Guest Post by Amy Height
How much mental energy do you spend thinking about food each day? How many minutes? How much emotional capital?
If you’re like most of the women I work with – heck, most of the women I know – it’s a whole bunch more minutes than it needs to be, and the conversation is usually not particularly kind to ourselves.
Because we have to eat three times a day, it’s difficult not to think about food as much as we do. So how can we structure our eating so that we’re actually doing something great for our bodies? When we can find the answer to this, we can break up with a little of guilt and obsession that comes with eating, and focus on nourishing ourselves to fuel our higher purpose.
When we start imposing restrictions and limitations in an attempt to be perfect, we actually do ourselves a disservice. If you have ever experienced the crushing defeat of “failing at a diet”, and the dismal downward spiral that ensues, you know what I mean.
Taking care of our fabulous lady-selves involves so much more than just the occasional workout and taking a multivitamin. Because we are biologically in the business of taking care of people around us, we need to ensure we feel solid: that means prioritizing being good to ourselves, from food to self-talk to stress management to exercise.
Particularly when it comes to food and the female body, there are some specific things we need to take into account.
1. We are built differently than men.
2. Our needs for protein, fat, carbs and calories overall differ from men’s.
3. Dieting take a lot of work and is unsatisfying, restrictive and hard.
4. Counting calories is a useless waste of our time and takes up far too much mental energy that could otherwise be spent being awesome, making the world a better place, or enjoying our lives.
5. We do ourselves more service by eating: that is, whole ingredients prepared in a nutritious way in the spirit of nourishing and fueling ourselves.
If there is one thing I would wish for all the women in my world — the women I work with, the women I am related to, the women I choose to spend my social time with — it would be for all of us to give up the idea that how and what we eat are our defining characteristics.
Instead, I would love for us to all embrace that eating is a beautiful thing. Food can be a source of a lot of power (real food = real fuel, and a well-fueled woman can make a big impact on the world). We just need to focus our attention on filling our lives with whole food, and really allow ourselves to love what we’re eating. Hold the guilt, please.
Not only is this a kinder option to our minds, it’s a kinder option to our physical selves. By focusing on intact nutrients and nourishing delicious options, we ensure our bodies don’t freak out.
“Freak out?” you may ask, “Freak out how?”
Well, when the body senses it’s lacking something, it goes into panic mode. Our resources and energy shift to focus on the missing essential element, which means less energy, more erratic moods and systemic stress. Chronic stress means weight gain, acid formation, lethargy, headaches, and more imbalances, which just keeps the cycle going. The body doesn’t know the difference between stress from work, stress from malnourishment, and stress from emotions, so it’s up to us to mitigate our stress and our responses as much as possible. A body freaking out about a missing nutrient is not a body at rest, and rest is essential to recharge the system.
When we fortify our bodies in advance, we actually set ourselves up to deal with stress more effectively: less stress on the body from a lack of nutrition and more capacity to deal with external stressors as they arise. I call this the Chaos Foundation, essentially the platform from which we can take on whatever the universe throws our way. We just need to ensure our foundation is solid.
The easiest place to start – as we usually have more control over this than anything else – is food. Let’s dig into some essential lady-tastic nutrients that support the body (and give us a great reason to eat delicious real food at every meal).
The primary function of calcium in the body is the formation of bones and teeth, although it also plays a role in nerve transmission, muscle function and hormone secretion. The body’s reservoir of calcium is stored in the bones, which break down more than they regenerate as we age, so it’s a good idea to stock up whenever possible.
Contrary to what we’re taught in school, dairy is not the only (or best) source of calcium. In fact, because it’s so acidic, excess dairy leaches calcium from bones to act as a buffer in the bloodstream. (So much for all those Got Milk ads.) Great sources of calcium include fish (with bones), fortified tofu and other soy products, sea vegetables, as well as dark green vegetables like kale, broccoli and bok choy.
Recipe: Coconut Crusted Tofu served with steamed or sautéed kale
Iron- blood cell formation, energy, muscle
Iron is essential for oxygen transport around the body: not enough oxygen in the system means fatigue, decreased immunity, and lack of mental clarity.
