Diet, sleep, stress management/mindset and exersize. These are the 4 pillars of health and focusing on these 4 areas should always be the starting place for any individual looking to optimise their health and wellbeing, increase their longevity, increase their robustness and decrease the risk of, as well as managing chronic diseases. Most chronic health issues are driven by one or more of these tenants being “out of place,” which is why they should always be focussed on when addressing underlying causes of chronic disease.
In the world of health and fitness, nutrition/diet is probably the most discussed, disputed and argued about topic. From your family and friends, to health professionals, everyone seems to have their own opinion on what is healthy and what foods make up a healthy diet.
The basis of these opinions from all of these people in your life stem from personal experience, celebrities, media reports, social media, from what a profit driven “guru” says, and in rare cases, scientific evidence. Even the scientific evidence can mislead people due to false interpretation of it. In light of all of these factors, it is no wonder why it is so hard to decipher the fact from the fiction.
All the conflicting information leaves the general consumer feeling overwhelmed and stuck in their quest to eat a healthy diet. But nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated, which I will demonstrate to you guys in further posts.
What is the best diet?
There are so many diets and diet fads out there to follow. Each proclaiming that their one is better than the rest. But what really is the best diet? Is it vegetarian, or vegan? Maybe even paleo? I believe that the best diet is the one that is most suited to the individual. It is a diet that fits into the individual’s personal lifestyle and aligns with their health goals.
Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that if you love chocolate the foundation of your diet should be centered on chocolate. However, for the average person, in order to improve their health, body composition, prevent disease and feel better, it does not really matter how specific they are in regards to the amount of protein, carbs and fats they eat in their diet. What really matters is the type and quality of these nutrients.
Research shows that individuals who eat and adhere to a diet that mostly consists of whole, minimally processed, nutrient rich foods such as meats, fish, eggs, dairy, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, fruit, vegetables and healthy fats like coconut oil, butter, animals fats, olive oil and nut oils, tend to be healthier then those who don’t. This is because a whole food diet is rich in nutrients and anti-oxidant, that help decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, which is the main underlying cause of chronic diseases.
Humans have always eaten a wide variety of foods depending on where they lived in the world and their culture, as the environment provided food sources. This means we are adapted to eat all kinds of foods. This is clearly demonstrated by examining the traditional diets of various tribes, countries and ethnic groups throughout the world. For example, the Arctic Inuit and African Masai ate traditional diets that were very high in fat (60% of calories from fat) and animal products (e.g. whale, seal, wild game, goat milk/dairy, blood) with very few vegetables due to environmental conditions not being favourable for the availability of plant foods. Conversely, the Kitavans in the South Pacific ate traditional diets that are low in fat but very high in seafood, vegetables, fruit and starchy tubers (60% of calories from carbs). Crazy differences here due to their varying climates, yet all of these traditional cultures were relatively healthy people with minimal incidences of chronic diseases that we see today such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, etc. However, when they were “modernised” and introduced to foods (as well as lifestyle habits) that were not aligned with their traditional diets, chronic disease ensued. This is evident in a lot of native populations around the world in various countries that have become marginalised and have very high chronic disease rates (this is also compounded by poverty).
This is only possible because the human body is amazingly adaptable to a host of different dietary conditions. What all these traditional diets have in common is that they are based around minimally processed, whole, nutrient dense foods.
Similarly, all of the different diet camps (e.g. paleo or vegan) may focus on different macronutrients ratios and various food groups, however they all encourage the eating of more whole foods. And that may be one of the most important nutrition interventions of all, regardless of the protein, carb, and fat breakdowns.
A healthy diet goes beyond what you put in your mouth.
Food plays many different roles in our society, and has done so for hundreds of years. These roles go far beyond health and nutrition. For example, food brings people together and we can form certain memories around food.
Therefore, when assessing a person’s diet, while it is important to look at what the individual is eating, it is also important to address the array of factors that influence a persons food choices.
Many factors dictate our food choices such as sleep deprivation, stress, cost, nutrition, health and body composition goals, variety, enviroment, culture/religion, taste, emotional state, memories surrounding particular foods and socio economic status.
What is the point of discussing this? Well, it is clear that the factors that compel us to make food choices go far beyond health and nutrition. This is why many fad diets fail to give clients long lasting results because they do not take into account these considerations. Apart from them being unsustainable due to their complexity, difficulty of implementation and lack of caloric intake, they rarely address any of the factors that impact our food choices, therefore setting the person up for failure.
There is more to health than diet and nutrition.
While diet is very important to health, if you are obsessed only about your diet and neglect the other factors that contribute to overall health, it is unlikely to you will be healthy. I have seen if far too often where people obsess over their diet and follow a strict diet regime, yet they still suffer from health issues because their relationships are a mess and their strict diet causes them stress and isolates them from friends and family. Food is awesome and should be enjoyed accordingly, therefore although the foundation of your diet should be whole, un processed, nutrient dense food, there is always room to enjoy yourself on occasions like family dinners or birthdays. Save your “splurge” for these special events, because we know that social connection is also extremely important for health. Some research suggests that it is a better predictor of health and longevity compared to diet, sleep, exersize and even smoking! And food acts a vehicle for social connection.
