HUNTER-GATHERERS: In the past, as we hunted and gathered, we just picked and ate – and if you were skilled enough to kill something, then you had that too. We didn’t have supermarkets where you could eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week.
‘LIVE LONG AND PROSPER!’
If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll know it was Dr Spock who used this famous greeting (while doing the finger-challenging Vulcan salute). The saying’s a good one, isn’t it – and something we would all wish on those close to us.
But despite the incredible advances in western medicine over the past decade or two, and despite all the quick-fixes, weight-loss wonders, fad-foods, celebrity-diets, miracle cures, and self-help gurus on tap today, far too many people don’t live long and prosper. In fact, an alarming number of people experience ILLNESS rather than WELLNESS!
How much of this do we bring on ourselves? Well, a lot more than we realise – according to leading nutrition specialist and best-selling author, DR LIBBY WEAVER. And she has plenty of credentials to back up her claims – including a PhD examining biochemical and nutritional factors in children …
One of the most passionate people we’ve ever interviewed, Dr Libby is doing her level best “… to educate and inspire people, improving their health and happiness, and through that process, create a ripple effect that transforms the world.”
Over a green-tea in a busy inner-city café, she happily responded to my questions and sent out a few of those ripples …
GRAPEVINE: It seems that we 21st-century humans are increasingly plagued by health problems. Is this a reality – or are we just imagining it?
DR LIBBY: I think this is a reality! It’s interesting to study the way human diets have evolved. For as long as we’ve been around, humans have eaten in a certain way. And, in the past, that used to change only gradually – we were able to keep up with it. But the changes came much faster when the industrial revolution began – people moved from the country into the cities, and things became automated.
We didn’t do as much, we didn’t move as much, the way we ate changed, agriculture took hold, and people started to eat refined grains. Suddenly we had machines that could grind up grains and make flour – machines that took all the goodness out of it!
But it didn’t stop there. Look what’s happened since (especially the last 20 years): we’re now told that food is something in a packet that has 15 different ingredients – half of which you can’t pronounce or recognise!
The result? The rate of change that we’re experiencing now is so great that our bodies haven’t been able to keep up.
The Irish are a good example of what I’m talking about. Up until 1845 the major source of starch in the Irish diet was potatoes. But then the potato famine hit, so they grew crops and grains – really for the first time ever. Today, the greatest number of new cases the world sees of celiac disease occurs in people with Irish heritage! And one of the main reasons for that is it’s all so new to them, relatively speaking – it’s only been six or seven generations since they swapped from potatoes to grain.
In the past, every new generation of babies was born slightly better equipped to cope with dietary changes. But because the rate of change we’re seeing is now so far removed from what we’re historically used to, the health consequences of that are really bubbling to the surface.
GRAPEVINE: So how come we’re such a mess? Where have we gone wrong? Can you pinpoint any areas which really stand out?
DR LIBBY: A big thing is people’s priorities. Without our health we have nothing – but unfortunately, for so many people today, it takes a crisis to remind them of that! They know it deep inside, but they don’t live their life as if that was true. It’s sad to witness someone get a wakeup call and finally do something about it – but now they’re doing it from a very debilitated state.
Our body doesn’t have a voice – but it will always give us signals to let us know if it is happy or not. And it’s up to us to take notice of, for example, a headache we might get at 3pm every afternoon. Because I’ll guarantee you it’s not a shortage of painkillers – and yet that’s how so many people treat it! And if you just take a pill you might miss the message … because a headache at 3pm in the afternoon could be that you’re dehydrated, that your posture is poor because you are crouched over a computer, that it’s time for afternoon tea, or that maybe you’ve been breathing in a really shallow way and your body’s saying “I need more oxygen to my brain!”
If health was a higher priority, we wouldn’t miss the message and you’d start to notice these things. But people’s perception is that if they make health a priority, they won’t have any fun. Or if they make health a priority, they don’t get to eat the food they love …
But, that’s not the case. It’s what we do every day that impacts on our health, not what we do sometimes.
GRAPEVINE: Has modern technology had much of an impact on our health?
DR LIBBY: Definitely. Because technology promotes the sedentary lifestyle – with far less physical labour. With a more sedentary lifestyle our muscle-mass degrades; and when we have less muscle-mass our metabolism is slower; and with a slower metabolism, our blood-sugar is harder for our body to manage.
So there are lots of flow-on consequences of a sedentary lifestyle.
