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  • Writer's pictureMary Helen Robert, LAc

Holistic Wellness Basics

Updated: May 8

an education for optimal well-being and creating sustainable habits

*Note* below you will find my personal suggestions/thoughts on nutrition and lifestyle. This material has been collected over many years of study/research and navigating my own healing crisis as well as guiding patients on their healing journeys. Some of what is listed may resonate with you and some may not. I encourage you to do your own research and find what is best for you and your individual needs. At the end of this post I've listed further resources/information and there is definitely a lot out there so if you begin to feel overwhelmed just come back to the basics.

And another important *note* While in what follows I touch on various ways to alter diet and lifestyle for optimal health I have found that reducing stress (even, and sometimes more importantly, the small daily stressors) is tantamount to healing and staying healthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. It really is true that we have to take care of ourselves before we can really care for anyone/anything else. The body will tell us what it needs - we must pay attention, listen, and trust. I find this to be so important and life changing that I've dedicated an entire blog post to it. Click here for more.

I feel honored to share what I have learned over the years and hope you glean some valuable information as well as tools. Thanks for your time and enjoy!


Eat minimally processed whole, living food as much as possible. Foods in their natural state contain more nutrients and active enzymes. Lightly cook or steam your veggies as to preserve the enzymes that are needed for digestion and absorption of nutrients. A crock pot can be a very good friend as low temp cooking preserves vital nutrients and enzymes while also enhancing flavor.

Purchase organic, free range, grass fed, sustainably harvested

meat/fish/dairy when at all possible.  Michael Pollan tackles this quite well:

“The diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food itself, whether it is meat or milk or eggs. This should be self-evident, yet it is a truth routinely overlooked by the industrial food chain in its quest to produce vast quantities of cheap animal protein. That quest has changed the diet of most of our food animals from plants to seeds, because animals grow faster and produce more milk and eggs on a high-energy diet of grain. But some of our food animals, such as cows and sheep, are ruminants that evolved to eat grass; if they eat too many seeds they become sick, which is why grain-fed cattle have to be given antibiotics. Even animals that do well on grain, such as chickens and pigs, are much healthier when they have access to green plants, and so, it turns out, are their meat and eggs.

For most of our food animals, a diet of grass means much healthier fats (more omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA; fewer omega-6s and saturated fat) in their meat, milk, and eggs, as well as appreciably higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants. Sometimes you can actually see the difference, as when butter is yellow or egg yolks bright orange: What you’re seeing is beta-carotene from fresh green grass. It’s worth looking for pastured animal foods in the market and paying the premium they typically command. For though from the outside an industrial egg looks exactly like a pastured egg selling for several times as much, they are for all intents and purposes two completely different foods.

“Free range” doesn’t necessarily mean the chicken has had access to grass; many egg and broiler producers offer their chickens little more than a dirt yard where nothing grows. Look for the word “pastured.” And in the case of beef, keep in mind that all cattle are fed grass until they get to the feedlot; “grass finished” or “100% grass fed” is what you want. For more on the nutritional benefits of pastured food and where to find it go to

Increase complex carbohydrates and fiber. Emphasize foods with complex carbohydrates—such as fruits and vegetables, whole-grain (not whole wheat but "whole grain" or sprouted grains are ideal) products, and legumes (dried beans and peas)—that are low in calories and high in fiber. Eat more soluble fiber, such as that found in oat bran, barley, quinoa, fruits, and veggies. It is important to note that fiber only occurs in fruits, vegetables, and grains. It is part of the cellular wall of these foods.

The vast majority of Americans get less than half of the daily recommended fiber. Without fiber, our digestive tract suffers and inflammation may increase in the body.  Fiber also helps to absorb toxins in the digestive tract and may lower the risk of some cancers, diverticulosis, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney stones, and obesity. Some studies show that women with PMS or those that are menopausal can experience some relief from symptoms with high-fiber diets.

For individuals with digestive tract conditions, dietary fiber may help to relieve symptoms. High fiber helps to shift the balance of bacteria, increasing healthy bacteria, while decreasing the unhealthy bacteria that can be the root of some digestive problems. 

