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The first time my mom told me that the food I was eating had “no life force,” I had no idea what she was talking about. I replied with an eye-roll and a sigh, as adolescents are wont to do, took another bite of my boxed macaroni and cheese, and mumbled: “Geez, Mom, of course it has no life force. It’s just food.”

It took about 15 years (and a lot of dietary experimenting) to change my mind about that. Today, I’m not too proud to say I was wrong. I’m also not too proud to admit that, despite spending more than a decade as a health journalist, I know only a little more about nutrition than I did back then.

I still can’t claim to understand exactly what a food’s “life force” is, or precisely how to measure it in all its forms. That’s OK. I can’t explain how the Hadron Collider or Dark Energy work, either. What’s clear to me, though, is that a bunch of “forces” we don’t understand exist in nature (and by extension in our food and in us) and they probably matter quite a lot.

Just as with particle physics, however, most of us have relatively little idea how food works in the human body. And a lot of what we think we know is probably wrong.

For a long time we’ve been encouraged to think that if something isn’t listed on a Nutrition Facts label, it probably doesn’t matter that much. But some of the very best, most health-promoting foods (like fresh produce) have no nutrition label at all. And these days, trying to judge a food by its nutrition label is a little like trying to find true love on Tinder: What you see is not always what you get, and what you get may not be at all what you want or need.

Sure, we all know at least a little something about vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, carbs, and calories — because they represent the bulk of what the mass media and dietary powers-that-be have told us matters. But far fewer of us realize that foods contain (or at least ought to contain) an astonishing variety of other “nonessential” but health-critical components — like phytonutrients, enzymes, fatty acids, and probiotics — that haven’t gotten nearly as much popular press.

And while we might be able to live without these nutrients for a little while, we aren’t likely to look or feel nearly as good, or live nearly as long, as if we made them a central and consistent part of our diet.

Make no mistake: Trying to have a serious conversation about the “life force,” “prana,” or “vibrational frequency” of food is still likely to generate eye-rolling in all but the New-Age-y-ist of circles. But I don’t think that should prevent us from evaluating how the subtler and less-well-understood forces within food might affect us. And apparently, a good chunk of the scientific community is inclined to agree with me.

Today, some of the hottest areas of nutrition research are focused squarely on phytonutrients, fatty acids, enzymes, and probiotics. You know what all those things have in common (other than being well represented in “superfoods”)? They all contain bioactive compounds that interact powerfully with your body’s chemistry, influencing your digestive system, central nervous system, immune system, microbiome, even the expression of your DNA.

You know what else all those things have in common? They are fragile; reactive to heat, light, and air; and they don’t respond well to most industrial food processing. Which is why they are largely absent from the heavily processed foods that form the substrate of the standard American diet.

That means that if you want to get more life-giving foods in your system, you can’t eat like most people eat. On the contrary, you need to seek out the most lively foods available in our food supply.

If you’re interested in doing that, here are my top seven tips:

1) Learn to enjoy food in its natural, original state. That means eating it as soon as possible after it was picked, harvested, hunted, or gathered, and before it gets pulverized, denatured, hydrolyzed, bleached, pressurized, hydrogenated, or chemically or mechanically separated into component parts. That means that if the food is from a plant, it’s recognizable as a part of a plant (not a ridged “veggie chip” whose first ingredient is potato starch). If it’s from an animal, it’s recognizable as part of an animal (not a breaded “nugget” or “tender” that has been blended with a dozen other ingredients, mechanically prechewed, extruded into a novel shape, then prefried and frozen for quick microwaving).

2) Choose wild, local, organic, handled-with-care food when you can. The health potential of a food starts with the soil in which it is grown (or the quality of the environment in which it is raised), and it can be dramatically affected by every step of handling and storage it undergoes on its way to your plate.

3) Seek out “living” foods. While fresh is generally best, many naturally aged, fermented, and sprouted foods come with some extra “life” (in the form of living organisms and enzymes) built in. Consider sprouting your own nuts and seeds, and choose fermented foods from the refrigerator case (vs. shelf) to ensure maximum bioactivity.

4) Avoid overcooking your food. While the bioavailability of some nutrients (like the lycopene in tomatoes) appears to be enhanced by cooking, a great many other nutritional factors get degraded or destroyed by heat. High heat also has a tendency to negatively affect the chemical stability of fats. This doesn’t mean you need to eat all your food raw. It just means that enjoying at least some of your food fresh or very lightly cooked is a good idea.

5) Add some fresh, live foods to every meal. Let’s say you’re eating some pizza, canned soup, a ham and cheese sandwich, or macaroni and cheese (no judgment). Sprinkle some fresh herbs on top. Plop a handful of greens, a side of slaw or kimchi or a little cloud of fresh sprouts on the side. Add a few carrot sticks, a few cucumber or zucchini slices, a scattering of arugula, whatever. At the very least, spritz a wedge of lemon over your meal. The goal here is not just to begin incorporating more live-food nutrition into your diet, but also to start acclimating your taste buds to fresh flavors, aromas, and textures, priming your body to start craving them instead of the steady stream of dead-end junk you’ve been feeding it.

6) Handle your food with care.  Keep fresh foods stored properly — at their preferred temperatures and humidity levels. When food starts looking faded, wilted, or “blah,” that’s a pretty good indication that it has lost a lot of its nutritional oomph.

7) Expand your food skills. One of the reasons we depend so heavily on dead and deadening food is that many of us have lost the basic skills required to confront foods in their fresh, live state and to quickly turn them into something yummy. Not up for learning to “cook”? Start by learning to throw some fresh veggies and fruits in the blender for a quick green drink. Learn to toss a handful of dark salad greens on a plate and drizzle olive oil on top. Learn to sauté a piece of fish in a hot pan. Learn to cut an avocado in half, add a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lime, and eat it with a spoon. From there you can expand your fresh-food skills. Every time you do, your body — and your life force — will thank you.

Revolutionary Reading

Eat It Raw!” — Food critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl on the culinary appeal of the raw-food craze, and why it may not be so crazy after all.

The Whole-Food Advantage” —  Why the simplest foods offer some unexpectedly powerful benefits.

Full-Spectrum Eating” — The extraordinary value of whole-food phytonutrients and where to find them.

Whole-Food Protein Smoothie” — Dr. Mark Hyman’s favorite breakfast drink of berries, nuts, greens, and seeds.

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