Finding Balance, Part 2: the 80/20 Foundation
In Part 1 of this series, Diana Marlin, RD, LDN at Nourishmnt LLC, a Philadelphia-based nutrition counseling and wellness company, shared expert-level, real life advice on finding balance by letting go of extremes, such as countering overindulgence with strict abstinence and practicing mindfulness. Diana’s smart philosophy was the perfect lead in for the next part of our discussion on what ‘balance’ actually is, and how specifically to create it.
Enter Olivia Neely, RD, LDN from the Moday Center for Functional and Integrative Medicine! Olivia believes that life can feel better (this is one her favorite quotes!) and in the power of food as medicine. At the Moday Center, Olivia provides individualized dietary therapy focused on biologically appropriate diet principles to aid her clients in managing their weight, increasing their energy levels, and pursuing continued health, happiness and longevity.
The number of questions I am asked about the health impact of wine has risen steadily over the past five years, and if you read Part 1, you saw some of the concepts that seem to be at odds when it comes to wine and health. The goal of Winelala’s Finding Balance series is to demonstrate that we can find that harmony between the two. I was lucky enough to get a few moments of Olivia’s time to delve into specific and practical food habits to have in place if you, like me and like so many of us, want wine to remain as a part of your lifestyle, but don’t want any of the downside.
So on a mid-January Friday afternoon in Philadelphia, we talked it through.
Winelala: Hi Olivia, Thanks so much for participating in our series on finding balance!! Let’s just jump right in. Can you explain what a balanced diet actually is, and how we fit alcohol in side by side with healthy eating?
Olivia Neely: A balanced diet can be so different and individualized for everyone, but there are some common threads that can apply pretty much across the board. For example, a balanced diet contains most carbohydrates coming from a mix of non-starchy and starchy vegetables loaded with fiber and phytonutrients, a small portion of organic plant and/or animal proteins, healthy fats and condiment sized portions of traditionally fermented foods to add a variety of probiotics to support gut health.
When we understand what individual foods best serve our unique nutritional needs and use these to build a balanced foundation diet that makes up 80% of our intake, we can usually enjoy things like sweets and alcoholic beverages the other 20% of the time and remain "balanced". There are others with outlying addiction or contradicting health conditions, however, so this advice is not geared toward those individuals.
Winelala: Yes, definitely. We’re focusing on people interested in clean living, we’re not ostensibly giving someone a free pass on booze if there are underlying issues.
Olivia Neely: We have to remember that most of us are absolutely fine exercising the 20% side of the 80/20 equation. Many people see no problem going out every Wednesday-Saturday and having a few drinks each evening at happy hour. This is just what socializing looks like for a lot of people. Unfortunately, that's not a very "balanced" ratio. I would encourage more focus to support that 80% side of the equation. The more we flex this 80% muscle by building a healthy gut, maintaining hormone balance and social interaction skills, the more we can enjoy the other 20%. Still go out, just limit the amount of drinks you have. Or even better, try to go out and only order virgin drinks for one of those nights. I promise you learn so much about yourself and others. Other factors, like limiting the amount of food we eat out, buying local and buying from the Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen, Clean Fifteen to limit toxin intake, and managing a healthy work/life balance contribute to this 80%.
So first I would encourage people to really think what their balance equation looks like. Is your 80% really 80%? Or is it more like 65%? Or 50%? For many it is the difference between feeling "fine" and feeling "great" the majority of the days. Understanding your 80% balance is critical to the other 20% working FOR you and not AGAINST you. This does take some time to be introspective and honest with yourself.
Winelala: How do start to understand and optimize our 80%?
Olivia Neely: Just about everyone can incorporate more non-starchy carbohydrates through vegetables into their diet. In fact, these should make up half of the plate! Think a variety of greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, mushrooms, etc. For appropriate energy production and to support optimal gut function, a quarter of the plate could come from the other type of carbohydrates, called starchy carbs. These are foods like sweet potatoes, plantains, squash, beets, etc., and depending on individual tolerance can include grains and beans. This leaves us with the last quarter of that plate: fill up with grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish or plant-based protein like fermented soy products. This part is highly dependable on individual therapeutic needs and personal preference.
The last part of a balanced diet is probiotic-rich, live fermented foods. These are to be thought of as condiments to a meal. Only a small amount is needed, and variety is of utmost importance here. Maybe one week you purchase a live (this means it has to purchased from the refrigerated section of the store and kept refrigerated once you bring it home and will not include vinegar in the ingredients) fermented vegetable like sauerkraut. Next time you try water kefir, and then maybe incorporate some coconut yogurt in with breakfast a few day of the week. The key to probiotics is to get a variety in the diet to help increase gut diversity of good bacteria.
Winelala: Diana Marlin, who I interviewed for Part 1, talked about how alcohol can adversely affect our skin, stomach, and sleep cycles, and we all know that’s in addition to a ton of other negatives. How can diet help manage the downside of alcohol?
Olivia Neely: Yes, alcohol isn't exactly going to be healing if you are trying to improve skin health, GI issues, and optimize sleep. That's why I encourage people to really put effort into the 80% when making those healthy choices that make up a solid foundation diet so that 20% of the time we can sprinkle in bonuses like sweets and drinks. The more work that goes into building that strong foundation, the less we need to worry about letting loose and enjoying these things on occasion.