Go organic and local! Avoid pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and hormones in your food by selecting organic options whenever possible. Plus, organic food tastes better and is usually more nutritious. Produce that's grown locally not only looks and tastes better, it's also more nutritious. In fact, it's often better to eat local, fresh produce that's not certified organic than it is to buy certified organic food that was shipped a long distance. The top ten foods to buy organic are: any meat, any dairy, celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, spinach, kale, and potatoes. Click here for the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) current list of fruits and veggies with the most pesticide residue.

I have a lot of respect for Michael Pollan and here are some of his thoughts on buying organic:

“Some organic products offer the consumer more value than others, so if you’re on a budget, it’s important to buy organic strategically. Here are a few quick rules of thumb:

If you have young kids, it’s worth paying the organic premium on whatever they eat or drink the most of organically. So if they drink lots of apple juice — which they shouldn’t, by the way — or milk, then spring for it there.

On produce, some items, when grown conventionally, have more pesticide residue than others, so when buying these, it pays to buy organic. According to the Environmental Working Group, the “dirty dozen” most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables are: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collards. The “clean 15" are onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms. So if you’ve only got a little money to devote to organic, buy the organic apples and skip the organic onions. But do keep in mind that it’s important to eat fruits and vegetables regardless of how they’re grown.

In meat, organic is very expensive, and doesn’t necessary ensure that the animals didn’t live on feedlot. I look for grass fed for beef instead, milk and butter, too.”

Consider growing some of your own fruits and veggies, or visit your farmer's market for local produce. 

Chattanooga area farmers markets etc…:

  • Main St Farmers Market: is in full operation year round, every Wednesday , April-November, from 4-6 pm, December-March, from 4-5 pm.  The Main St Farmers Market is located on the corner of W. 20th St. & Chestnut St. on the Southside of downtown Chattanooga, just minutes from the intersection of I-24 and Hwy-27.

  • Crabtree Farms:  On-site Farm Stand sells produce, plants, worm castings, herbs, flowers, and more to the public. The Farm Stand is your place to purchase a wide variety of delicious sustainably-grown seasonal produce and natural garden amendments.  Hours: Fridays and Saturdays 10a-4p.  Crabtree Farms' CSA program makes it easy and more affordable to eat sustainably grown, local, healthy food. They supply quality, fresh produce for your household each week. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Essentially a CSA is a farm share: a way for the community to create a relationship with a farm and receive a weekly share of fresh produce.

  • The Brainerd Farmers Market at Grace Episcopal Church: is held from 10am until 12pm on Saturdays from the 3rd Saturday of April through the first Saturday of December. Local Farmers present fresh naturally grown produce, farm fresh eggs, dairy and meat products. Bakers present delicious artisan breads, sweets and pastries, local makers offer home health and beauty items, and handmade arts/crafts round out this festive, family friendly community market. Location: Twenty Belvoir Avenue Chattanooga, Tennessee 37411

  • Chattanooga Market:  Fresh produce.  Local Art.  Live Music.

Focus on eating seasonal produce as it not only tastes better, but it is also better for you and the environment.  When fruits and vegetables are allowed to naturally ripen on the vine or tree and are harvested at the right time, they will have much more flavor and nutrition. We are made to eat seasonally and building a lifestyle around seasonal food facilitates the body’s natural healing process.  Think about how citrus fruit is provided to us in the winter - a time when extra vitamin C is helpful for preventing infections such as cold and flu.  Peaches, nectarines, and other stone fruits found in summer contain vitamins that help protect against sun damage. Eating fruits and vegetables in season provides your body with necessary nutrients appropriate for the time of year. In season produce isn’t just more nutritious and flavorful it also typically costs less.  Growing in bulk is more common when produce is in season, and growing in bulk cuts costs. In addition, buying local produce cuts transportation costs, and local produce is more likely to be grown seasonally - yet another reason to frequent your local farmer’s market. If eating in season is new to you or you’d like more information click here.