Stress can be defined as when the demands of an individual’s internal and external environment are enough to disrupt physical and mental homeostasis. Our modern world is full of stressors, which chronically activate our stress response systems. These systems in our body were designed to help us deal with acute stressors, they were not meant to be activated all the time. We commonly think of stress in the form of psychological stress such work stress and relationship stress, which is certainly a serious issue these days. However, stressors can also be in the form of over training, lack of sleep, poor diet and lifestyle choices, chronic infections and chronic diseases. Through various mechanisms, chronic stress has been implicated as a major contributing factor to the development of most modern diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
When talking about stress and stress management, I think it is important to talk about mental health. Obviously a wide range of factors influence our mental health such as our world view, mindset, self-esteem, personal self talk, upbringing, occupation, living environment, the strength/quality of our social relationships/connections, as well as our diet and lifestyle. All of these factors can also influence one another.
Poor mental health is a significant stressor on the body as our mind effects our physiology (how we feel, think, behave and function physically) and our physiology can also effect our mind, which is why diet and lifestyle factors can be a large contributing factor to mental health issues.
In our modern world there are so many threats to disrupt the factors that contribute to our mental health, which is a large reason as to why diseases like depression and anxiety are on the rise. The importance of mental health on longevity and health is being seen more and more in the scientific literature. For example, a common factor in the areas with the longest living populations, known as the Blue Zones (The Blue Zone Project), is a sense of purpose and spirituality. Whereby individuals in these areas have a clear sense of purpose in their life along with a deep sense of spirituality. This eludes to the importance of managing all of the aspects that contribute to our mental health. These people also have other factors in common such as they eat whole food diets from the land (with animal and plant based foods), they have a deep sense of social connection with minimal stressors in their life, they are not sedentary and move around on their feet daily, they are exposed to nature on a regular basis and they get adequate amounts of sleep without the disrupting effects of technology. The improtance of will be discussed below. As you can see, these communities practice all the the main pillars of health, which is why they love so long without chronic disease.
Most of us don’t get enough and most of us wish we had more. An optimal amount of sleep is said to be 7-9 hours, however most Australians get less than 6 hours a night. Sleep deprivation is a chronic stressor on the body and effects every organ system as it is a crucial process that helps our bodies repair and regenerate. Sleep depravation can obviously lead to poor mental and physical performance. It can also contribute to poor decision making, especially around your health. For example, a lack of sleep can lead to increased cravings for highly palatable/high calorie foods, increased caloric intake and is tightly associated with weight gain. Also, chronic sleep deprivation is a large contributing factor to many chronic diseases so prevalent today.
But why are we not getting enough sleep? Things like increased stress, lack of daylight exposure and increased artificial light exposure, especially at night, wreaks havoc with our hormones that govern our circadian rhythm, therefore causing delayed sleep onset and poor sleep quality. As you can see, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health.
Exercise is defined as “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.” Because our modern world has led us to become more sedentary in our daily lives, we had to come up with an activity that involved setting aside a specific amount of time in our schedule to do “exercise” in order to improve our health and decrease the many risks associated with being overly sedentary (e.g. diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease). However, while it is still important to exercise, it may also be just as important to move at a low intensity and break up sitting periods, as much as possible, throughout the day. Many of us work jobs that involve sitting at a desk all day, we drive to and from work or sit on public transport, then we come home and relax on the couch. When you really think about it, we spend most of our day sitting. Therefore along with a good exercise regime, we should all try to incorporate movement into our everyday life such as breaking up sitting periods with stretching/bodyweight exercises, using stand up desks or a short walk around the office. Parking your car further away from your destination so you can walk further. Or using the stairs instead of the lift or escalator. Being overly sedentary on a daily basis increases inflammation in the body and increases the risk of chronic disease.
Furthermore, too much of the modern fitness paradigm focuses exercise and physical activity as a means to lose weight, or lower one’s Body Mass Index (BMI), as if this is the most important health marker. The general assumption is that if you are thin, have low body-fat, you will live a longer and healthier life. To an extent this seems to be true, but the current research is finding a different marker of potential longevity: muscle. According to studies in The American Journal of Medicine, strength and muscle mass are better predictors of longevity than BMI. The current recommendations are to focus on resistance training. Although a lower body-fat percentage is a marker of health, building muscle may be even more important.
The best ways to lose fat and build muscle are to move constantly and use resistance (bodyweight, or external resistance) to train the primal movement patterns: squat, hip hinge, vertical press, vertical pull, horizontal press, and horizontal pull.
Lastly, exercise or physical activity does not have to be constrained to the gym. It can be in the form of nature walks, building, gardening, playing with your kids or dog and maybe taking up activities such as dancing, rock climbing or playing a team sport with some mates. All of these activities are a great way to get more movement into your daily life that is also enjoyable. Also, many of these activities have beneficial effects on your health that go far beyond the benefits of exercise. This is because they may strengthen personal relationships, decrease stress or make you more connected to nature, which are all positive things for your holistic health.
A word on genetics.
Yes, many of the diseases and disorders we see today have genetic predispositions and genetic components. However, research is starting to show that these predispositions will only be expressed in the presence of certain environmental triggers, which have mostly to do with our diet and lifestyle. This is called epigenetics and it is said that genes may load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger. All of our environmental exposures from the food we eat to the air we breathe interact with our genes and organ systems. This is quite empowering as it puts your health in your own hands. It means that your health is not defined by your genes, but rather it is defined by the diet and lifestyle choices you make everyday.
Hopefully you now understand why sleep, diet, stress management and physical activity make up the 4 pillars of health and I will be writing future posts addressing each factor individually, to give you my best tips on how to optimize them.