Every year, I go for an annual physical. Having lived in a number of cities and states over the course of my adult life, I’ve had a number of primary care physicians. Only one has ever asked me about my diet. In all my years of filling out medical history forms at doctors’ offices, I can’t think of a single form that’s asked me to describe what I eat. I’m always jogging my brain to recall my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ health problems so I can fill out the forms, but my doctors have largely ignored what I feed myself day to day.

This doesn’t surprise Lisa Nelson, MD, Director of Medical Education at Kripalu, who says medical schools are still not paying nutrition the attention it deserves. Fewer than 30 percent of schools meet the minimum number of nutrition education hours recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. “I don’t think there’s a clinician around who hasn’t realized the striking correlation between people’s eating habits and their likelihood of developing disease,” Lisa says. “We know this relationship exists. Unfortunately, we just aren’t trained in how to address this root cause.”

The field of epigenetics is providing compelling evidence that our genes are not the most important determinant of our health. “It’s been estimated that diet and lifestyle contribute at least 70 percent to the chronic disease burden,” notes Kathie Madonna Swift, a registered dietician and nutritionist. “The chronic disease epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and cancer can be halted with attention to diet and lifestyle modifications.”

Annie B. Kay, Lead Nutritionist at Kripalu, is encouraged that more health professionals are recognizing the significance of nutrition education. “I think they’re getting excited about how important it is, and they’re looking for ways to instill that excitement in those they serve,” she says.

With the knowledge that metabolic syndrome (a group of risk factors that includes elevated blood pressure, triglycerides, and blood sugar as well as low levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol) increases the risk of diabetes, stroke, dementia, and certain cancers, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that when it comes to health and well-being, food is high-octane fuel.

“Metabolic syndrome is really fueled by the American diet, which is made up of foods high in empty calories, sugar, trans fats, and refined carbohydrates like soda, sweets, and fast food,” Lisa explains. “It’s what we call SAD—the Standard American Diet.”

Health professionals who want their patients to eat for heart and brain health, Kathie notes, would be wise to use what she calls the “Kripalu balanced plate” as a guide. “It’s naturally nutrient-dense and plant-centered,” she explains. “It contains healthy fats and oils, which nourish cell membranes. A colorful array of vegetables, fruit, herbs, and spices offers anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. High-quality proteins from plants (organic soybeans, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds) and animals (wild fish and poultry) provide the raw material necessary for optimal functioning.”

But eating healthy is not enough if your digestion is poor, Kathie points out. “Ayurveda has long appreciated the role that digestion plays in overall health,” she explains, “and now the new science of integrative gastroenterology is recognizing this, too. The gastrointestinal tract is our ‘highway to health’ and informs all the systems of the body. By understanding the four pillars of digestive health and the root causes of digestive distress, we can use food, nutrition, and lifestyle strategies to bring the body back into balance.”

While what we eat plays an undeniable role in our health and well-being, Annie adds that health professionals and their patients benefit from understanding that how we eat plays a role, too. “Mindful eating, which is eating while paying attention with nonjudgmental awareness, has been found to be helpful in tuning in to our internal guidance about what and how much to eat,” she says. “Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga all engage the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which tends to help us make more reasonable choices than the amygdala, or fight-or-flight area of the brain, which is activated by the Standard American Diet.”

While nutritional science is an ever-expanding field with new studies and information constantly being discovered, Annie, Lisa, and Kathie agree that health professionals and their patients would be wise to keep a few simple nutrition tips in mind:

  • Consume mostly plants.
  • Savor your meals.
  • Eat in a calm and positive environment.
  • Commit to cooking so you can more easily enjoy a whole-foods diet.

“The food you eat really does become who you are,” says Annie. “It’s that important.”

Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health