Recently, I met a patient who was eating the most limited diet I’d ever encountered. Over the course of several years, she had decided to cut out a variety of foods in a piecemeal fashion in an effort to improve her health. Her “off limits” list included wheat, gluten, dairy, corn, citrus and most other fruits, certain crucial types of fat, and all animal protein. This left her with a lifestyle that was unhealthy and very difficult to sustain. Unfortunately, this is a scenario I see all too often: patients getting caught in the cross-fire of medical information overload. When making choices about what to eat, it’s time to take fear out of the equation.
A Dizzying Array of Daily Fears
Beware, reader! Every time you open a health article related to nutrition, you risk being scared into eliminating something new from your diet. As a health news collective, we’ve spent considerable energy vilifying everything on the spectrum from gluten to fat. Much of this advice can be useful if applied at the right time for the right person. On the other hand, some of it has been especially egregious and has likely lead to significant increases in morbidity and mortality (fear of fat, for example). The remainder has simply become a danger to our bank accounts, with a new “food alternatives” industry popping up seemingly overnight. Gluten is the latest food group to become a marketer’s dream: these days, you’ll find the “gluten free” stamp everywhere from rice to ketchup. For those of us who do need to remove gluten from our diets, it is important to eat foods that are inherently gluten free rather than choosing agriculturally engineered replacements.
A Subconscious Bias
When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, if you’ve just read an article listing all of the potential
symptoms of gluten sensitivity (there are many), you’re likely to find one which you can relate to. This can be compounded by seeing many similar articles making their rounds, leading to what can be called a Clustering Illusion: the false belief that gluten sensitivity is a problem for everybody with bloating because of the frequency with which the topic enters our conscious mind within a short timespan.
The problem with this brand of thinking is that considered in isolation, nothing is inherently beneficial or detrimental. Instead, all choices about food require a context informed most importantly by the constitution of the individual in question. Our job in the naturopathic profession is to discover the underlying cause of a person’s disease and then to help them formulate a plan unique to their needs. This almost always requires adjustments to diet, but if approached appropriately NEVER requires sweeping statements about entire categories of food for all patients. However, food allergy and food sensitivity are daily realities for many people though, and it is important to recognize them in taking a holistic approach to patient care.
So How Do You Know What To Include in Your Diet?
As you work with your naturopathic physician,
you may choose to run laboratory tests to assess for overt food allergy or more minor examples of food sensitivity (your doctor may call this IgE or IgG testing, respectively). Though this approach is useful, it may not always be necessary as the symptoms one experiences while eating certain foods may also be a clear indicator of sensitivity. To fully appreciate the role that food plays in how we feel, it is necessary to systematically remove, assess, and reintroduce certain foods. Called an “Elimination Diet,” this nuanced approach requires the supervision of an experienced doctor for you to achieve its full benefits. If your doctor finds that cause is indeed an immune mediated reaction to a certain food, removing that food in a targeted fashion and assessing for the results may be indicated in lieu of a comprehensive elimination protocol.
Ultimately, your ND may recommend a diet specific to your needs. Otherwise, aim for a whole-foods, predominantly plant based diet (animal protein may be fine, but it should play a “supporting role” on a plate instead of taking the lead). Avoid processed foods, excesses of added salt and sugar, and choose organic
whenever possible. Aim to eat a wide array of fruits and vegetables, with the objective of eating something of every color on the rainbow every day. Drink plenty of clean filtered water along with herbal teas, green tea, or coffee in moderation. Variety is key, as eating the same food too often (more than 3 times per week) can make you susceptible to the food allergies we’ve questioned above. Addressing immune system dysfunction, excess inflammation, intestinal dysbiosis, and intestinal permeability may also be necessary to limit that susceptibility.
So, as Michael Pollan brilliantly proclaims in In Defense of Food
: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”
It’s time to take fear out of the equation.