There are many absolutes we know about health – for example: whole, natural foods are better for you than processed foods – but personal health is not all absolutes. One enormous variable is genetics.
Genetics determine more than an individual’s predisposition to certain diseases. Each of our bodies responds to food and exercise differently. Knowing your body’s individual needs, preferences, food sensitivities, and allergies is an important part of owning your health.
Although you can ask your doctor to test your levels of an array of vitamins and minerals (the results of which may be less due to your diet and more to your body’s natural ability to absorb certain nutrients over others), these tests can be expensive and may not be covered by your insurance provider. Regardless, I think it’s imperative to develop a habit of thinking consciously about your health. You don’t need tests to start understanding your unique needs.
Chances are high that your genetic background is complex — and that’s a good thing. The fact that your mother and father brought two very different sets of genes to the table ensures your health. Here are some suggestions to help you understand your genetic individuality and use it to your advantage:
- Research your family. Did your parents or grandparents have any food allergies and intolerances? What health problems run in your family? If any of your close relatives are unhealthy today, or died prematurely, learning about their diets may also help you understand what not to eat.
- Research your racial and ethnic background. Did you know that the Irish and people of Irish descent have the highest incidence of gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity? (If you think you may be gluten sensitive or intolerant, try replacing wheat products in your diet with gluten-free foods like potatoes, organic corn, brown rice, and quinoa for two weeks. Remember that almost all processed foods contain gluten.) Did you know that people of African and Asian decent are more likely to be lactose-intolerant? (If you are lactose-intolerant, be sure to eat calcium-rich foods from non-diary sources, such as broccoli, almonds, brazil nuts, and leafy greens including many dried herbs.)
- Pay attention to how you feel after you eat different types of foods. An hour or two after a meal, do you have more or less energy? If you have stomach pain, can you pinpoint the types of foods that typically cause your irritation? Do any foods make you irritable? When I began paying more attention to the relationship between what I ate for breakfast and how I felt throughout the day, I learned that I have more energy when I eat a hearty breakfast with both fat and protein. As a result, I make a 2-egg omelet with avocado for breakfast several times per week. However, some people feel sluggish after a hearty breakfast and prefer a lighter meal. (Whether you do best with a light or hearty breakfast, ideally your first meal of the day should include at least two food groups.)
- Most importantly, listen to your body. Remember that every person’s body is different. Regardless of your family history, race, or ethnicity, you are an individual with unique needs. You are the person with the best chance of positively impacting your own health. Listen to yourself.
When mothers introduce children to new foods, they typically ask “Do you like that?” or “Did that taste good?” As children grow older, we need to emphasize more than the pleasures of eating. We need to encourage children to know and understand their individual dietary needs, and to recognize how different foods affect their energy levels and personal health.
Understanding your individual health needs – including your personal strengths and weaknesses as related to health – is one more step toward taking charge of your overall wellness.