Eat a variety of nutrient-rich healthy foods. There is no single food that provides the more than 40 different nutrients we need for good health. Experiment with different foods and recipes.  Deeply hued fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants. Found in many foods, antioxidants fight the oxidation process, a chemical reaction that can cause damage to many cells in the body.  When we eat these colorful foods, we benefit from a natural defense system that includes anthocyanins, flavonoids, lutein, lycopene, catechins, selenium, coenzyme Q10, and vitamins C and E. 

In order to benefit most from what these nutrient-dense foods have to offer make it a goal to have at least five colors represented in your diet every day. Including a variety of colorful fruits and veggies will increase the number of antioxidants you consume, resulting in a more fit and fantastic you at the end of the rainbow. Second, prepare them in a way that gives you the most bang for your nutritional buck.

  • Green foods contain vitamin C, vitamin E, quercetin (a flavanoid), and sulforaphane. Just one cup or a fist-size portion of green foods per day provides plenty of antioxidants.  Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, spinach, and parsley contain isothiocynates (ITCs), which are important for detoxification.  Spinach contains a very high level of antioxidant activity and just one cup provides all of your vitamin A and K for the day, as well as folate. Spinach is powerful in preventing cancer, especially prostate cancer.  Combining vitamin C with your spinach enhances iron absorption, so throw in some additional color by adding some citrus to your spinach salad. Green tea is noted for its high amount of catechins, antioxidants that may aid in cancer prevention.

  • Yellow and Orange fruits and veggies contain vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy organs and prevents bacteria from growing. Vitamin A helps prevent cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and even depression.  Bananas contain beta-carotene and vitamins A, C and E, lutein, and selenium. The riper the banana, the higher the antioxidants.  Carrots are also an excellent source of vitamin A, and butternut squash is loaded with antioxidants.

  • Purple foods and those with purple skins contain anthocyanins, which protect cells from damage and heal already damaged cells. These foods promote eye health and help to prevent cancer, diabetes and stroke.  Plums or prunes, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and black currants are all good sources of anthocyanins – the darker the pigment, the higher the amount of antioxidants.

  • Red foods such as cherries and strawberries are packed with anthocyanins, flavonoids that may help in reducing blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, an antioxidant that may help protect cells from damage.

  • Cooking by Color - With red foods, such as tomatoes, heat is important for optimal lycopene absorption because it breaks down the cell wall to unleash potency.  Overcooking kills nutrients in green foods, so it is best to lightly saute or steam. Never microwave as the intense heat drains all of the nutrients. The same goes for boiling; you’ll notice your water turns green. The color is where all the nutrients are. You can also make a tea with the boiled/steamed water, or use it to make broths etc…

Eliminate ALL processed/junk foods as well as food additives. This is really the most important thing you can do for your health. Processed foods provide imbalanced nutrition and artificial chemicals - your body does not recognize such substances as food and in some cases treats them as it would a narcotic.  In turn we add a severe amount of stress to the body leading to a host of chronic issues.  Remove artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and MSG from your diet.  This can be quite an adjustment, so remember to always start slow.  The more momentum you gain the better you will feel and it does get easier - especially when you notice how much better you feel. 

Nurture a healthier sweet side. Eliminate refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and sucralose (Splenda). All contribute significantly to serious health problems.  Instead, use local and raw honey, maple syrup, molasses, coconut sugar, stevia, prunes, and dates as sweeteners.  If you have a serious sweet tooth this can be a difficult adjustment but after some time it does get easier and the sugar cravings eventually lessen. 

Choose GOOD fats and oils.  It is important to remove trans fats from the diet (margarine and processed foods). Avoid items with ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ on their labels. The oils I would recommend are listed below with their ideal uses/cooking temperatures.  Any oil that is not listed below I (personally) would not use.    

