Transitioning to a nutrient-dense diet has proven to be an effective therapy that supports the body’s natural function. Sometimes the most powerful way to restore health is simply adjusting your diet slowly and steadily until an optimal eating pattern is reached. Many people don’t make the connection between their frustrating or debilitating symptoms and their day-to-day habits. If this is you, you’re not alone.
The “SAD” – Standard American Diet
Americans are known far and wide for our bucket-sized Polar Pops, huge plates of fried food, and breaded everything. We love our high-fructose corn syrup; so much that 48 pounds of it is consumed annually by the typical American, usually in soft drinks. In 1990, we consumed our body weight in sweeteners and processed salt.
Foods like those mentioned above are generally void of nutrients. They may even strip nutrients already present in the body by causing metabolic processes to go into overdrive. Processed sugar alone depletes the body of many vital minerals, like magnesium, copper, and zinc. Massive amounts of sodium in processed foods can contribute to an excess, which throws off our body’s important sodium-potassium balance.
Sweets, wheat, and other processed foods can lead to food sensitivities in many people by compromising the gut microbiome. They can also trigger inflammation, which can lead to a permeable gut; what many practitioners call a “leaky gut”. This extra stress on the body can cause a cascade, leading to issues with many body systems like the cardiovascular system, digestive system, endocrine system, and more.
It’s no wonder the pharmaceutical and supplement industries are booming.
Transitioning to a Nutrient-Dense Diet
If you are reading this post, it is likely that you’re ready to support or eliminate chronic health issues, prevent future disease, and improve your quality of life. Improving your diet is a fantastic and huge step down the path to feeling better than ever. Congratulations on this first step!
A nutrient-dense diet will provide your body with the macro and micronutrients it needs to detoxify, heal, and function optimally. Macronutrients include protein, fats, and carbohydrates; an abundance of each one is essential to the function of a healthy body. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that run the body’s metabolic processes and feed our cells. They must be present to synthesize bodily fluids, hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, and everything else that makes the body work.
Nutrition can be a complex topic and can lead to some intense rabbit holes, but improving your diet is simple. Take each of the following guidelines and make them work for you, starting slowly and making each one a habit.
One small calculated step leads to more steps.
Think of this journey as crossing a stream using only the rocks sticking out of the water as stepping stones. You need to step onto the first rock and make sure your foot feels secure before moving on, or you risk falling into the water. Step onto the second rock and make sure your footing is comfortable, then keep going. When you make it across it is such an accomplishment!
If you are not able to follow this program perfectly, don’t fret. Any move you make is beneficial for the long journey. Set goals and reward yourself with something positive when you reach them. You will feel better in no time.
1. Drink pure water with added minerals
Water keeps your body hydrated and makes everything run more smoothly. It helps your body eliminate toxins, which is essential during a healing journey. Toxic chemicals and other waste products are stored in fat cells and tissues. They are freed when the body begins receiving more minerals that crowd them out of their hiding places.
Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces every single day, adding more if you sweat. If you weigh 180 pounds, set a goal of 90 ounces of water per day. Drinking water should be purified or from a spring, never straight from the tap. This will help you avoid harmful toxins like chlorine, fluoride, and even lead. Filtered or bottled water is usually best, and there are many great options for all budgets. See Tip #4 in this post for more on obtaining clean drinking water.
To improve your water intake and avoid a thousand bathroom trips, add trace minerals to each glass of water by dropping in a small pinch of high-quality sea salt. You can also opt for a supplement such as Trace Minerals Concentrace drops. Remineralizing your water will ensure it reaches your cells and that beneficial nutrients aren’t flushed from your body when you urinate.
2. Eat more vegetables
If you’re up for a challenge, try to fill your plate halfway with vegetables at each meal. Vegetables are high in fiber that keeps the digestive tract clean and minerals the body needs to detoxify and function optimally.
This does not mean eat lots of salads. For most people on a healing journey, cooked vegetables are a better option because they are easier on the digestive system. The one vegetable I recommend eating raw most days is carrot, which works to both scrub the colon and help the body eliminate excess estrogen.
