaurants score points for the size of portions they serve, when I get more for my money buying giant sizes of food and drink, and when people who love me or want my attention give me food and more food as expressions of their affection or interest?

The poor advice about diet and health that people get far too often when they ask physicians, nurses, registered dietitians, and other representatives of the health-care establishment for help reflects the dearth of good nutritional education in our professional schools. If you look to other sources — alternative practitioners, bookstores, health food stores, the Internet, for example — there is no shortage of information about nutritional influences on health. In fact, there is much too much of it out there, most of it contradictory, unscientific, and intended to promote particular foods, diets, or dietary supplements.

While scanning nutrition-related sites on the Internet, for example, I came across glowing recommendations for products made from "super blue-green algae," microorganisms from a lake in Oregon. I was told that:

Super Blue Green Algae gives us nutrients and energy at almost no cost to the body's reserves. This algae is 97% assimilable, and many of the nutrients are in forms that are directly usable. For example, the algae's 60% protein content is of a type called glycoproteins, as opposed to the lipoproteins found in vegetables and meat. As a result, the body doesn't have to spend its valuable resources converting lipoproteins into glycoproteins as it does with other foods. Super Blue Green Algae contains almost every vitamin and mineral needed by the body ... [and] is one of the richest sources of chlorophyll — a cell regenerator and blood purifier.
Should I rush to order this costly "superfood"? Can it be that all my life my body has been wasting its valuable resources converting lipoproteins to glycoproteins when it could have been getting just what it wanted from pond scum? As for chlorophyll, while it performs a vital function in the life of green plants, it has no role that I know of in human nutrition.

At one extreme are authorities telling us that we are what we eat, that health, good and bad, is entirely or mostly a creation of what we put in our mouths. There is a kernel of attractive logic in that formulation that resonates with common sense. We have to eat to live, because food is fuel for the metabolic engine. The quality of fuel you burn must influence your body, just as the grade of fuel you put into an internal combustion engine influences its performance for better or worse, not only in the short run — a smooth purr versus a ragged knock, for example — but also in the long run, retarding or accelerating the accumulation of deposits that reduce the longevity of valves, rings, and ultimately the entire engine. But it is a long way from this simple observation to the conclusion that diet is everything.

At the other extreme are voices telling us it doesn't matter. "Eat healthy, exercise, die anyway." "Just eat a balanced diet." "My uncle Jake ate big helpings of bacon, eggs, steak, and butter every day of his life and lived to be ninety-nine." "There are no good and bad foods." "People who say you can affect your health and treat disease by changing your diet are food faddists." "It's all in your genes, anyway. "

I know of no subject more confused, emotionally charged, and important in our lives than food and nutrition and their influence on our well-being...

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