  • Olive Oil contains 75% oleic acid, the stable monounsaturated fat, along with 13% saturated fat, 10% omega-6 linoleic acid and 2% omega-3 linolenic acid. The high percentage of oleic acid makes olive oil ideal for salads and for cooking at moderate temperatures. Extra virgin olive oil is also rich in antioxidants. It should be cloudy, indicating that it has not been filtered, and have a golden yellow color, indicating that it is made from fully ripened olives (Weston Price Foundation). I personally do not cook with olive oil, but instead use it to drizzle over cooked veggies or use in dressings - it is not for high heat cooking.

  • Ghee (clarified butter) is my absolute favorite! It is a versatile fat and can be used in place of butter and other fats in a variety of culinary and non-culinary ways. It can be used instead of regular butter for sautéing and because it has a high-smoke point—485 degrees Fahrenheit—it won’t burn easily. You can add it to dairy-free recipes as the milk solids are removed during the clarification process. Most people who are lactose intolerant do not have issues with ghee.  You can also massage it into the skin instead of lotion or massage oils to keep your skin and joints supple; moisturize your lips with it instead of lip balm; rub ghee into your cuticles to help keep your nails healthy (Chopra Center).

  • Coconut oil is 92% saturated with over two-thirds of the saturated fat in the form of medium-chain fatty acids (often called medium-chain triglycerides). Of particular interest is lauric acid, found in large quantities in both coconut oil and in mother’s milk. This fatty acid has strong antifungal and antimicrobial properties. Coconut oil protects tropical populations from bacteria and fungus prevalent in their food supply; as third-world nations in tropical areas have switched to polyunsaturated vegetable oils, the incidence of intestinal disorders and immune deficiency diseases has increased dramatically. Because coconut oil contains lauric acid, it is often used in baby formulas (Weston Price Foundation).

  • Avocado oil is mild and has a high smoke point so it is ideal for high temp cooking.

  • Flax Seed Oil contains 9% saturated fatty acids, 18% oleic acid, 16% omega-6 and 57% omega-3. With its extremely high omega-3 content, flax seed oil provides a remedy for the omega-6/omega-3 imbalance so prevalent in America today. Not surprisingly, Scandinavian folk lore values flax seed oil as a health food. New extraction and bottling methods have minimized rancidity problems. It should always be kept refrigerated, never heated, and consumed in small amounts in salad dressings and spreads (Weston Price Foundation).

Mastication.  Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. When you feel you want to eat a little bit more at the end of a meal, just stop there. The brain is a little slow to recognize that you are actually full. It’s not an easy one, but if you practice this, you will start loosing weight and enhance digestion which will decrease bloating, flatulence and reflux.  This is an easy and powerful adjustment to your daily routine.

Regular physical exercise/movement.  This cannot be stressed enough.  Pick what works best for you and do it, even if just a little, each and every day.  A regular exercise regime will improve every aspect of your life - sleep, digestion, stress level, mental clarity, and the list goes on. The human body is designed to move, and if you want yours to be healthy, you have to move it.  If you planned to do 30 minutes, be okay with 10.  It’s a process.  You will continue to build - just be patient. 

Get adequate rest and practice good sleep hygiene.  Go to bed early and regularly, and sleep adequately but not too much. Your body needs rest to heal and recharge. If you find it difficult to fall asleep look for a podcast/youtube video for sleep meditations or do some deep breathing exercises (you can google this too, or click here). Doing things to quiet the mind before bed will help immensely and you can accompany your pre-bed preparations with an herbal tea to assist with sleep - there are many blends out there so just explore what sounds best for you. If you are local to Chattanooga go visit the lovely folks at Wildflower Tea Shop & Apothecary as they can help you pick a blend specifically for you.

Another component of healthy sleep hygiene is going to bed in a dark, quiet room without television or other devices. Studies have shown that the light from tv/computer/tablet screens suppresses the release of melatonin, a key hormone in the body's clock, or circadian system. Melatonin tells your body that it is nighttime, making the idea of sleep more inviting. If you delay that signal, you could delay sleep. Other research indicates that if this delay becomes a chronic issue it can lead to a disruption of the circadian system, sometimes with serious health consequences.