Some helpful things to know about vegetables:
- Fiber in vegetables helps to slow the absorption of dietary fat and toxins, which can help normalize cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It also feeds your gut bacteria, which synthesize crucial vitamins, inhibit colonization of pathogenic organisms, and even regulate your mood. Fiber also speeds up bowel transit time, which reduces toxicity and can help to prevent irritation of your gut lining. This is very helpful if you’re trying to heal a leaky gut.
- Folic acid in many vegetables is necessary to produce serotonin and increase energy. Both of those benefits can help prevent depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. They can also improve likeliness to exercise and decrease likeliness to overeat less-healthy foods.
- The many minerals in vegetables serve tons of functions throughout the entire body. Some key examples are maintaining nerve conduction, contracting and relaxing muscles, and helping nutrients transfer into and out of cells. They are also important cofactors for production of enzymes that our body cannot live without.
Eating vegetables has so many benefits. It can help to increase your energy and mental clarity, reduce problems caused by bowel and liver toxicity, and reduce risk of cancer and heart disease. It can even help reduce symptoms of many conditions, like allergies, asthma, skin problems, digestive distress, sinusitis, chronic pain, and so much more.
Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables, and eat them first to help with healthy digestion of the fats and proteins on your plate. If they are more palatable for you, it’s okay to add real butter and sea salt!
One caveat – although they may have their place in a meal, corn and white potatoes do not count as vegetables.
3. Avoid deep-fried foods and processed oils
We find more and more reasons to avoid processed oils and foods cooked in them every day. Hydrogenated oils and partially-hydrogenated oils are often used to cook high-volume foods due to their low cost. However, their processing produces harmful trans fats that have been linked to many health problems.
Trans fats have been shown to contribute to or cause a host of conditions, including cancer (including breast cancer), heart disease and plaque formation, pain and inflammation (and the “silent” conditions they indicate), ADD, depression, general fatigue, muscle fatigue, and skin problems. (To name just a few.) Trans fats are also incorporated into cells, making the cells less resistant to bacteria and viruses. This can contribute to immune issues and even possibly autoimmunity.
Most packaged chips and fried snacks contain hydrogenated oils, including crackers, cereals, and even bread. Margarine, mayonnaise, and many bottled condiments contain them as well, as do many foods labeled “vegan”. Read ingredient lists when you purchase packaged foods. Choose Paleo options where available, which are much less likely to contain harmful oils.
Oils to avoid include canola and rapeseed, sunflower, grapeseed, safflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, peanut, and sesame. If you are accustomed to cooking with Crisco or using margarine, this is your permission to switch to butter for a more healthy fat profile. Yes, saturated fats are a better option! They actually have many health benefits, whereas hydrogenated oils do no good in the body.
4. Avoid refined sugar
The typical American eats upwards of 170 pounds of refined sugar per year. We are literally filled with sugar, and pure cane sugar is not even the worst offender. Below is a list of 65 different types of refined sugars and sweeteners that wreak havoc in your body. How? I’ll tell you below the chart.
Heads up – the bold sweeteners are better options, but they are still sweeteners! Choose them over the other options, but still consider limiting them.
Refined sweeteners increase insulin and adrenal hormone production which, when it happens occasionally, is not detrimental. The problem comes when we do this over and over and over again to our bodies by eating lots of sweets every day, as many Americans do. This frequent blood sugar boost plus the subsequent crash are incredibly stressful for the body.
This stress can lead to a host of issues, such as:
- Mineral depletion. Increased production of adrenal hormones causes the body to excrete them.
- Increased need for B and C vitamins. These get used up quickly as the body processes sugar.
- More emotional stress. When we eat too much sugar we are stressing our body. This taxes our adrenal glands and can lead to low energy, low mood, and lack of resilience to stress of all types (physical, mental, and emotional).
