– From futuristic to holistic: Why athletes and nutritionists choose whole foods

Vancouver-based jiu jitsu practitioners and health enthusiasts Eric Ng and Derek Graebel weren’t always in top physical fighting condition, but thanks to a change to their dietary habits, both have been able to shed more than just body weight.

After making a decision to follow a growing trend to eliminate processed foods including gluten, dairy, and refined sugars from their diets, the dedicated athletes have seen nothing but positive changes — not only to their body composition but also to their general quality of life.

“For the longest time I thought I was eating reasonably healthy: whole grain bread products, milk and yogurt, trying to reduce saturated fat intake and opt for low fat options, eating mostly chicken because of the ‘health risks’ associated with red meat,” recalls Graebel. After changing his diet over a year ago, he dropped 20 pounds and saw an increase in muscle strength.

It seems that after decades of encouraging the consumption of fat-free, low fat, and chemically-modified foods, the diet industry is taking a step away from the futuristic, and towards a more holistic approach that resembles the eating habits of our ancestors.

While the Standard American Diet (SAD) and the Food Guide Pyramid introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1980s have been staples of many traditional nutritionists’ toolkit, registered holistic nutritionist (R.H.N.) Stacey Bishop says that the once-revered dietary model is actually responsible for a decline in the over-all health of many North Americans.

“Many are moving away from the SAD model because for the most part, it isn’t working. Incidences of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease continue to rise,” explains Bishop, who graduated from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and opened the school’s Calgary location in 2001.

Bishop clarifies that the SAD model is flawed in its recommendations because it is too general:

“It doesn’t take into account the individual’s biochemical uniqueness, existing health conditions, lifestyle, outlook on life, and emotional state of mind. It simply doesn’t take a holistic approach to nutrition, and as a result, it doesn’t work for the majority of the population.”

“That’s why people are seeking alternatives. People are sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”

So what does a diet that propagates illness and exhaustion look like?

Carbohydrates make up about 50 per cent of the SAD model, while fat sits at 35 per cent, and protein at only 15 per cent. Although those numbers were once considered acceptable, new research shows that such amounts do not provide the sufficient vitamins and nutrients necessary to properly fuel the human body while also fending off illness and disease.

“The SAD model largely consists of processed and refined foods which are lacking in nutritional value. Low fat and fat-free foods do not contain natural flavour, and as a result, chemicals are added,” imparts Bishop.

“The discussion should really be about whether people are choosing healthy fats, because they are essential for brain and nerve function and for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.”

Bishop says that the majority of her clients come to her seeking help with weight loss and digestive problems; her recommendations vary depending on the symptoms and history of each individual patient. Although it has been argued by some, Bishop contends that many people are either sensitive or allergic to dairy and gluten, and she encourages many clients to seek alternatives.

Stacey Deering, also an R.H.N. in Calgary, explains that while there has been a move away from both dairy and gluten, there are better choices for those who would still like to include these types of food in their diet.

“There are good options for dairy — such as raw milk, unpasteurized cheeses, kefir, and full fat yogurt. I suggest sprouted grains [for those without gluten allergies] as they are easier on digestion. I do recommend gluten-free grains over gluten-containing grains if a client chooses to keep grains in their diet,” advises Deering.

“A great number of our population has started to correlate diet with health and wellness. Health advocates are pushing whole foods to prevent disease, and with more media, there is more interest.”

Indeed, both Ng and Graebel found their way to healthier eating habits, after hours of self-guided internet research and adhering to recommendations from a number of professional athletes and public figures who ditched their time-sensitive diet plans and opted for lifestyles that include whole foods and regular physical activity.

Graebel, who practices jiu jitsu with Ng, has noticed positive changes in all of his active hobbies since adopting a dietary model comprised entirely of whole foods. He noted that at periods during which he was too overwhelmed to keep up with his healthy eating habits, he noticed a regression in both his ability to concentrate and his energy levels during jiu jitsu.

“Learn to cook in large batches. Crockpots and pressure cookers are great,” recommends Graebel, who utilizes such appliances on a weekly basis to make chilies, roasts, and soups from scratch.

Aside from weight loss, Ng has also experienced positive changes to his body, including a decrease in illness and injuries.

“Everything gets a little better when you put proper fuel in your body. What gets forgotten is how much healthy food aids in healing, lowering inflammation, and preventing injury.”

Ng reaffirms that eating healthy is a “lifestyle” and not for those who aren’t dedicated.

“There are no quick ways to go about it. You can’t put yourself up to an impossible-to-follow nutrition plan if you don’t have the time to do all the necessary prep work. This means you have to dedicate time to learning to cook.”

“It’s a learning experience. If you mess up, shake it off and get back on it.”