To give an example, alcohol can cause ‘leaky gut’ AKA intestinal permeability, which can lead to vitamin deficiencies - especially folate which is important in mood and energy support. This doesn't mean one glass of wine creates a deficiency though. It happens over time with other contributing factors. The great thing is with a healthy foundation diet that is built from lots of green leafy vegetables, proteins that build the gut barrier and probiotics that help to heal leaky gut - we give the body the tools is needs to repair and prevent downsides of drinking.
Winelala: Let’s go a little deeper, especially around managing gut health and anxiety - I think we all know people who suffer from issues with one or both! What else figures into the 80% foundation?
Olivia Neely: Diet isn't the only thing that helps to build the strong foundation. Lifestyle is a HUGE factor. If we are constantly stressed out, burning the candle from both ends, giving all that we have to others and not having any reserve for ourselves and not experiencing joy and love in our lives, then a healthy diet can only get us so far. These lifestyle contributors can weaken the immune system and perpetrate leaky gut which in turn leaves the body vulnerable and possibly unable to tolerate those nights of binge drinking and extra dessert portions like it used to. We can't expect to keep wearing the body down and have it keep up the high demands we put it through. Diet and lifestyle are two areas that should be continually prioritized if we want to embrace the 80/20 balance, which I believe everyone really desires to do.
Alcohol can absolute be part of this balance, but if our 80% is looking more like 50%, then we need to take an honest look at that and see if we are really serving our bodies appropriately. If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, or autoimmune issues (to name a few) healing needs to be made priority. In fact, 80% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel generally happy and satisfied with life, is made in the gut. We need that gut working optimally for us!
Winelala: Wow, that is so interesting! Thank you so much for such great information. Can you tell me which organs do what to metabolize alcohol?
Olivia Neely: The liver does most of the metabolism of alcohol but alcohol does affect many other systems. When the liver is detoxifying alcohol, there isn't much focus on removing other toxins from the body. So, if we are continually prioritizing the liver's focus on detoxifying alcohol there will be other toxins that need to be dealt with that get put on the back burner. This is especially important for those having trouble with hormone balance, skin issues and/or losing weight. The body is smart. If it doesn't know what to do with a toxin, or doesn't have time to process it (because there are too many other toxins to take care of first), it's going to pack it away in fat cells. Once it's in a fat cell, it's out of circulation and therefore a low danger to our system.
The trouble is, that fat cell isn't going to let go of that toxin very easily because why would it throw it back into circulation when there's no way to detoxify it with a clogged liver? This is where many people experience weight loss resistance. When people try everything - work out every day of the week and cut calories and still don't lose weight - this can be a sign of misaligned priorities. The body is going to focus on burning alcohol for fuel FIRST, not excess fat sitting on our thighs.
Winelala: Hmmm. Wow, I am really starting to doubt my profession. (Just kidding!!)
Olivia Neely: (Laughs) This isn't to say that alcohol is bad or that we can never have it when trying to lose weight or balance hormones, maybe just bring back focus on that 80% foundation diet and lifestyle ratio so that your body can better tolerate it.
Winelala: Seriously though, practicing an ‘80% foundation’ sounds like such a clean, balanced way to live!! Do you have any fun drink ideas for nights when everyone else is drinking but you're not feeling it, so want something non-alcoholic?
Olivia Neely: I've actually challenged myself lots of times to go out in a highly social setting and not drink. Just to see how it feels and if it's at all do-able. Let me tell you it is absolutely do-able. You can go out and sip on other beverages and no one will even ask. Here are some great ideas for mocktails!
Ask the bartender for a bitters and soda with lime (herbal bitters do actually contain alcohol, but the amount used is only a few dashes -- plus, they're good for digestion!)
Tonic (or club soda if you want to avoid sugar) and lime
If you go to most any decent cocktail bar you can order an absolutely delicious cocktail full of fresh herbs just without the spirit. Some bars even have mocktails that are so beautiful and delicious you won't feel like you're missing out. My favorite is the Basil, Fennel and Lemon Soda at Charlie Was a Sinner. (If you live in Philadelphia, you definitely have to check this place out!!)
For those nights when you're staying in, but have a hard day at the office and just need something: fill a fun wine glass with mineral water, add 5 dashes of herbal bitters like Angostura, add juice of half a lime, and use the lime as a garnish.
Winelala: I actually kind of want one of those right now! Let’s quickly talk about what you can do to combat a hangover in the event that one happens. Because let’s face it, they do.
Olivia Neely: Here are my favorite tips to help mitigate the possible affects of alcohol:
Alternate water in between each alcoholic drink. (I know we all know this but it begs repeating.)
Take 2-3 capsules of Activated Charcoal after drinking, along with 8-12 oz water. Make sure to take this away from any other medications or vitamins. Activated charcoal helps absorb some of those toxins and lighten the load on your liver.
Take a high quality folate and probiotic after drinking to prevent leaky gut.
Support that liver the next day, or any time, with this Morning Miracle Mixer (recipe in side box).
Winelala: I’m so pumped to try all of this and am definitely going to plan a trip to Charlie Was a Sinner!! Any final advice or words of wisdom?
Olivia Neely: Work on your individual 80/20 balance! Challenge yourself to see how you can boost up your foundation diet and lifestyle habits so you can benefit more from the 20% side of the equation. This may not look like your closest friend’s breakdown and that's ok! It is so important to honor your individual needs.
Thank you again to Olivia, for getting us one step closer to finding the balance that we’re all always chasing. In life and in wine.
Special thanks to Oliva Neely!!