The Virtues of Variety

Are you eating the same five or six foods every day? Stop! Enjoying a range of diverse fruits, veggies and lean proteins can help you correct chronic nutrient deficiencies – and even avoid food intolerances.

It’s often said that variety is the spice of life, and this is especially true about what we eat. Simply put, consuming the same foods all the time will not give us the nutrition we need.

It’s well known that Americans eat too much processed food and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. But to make matters worse, pretty much everything we do pile into our grocery carts contains some combination of the same few ingredients: wheat, sugar, cow’s milk, corn, soy and eggs.

As a result, most Americans have some sort of nutrient deficiency. A recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (“What We Eat in America,” NHANES 2001–2002) revealed shocking deficiencies in vitamins E, C, D and A, as well as selenium, magnesium and potassium. Our unwillingness to eat more adventurously has not only resulted in a boring diet, it has also exposed us to an increased risk of some serious food allergies.

Branching Out

Even those who try to eat healthy tend to limit themselves to a relatively narrow range of foods. Rather than opting for kale over romaine, or mangoes over oranges, we fill our grocery bags with the same items nearly every time we shop.

The point is, our unwillingness to vary the foods we eat undermines the health of even the most conscientious consumer. A diet rich in variety – Fuji, Braeburn and Gala apples instead of just Red Delicious; broccoli, asparagus and spinach instead of just green beans – provides us with a much wider range of the necessary nutrients: vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids.

When we consume a wide variety of fresh, colorful and sometimes even uncooked foods, we also get a wider array of phytonutrients (with their important antioxidant effects) and essential enzymes (for digestion and good health).

For instance, Americans tend to be obsessively attached to wheat; some of us eat wheat six or eight times a day. As an alternative, foods made with other whole grains such as kashi (a blend of seven whole grains and sesame), quinoa, and oats provide a wider range of nutrients, including B vitamins, essential minerals and protein. Rice cakes or rice chips deliver soluble fiber and B vitamins; millet and buckwheat are both known for their high magnesium content, in addition to other nutrients.

As an alternative to cow’s milk, goat and sheep cheeses and yogurts are rich in calcium, vitamins A and B2 (riboflavin), and protein. They are also easier for some dairy-intolerant people to digest.

On the produce front, there is a wide range of choices beyond the typical shopping list of Idaho potatoes, iceberg lettuce and baby carrots. Root vegetables, such as turnips (vitamins C, A and K, plus calcium and iron) and rutabagas (vitamins A, C and E, plus potassium and manganese) are great alternatives to potatoes. Swiss chard, kale and other dark greens make a great salad and are excellent sources of vitamins A and C. Broccoli and asparagus can help you get your daily requirement of vitamins A, C and K, as well as folic acid. And all the orange-colored squashes (and most others, too) deliver a healthy dose of beta-carotene.

There’s also a whole world of fruits beyond our typical apples-oranges-bananas routine. Both star fruit and kiwi, for instance, are great sources of vitamin C.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables (which are “open-pollinated” – that is, fertilized by the wind, birds and other animals rather than by farmers) offer even more nutritional diversity, since the chemical composition of their seeds is more varied than those of conventionally grown, hybrid and genetically modified produce.

In all cases, the closer the foods are to the garden, field and orchard, the more energy, vitality and nutrients they deliver. Eating seasonal, fresh foods naturally inclines us to eat a wider variety of foods, and to enjoy them at their nutritional peak (see “Embracing the Variety of Seasonal Eating“).

These foods may be more challenging to find and may cost more, but it’s important to remember that processed and packaged foods are generally cheaper and more available because they have been produced with an eye toward portability, mass-marketability and increased shelf life – not for their nutritional qualities.

Give Your Body a Break

Expanding the variety of foods we eat not only provides the widest range of nutrients, thus preventing any marked deficiencies of vitamins and minerals, it can also help reduce food intolerances. These can result from repeated stimulation of the body’s immune and cellular systems by substances with the same nutritional biochemistry. In other words, eating the same food all the time can create an intolerance for it within your body.