Make time for relaxation and focus on your breath - DAILY. Meditate, or do something that is meditative in nature (for you). Anything you can do to quiet the mind will do wonders for the body. As mentioned above, there are numerous podcasts/books/youtube videos on meditation as well as guided meditations. If meditation is new to you and you are not exactly excited about the idea I encourage you to start small. 5 minutes in the morning when you wake and 5 minutes before bed. You will not believe how quickly 5 minutes goes by and with practice you can build your time. The research to support the benefits of daily meditation are numerous and the conversation for an article all its own. Some benefits include:

  • improved emotional well-being (lessens worry, anxiety, stress, fear, depression; enhances self-esteem and self-acceptance; increases optimism, relaxation, and awareness etc…)

  • enhanced cognition (increases mental strength, focus, memory retention/recall; enhances information processing and decision making/problem solving skills

  • promotes a healthier body (improves immune system and energy level; improves breathing and heart rates, reduces blood pressure, lessens inflammatory disorders and helps prevent a host of other diseases/illnesses.

If that list is not compelling enough evidence, I don’t know what would be. Of course, meditation is not the only way to relax - as I said, do something that is meditative for you. For me, a long walk with my dog or a slow yoga class is super meditative and relaxing. For some it is fishing in the creek or hiking in the woods. The importance here is making sure you take the time for relaxation.

Breathing is required for life, but with our hectic and stressful schedules we don’t take the good deep breaths we need for optimal well-being. When we are in a stressed state (no matter how small) we shallow breathe which over time can lead to a host of issues. Proper breathing - which generally means breathing deeply into your abdomen, not just your chest - will not only strengthen the lungs but increase oxygenation to all parts of the body helping it operate more efficiently. Deep breathing will help the body detox and release toxins; release tension in the body, relax the mind/body and bring clarity; relieve emotional problems and pain; massage the internal organs and strengthen the immune system. Deep breathing improves the quality of the blood and increases digestion and assimilation of food as well as boosting energy levels and stamina and improving cellular regeneration. I’ll stop here, but you get the idea - now go research deep breathing techniques (or click here) and find a routine that works for you!

Everything in moderation.  Food is one of life's greatest pleasures. Have fun with food; indulge in a treat occasionally and give yourself permission to enjoy your favorite, not-so-healthy treat once in a while. Healthy eating shouldn't be about deprivation – it's about making good choices most of the time for sustained success.

Pay attention! When we pay attention to the subtle nuances of our daily lives we become more connected to our surroundings: the people, places, colors, smells, flora, fauna… Everything. With this, we are better able to connect with ourselves, our thoughts and our emotions. Numerous studies have shown that our environment can increase or decrease stress which in turn affects our nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Pay attention to how you feel in different environments and focus on the places that make you feel most at ease and connected or lost and disconnected. Your environment can be making you sick. An unhealthy environment can be super toxic so again, pay attention so you can make healthy adjustments. Click here for further reading.

Make gradual changes, especially if changing to a healthier eating lifestyle is a major shift for you.  Developing new eating habits can feel overwhelming and confusing, and that may interfere with your success in making permanent changes. You can start with substitutions. For instance, if you love hamburgers, stop buying the fast food variety and make your own. Buy organic/free-range ground meat, or make your own veggie or bean burger patties. Use whole grain or sprouted buns, and organic lettuce, cucumber, and tomato. Try different condiments - like pesto thinned with olive oil or avocado instead of using mayonnaise.  Experimenting is fun!  If you love french fries try slicing potatoes in the shapes you desire and bake them in the oven.  You can season with your favorite spices and drizzle with olive or coconut oil.

Be Patient. This will make the entire process much more enjoyable and significantly easier.  You are human.  Do not let a few steps back impede your flow and trust the process. 


- Dr. Mark Hyman Functional Medicine

- Chris Kresser - Health Solutions Library

- Dr. Claudia Welch - Healthy bodies, hormones & spirits

- Linus Pauling Institute Outreach and Education

- Michael Pollan's Resources

- Aviva Romm MD Bridging Traditional Wisdom & Modern Medicine for Women and Children

- Matthew Walker PhD - impacts of sleep on human health and disease


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