For example, our mood can be flatter. We know that moving around and using our body naturally creates endorphins – our ‘feel good’ hormones. So if I’m working with someone who’s really concerned about their mood, one of the things I’ll look at is how much movement they actually do throughout the day.
Other important factors are how much sunshine they’re exposed to – how many hours they spend outside as opposed to sitting down indoors.
Those simple things can make a world of difference to someone’s health.
I think technology has also led to us being more anxious. With our mobile phones we are now available 24/7 – it can ring with a call, beep with an email, or ping with a text message! It wasn’t that long ago, when you left home to drive somewhere, you were un-contactable – but not now!
Yes, of course there are benefits. But the downside of being forever contactable is that people live in a heightened state of awareness … and that has a big effect on their anxiety levels.
GRAPEVINE: You’re known to favour a ‘holistic’ approach to health. Can you explain what that means?
DR LIBBY: My original training was in nutrition and dietetics. Then I went on and did a PhD in biochemistry, to help me work out what was a fad and what was real.
There are three prongs to my holistic approach. Prong No.1 is understanding how the body works. I can explain, for example, how the liver detoxifies: how it takes substances that if accumulated, would be harmful to you, and changes them into things that are less harmful, which you can excrete and are then gone from your body forever (that’s detoxification).
Prong No.2 is the nutritional aspect of the above. In other words, what foods and nutrients help those processes (like detoxification) to work even better? And what is there in our environment and food that can potentially make it harder for those systems to working optimally? Ideally, you want to have more of the things that enhance those processes – and expose yourself to fewer of the things that take away from those processes.
And finally, Prong No.3 is what I call the emotional aspect. It could be spiritual for some people; it could be psychological for someone else; but I use ‘emotion’ because lots of people understand that they eat emotionally. So the question I often ask people is “Why do you do what you do when you know what you know?”
It’s usually not a lack of education that leads people to polish off a packet of biscuits after dinner. It could be biochemical (the blood sugar might’ve been on a crazy rollercoaster all day, for example) – but it could also be emotional. And when people think about what led them to do that, they’ll often see that they were actually looking for comfort … or they felt lonely.
When you get someone to describe their food behaviours like this, they can see very quickly that they’ve been trying to make food fulfil a role in their life. But, the thing is, food can’t comfort us. It doesn’t have arms – it can’t wrap us up and say “I love you, you’re amazing …” or “Thanks for making my bed every day for the last 18 years …” or “Sorry I’ve never said thanks before for all the washing up you’ve done …” Food can’t do that!
GRAPEVINE: So if we are feeling unappreciated, for example, what can we do instead of sitting on the couch with a tub of icecream all to ourselves?
DR LIBBY: A great question to ask is: “What else could I do to make myself feel appreciated that doesn’t involve hurting my health?” For example, maybe you could feel a deeper sense of joy in your life if you made a commitment to notice the sunset each evening? Or maybe, when you’ve put your child to bed at night, you could make a point of going back once they’re asleep and watching them … and really soaking them up! Make a point of noticing that one of your kids might have hair sticking up all over … or a leg poking out in a weird way … or the bedclothes all thrown off because they’re hot … or all wrapped up because they’re cold! And don’t just go “Oh yeah, they’re my kids …” but stand there and soak them up – because you created them, and they are extraordinary!
The feedback we’ve had from so many women who struggle with ‘eating-after-dinner’ is that this really works. By reconnecting, deeply appreciating, loving and feeling grateful for their children – for some women especially that strategy is absolutely game-changing!
I get goose bumps every time I talk about this!
GRAPEVINE: Let’s pull out two of the biggies: exercise and diet. Which of these is the most important, and why?
DR LIBBY: Food is the most important – simply because exercise can never make up for a lousy diet. There are foods that take away from our health – such as highly processed foods, like sugar. Refined sugar has been shown to slow down how quickly white blood cells move to the site of an infection. So if we eat a lot of processed food containing refined sugar (for example), the only thing exercise will deal with is body fat. But it won’t sort out the impact that it’s had on your immune system.
The scientific literature says that diet is responsible for about 80% of our health – exercise and our level of movement is responsible for around 20%. But that’s not to take away the importance of movement. As we discussed earlier, with more muscle-mass, more endorphins, we are different people – the quality of our life is enormously enhanced. So diet and exercise go hand in hand. But if I had to focus on one, it would definitely be food.