We usually become sensitive to the protein molecules of a food; we build up antibodies against these antigens (a.k.a. allergens), and then, when we eat the food, we may have a reactive immune response. Common foods that may generate sensitivities include cow’s milk, wheat, eggs, soy, nuts, corn, beef, coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, yeast, shellfish and mushrooms.

We may also be intolerant of the sugars found in foods. The most common example, of course, is lactose intolerance, the inability to break down lactose, the primary sugar found in cow’s milk (because of insufficient amounts of the digestive enzyme lactase). But we can have similar problems with other sugars, too, including monosaccharide sugars (fructose, glucose, xylose and sorbose) and the other disaccharides (sucrose and maltose).

Some people may be genetically predisposed to certain food intolerances. Others may develop such sensitivities as the result of stresses, illnesses or overconsumption. If you think you might be reactive to one or more foods (that is, if you experience common symptoms like fatigue, irritability, nasal congestion or skin rashes), you might want to eliminate suspect foods for a while and begin a four-day rotation diet, during which you consume specific foods only every fourth day. This reduces the constant stimulation of the immune system that can occur when we consume a food daily and can help you pinpoint which foods are causing problems.

It is especially important to rotate commonly processed foods such as refined flour, sugars like refined cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and dairy products. Often, people who begin to rotate these foods see a big improvement in their energy and digestion.

One of the best ways to begin building more nutritional variety into your diet is to start replacing habitual starch choices (breads and pastas, for example) with a variety of hearty vegetables. This will reduce your exposure to wheat, increase your intake of a wider range of produce and possibly also notably improve your digestion in the bargain. That’s because proteins and starches (both very concentrated foods) tend to be difficult for us to digest simultaneously.

Similarly, you can also begin to rotate more legumes into your diet (think black beans, lentils and black-eyed peas) in place of either starches or flesh foods, combining them with leafy greens, squashes and other colorful vegetables to create a complete meal.

Try replacing habitual vegetable choices with more experimental, exotic and sophisticated options: Swap iceberg and romaine lettuce for mixed greens, mache and arugula; swap white potatoes for jewel yams; apples for mangoes; and plain breads for seeded, alternative-whole-grain varieties. You might even try bison in place of beef, or wild salmon in place of breaded fish sticks.

Good and Good For You

All this can be helpful in building a healthier diet, but that’s not the only reason to reconsider what you’re putting in your shopping cart and onto your table. Pulling yourself out of your food-buying rut can also make your meals more enjoyable.

Our palates and our biochemical systems are designed to appreciate variety, and our senses can be more completely satisfied when we enjoy a wide variety of novel flavors, textures and colors. Avoiding the “beige plate” syndrome that plagues so many American tables can also help us cut unwanted calories without feeling deprived.

It’s important to remember that variety takes many forms. For example, a truly balanced diet might incorporate variety across these six different categories: macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates); micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids and phytonutrients); food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry and meats); flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy); colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple); and acid-alkaline (foods that are either acid-forming or alkalizing within the body).

Changing our diets to respect all these different kinds of balance can be challenging, in part because it requires us to know something about our food choices and the impact they have on our bodies, but also because our taste for fats, sweets and processed foods is so ingrained in our culture.

Many Americans are now waking up to the fact that we have to get more basic and natural foods into our diet. The only way to do this and be satisfied is to be willing to try new varieties of healthy, natural foods. By doing so, we’ll not only look and feel better, we’ll also be better equipped to ward off some of the most devastating chronic diseases related to our dietary choices and habits.

It’s OK to start gradually. Just try one new fruit, vegetable, nut, seed, legume or dairy product each week. Over time, you’ll discover a whole host of “new favorites” that just keeps on growing.

Adapted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine by Elson Haas, MD (Celestial Arts, 2006). For more info, visit Haas's Web site at www.elsonhaas.com.

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