5 Steps to Freedom: How to Liberate Yourself from the Standard American Diet

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

Stavanger is one of Norway’s oldest cities. The first time I visited, I wandered into the city center and marveled at the cobblestone streets, quaint shops, and beautiful people. The sky was steely grey and tendrils of cold, humid sea air whipped across the harbor as I hunted for a place to get some food. Cafes serving strong, bitter coffee and fresh pastry beckoned. I peeked inside packed restaurants serving kebabs, pizza, seafood, Indian, and sushi and finally settled on a rambling restaurant with a nautical bent. Service was slow but the portions were generous, and the beer was cold. I would eat there most evenings, curled up with a book in the corner amidst the shining brass, nautical ropes, and ship wheels.

Walking back up the hill to my hotel, I passed restaurants and bars and shops in a city center that was missing something obvious to my American eyes: fast food. Sure, there were takeaway restaurants but no McDonalds. No Taco Bell. Nothing like that. I sighed happily and looked around at the tall, thin people who seemed to exercise from dawn to dusk and marveled at this magical, health-conscious place. I returned to Texas with an ache in my heart for the happy and wholesome Scandinavian lifestyle.

Now let us fast forward six years. I walk down the hill towards the city center hunting food for perhaps the millionth time. The cobblestone streets and quaint shops still catch my eye and the wind still blows beneath a steely sky. Cafes and restaurants and bars still surround the harbor but with the curious addition of a Burger King that moved in a few years back.

The line at the sole fast-food restaurant looped back on itself and snaked out the door. Packed from morning until night, Burger King now appeared to be the most popular place to eat. The Norwegians, too, had changed. Gone were the chiseled jaws and lean bodies and in their place, I saw round bellies, wide rear ends, and double chins. Not everyone, of course. But a lot. A whole lot more than there used to be.

Encapsulated in that grey and rainy city center, I saw the effects of the Standard American Diet, and the guilt settled across my shoulders like a heavy, woolen blanket. This is what we give the world, I thought. War. Stress. Disease.

Aside from my overly-guilt-ridden first-world conscience, the Standard American Diet is truly SAD indeed. Based on the core components of red meat, processed meats, pre-packaged foods, saturated fats, high-fat dairy, refined grains, fried foods, sugar, and salt, it is a high-calorie, low-nutrient approach to eating that is in direct conflict with what our bodies need. Evolutionarily speaking, the human genome hasn’t had time to adapt to the way we eat today. The conflict between what our bodies need and what we are eating results in chronic inflammation and insulin resistance. And when we combine chronic inflammation and insulin resistance with physical inactivity and chronic dehydration, we create the perfect breeding ground for weight gain, obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia.

This is what I saw that bitterly cold evening as I blinked back tears and wound my way through the narrow streets: not just a line of hungry people snaking out the door, but a ticking time bomb of disease.

Was I being dramatic? Perhaps. But there is no doubt that nutrition plays a crucial role in developing and maintaining optimal health…especially brain health. As the largest consumer of energy in the human body, the brain uses up twenty percent of our daily calorie intake. When it doesn’t get the nutrition it needs, the consequences are dire and far-reaching.

One consequence is insulin resistance. Insulin is how glucose enters the cells of our body to be used for energy and, like other cells, those in our brain (neurons) can become unable to respond to insulin. Researchers are beginning to link insulin resistance in the brain with dementia, some even going so far as to call Alzheimer’s disease Type 3 diabetes.

Chronic inflammation is another consequence of the high-calorie, low-nutrient Standard American Diet. Inflammation is the body’s response to an irritant; chronic inflammation is slow, long-term inflammation that lasts for months or even years. It is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, obesity, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and dementia.

“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” – Ann Wigmore

Research is clear: nutrition matters. The right food choices provide our brain and body the energy, vitamins, minerals, and other factors we need in order to survive and thrive. The right food choices help us avoid and even heal insulin resistance. And the right food choices help us evade chronic inflammation.

So how do we move away from the Standard American Diet and towards neuroprotective nutrition?

First, cook meals at home. When we prepare our own meals, we have more control over the ingredients. One simple tool for cooking healthy meals at home the Under-6 Approach. It is simple: cook meals at home using six ingredients or less. Each of the six ingredients is a whole food that doesn’t come in a can, jar, box, bag, or from the freezer. “Clean” seasonings like garlic, sea salt, pepper, and fresh herbs don’t count towards the total. The beauty of the Under-6 Approach is that by preparing meals at home using limited, whole-food ingredients, we naturally boost our nutritional intake and reduce exposure to toxic chemicals that make foods look better, taste better, and last longer.

Second, eat meals in a shorter window. Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It has major health benefits for insulin resistance – and therefore the brain – because it promotes ketosis, a state in which the body uses stored fat as fuel. The simplest way to try out intermittent fasting is the 16/8 pattern. This eating pattern involves fasting every day for 14-16 hours while restricting the eating window to 8-10 hours. There are other patterns that are a bit more restrictive such as the 18/6 (fasting for 18 hours, eating within a 6-hour window) but whatever pattern is chosen, it is critical to fast for three hours before bedtime. This allows the body to finish digestion and spend valuable nighttime energy on repairing and refreshing the body systems…including the brain.

Third, drink enough water. Water is essential for delivering nutrients to the brain and for removing toxins and yet an estimated 75% of adults in the United States are chronically dehydrated. When our brains are fully hydrated, the exchange of nutrients and toxins is more efficient which improves our concentration and mental alertness. Everyone is unique and we all need different amounts of water based on elements like gender, height, weight, and activity level. So, while the general recommendation is 64 ounces of water per day, urine is a largely accurate way to determine our hydration level. If urine is very light yellow (almost clear) and has little odor, then we are well-hydrated. The darker and more pungent our urine, the more dehydrated we are.

Fourth, follow the MIND diet which is an excellent springboard away from the SAD towards neuroprotective nutrition. Strongly backed by science, the MIND diet was developed to reduce dementia risk and slow the age-related loss of brain function. Foods on the MIND diet reduce oxidative stress, chronic inflammation, and the formation of beta-amyloid plaques. One beautiful thing about the MIND diet is its simplicity. It breaks foods down into two basic categories: foods to eat for brain health, and foods to avoid. In general, the MIND diet focuses on plant-based foods, limits the intake of animal products and saturated fats, and urges consumption of berries and leafy greens. More of a nutritional approach than a “diet”, following this plan to the letter is not as important as following it for the long-term.

And finally, have a balanced plate. The Balanced-Plate Approach is another nifty tool I share with my clients because it is a simple, useful trick for moving towards neuroprotective nutrition. Imagine an empty plate sitting on the table in front of you. Now, mentally fill half of that plate with raw or lightly cooked green vegetables. In your mind, fill one-quarter of the plate with your favorite lean protein such as chicken, tofu, or fish. Now, see the remaining quarter plate filled with beans or sweet potatoes or fermented foods (hello kimchi!) or a prebiotic fiber…the goal is to fill this remaining spot with low-glycemic carbohydrates and gut-healing foods. Add one heaping tablespoon of healthy fats such as olive oil or nuts and voila! A balanced plate.

The Standard American Diet is SAD, indeed. And we are exporting it around the world. The good news is that we can become informed consumers of our food and our health. No matter our starting point, we can take steps today towards neuroprotective nutrition.

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