GQ’s fitness and wellness columnist shares six lessons to improve your diet for overall health.
Never before has it been so immediately evident that the way we treat our bodies impacts our health and the health of everyone around us. We’re all out here fighting this coronavirus together. Your hygiene practices, the state of your immune system—they all affect me. And vice versa. The choices we make around food can also play a big role. There are two questions I think about when it comes to eating, especially right now: What impact will this food have on me? And what impact will it have on the world?
Now, maybe that sounds a little dramatic. Joe, I’m just trying to eat this apple, bro. (Be sure to wash it first!) I do get it. But food is one of the many tools we have—such as exercise, sleep, and mindfulness—that can help us in priming our bodies to perform at a high level. Or to simply stay safe. Think about it this way: Athletes tailor their nutrition to perform at their peak. What if we adopted a similar, intentional approach and engineered our diets to a specific mission? Right now that has me wondering how we can eat as a means to strengthen our immune systems, protect our bodies, and achieve our goals.
It’s aspirational, sure. But I’ve got some thoughts on where we can start.
Treat Food Like Your First Line Of Defense.
Proper eating habits are part of your first line of defense against intruders. Because diet helps determine the quality of your innate immune system, along with things like sleep and maintaining healthy stress levels. The innate system is your body’s general protection; it sees something bad on its radar and takes it out. And the truth is, the standard American diet has many of us chronically inflamed—some people are so inflamed that their immune systems basically assume they’re a little bit sick all of the time.
When people hear about foods that can “boost” their immune systems, they think they’re some sort of magic cure. But the truth is that a real immunity boost takes time and consistency. For instance, rather than blasting a ginger shot in a moment of panic, try having one or two grams of ginger a day for a month—just buy powdered ginger and dissolve it in water. The slow and steady approach can help reduce the amount of inflammation in your body. Also, eating nitrate-rich foods—think arugula and beets—can help thicken the mucus in your gut, which functions as an important line of defense against germs. Remember, it’s not just about what you don’t put in your body. It’s about what you do.
Focus On What You Add To Your Diet—Not Subtract From It.
We’ve become obsessed with something I call “nutritional absolutism.” Basically the idea that there’s only one “right” way to eat for everyone, be it paleo, vegan, Whole30, or any other diet that tells you that its way of eating is the only way. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Different ways of eating work differently for everyone. Instead I’d argue we need to quit framing how we eat around weight loss. Our obsession with diets is so powerful that even in a country driven by consumption, when it comes to eating, we’re concerned solely with restriction. I need to lose weight. Or: I’m cutting out meat. That’s how you get someone who wants to live “healthier” eating a bunch of packaged bars or meat substitutes—processed foods that aren’t even foods!
Base your choices on what you want to add into your life, not what you want to cut out of it. I want to gain energy. Or: I’m choosing to eat these delicious beets. We begrudgingly eat the things that are good for us. Let’s end that. My plant-based diet isn’t about me cutting out fish, meat, or eggs. It’s about me actively choosing to eat whole plants. That said, I’ll probably have to start eating meat when I get older, since as you age, it’s harder for your body to integrate protein. Again, it’s all about deliberate choices.
Want to sneak in a few more nutrients? Try our columnist’s go-to recipe.
1 cup dark leafy greens
1/2 cup blueberries
1/2 cup blackberries
3 Tbsp. hemp seeds
1 tsp. nut butter
Blend with water or the nondairy milk of your choice.
You Don’t Need To Become A Chef—Just A Veggie Whisperer.
Here’s one easy tip for incorporating more nutrition-dense plants into your diet: Learn how to cook your own vegetables. Veggies on most restaurant menus are overpriced, and they’re just as easy to prepare at home. Learn the art of plant food. You want to order pizza? Order pizza. That’s cool. But maybe eat it with a side of Swiss chard or broccolini you make yourself. If you’re able to cook your vegetables yourself, life instantly becomes easier, healthier, and cheaper.
Keep Track Of How The Food Makes You Feel.
One easy strategy that I suggest for my clients is to keep a food diary. Every week, pick a couple of foods. Research what their benefits are and what they can do for you (a simple Google search will suffice). Pay attention to how you feel after eating whatever it is and write that down. Like, okay, I know kale is good for me, but what is it actually doing? Oh, it’s a good source of iron. But what does iron do for me? Iron helps deliver oxygen to the body. But it also says plant sources of iron are a bit harder to digest. How do I improve my digestion? Well, vitamin C might be able to help increase my absorption of iron, and broccoli and sweet potatoes are a rich source of vitamin C. And so on and so forth. That’s how you learn.
Food is so ingrained in our lives that we often don’t think about it. But that’s a mistake. Honestly, it’s like handwashing. We didn’t think about how important that was—until we did. I think the coronavirus is teaching people to be more mindful about their personal wellness. You’ve got to study a little bit to get better.
Get Your Blood Work Done By A Doctor.
Not everyone has the privilege of having good health care. But if you can afford to enlist a doctor who will help you do extensive blood work, then I argue you should—not just because it helps you know more about your body, but because you being healthy frees up health care resources for other people. Now, blood work isn’t a magic bullet, but it can arm you with highly personalized micronutrient information that you can instantly use. Since I’m plant-based, there are some things I’m more susceptible to: I learned from blood work that I was lacking in copper and in B12, so I tweaked my diet and adjusted the supplements I was taking to compensate. It’s just like athletics—having a coach in your corner can help you. In six months, maybe you’ve changed the baseline of how good you can feel—as opposed to just going 20 more years without even knowing that feeling great was within reach.
Saying grace does not have to be a religious practice. It’s just a way to practice mindful eating. Before you eat, put your phone away, remind yourself what you’re grateful for, let the tension out of your body, and take some deep breaths. That may sound woo-woo, but it has concrete effects. It can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you digest your food and effectively absorb nutrients. So taking a moment for grace might actually improve your energy—and might even help you lose weight. It’s also an opportunity to remind yourself what your purpose is (and why you eat what you eat). Not everyone has access to healthy foods, but hopefully you do. Express your gratitude, and dig in.
A version of this story originally appears in the June/July 2020 issue with the title “How to Turbocharge Your Immune System With Intentional Eating”.
Author: Joe Holder