By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina

Perhaps no other topic is so widely debated, discussed, and as confusing as nutrition. One study confounds another. Long held sacred cows like cholesterol management in diet, eating eggs, artificial sweeteners, and so on seem to be slaughtered daily in the media and scientific journals. Daytime food shows have been so popular as we love to talk about, shop for, cook, and, of course, eat food. They often add to the noise and disinformation about nutrition and health. Nonetheless, they are closely watched as eating is the very human thing we all do. Once we have enough food to survive, we hope to make the right food choices to thrive.

We are increasingly discovering that food is more than calories. It is information. Our choice of foods alters our microbiome, the critically important bacteria in our gut. These affect everything from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, joint or other systemic inflammation, and even may be related to neurological conditions like Alzheimers’ disease and autism.

Genetics, long thought to be so crucial in our health is no longer destiny. It turns out that food we eat and the exercise we do alter the expression of genes we are born with. This process, called epigenetics, produces measurable and large outcome changes in our health destiny. Family history no longer needs to be a fate to await and endure but an inspiration to eat well, be active, and be cured.

So what is a hungry human to do? A plant-based menu seems best for reducing all cause of morbidity and mortality. The Mediterranean diet is widely held to be one of the healthiest diets because it tastes good, people stick to it, and it offers a wide variety of healthy foods. It is anti-inflammatory, encourages consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish, and healthy fats like olive oil. Yum!

I have long recommended the SuperFoods diet made popular by Steve Pratt, MD as a path to optimal health and weight management. Eating 80% of your meals off this list of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins will squeeze out unhealthy, low nutrient, junk food from your meal plans as you feel better and better.

Some of the best of current advice is to eat foods you like and that make you feel good. Become aware of food sensitivities and food allergies like dairy and wheat that don’t make you feel so good after eating them. An elimination diet can be a key to doing some detective work on what foods your body does best with and those it does best without.
Cooking at home is almost always a superior choice as it gives us a chance to do the meal planning, shopping, and the opportunity to control ingredients, freshness, salt, fat, and so on. Cooking at home also helps us avoid the temptations of grab and go food through a window someplace. It is also a wonderful hobby in terms of trying out new recipes and ways of preparing your daily repast.

So don’t just be a foodie show spectator, become a participant in our own health by trying some new recipes for you and your family. There are many great cookbooks out there such as Dr. Andrew Weil’s True Food and Miraval’s Mindful Eating. Michelle and I recently got a Great Courses on DVD, which is both a primer and refresher on all aspects of cooking from the Culinary Institute of America in 24 easy and practical sessions. It is now our new fun Sunday evening TV and home study course on cooking.

Portion size remains important no matter what diet you choose. So eat mindfully and slowly enough to notice signals of fullness. Chewing slowly and savoring your food gives maximum mouth feel and taste sensation as well as starting the digestive processes needed for optimal absorption and elimination.

So eat for pleasure, eat for health, and know that this is a chance to make life-affirming choices daily.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.