We are in the middle of “the Diet Wars.”
Every Doctor Tom, Dick, and Harry, is busy promoting their version of a healthy diet. Some of them will say virtually anything to get us to buy their products. Should we follow a Mediterranean, paleo, vegan, or ketogenic diet? Who can we believe or trust?
Each side has its experts, its gladiators, armed with facts to overwhelm their opponent.
For an overview of the action, I’d suggest checking out two documentaries, “What the Health” and “What’s with Wheat.”
“What the Health.”
One of our sons watched “What the Health” with his family, and by the end of the documentary, his kids were crying—not only because of the scenes of animal cruelty, but also because they realized that they might no longer to be able to eat some of their favorite foods in good conscience.
This documentary gets some things right and others wrong. For example, it says that eating an egg a day is as bad for your life expectancy as smoking five cigarettes a day; a group of researchers responded with a paper entitled, “Putting eggs and cigarettes in the same basket; are you yolking?” Another weakness in “What the Health” is that it downplays the problems caused by excess sugar, in spite of the fact that sugar has been definitively linked to inflammation and an array of diseases.
The movie does an excellent job talking about the overuse of antibiotics and the horrifying conditions on factory farms, and I was shocked to learn that food industry companies donate large sums to such prominent nonprofit organizations as the American Diabetes Association. This huge conflict of interest seriously undermines trust in our national public health groups and in any dietary recommendations they may make.
Lobbying by the food industry is nothing new. Documents have recently been discovered that show how the sugar lobby funded and manipulated our national nutritional guidelines for decades in order to place the blame for heart disease on fats instead of sugar.
Taking advantage of consumer fears, the food industry then proceeded to take expensive butter and natural fats out of their products and replace them with trans fats and processed oils. The resulting food didn’t taste as good, so they added sugar and salt to everything to try to remedy this. And to avoid rising sugar prices, the sugar industry created high fructose corn syrup. The terrible damage to our health caused by these changes has yet to be fully recognized.
“What’s with Wheat?”
The documentary “What’s with Wheat?” makes a pretty good argument, but also has some weaknesses. Focusing on gluten, it argues that our current health problems are largely due to wheat, which has been hybridized and polluted with toxic chemicals. But there are several controversial points, and not everyone agrees that wheat and gluten are the sole villains. The question “does wheat cause inflammation?” isn’t easy to answer, as inflammation often involves a number of factors.
So within the diet wars, there are sugar wars, wheat wars, dairy wars, and even spice wars. It can be difficult and exhausting to determine what we should be eating and what we should avoid amidst the cacophony of these competing theories.
From research and also from personal experience, my husband and I learned that across the board, the first thing to do is to heal your gut. Consult with a doctor or expert and begin one of several kinds of “rest and repair” diets. For me, losing 50 pounds over a year was purely a side-effect to the diet that healed my gut. (And honestly, that’s the only way I could ever have lost weight.)
Most rest and repair diets, like the one I did, begin with two or three weeks of cutting back or eliminating gluten, sugar, and dairy, which are often hard to digest and can upset our microbiome.
Even though I am a vegetarian, for these three weeks I followed my doctor’s advice and sipped hot chicken bone broth three times a day. This is highly recommended by most doctors to heal the gut. Although I didn’t like the taste, it had a enormously beneficial effect on my digestion.
Once you’ve healed your gut, you can gradually reintroduce the foods you eliminated, while keeping a food journal to record the effect that each type of food has on your digestion, energy, and mood.
Food Journal Tips:
>> Be specific. For instance, when I reintroduced oats, I had clear and unpleasant symptoms, which I described in my journal. (No more oats for me!)
>> Figure out if you prefer written or digital tracking. Some people like to write in a little book; others prefer to use technology. Whichever method you choose, keep your journal handy, either beside your bed, at the table, or in your pocket.
>> Be true to your own experience. You need to be honest about how you are feeling. Accept your body’s behavior—no one is judging!
>> Note details in your journal. If an overwhelming craving knocks you off your diet, just write the pertinent facts down in a few words and start the diet again.
>> Damage control. Have a cache of acceptable snacks you can eat if you need them.
>> Compare notes with a buddy or coach. It is ideal to have a buddy on this path, especially one who can encourage and commiserate with you. If are doing the diet alone, be kind and patient with yourself.
I’m a vegetarian, so after the initial three weeks I slowly transitioned to a simple gluten-free diet. Now my breakfast is often a whole orange (acceptable because of the fiber) or cooked apples, toasted gluten-free millet chia bread with almond butter, and coffee or green tea. Lunch is my main meal (I eat as much I want): cooked veggies (especially leafy greens), rice or quinoa, dal, and green salad with an avocado and maybe roasted nuts. Mid afternoon, I have a tall glass of room temperature lassi. I eat a very light dinner of either rice, cooked veggies, or soup.
Probiotics are another factor in gut health. Research shows that probiotics do work for conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. But not all probiotics are the equally effective, so it’s important to evaluate them and then experiment to see which work best for you.
Lifestyle changes such as yoga, exercise, being in nature, and meditation (my husband and I both do Transcendental Meditation), can make a big difference to your health and well-being. And Ayurveda is a boon with many simple but powerful recommendations about what and how you should eat according to your own individual physiology. Recent scientific findings reveal that Ayurveda’s three main types (or Prakriti)—Vata, Pitta, and Kapha—each have different kinds of gut bacteria, so it’s important to determine what yours is so you eat according to what your body needs.
Here is what we know for sure:
>> The recommendations of certain big non-profit health organizations are being dishonestly influenced by large “donations” from the food industry.
>> Health experts make unfounded claims surprisingly often.
>> The links between diet and disease are complex and involve many factors. Probably the most important of these is the microbiome.
>> If consumers (like us!) become better educated and make better food decisions, the food industry will also change in order to go on making money.
Even if people make better choices, there will always be different tastes and opinions. However, one thing is certain across the boards: food is medicine. It affects your health, energy, moods, emotions, and even your relationships.
The right diet is part of your own path of self-discovery—bon voyage!
Wallace, Robert Keith and Samantha Wallace. Gut Crisis: How Diet, Probiotics, and Friendly Bacteria Help You Lose Weight and Heal Your Body and Mind. Dharma Publications, 2017.
Author: Samantha & Keith Wallace
Image: Pontus Ohlsson/Unsplash
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May