It is no secret that the food we consume has a direct impact on our overall health and lifestyle. Food provides our bodies with materials and information that dictate how they respond and function. But more specifically, we can use a mindful approach to food and listen to what our bodies need, understand how to provide for those needs, and integrate that information in an effort to strategically heal and fortify from the inside out.
In this endeavor, I reached out to my good friend Selma Ahmed, a nutrition consultant with a Master’s of Health Sciences, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology from Johns Hopkins University. Through her weekly segment, “Wellness Wednesdays” I have gained a plethora of useful information concerning the molecular and biological impact of the food we consume and its long-term effects on the body. I sat down and chatted with Selma to pick her brain concerning the relationship between nutrition and holistic health, and how readers like you can begin their journey to mindfully caring for your bodies—starting on the molecular level!
Marwa: In your opinion, why is it important to address health—including your diet—from a holistic approach?
Selma Ahmed: In order to understand the importance of approaching your health holistically, I think we should get familiar with what the word holistic means, especially given the fact that this buzz word has become an integrated part of health dialogue recently. The word holistic in this context refers to the harmonious interconnectedness of the human body and all of its mechanisms, including those that occur on a very minute, molecular level. Ultimately, we are composed of individual parts and processes that together with our life experiences, make up who we are as a whole (HOL-istic). This notion reminds us to regard ourselves not as a list of symptoms that need to be cured, but rather as fluid beings that have real mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical health needs that should be considered in cohesion.
Ultimately, if we are to improve our health, we must approach it from a holistic lens and address each of these elements with regard to the others and not in isolation. My belief is that diet is integral to holistic health; in fact, I’d say it’s the foundation of it—every single body system inherently requires food and a specific profile of nutrients for it to function optimally. For this reason, we should approach diet and all other aspects of health from this lens.
M: What is the connection between what we consume and our mental health?
SA: In my opinion, the literal act of eating for humans is our first exposure to the concept of discipline, and from my own experiences, mental health is immediately correlated to discipline and self-love. They say if you can control what you consume, you can control all aspects of your decision making throughout your day as well. From a biological perspective, we are supposed to eat with a nutritional purpose; hunting and gathering used to be a skill that was developed to promote well-being and survival. Now with the industrialization of our food supply, we tend to eat for more hedonistic (pleasure) purposes as opposed to health-related ones. In fact, I think the majority of people eat as a social habit, (e.g. going out to eat with friends) or to fulfill faulty cravings that in and of themselves arise from a poorly controlled diet.
I believe that once we learn about the scientific benefits of food we can intentionally structure our diets to be healing for both our physical and mental health. I learned that setting intentions—in this case, having a health-related reason for eating certain meals—trains our subconscious mind to remember that we care for it [our bodies] at all times. These types of promises we make to ourselves serve as the foundation of self-trust and, ultimately, sound mental health.
M: What are some of the top benefits you’ve experienced from your own food and nutrition journey? Based on scientific backing, what are the long and short-term benefits?
SA: I think this question ties in perfectly with the previous one. The top benefit I have experienced from my own nutritional journey is the ability to achieve and maintain serious discipline in all aspects of my life, including but not limited to my physical health. The act of eating, as mentioned, should be structured and intentional. Inherently, when we incorporate intentionality into our lives, we become more attuned to what our bodies need to thrive, and that short-term awareness of how our body feels and reacts to certain meals is key to achieving long-term total wellness. In case you’re curious, discipline for me manifests as waking up early, doing a full skin/hair care routine, getting to work on time, as well as hitting the gym. On the days that my meals are planned well, I tend to get all this done and more because my patterns of eating reflect a productive, positive mindset!
M: What advice do you have for folks starting their journey into holistic nutrition and health? How did your own journey start?
SA: My advice for folks starting their journey into holistic health is to let go of their preconceived notions about what is “healthy” and “unhealthy” because many of these concepts are erroneously influenced by media and popular culture. Foods are ultimately chemical compounds that have true implications on the biochemistry of our bodies; stop taking health advice from image-oriented sources like magazines and IG models. Get a nutritionist and learn the science that backs the foods you’re consuming. As a note, I think the biggest misconception people have about good health is that it is only achieved by losing weight—in fact, the word metabolism has been coined in the weight-loss industry, when in fact it is so much more dynamic than just weight.
As a masters of biochemistry, I have come to learn that metabolism includes a repertoire of enzymes, cofactors, biomolecules, and substances that help your body extract energy from food sources. Once I realized how deep the science ran, I began to commit myself to the academic realm of achieving good health. My own journey started when I decided to invest in knowledge and learn how to eat for health and not for weight loss—again, setting the intention. I met a clinical nutritionist while I was studying in college and learned the foundations of food science and have applied them to my daily life since then.
M: What is your current favorite nutritious recipe that our readers can try at home to kick-start their journey?
SA: Currently, I’ve been loving experimenting with vegetables that can act as meat substitutes, since I don’t like the texture or meat-like smell of some soy based “fake meat” products. My favorite substitutes include grilled eggplants, mushrooms, and air-fried cauliflower. Lately, I’ve been making a Mediterranean-inspired protein spinach bowl. However, I never measure things, so just eyeball to taste. I use garbanzo beans as a protein source and base; you can also use green lentils which have a substantial amount of protein. I sauté spinach in olive oil and garlic, and add a bed of grilled vegetables including eggplant, sweet potatoes, radishes, caramelized onions, and mushrooms. I like to add salt, pepper, and garlic powder, as well as a dash of cumin. I top it with some crushed walnuts for texture and garnish with a balsamic glaze reduction. If you want to add carbs, brown rice would be a nice side. You can also add a protein source such as grilled chicken to increase this plate’s macromolecule content.
To learn more about your body and how to best take care of it this winter season, follow @itsselmz on Instagram. Selma is currently hosting FREE 1 hour nutrition consultations with a clinical nutritionist who helps you explore gut health, metabolic roadblocks, and their implications on your overall health.