GRAPEVINE: You mentioned fads earlier. There’s an avalanche of people and books these days telling us how to lose weight, get healthy, live long and prosper … but lots of the advice seems contradictory! How on earth is your average Kiwi family supposed to make sense of all this?
DR LIBBY: You’re right, of course! You can walk into a bookshop and pick up a book that says “eat bucket-loads of carbs because they’re essential for energy” – and right beside it you’ll pick up a book that says “don’t eat carbs because they’ll make you fat and tired”!
The first thing I’m trying to do is encourage people to PAY ATTENTION. Food is designed to energise us. If food makes you want to go to sleep, then it hasn’t served you. Take a mother, for example, who is taking care of a number of people as well as herself: her kids may be unable to communicate whether something energises them or not – but she might start to notice that after lunch every day her four-year-old gets a really bloated stomach. So she needs to ask, “What’s my child just eaten that could’ve caused that?” She might also notice that her kids are really calm and able to play on their own before lunch – but after lunch it’s chaos!
I don’t want people to become obsessed. But I do want them to switch on their brains and observe … observe any regular patterns that may show up in themselves or in someone they love … and then pose the question: “I wonder what was in that previous meal that could’ve influenced what I’m now witnessing?”
The second thing I’m trying to say is: when it comes to food NATURE GETS IT RIGHT! It’s human intervention that can get it wrong. And we’re also influenced by our heritage. We Kiwis are not of Eskimo heritage, for example, so eating only meat is something our ancestors in Australia and New Zealand have never done.
When I was taught the food-pyramid back in university, the middle section said we need several dairy products a day. But it’s well documented that the majority of Asian descendants are lactose intolerant! What’s more, as I described earlier, it’s quite common in people with a strong Irish heritage to say they feel lousy after eating a sandwich – due, potentially, to the gluten in the grains, because they haven’t got the enzymes to break those glutens down.
So I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to diet. And I’m not going to stand up in a multi-cultural society and say you all need to eat the same way – because the way we need to eat is influenced by our heritage.
However, something I will confidently say is that most people can safely double the amount of vegetables they currently eat. Historically, we had a very high level of plants in our diets – especially lots of green leaves.
In the past, as we hunted and gathered, we just picked and ate – and if you were skilled enough to kill something, then you had that too. We didn’t have supermarkets where you could eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week.
So variety was – and still is – important!
GRAPEVINE: What makes your approach to diet different from all others?
DR LIBBY: Well, my idea in The Real Food Chef is to help people eat more real food – and especially to get more vegies into their diet, in delicious ways that the whole family will enjoy.
GRAPEVINE: So there’s no meat?
DR LIBBY: There is meat, of course! It’s very easy, though, to have some really delicious vegetarian meals – and still eat meat. But less meat – that’s the key, and that’s what lots of people find difficult. So it’s not about going without, but about eating more food the way it comes in nature – and less food out of packets!
When people live on lots of processed food they’re missing out on key nutrients that are essential for all the inner workings of our body.
GRAPEVINE: Have you got some tips to make eating like this do-able for your average family? Because eating healthy can be really expensive!
DR LIBBY: For starters, eating seasonally is a huge help. Buying fruit and vegies out of season is expensive, so eat to the seasons. It’s much cheaper. I also encourage people to grow whatever they can, although I realise that’s not practical for everyone.
Part of the problem is people’s perceptions. For example, say a bottle of sauce costs around $4-to-$5. Well, you can make tomato sauce in your blender, with no rubbish ingredients and in less than one minute! Just chuck all the ingredients in, press play, and before you know it you have tomato sauce that you can keep in your fridge (or freeze) – and it’s cheaper than the bought stuff!
Another perception people have is the whole thing about ‘time’. Think about the time it takes to make a stir fry, for example. Lots of women will say to me, “I don’t have time to cut vegies …” But my response is: it actually takes only five minutes to cut vegies. And if you feel like you don’t have time to do that, before I advise you about your food, we need to talk about your priorities!
It’s also true that, in the time it takes for someone to drive to the takeaway or supermarket, they could’ve made the food!
Being organised helps save time – and a pantry stocked with ingredients that you know could easily go into a family-friendly meal. My suggestion is: plan your meals for the week on Sunday, and cook a casserole that evening which you can keep in the fridge or freeze. Then, if you’ve got a night that’s going to prove tricky to do a home-cooked meal, you’ve got one ready to go.
GRAPEVINE: Getting to that other biggie … what should our exercise look like?
