Navigating Nutrition for Your Health
The Pass It On series is an interview segment where BioMark sits down with trail blazers who have strived to make health and wellness work for them on their own terms. We hope this inspires you to find the best fit for yourself, too.
BioMark: Hey Swee Lin, thanks for joining us today. I read that you are a health strategist and executive coach for the corporate scene – can you share with us how did you get to where you are today?
Swee Lin (SL): Sure, I have always been interested since I was younger. But a lot of what I thought was healthy was not necessarily what was good for me and so I kept learning and adapting over the years.
A couple of years after my son was born, perhaps due to fatigue, I noticed a few quirks with my spelling. This prompted me to go to a neuroscientist and do a brain scan. We found signs of advanced ageing. It was very odd given that I was 38 then and my brain looked like a 60 year old’s.
I started to look at what was missing in my life and it wasn’t just food or exercise or hydration; it was also things like am I sleeping right, what were the quality of my relationships, how do I manage stress. All of that became much more important and I started to learn different techniques to reverse the signs of ageing in my brain. At the same time I also realized that this would help my kid, who has autism, improve his cognitive function. What you start to find is that everything that is good for young brains is also good for preventing older brains from ageing further. So that is when I became more and more passionate about the subject of the health and wellness.
BioMark: That’s really interesting because when we think health and wellness, we don’t always think about the brain as much. Do you have any insights on how we can tie food and nutrition to the brain?
SL: The first thing to understand is that a lot of what we eat can be curative. Yet, you can also eat things that might taste really good but could also result in a lot of metabolic waste and inflammation to the body. And what inflames the brain is what, very often, inflames the rest of our body.
The second thing about food would be to think about the link to biochemistry. Everything that we eat, and that enters the brain, can either promote or reduce certain neurotransmitters that can change our mood, concentration, and energy levels. For example, everyone knows carbs make you sleepy, especially after a high carb lunch – but not many people understand why. That’s because if you have a high carbohydrate lunch, it tends to make the amino acid, Tryptophan, much more accessible to the brain and that results in a release of Serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel very calm.
BioMark: It’s the happy hormone!
SL: Yeah, it is the happy hormone. It’s a hormone we want, but not always right after lunch.
BioMark: Because we go back to work and we need concentration.
SL: Exactly, so you want to stay sharp and focused. And so you’re better off doing lean protein, a small amount of good quality fat/oil, and lots of leafy greens and that would keep you sharp.
BioMark: Given that the landscape for health and wellness changes so frequently, can you share your own journey in navigating nutrition?
SL: What has become really interesting for me is, when reading, I’m seeing that the evidence is starting to say that even decades ago, a lot of scientists, doctors, and researchers, realised that the root cause of a lot of metabolic diseases was not necessarily caused by fat but by carbohydrates. It’s just that we have gotten used to eating according to the food pyramid that we have been trained to think of fat as bad for us.
For example, let’s look at butter. There’s this huge debate of whether butter or margarine was better for us. And now magazines, like Time Magazine, have front pages informing us that butter is not bad for you. And the reason why they are finding that is because it is the hydrogenation of fats that’s causing the most oxidative damage.
BioMark: So what advice do you have for individuals to filter trends that they see online so that they can make informed diet changes?
SL: That’s a really good question. I think unless you’re really interested in this and spend hours googling, especially in this age of fake news, the best advice is to fact check as much as you can. So what do you do at this stage, you can:
1. Go to more trusted websites
For example, WebMD tend to provide better quality information. Some of the emerging functional medicine-focused physicians also provide very good information online. So while medically-trained, they are also interested in the holistic interactions of the body and how food helps.
2. Analyse the credibility of your sources
If you’re following famous bloggers, check if they do citations or if they are referencing articles and studies. And if you have the time (and the geekiness like I do), you can look at how these studies are set up. For example, we talk about red meat. Eating red meat, from a fast food chain, mass produced in the form of a hamburger, is very different from eating red meat from a grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, cow. This is because the different qualities of the meat can massively affect the output of the study. And if they tell me it was grass-fed, then I’ll look at that.
3. Go back to your own physiology
The next part then is what is the right portion size. For simplicity, it’s roughly palm-sized. The good or bad news is that, depending on your size, you get a larger or smaller piece of protein. So for example if you’re more petite, which I am, I tend to have a much smaller palm and, hence, portion which is the right size for me.
BioMark: It’s interesting how you brought up the analogy of different body builds and portion sizes. How do you think we can tailor nutrition to each individual?
SL: One of the ways that you can think about eating intuitively is The Plate. The way it works is that on the plate you eat, you divide it into quarters. For one quarter, you fill it up with a palm-sized portion of protein. For the next quarter, put in the same amount of carbohydrates. Ideally, it should be as unprocessed as possible. On the other two quarters, either double down on vegetables, or you can put in one-quarter vegetables and one-quarter fruit.
Keep vegetables and fruit as colourful as possible because the more colours there are, the more antioxidants we will get. I’ll ask for less carbs and more vegetables if I can and I’m fine with paying extra because it’s for my own health. Moreover, depending on the type of carbs, they can potentially be very inflammatory to our body. You don’t want to overdo it.
BioMark: You highlight that you will go the extra mile for your own health but was there ever a time where you weren’t as focused on what you’re putting into your body?
SL: I think in general I’ve always been focused but being a human being, I get greedy and tempted. It is very easy to order a huge pizza. Similarly, it’s very hard to stop at two or three slices because it just tastes so good. A tip would be if you’re a pizza lover, make sure you’re ordering it during periods that you’re being social.
Have friends to share that pizza and insist on ordering side vegetables so that it is more balanced. Moreover, it’s the fiber from the vegetables that’s going to slow down the rate of the fat absorption. This is especially since the fat in pizza is highly processed and hence unhealthy. The extra vegetable fiber also lowers the overall glycemic index of the meal. And so you won’t experience as sharpo 0f a spike in blood glucose levels compared to just eating pizza.
BioMark: That’s really great advice! Before we end this first segment, would you be able to share what was the key change you adopted alongside this portion change?
SL: The key change that I made involved drinking a lot more water. I wasn’t getting my 6-8 glasses of water a day and I thought that was okay. Often, when we’re dehydrated, the body goes into a bit of stress. This stimulates the hunger hormone –ghrelin – so we feel hungry or tired when we might actually just be dehydrated. Considering that the human brain is roughly 70-80% water, I realised that for my brain to function well, I need to stay hydrated. That way I don’t get tricked into eating unnecessary calories too.
And with that, this wraps up part 1 of our interview. Tune in next time for the second installation of our 3-part series with Swee Lin.
For more information, check out Swee Lin’s page here.
Alternatively, reach out to us with suggestions on who you would love to hear from next.
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