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By Moira Fitzpatrick, PhD, ND
Many people ask me what is the healthiest food program? While there are always personalized aspects of food, I generally recommend an anti-inflammatory diet. This is based upon the research that demonstrates inflammation is the cause of all chronic diseases. We already know that food affects the microbiota and there is a strong involvement of the gut and microflora in the process leading to chronic inflammation. Key inflammatory cytokines are synthesized by enterocytes in response to endotoxins produced by the gut microflora.
Prior to creating a food program, I recommend a food sensitivity test as foods to which you are sensitive are sources of inflammation. The most common sensitivities are dairy, gluten, eggs and a growing number of individuals are sensitive to nuts. Frequent intake of one food can trigger intolerance to that food.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
A food program predominantly composed of a diversity of vegetables and fruits. Plants are naturally anti-inflammatory. I recommend organic produce. It is best to buy local because the food does not have to travel, hence it is fresher. Vegetables may include asparagus, sprouts, beets and their greens, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, Swiss chard, cucumber, endive, lettuce, mustard greens, arugula, radish, spinach, collard greens, watercress, string beans, Brussels sprouts, chives, collards, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, onion, parsley, pumpkin, rutabagas, rhubarb, turnip, zucchini, artichoke, parsnip, green peas, squash, carrot, yam, and garlic. As we approach spring think about baby salad greens, collards, chard, kale, asparagus, peas and berries of all kinds. Half of your plate needs to be vegetables.
Fruit is easily digested, alkalizing, cleansing and refreshing. Fruit is typically anti-oxidant and is a good remedy if overstressed. Fruit typically has a natural laxative effect and provides a balance to richer foods.
What about protein?
Fish and moderate amounts of chicken, turkey and lamb, plus vegetable and grain sources of protein may be individualized for your needs. When eating meat of any kind make sure it is hormone, antibiotic free and preferable organic. Fish that have the lowest mercury include anchovies, butterfish, catfish, clams, crab, croaker (Atlantic), flounder, haddock (Atlantic), Hake, Herring, Oyster, Pollock, Salmon, Sardines, scallops, shrimp, sole (Pacific), Squid (Calamari), Tilapia, Trout, Whitefish. Avoid fish with the highest mercury Bluefish, Grouper, King Mackerel, Orange Roughy, Shark, Swordfish, Tuna. Other fish are moderate and should be eaten no more than 3-6 times per month.
What about dairy?
Many people cannot digest dairy, especially those who are challenged with upper intestinal damage. The most digestible form of dairy is fermented, hence some individuals can tolerate yogurt.
Raw organic nuts and seeds are best purchased at stores where there is a rapid turnover rate to avoid the nuts becoming rancid. Many people soak their nuts for 8 hours and then dehydrate at 115 degrees for 24 hours. The helps with the digestibility of nuts.
What about legumes?
Legumes include peas, lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, mung beans, garbanzo beans, and adzuki beans. To increase nutrient availability of legumes, it is best to soak them for 8 – 24 hours. This will eliminate lectins which are proteins that can be challenging for the digestive system. In addition to soaking beans, individuals who have a strong digestive system and good microflora will be able to break down lectins. Once you have soaked the beans, drain off the excess water and cover with fresh water. Bring beans to a boil and simmer until they are cooked, which can take 45 minutes to two hours. Season your beans after they are cooked, then simmer for another 20 minutes or so.
What about gluten?
If you are sensitive to gluten avoid it completely. Some individuals with gluten sensitivity have no symptoms at all. Others experience fatigue, depression, foggy mind, low energy, numbness in their hands and feet, joint pain, insomnia, and some have digestive symptoms. Gluten sensitivity is associated with dysbiosis, leaky gut and chronic inflammation. Gluten sensitivity has led to a whole new industry of gluten free products. Gluten free grains include amaranth, brown and white rice, buckwheat, arrowroot, potato, oats, millet, maize, hemp, corn, chickpea, chia, quinoa, sesame, sorghum, soya, teff and tapioca. As the consumption of gluten free grains increases, more people are becoming sensitive to these grains. Additionally, you don’t want to overconsume processed foods.
What about fats and oils?
Recommend extra virgin olive oil as it protects blood vessels and cholesterol from oxidative damage by signaling genes to express antioxidant enzymes. Avocado is a source of easily digested fat. It is a natural source of lecithin and is known to beautify the skin. Coconut oil is a medium chain fatty acid. Medium chain fatty acids are different from long chain fatty acids. MCFAs are rapidly digested and passively absorbed. They help to boost your metabolism and strengthen your immune system.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are anti-inflammatory and essential for the health of the nervous system and the brain. The richest source of omega-3’s are salmon, mackerel and sardines. Another source of omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid which is found in the oil of certain plants. Some sources include flaxseed (make sure you grind it), chia seed, pumpkin seed, edamame, walnuts. Dark green vegetables such as kale, collards, chard, chlorophyll-rich foods contain alpha-linolenic acid in their chloroplasts.
What about sweeteners?
We all know that cane sugar is pro-inflammatory. Humans have a well-developed taste for sweets. I recommend a variety of fruits. If a sweetener is desired then consider, honey, organic maple syrup or stevia. Honey is refined by bees and contains some minerals and enzymes that do not upset the mineral balance in the body to the same extent as sugar. Remember that honey cannot be given to children under 18 months of age. Stevia does not negatively affect blood sugar.
The key to any food plan is diversity. Experiment with new foods. Get curious about the foods you have never eaten or have not eaten in a long time. Diversity in food, especially vegetables results in a diversity in your microflora and increased or optimal health.