- Increased risk for colonization of the bowel by pathogenic microbes. Sugar feeds pathogens like Candida yeast that like to inhabit our gut and push out beneficial bacteria, produce toxins, and irritate the lining of the GI tract.
- Poor blood sugar regulation. Eating sweeteners (real and artificial) causes an immediate spike in blood sugar. This prompts the body to produce a large amount of insulin, which drops suddenly hours later and can cause cravings for more sweet foods; it’s a vicious cycle!
- More pain and inflammation. Sugar consumption depletes minerals that help with pain and inflammation regulation.
- Contribution or aggravation of many chronic conditions. Allergies, sinusitis, asthma, IBS, migraines, fatigue, depression, and even heart disease.
5. Avoid refined carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates are a huge part of the Standard American Diet. They are considered to be grains that have had the fiber, vitamins, bran, and germ removed, and may be fortified with lab-created vitamins and minerals. In other words, they are completely void of any nutritional value and are literally just going to spike your blood sugar.
They may fill you up, but refined carbs lack nutrients. This stresses your digestive and endocrine systems because they are taking precious vitamins and minerals to process in your body, but are not leaving anything behind to add back in.
When desiring to eat a low-fat diet for whatever reason, many people eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates thinking that is a better option. While high-carb can be beneficial for some people, a high-refined-carb diet is not beneficial for anyone. White bread and pasta are not great options, as they typically contain wheat flour that has been highly processed and is lacking nutrients.
If you enjoy and can tolerate grains, better options are sprouted wheat bread, long-fermented sourdough using wheat or rye flour, organic gluten-free oats, or exotic grains like amaranth and quinoa which are typically lower in heavy metals. Take care to soak all grains in clean filtered water with 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar for at least 6-8 hours before cooking and consuming. This will ensure they are easy for your body to digest, free up minerals for maximum nutrient-density, and help to remove toxins like arsenic and lead.
6. Avoid chemical additives
There are tons of chemical additives in processed foods that have no place in our bodies. They can have a devastating effect on our health. Although the FDA tests additives, it is common knowledge that they are easily persuaded by the very companies that run Big Food. (Unfortunately, money wins.)
There are too many additives to list here, so my rule of thumb is if I don’t know what an ingredient is then I won’t eat it. If you want to become more educated on individual ingredients, I highly recommend doing an internet search on any that you aren’t familiar with.
Here are a handful of common or very harmful ingredients that you may come across:
- Mono and diglycerides. Used to maintain softness in baked goods, but are being studied for suspected link with birth defects, cancer, and reproductive problems.
- Brominated vegetables oils (BVO). Used as an emulsifier, these are known to be highly toxic and may contribute to many health issues. Some serious issues include breakdown of the body’s defenses, toxicity in children, kidney failure, and nervous system issues as they are stored in fat and nerve tissue.
- Red #40. A suspected carcinogen, this should be avoided along with any other colors followed by a number.
- Sodium nitrite. Makes meat bright and kills botulism spores, but when combined with stomach acid can form powerful carcinogens called nitrosamines.
- Aspartame (Equal or Nutrasweet). Known to cause headaches, depression, anxiety, memory loss, heart palpitations, nausea, seizures, blurred vision, kidney and bladder infections, and possibly even cancer.
- THBQ (Tertiarybutylhydroquinone). A mouthful of a word and used to extend a food’s shelf-life, food manufacturers had a hard time getting it approved because ingestion of just five grams has caused death. Eating one gram can cause nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, sense of suffocation, or collapse.
Stay away from packaged food ingredients with crazy long names or ones you cannot pronounce. If it’s not real food (ex. cranberries), stay away from it. For optimal health, food should never be made in a lab.
7. Eat slowly and chew your food
Most of our parents did not teach us how to chew our food, not because they were negligent, but because they were also not taught the correct way. Food should always be manually chewed thoroughly before swallowing. Ideally, your food should be the consistency of a smoothie before it makes it’s way down your throat to your stomach.
