As we head into winter 2020-2021 with the coronavirus pandemic hovering over our heads, rearranging the American lifestyle, and threatening many individuals’ well-being, let’s consider what we can control in a world that feels very much the opposite. Let’s equip our bodies with the best medicine that nature provides: nutrient-dense food.
That’s right, I’m voting for food over exercise, if I’m forced by sword to choose one, and only one, to focus on this winter.
Exercise routines have been altered for many people through this pandemic and while at-home exercises are excellent alternatives to gym machine and group exercise favorites, it can be difficult to exercise at home with nonstop work and children demands or equipment that isn’t ideal. Others who have been exercising outdoors through walking, running and biking might find themselves sidelined from their cardio routines due to winter weather. Plus, too much exercise isn’t a good thing for an overstressed and exhausted person…or even a healthy, happy person…the right balance is essential for immune health.
Likewise, food impacts our immune function by raising or lowering inflammation levels and can even impact our mood, brain health and risk for chronic disease. In a perfect world, we will always rely on both fitness and nutrition for our health.
But right now, we’re not living in a perfect world…
With the threat of lockdowns, quarantines and snow storms abound this winter, I think it’s wise to get ahead of things by adjusting your meals and snacks to focus on inflammation-fighting foods so that your body has a strong immune system in place if/when your exercise plans have to change.
I’ve worked with many personal training clients who hail from Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, Brazil, Argentina, India and the Philippines, to name a few. These individuals have varied in gender, age, ethnicity and race, but nearly all of them have lamented to me about their struggles with weight gain and fatigue since moving to America. Even when they try to control portion sizes and calories, many of them complain that they’re still bigger than ever before. The short answer to their weight gain challenges is wrapped up in one word: inflammation.
Western diets are rife with refined white carbohydrates like breads, pastries, crackers, cereals and bars, all of which promote inflammation. Western diets also center on red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, and fried foods, not to mention bouts of alcohol consumption exceeding healthy limits for men and women.
(Need proof? Check out how alcohol consumption has changed since the pandemic began: Yikes.)
Many people try to beat the fat-hoarding that our bodies do on a western diet by resorting instead to popularized diets like low-fat, low-carb, keto, intermittent fasting, and more. Although weight loss is possible on any diet through caloric restriction alone, the aforementioned diets tend to miss out on certain essential vitamins and minerals that are optimal for health, hormonal balance and immune function.
For instance, consider the intermittent fasting diet known for improving metabolic health. The diet is more about timing of eating rather than quality of eating. Misinformed individuals might start out on this diet and presume that their “feeding windows” can be filled with as many calories as they want or whatever foods they crave. In some cases, an individual cutting calories might lose a large amount of weight while consuming mostly nutrient-poor foods. Although they are dropping weight on the scale there can still be underlying inflammation and overall poor health.
Weight loss is not always correlated with good internal health.
According to Lisa Mosconi, author of Brain Food and The XX Brain, the only diet that has been scientifically proven to improve women’s brain health is a Mediterranean diet. If you’re wondering why brain health is important to overall body health, let’s just say that Mosconi makes countless compelling, evidence-based, scientific arguments demonstrating that brain health is the epicenter of women’s hormonal health and regulation (and thereby also largely influences inflammation). In fact, according to Mosconi, more women over the age of 60 will be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s than with breast cancer.
The brain is the dashboard for our bodies and when we eat in ways that promote its health we are also reducing inflammation and equipping our immune systems for disease prevention over the entire lifespan. Mosconi’s evidence-based research points to a Mediterranean diet full of omega fatty acids found in nuts, fatty fish and legumes as being crucial for women’s brain health. Fresh vegetables and fruits along with nutrient-dense whole grains and extra virgin olive oil are also staples of the Mediterranean diet.
Two of my favorite examples of how nutrition can play a role in our inflammation levels, brain health and hormonal balance come from Mosconi’s The XX Brain:
Mosconi cites studies that demonstrate how increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy can help reduce incidence rates of postpartum depression in women. She also discusses how whole cow’s milk contains more estrogens than skim or low-fat cow’s milk and thus promotes better hormonal balance and fertility for women. Mosconi explains that the skim and low-fat cow’s milk consumption promotes a higher level of male-dominant hormones in women’s bodies, tipping the scales towards fertility challenges for some.
Personally, I find this fascinating and eye-opening. Nutrition plays a huge role in the complicated web of inflammation, hormones and immune function. For that reason, I encourage any curious woman out there to pick up The XX Brain and spend some time in Chapter 9: Food Matters for Your Grey Matter and Chapter 10: Eight Steps to a Well-Nourished Brain. You will come away with a ton of new knowledge to help you improve both immune function and hormonal balance, even if you’re already well versed in women’s health.
In summary, a Mediterranean diet has been scientifically proven to focus on all the nutrients we need for optimal health and low levels of inflammation. The great news is that you can consume these foods in whatever “style” of eating you wish; intermittent fasting programs, three big meals a day, six small meals a day or whatever works best for you!
If you’re not sure where to start then check out drool-inspiring recipes on Pinterest or any one of 500 go-to Mediterranean recipes in this cookbook: The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook. Remember, just because this cuisine has been proven to improve health and reduce levels of inflammation doesn’t mean you have to throw out your other favorite foods and styles of cooking. There’s still plenty of room in a week of cooking to enjoy healthy meals of all kinds; Indian, Thai, Mexican, Italian, you name it. Just keep the focus on nutrient density this winter and into the future; we’re living in an era when our natural defenses against bacteria and viruses, not to mention chronic diseases, is even more crucial.
To your health and safety,