DR LIBBY: It depends what life looks like! If you’re living in a really intense way, you’d probably benefit from some breath-focus movement – things like tai chi, Pilates, restorative yoga. Anything that focuses on your breath and gets you breathing diaphragmatically will lower stress hormones immediately and get you back into the rest-and-repair part of your nervous system. This will enhance health, and shift you from burning sugar to burning body fat – powerful stuff!
If, on the other hand, your lifestyle is very sedentary and you don’t have that intensity about you – if you’re slow in your movement, slow in your speech, and heavier in your body … you need to step it up and do some walking. But move with a little bit more intensity – and maybe appreciate nature while you do it!
There’s another thing that’s important for both these groups:
Historically we lifted, we lunged and we squatted as we grew our food. We had to work at that – and it helped develop our muscles. When we don’t work or exercise like that today, our muscles can start to waste away. So doing some sort of resistance-training is essential.
Some people like to do it in a structured way … but it can be something as simple as working in your garden, or carrying your groceries instead of using a trolley, whatever appeals to you as an individual.
GRAPEVINE: As parents, what are some of the consequences we can expect for our children if we move towards the lifestyle you suggest?
DR LIBBY: Your kids will be calmer … but still spirited. They’ll enjoy better quality sleep. For lots of kids today, concentration is a big challenge – and with more real food going in, you should see improvements in concentration. Diet also has a big effect on bone health – especially between the ages of 12 and18, when around 50% of adult bone-mass is laid down. Caffeine, for example, stops the body from absorbing calcium into the bones. With the amount of caffeine being consumed today by so many teenagers, through energy drinks, etc – that’s of enormous concern.
The level of anxiety that I witness amongst so many children today is also pretty worrying – and food and caffeine have a big influence, along with technology. When children are anxious, the hormones they’re making have a big impact on not only their bone health, but also their blood-sugar regulation – what’s going on in their brain. When they eat real food, they’re getting increased nutrients – so better hormonal balance and better neuro-transmitter production – which means better mood, better energy, better sleep, and obviously fit and healthy bodies. They also miss out on all those rubbish ingredients that are potentially reducing their health.
GRAPEVINE: We’re encouraged to have financial plans for our future, for our retirement, etc. But you also advocate having a ‘health plan’ as well. What does that look like?
DR LIBBY: As I said at the beginning, without our health we’ve got nothing. But very few people take the time to think about what the future would look like without their health.
Thanks to the incredible advances in western medicine and hygiene, we’re going to live longer and longer. But it’s the quality of life that I care about. And people need to pause and ask how things are going to look in the second half of their life. Are you still going to be able to bend over and do up your shoelaces, for example? It’s not until you lose that ability that you think: “Wow, if only I’d gone for a walk every day, maybe I wouldn’t be in this state!” It’s difficult to maintain self-esteem when someone has got to come over and do up your shoelaces …
The way we eat, drink, think and move today doesn’t just influence how we feel and function today, but also how we’ll feel and function in the future.
GRAPEVINE: Okay. Let’s say someone is motivated to start making some changes. Where’s an easy place to start?
DR LIBBY: The first step – EAT MORE VEGIES! If they’re currently a token effort on the side of the plate, just slowly start to increase it.
Secondly – even though it sounds too small a thing to make much difference, schedule some time to BREATHE FROM YOUR DIAPHRAGM. When you watch babies breathe, they breathe in and out through their nose and their belly goes up and down – the top of their chest doesn’t move. But with most adults today, the chest is the only part that moves – and adrenalin is what’s behind that.
Breathing from your diaphragm sends a message to your body that you’re safe. It lets your body know that it doesn’t need to make stress-hormones anymore. Just a few minutes each day is all it takes – it’s simple, free and can truly be game-changing.
The third thing – make the most of SUNSHINE DAYS. Expose your eyes and skin, and enjoy the sunshine while it’s there, because it really will enhance your mood.
The final thing I would say is: WHAT YOU FOCUS ON IS WHAT YOU FEEL. So when you feel grateful for the gift of life, or fresh air, or sunshine, or the fact that you’ve got access to good food, whatever it is … when you feel grateful, you can’t be stressed. Because you can’t do those two things simultaneously! So if you focus more on feeling grateful, your stress-levels will naturally decrease.
It’s really that simple …
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT DR LIBBY, HER RESOURCES AND IDEAS, VISIT WWW.DRLIBBY.COM.
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