There are many people who want to claim that a vegan or totally plant based diet is the answer to all the ills of society. But is it? Now new studies have come out showing that many vegans are missing important nutrients that can affect cognitive functioning and can also affect health in many ways. So it is not all about instantly having better cardiovascular health. There are pros and cons to everything . The key is moderation and to do things properly. A vegan who does not supplement with B12 is looking for serious trouble. Someone who eats only plant based foods and no animal proteins, can be missing many nutrients. Also, if one does not consume adequate protein it impacts brain health and development. So does that mean everyone has to eat plates of steak? Absolutely not. One can add some eggs to their diet, and fish, and manage like that. Or meat could be consumed once or twice a week, in small amounts. The point is not to totally cut out something, if possible, but to consume it in proper and moderate amounts.
When the Almighty created the world and placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He told them to eat only fruits, vegetables, plants and seeds . Their bodies were spiritual and pure and did not require additional foods. But afterwards, in the time of Noah, He allowed the consumption of meat, indicating that meat was of benefit at that point.
As people age, they lose muscle mass. That is why protein is so important at all stages of life: it builds muscle and gives good quality, plentiful amino acids, which are essential. If a person consumes a balanced diet, eating enough variety of foods, they are less likely to be lacking in nutrients and more likely to have a strong immune system. Protein is something there is a lot of controversy over. Many people push for a vegan or plant based diet and want to cut out meat, chicken and even eggs. The problem is that this type of eating over a long time can lead to protein deficiency. We need enough protein. Quinoa or other foods that may have amino acids are not enough unless we eat bowls and bowls of them. A small amount of meat or an egg offers full amino acid much faster. So protein needs to be maintained, but in healthy amounts . All the body needs a day is 3 gms of protein. That is not much. That is why we do not need huge steaks or half a chicken at a time. All we need is a small but powerful source of protein.
And if someone really cannot eat something (like dairy or meat), at least make sure the rest of the diet is properly balanced and not lacking in vital nutrients. If someone truly wants to be vegan, then it behooves that person to study nutrition, how to combine foods (such as beans with grains) and how to supplement with adequate vitamins and minerals. There are nuts and other foods that provide all the amino acids as a replacement for animal proteins. But vitamin B12 is very difficult to get without any animal products. It is a big responsibility and not recommended for young children who tend to be very picky eaters. It is also not recommended for pregnant or nursing women.
We need to make time for our spiritual lives too. We need to bring G-d into the picture. We need to pray. This is truly the first step in good health. An animal does not need a sense of purpose to be healthy. A plant or vegetable does not need a sense of purpose to be a healthy plant. But a human being, with a human soul, needs a sense of purpose to be a healthy person. Spiritual and physical are connected. That is why for a Jew, eating kosher is so important because it affects the body’s health and the health of the mind as well. For a Jew, non kosher food has negative affects even on one’s character traits. So a kosher diet for a Jew is an absolute necessity, more important than being vegan or anything else.
Longevity is not only about good genes or a healthy childhood or environment. Sure, that is all part of the picture. But the truth is that longevity is a blessing from G-d. We need to ask for longevity and we need to make a good vessel by eating well, doing exercise in some form and living a good, moral, balanced life. There are people from every society, eating every type of diet, who live long lives….and also people on every type of diet, including macrobiotic or paleo or vegan, who end up with serious illnesses. So we need to recognize that health is a blessing from the Almighty and not dependent solely on food. It is a huge mistake to worship food or a particular diet, as if that brings salvation. We need to worship the Almighty and ask for health.
A doctor in Japan who lived to 105 had coffee and milk for breakfast, cookies with milk for lunch and he ate lean meat twice a week for dinner or fish. So obviously it is not all about diet. He was, in fact, a doctor who specialized in longevity and he felt the most important part of living long is to have a purpose in life and to keep working as long as possible.
We need to make sure that psychologically and emotionally we are balanced. That contributes very much to one’s health and well being. There is too much stress in society. (A bit of stress can be good and even increase productivity but if it becomes too much it is not healthy). We need to reduce extreme stress as much as possible. We need to learn to deal with negativity in a positive way. Nothing unbalances a person more than sadness, worry, depression, anxiety, guilt or fear. Emotions unbalance us a lot and that is why it is so important to lead a proper life, in tune with our souls and our bodies, so we are not extreme in our emotions either. Working on controlling our emotions is very helpful.
