That feeling when you stop after eating half of a hamburger and tell yourself that enough is enough and you can save the rest for dinner? It’s pretty empowering. But, we have to ask ourselves—how much did it actually benefit us? Did “watching my calories” really help slide the needle down on the scale? Has my quality of life gone up since I started this new diet? Is there a better way?

The primary purpose of food is to nourish and the secondary purpose is for enjoyment. Although for some this may be more of a debatable subject, it holds ground when we look at our true purpose in life—to follow the word of God. Enjoyment is an added bonus and blessing from God, which in this case involves taste buds that allow us to distinguish between different flavors that may be advantageous or detrimental to our bodies at different times.

Health experts are always telling their clients that the quality of food almost always overrules the quantity. When analyzed on a deeper than “calories in, calories out” level, it makes perfect sense. Don’t get me wrong—portion size is a huge issue these days as well. Paul Pitchford, a classically trained oriental medicine doctor, says in his book Healing with Whole Foods, “Overeating, a popular pastime in the wealthy nations, is thought to be the major cause of premature aging.” But what he says next is of prime importance:

“Fifty years of research have shown that when a nourishing diet is eaten sparingly, aging is retarded; the maximum life span and immunity are extended in all animal species so far tested, from protozoa to worms, insects, fish, and rodents as well as humans. In fact, consumption of too much rich and denatured food is responsible for most of our civilized diseases, such as obesity, cancer, and diabetes.”

For Muslims, this principle shouldn’t be anything new. God says in the Quran, “O you who have believed, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah [God] if it is [indeed] Him that you worship” (2:172). He also says, “O mankind, eat from whatever is on earth [that is] lawful and good […]” (2:168). The common denominator in these two verses is that what we consume should be “good.” Confusion occurs when we attempt to define what is meant by “good.” What was considered “good” and healthy five years ago might have changed based upon recent research. For example, margarine was looked upon as a savior that protected us from the horrors of filling our arteries with the cholesterol found in butter—until recently, when the research proved this fantasy wrong and the opposite to be true.

An issue on the forefront and currently being worked on by grassroots organizations, like the Bionutrient Food Association (BFA), is the depletion of soil nutrition. The quality of nutrients in our foods, compared to that of earlier generations, is considerably less. Dan Kittredge, traditional farmer and director of the BFA, says that this is due to the fact that our soil has not been managed properly rather than it being a natural and inevitable process. Kittredge pointed towards Dr. Weston Price, a pioneer in the field of nutrition and author of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, when speaking about nutrition in our times. Dr. Price titled a whole chapter in his book about the crises that we are in regarding soil depletion. How interesting when we keep in mind that his book was published way back in 1939; and our problems have only gotten worse.

Dr. Price’s research is almost impossible to replicate now because the arguably extinct pockets of communities who were untouched by modernization are difficult to find. Dr. Price notes that even the type of feed that is given to the cows (wheat grass over grains) has an effect on the health and quality of their milk production. So how does that translate to our health?

Dr. Price traveled to all the continents, excluding Antarctica, just to answer this question. Being a dentist and a member of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, he decided to analyze teeth and facial structure of communities that were isolated from modernization (i.e., isolated from products like refined flour, refined sugar, and common food additives/preservatives), which were only mass produced after the industrialization in the eighteenth century. His findings clearly display, through photographs and analyses, the differences in the number of cavities and facial deformities between pre-modern and post-modern communities. The results were staggering. Dr. Price argues that the quality of food was such that crowding of the teeth and narrowing/deformations of the jaw were not present in pre-modern communities.

This suggests that eating good quality food is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. The majority of Americans are just now waking up to this reality. Unfortunately, “health food” has been turned into a label that is looked upon as a worthwhile alternative instead of a norm. An example of this is that health food stores are typically smaller than their larger alternatives, and health food sections in larger supermarkets are usually much smaller than the “non-health food” sections. Consumers run the market; changes in our buying habits will dictate what is put on the shelves. A shift in the right direction is becoming more of a reality now that consumers are becoming more aware of the health risks of living on a common American diet. But one of the issues holding the movement back may be that of money.

We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food now than the past generations did, and the rate of many chronic diseases in this country is on the rise. Although correlation does not equal causation, one can argue that this link can be of value. High cost is almost always a turn off point for consumers. We live in a culture in which having more is equated with being better. The capitalist society in which we live demands that we get more for our money, and that means sacrificing food choices for many who don’t understand the value and importance of good quality foods. Consumers will ask, “How much is that box of cereal? But, I want to know the price per ounce, not the price of the box.” Kittredge has a firm belief that it’s this type of thinking that is leading us down the path to low quality alternatives instead of fresh, hopefully organic and local, fruits and vegetables. What we have to understand is that the value of the nutrients that we consume greatly outweighs the money we trade for it.

Our health plays a huge role in what we can accomplish in life. The number of sick days that the average American takes off per year is close to five, and there are probably days that you and I may have gone to the office only to stare at a blank screen because of our state of health. This is not optimal for the employer or the employees. While we commonly associate sickness solely with bacteria or viruses, we often neglect the thought of how they found a home in us to begin with. This is something that Linus Pauling, scientist, humanitarian, and two-time Nobel Prize winner, focused a large part of his career on. After retiring as Professor Emeritus at Stanford in 1973, Dr. Pauling began working on, what he coined as, orthomolecular medicine. This form of medicine is rooted in the idea that maximum health, and therefore abatement of illness, can be accomplished by creating an optimal molecular environment for our cells using diet and nutrition.

The arrow goes back to the quality of food that we are consuming. Many would argue that we should simply follow the government standards. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) values are a great resource and useful for those who like to gauge their nutritional intake, but they just aren’t enough. Dr. Al Sears, an anti-aging specialist, says in a post on his website that the purpose of the RDA is simply to prevent a dietary deficiency of a nutrient. “What the RDA doesn’t do is recommend how much of a nutrient you need so you can function at your best.” A great example of this is that of the iodine consumption of the Japanese. Although the RDA value for iodine in non-pregnant adults is only 150mcg in the United States, the common intake for Japanese residents is 1,000 – 3,000mcg per day, according to a 2011 study by Zava and Zava. This is commonly correlated to an increase in intelligence and possibly other subclinical benefits. On the other hand, a lack of iodine in pregnant women, anything below the recommended RDA of 220mcg, can lead to babies born with cretinism, a marked bodily deformity along with decreased IQ.

Although exciting to read about, none of this information will be beneficial if action is not taken. This is often the most difficult step in the process of living a better lifestyle. Dr. Nakiesha Pearson, naturopathic doctor and assistant professor at the National University of Health Sciences, says that eating is part of behavior and, therefore, difficult to change. When it comes to dietary changes in the clinic, she assess her patients to see where they are before making recommendations, taking smaller steps for those who are wary of change and larger ones for those who already have a mindset for optimal health. A great way to start is by adding foods instead of cutting them out. You can still have your pizza, just make sure to finish your salad before you dig into it. Changes come with knowledge so, rest assured, the first step is complete. Next time you walk into the grocery store, just remember, quality over quantity.

S. Raheel Haque is a student of Naturopathic Medicine, currently studying at the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS). He aspires to master complementary and alternative medicine as well as study the traditional Islamic sciences.