We can use two different kinds of iron: heme (from the red blood cells of other animals) and non-heme iron (from plant sources). Chicken liver, dark meat poultry and shellfish are great sources of heme iron, while beans, spinach, raisins and molasses are beneficial sources of non-heme iron. Iron is best absorbed when paired with Vitamin C.
Recipe: White Bean Peanut Butter Burgers paired with some bright green veggies or orange slices for added Vitamin C
Folate is a water-soluble B Vitamin, and is essential for the proper cell division within the body. If we’re thinking preventatively, a strong body full of well-dividing, happy cells is going to far more resilient to stress and exposure than one packed with unstable cells. This nutrient is particularly essential in pregnancy (and pre-pregnancy, again in the spirit of preparedness) to ensure a growing baby’s cells are also dividing and growing well.
When it comes to meeting our folate needs, think ‘foliage’… dark leafy greens, orange veggies, and beans are the best way to go. Work spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, baked beans, and even eggs into your diet to cover your bases.
Although Vitamin D is naturally present in some foods, we produce most of our supply of it internally from exposure to the sun. (Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin, but a precursor to a whole chain of hormones.) Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption (which is why many supplements combine the two), and assists in bone cell growth. It also plays a role in immune function and inflammation control.
Apart from a (safe) dose of sunlight each day, fatty fish and their oils (salmon, mackerel, and tuna) are our best source of Vitamin D, along with organic eggs and mushrooms that have been exposed to Vitamin D (the bacteria on mushrooms help the body convert the compounds in the mushrooms into usable Vitamin D).
Recipes: Mushroom Medley Bowl
Magnesium – protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function
Magnesium is essential for blood glucose control (avoiding those sugar crashes), energy production, and glycolysis (the process by which the liver releases stored energy into the blood stream for use). This is a key metabolic process, and when it’s not functioning properly, we hold onto extra weight and experience extreme fatigue. Magnesium is also involved in nerve conduction, muscle contraction and heart regulation… see why this might be so essential in keeping us on an even keel? A body without a regular heart rhythm is a body that thinks things are more stressful than they really are.
Find magnesium in green leafies, avocado, beans and legumes (especially black beans and edamame), nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews and peanuts) and whole grains. Processed grains have much of their magnesium removed, so aim for intact, unprocessed ones whenever possible.
Recipe: Jolly Green Giant Burgers with cashews and edamame
Fats – mood regulation, hormones
Fats are essential to mood regulation and nerve conduction: each inch of the 45 miles of nervous system in the body are covered with a thin layer of fat which allows the electric impulses to move smoothly from nerve to nerve. Let’s support that by ensuring healthy fats – which also aid in lubricating joints, keeping us insulated, and keeping us full – make an appearance on our plates every day.
While trans fats (think: hydrogenated oils in margarines, baked goods, salad dressings) are not at all beneficial to the body, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and healthy saturated fats all help us absorb nutrients from the other foods we eat. Plus, they’re big predictors of a calm body. When the system knows that dietary fat is abundant and not in short supply, it will more readily release its own fats stores; not to mention, fat is calming and grounding for the body, allowing us to feel more centered in the face of external stress.
Get your fats from nuts and seeds, oils (like olive, coconut, sesame or flax), avocados, tahini, cold water fish and full-fat dairy. A little bit at each meal can help promote satiety and it makes everything taste better.
Recipe – Crunchy Quinoa Kale Bowl
You owe it to your fabulous self to eat deliciously nourishing real food every day. The difference is can make – for every part of the female being – is remarkable. Enjoy!
Amy Height is a holistic nutritionist, avid home cook and triathlete with a passion for getting messy in the kitchen. When she’s not scouring the farmers market for obscure veggies or incessantly photographing new dishes for her blog, Amy can be found hopping from yoga studio to yoga studio around New York City, or running to show tunes in Central Park. She will probably also remind you at every opportunity that she’s proudly Canadian. Amy is the founder of From the Ground Up Wellness, a holistic nutrition practice aimed at helping women rebuild a nourishing relationship with food.