Here would be a good place to mention our nervous systems. We have a sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight and flight response) and a parasympathetic nervous system which calms us down. Unfortunately, due to the amount of stress in today’s society, many people function more on the sympathetic nervous system and have difficulty relaxing. That taxes one’s digestion and health. Foods that tend to support and help the parasympathetic nervous system are fish and adequate protein in general, root vegetables, avoiding stimulants such as sugary foods and caffeine, consuming adequate b vitamins, potassium rich foods and enough healthy carbs to calm the system. Certain fruits are beneficial, as are certain dairy products like home made plain yogurt and certain healthier cheeses. Butter is a healthy fat which tends to support the adrenal system and even the thyroid. There are other healthy fats as well but saturated fat has a place in a healthy nervous system and one should not be afraid to consume healthy sources of saturated fat, which often can be easier to digest than other types of oils.
The Torah also advises that in general one should not eat when angry, worried, nervous or stressed. Our emotions affect our ability to properly digest one’s food. One should eat when in a pleasant mood and not in a hurry. Of course, sometimes when a person is going through a stressful situation, it is hard to balance one’s emotions and obviously one needs to eat anyway. But if possible, it is good to take some deep breaths and try to relax and become calmer before beginning the meal. Chewing a long time helps to calm a person’s mind. And eating smaller portions at a time may aid with digestion. In fact, in the countries with lower rates of heart disease, most people eat smaller portions of food. Not over eating is always beneficial.
Of course, we need a balanced diet to lead a balanced and happy life. That does not mean we cannot eat junk sometimes. Our bodies are designed to handle some junk. We can indulge on special occasions in a piece of cake, an ice cream, some chocolates. Everything has its place and time. And in fact, when we do enjoy treats on special occasions, they enhance our feeling of contentment and happiness. And happiness is part of feeling balanced in life. In fact, food is more digestible when we are happy and in a good frame of mind! Many studies show the connection between health and happiness.
And while we are discussing health, we should mention air quality. We don’t all have a choice where we live but obviously clean air is important. Maimonides mentions that one should dwell in a slightly elevated area with pure, clean air. Okay, good luck finding that in todays world, especially in American cities. But wherever possible we need to try to live in a place with cleaner air. We need to minimize pollution. And if we live in places that are polluted, try to avoid going out much on days when the air is heavily polluted and try to keep your indoor air quality pure with filters etc. Plants around the house can help purify the air. And again, a healthy diet helps to neutralize the negative effects of pollution. Add foods richer in vitamin c, vitamin a (think lemon water, carrot celery juice etc.). Reduce intake of dairy and flour products which create more phlegm and can increase coughs or respiratory issues. Definitely do not smoke and avoid substances that irritate the lungs. Obviously, spending time by the seashore or up in the mountains helps to increase good air and to improve lung function. In general, deep breathing is very balancing to the body and very good for health. Greater oxygen intake improves brain function, distribution of minerals throughout the cellular level and basically helps in many matters of health. When we are stressed, we tend to breath shallowly and find it hard to take deep breaths. But we can practice deep breathing and train ourselves to increase our oxygen intake. We need to take responsibility for our health. You can’t just pop antibiotics or antihistamines to stay healthy. We each need to do our part to have a healthy body in order to serve G-d properly. Balance and moderation are the key to good health in general.
We also need to make sure to cut out smoking and of course to avoid drugs or over consumption of alcohol. Anything which is known to be unhealthy, or which is an addiction, needs to be avoided. That does not mean a person cannot have a glass of wine with dinner. But it means avoiding drugs, and not doing anything which could lead to losing control, becoming addicted, or going overboard in an unhealthy manner. Marijuana is not generally healthy. It may have a place as pain medication. But if taken regularly by healthy people, it can cause brain damage and certainly can lead to car accidents if someone smokes and drives.
As mentioned before, the Chinese medicine system has a concept called yin and yang. In terms of food, yin indicates foods that are cold, have a cooling effect on the body, or are sweet and raw. Yang indicates foods that are hot, create heat, that are cooked and dry or baked. Meat and chicken, eggs and fish, are yang. Dairy,cakes, cookies, fruits and raw salads are yin. We need to create a balance between yin and yang. However, nowadays, because of the quality of food, chemically over burdened environment etc., many people are more towards the yin side. That means a tendency to sneeze a lot, have more allergies, be cold, and weaker. We need to aim for more yang foods to balance ourselves. If someone is very energetic, strong and has a hot constitution, they need to balance themselves with yin foods. This is oversimplified and there are many different situations. In Iran there is also a theory of hot and cold foods needing to be in balance. For example, walnuts and raisins are considered hot (they create warmth in the body) so they may be paired with yogurt and cucumber, which are cold foods (cooling the body).
In general, it is good to keep in mind the concept of balancing our meals. If you have a meal with lots of protein, balance it with vegetables (cooked, steamed, even some raw and even vegetable soups). Always aim for balance. Combining proteins with starchy carbs sometimes results in formation of gas. Combining proteins with vegetables often aids in digestion. You need to figure out what works for your stomach and eat accordingly. Combining is another art in itself. It is worth noting: many people develop gas and intestinal pain or even diarrhea from eating too many different foods at a meal: combining too many things together. The simpler our meals, the easier to digest. Simplicity and portion control helps digestion.