Chewing thoroughly not only breaks down food using manual digestion, but it also allows ample time for your food to mix with digestive enzymes secreted by your salivary glands. Much of digestion happens in the mouth during the chewing process. Not chewing enough can mean undigested food particles make their way through your digestive system. This can mean poor absorption of nutrients, gas and bloating, leaky gut, compromised gut bacteria, or even food sensitivities.
8. Never skip a meal
Skipping meals or avoiding snacks when you are truly hungry is the fastest way to slow your metabolism. Our bodies need to eat, especially when we are in a state of disease, toxicity, or stress. The adrenal glands and blood sugar regulation system take the biggest hit when we don’t keep them well-fed, which can lead to lots of issues, many which have been discussed in previous sections.
Ideally when trying to switch to a nutrient-dense diet, it is a good idea to eat 5-6 small meals per day. Once your blood sugar has been stabilized, you can likely transition to eating three regular meals if that is desired. I never recommend intermittent fasting during a time of healing, as it is too stressful to the body at that time.
If trying to lose weight, skipping meals can feel like a good strategy, but the slowed metabolism can actually make weight management more difficult. Instead, prioritize switching to a nutrient-dense diet and learning how to listen to your body. While you make the transition, try tracking calories and macronutrients using an app like MyFitnessPal. Adult women cannot heal or thrive on 1,200 calories per day, so please consider eating at least 1,800-2,000 calories per day and adding exercise instead of starving yourself. This BMR calculator can help you figure out your optimal maintenance calories based on your activity level.
More on transitioning to a nutrient-dense diet
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption. Alcohol stresses the liver and nervous system, and can have harmful effects on organs. If you drink, do so in moderation and choose your beverages wisely. Sulfate-free red wine, hard kombucha, and low-sugar seltzers are a better option than beer and hard liquors. It is best to abstain during the transition period if at all possible to give your body a break and let it heal.
- Reduce or eliminate coffee and caffeinated teas. Caffeine also stresses nervous system and adrenals, leading to adrenal fatigue and exhaustion. Both crops are heavily sprayed with pesticides and fungicides, but may still go to the processing plant with mold growth. Take care to buy organic and do research on your favorite companies before buying from them. Switch to caffeine-free herbal teas when possible, and if you must drink coffee I highly recommend Purity Coffee.
- Stop smoking. Cigarettes contain a massive amount of carcinogens, and nicotine is a stimulant that puts a lot of stress on the body. If nicotine has become a coping mechanism that helps to relax in times of stress, consider trying a high-quality full-spectrum CBD tincture.
- Add in regular exercise. The benefits of movement are so incredible. It can reduce inflammation, improve chronic symptoms, move lymph to aid detoxification, support digestion, and even improve blood sugar regulation. If you do not already have a movement practice in place, now is the time to create one. Start with a 20-minute walk every day and branch out from there. YouTube can be an amazing free resource for literally any type of exercise you enjoy.
- Start practicing deep breathing, meditation, prayer, or something else that helps you to destress. Stress is a major cause of chronic health problems and can be linked to issues with every single Foundation of Health. Stress comes in many different forms, but can be mitigated by actively trying to do so. Improving your level of chronic stress can help to increase your energy and improve your quality of life.
Consider working with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner
It’s not always easy to make a big change without help. Just as a psychotherapist can help with releasing childhood traumas, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (me!) can help with transitioning to a nutrient-dense diet that supports the body’s normal function. We have the tools and knowledge to guide you into a healthier, more vibrant way of life using real food. You can get your energy back, feel good in your skin, and even thrive as you age.
You don’t have to go this alone. If you would like to become a healthier version of yourself with a positive, motivating nutritional therapist, please feel free to join my waitlist using the button below. It would be an honor to support you through your unique healing journey.
As you can see, there are lots of places to start when transitioning to a nutrient-dense diet. Pick one thing first, master it, then add in one more thing, and keep going in this manner until you feel amazing. Optimal health is a journey that may take a while when you’re moving slow, but don’t get discouraged. Slow is the best way to make sure your new habits stick around for your lifetime.
I wish you the best of luck!