There are people who get gas from foods like prunes, raisins or even nut butters. Everyone reacts differently to different good. You must get to know your personal digestive system and try to avoid foods that irritate your stomach, even if those foods are supposedly “healthy” or full of fiber. Some people eat too much fiber and end up with a lot of stomach issues. Everything needs to be in balance.
Actually, some Asian diets (like thai foods) can be quite well balanced too. They are very different than the Mediterranean diet, but if done correctly, they also can offer a healthy, balanced way of eating. However, I am not referring to the artificial Chinese foods like spare ribs or fried dumplings. That is not what I mean. Thai stir fries using ginger, vegetables and small amounts of chicken or meat can be healthy and balanced along with rice as a side dish. They utilize smaller portions of meat and a lot of vegetables to make the meals balanced. We can incorporation different recipes into our diets from different countries and cultures. It is not all about sticking to the Mediterranean diet per se, meaning foods only from the Mediterranean region. But it is all about learning to properly balance whatever diet you do use or whatever recipes you find (and many times you need to revise the recipes to become healthier, like cutting down on sugar or oil).
Another important secret that few people know is that every person reacts to foods differently. One person may do well with meat; another person may not. One person may feel very good eating cold cuts; another may feel terrible. And although in general cold cuts are not a very healthy item, for some people a good quality cold cut could be okay eaten in moderation. One person may feel good with a certain spice, another person may not. One person may feel good with onions, another person may not. Some people develop bodily itching after eating certain foods. Someone else may develop stomach issues (diarrhea or constipation) and cannot digest certain foods . Some people do well on a low fodmap diet and others do not need that. But how can one find out if a particular food is good for you or not? There is something called muscle testing. Many chiropractors do that. You can go to a chiropractor and have him test you for various foods, vitamins etc. If you are unable to go to a chiropractor, you need to find out by trial and error what foods bother you. When you find out which foods are good for you in particular, you will find that your overall health improves, your digestion improves and you have more energy. And the foods that go well with your constitution may not be anything you typically figured are good. For example, is garlic healthy? Yes it is…. but only if your body reacts well to it. Otherwise it can cause many problems. It also depends where the garlic is from. If you buy garlic from china (and the majority are from China) you can feel sick eating it. If you buy organic garlic grown in America, you will find you feel much better. There are some people who cannot eat garlic regardless: it may cause stomach issues or nausea or other problems in people who are sensitive.
You may expect that salads or carrots or other so called “healthy” foods are good for you. But they may actually be what causes you to have too much gas, or digestive issues or other problems. Are beans healthy? Or broccoli? Or cauliflower? Obviously yes. But if they cause too much gas and your body does not get used to it with time, and you cannot digest well, therefore your digestion is being compromised, and in that case, how healthy are those foods for you? Instead of being energizing, they have the opposite effect, dragging you down if your body has to expend too much energy trying to digest foods that are hard to break down. So it is very important to have a diet designed specifically for your body. Foods that are easy to digest and nutrient dense are important. If digestion is compromised, we often do not get the right nutrition from our foods. And many illnesses can be caused or aggravated by malnutrition. Remember that it is of utmost importance to eat foods you can digest without difficulty and that also keep the bowels healthy and functioning regularly. One food that is very helpful for bowel regularity, as well as keeping one healthy and energetic, is flax seeds. They can be incorporated into baking (you can use them to replace eggs in cookies etc.) or they can be sprinkled on cereal or added to breads. They are quite versatile.
Remember: “ let food be they medicine, and medicine they food.” (Hippocrates). It is good, wherever possible, to try to heal with healthy food before resorting to herbs or even to medications. Many things can be cured through proper food and drink. In fact, sometimes psychological issues are caused by or aggravated by lack of certain vitamins (such as B vitamins) and can be healed with the right nutrition.
It is also essential to chew one’s food: your food should become like water. That ensures proper digestion and absorption of the nutrients. Swallowing food half chewed or almost whole is very unhealthy. That is another ill of our society, where people are so rushed they barely take time to eat properly. In Europe and other societies, people eat slowly, in a relaxed manner, with family and friends. In America, everything is fast paced, including eating. That does not do the digestion any good.
The Rambam ( Maimonides), the greatest physician of all time, advises that when a person is ill, first he should practice a healthy diet. If that is not enough, he should add herbal remedies. And if that is not enough , sometimes medicines are necessary but first one should start with the lowest dosage and only add a higher dosage if needed. The medical profession would do well to follow such advice.