Originally published in Health & Healing in the Triangle, Vol. 23, No. 3, Health & Healing, Inc., Chapel Hill, NC, publishers. Reprinted with permission.
The year 2020 may have brought a maelstrom of change, but some things have stayed much the same. While the pandemic certainly highlighted the connection between nutrition and health, it has also left many of us at home, bored, isolated, possible scared, and definitely stressed. And what does that lead to? Comfort foods—the old standby—and the accompanying weight gain, according to many of my nutrition clients.
And while the amount of comfort food consumption may have increased, these foods often represent the worst of the Standard American Diet (unironically known as “SAD”). Its hyper-palatable foods are soft—low in fiber and heavily processed; sugary—even in foods you don’t think of as “sweet”; and extremely high in sodium.
So, are we stupid for eating them? No! And also, yes—but mostly no.
These foods are literally lab-designed for addictiveness. Low fiber means less fuel for the “good bacteria” that keep our digestive ecosystem balanced and running smoothly. Without that, pathogens, yeasts, and bad bacteria can tip the scales into dysbiosis, or unhealthy imbalance. And those very same yeasts and other “bad guys” make us crave still more empty carbs and sugary food. So, we’re not stupid—but susceptible to temptation, maybe?
Long-term imbalances can yield nutrient deficiencies when we don’t break down, digest, and absorb foods properly. But these imbalances also set the stage for energy issues, bloating, constipation, reflux, and other GI complaints that I see with so many of my clients—some of whom understandably resort to medicating symptoms, which can further exacerbate the cycle. Again, this solution is not stupid—but it’s not good.
A high-sugar diet also drives systemic inflammation which, over a period of years, can produce major chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more. Even in the shorter term, sugar creates major stress on the body—wreaking hormonal havoc, raising anxiety, and disrupting sleep—to name just a few of its “features.” And in the shortest term? Sugar consumption actually lowers the activity of white blood cells—you know, a major component of the body’s immune response and defense against illness—for several hours after eating it.
Many of us are familiar with the consequences of too much sodium. In salt-sensitive people, excess sodium can lead to high blood pressure and add stress to the vascular system, including the heart. Just lowering sodium doesn’t “fix” or forestall future heart problems, and neither does avoiding too much sugar or empty carbs—but these are huge steps in the right direction.
MOVING TO A HEALTHY DIET
But we also need the nutrients that are routinely stripped from—or never included in—the SAD. We need a wide variety of colorful plant foods with all their different phytonutrients to keep the body running properly. We need clean protein—and the ability to digest it—to get the amino acids that fuel healthy energy and help us to detoxify and remove chemical and other types of waste. We need healthy fats to lower inflammation and keep us feeling satisfied with what we eat. And we, of course, need enough plant-based fiber and clean water to remove waste products daily, in the “usual” ways.
I often emphasize the inclusive approach with my clients: start by adding in new, nutrient-dense foods rather than focusing on what to avoid. As you eat more of these, let them crowd out some of that other “stuff” posing as food. And as you start to feel better (and you will!), you’ll find you want more of these foods that nourish you, and less of what doesn’t. You’ll have broken or at least lessened the grip of those addictive so-called foods, swapping in a positive addiction to feeling great and looking better, too.
Sometimes, just changing your food helps enough. I use meal plans to illustrate tangible ways to make gradual changes—since we tend to resort to what we know and what’s easiest, particularly these days. And I work with some individuals who need more dramatic dietary changes based on medical changes. But most often, I need to fix gut health and provide additional support alongside nutritional changes.
In my gut health series, I use comprehensive GI testing and others to identify the balance of good and bad bacteria and yeasts or other pathogens in the gut, digestive issues, immune health, and more. I then develop a personalized plan to improve digestion, remove pathogens, and improve the population of “good” bacteria to help create healthy, sustainable balance. Next up? Soothing and repairing the lining of the inflamed GI tract itself.
This “4R” approach—remove, replace, repopulate, and repair—is common, but the specifics differ for each individual based on their unique microbiome, lifestyle, and food allergies, all of which can contribute to ongoing GI tract inflammation. The upside? If you need more reasons than better energy, reduced bloating and pain, fewer food reactivities, better digestion and absorption of nutrients to convince you, remember that the GI tract also contains 70-80% of the whole body’s immune function.
So, healing the gut literally equates to improving overall health and the ability to fend off infection. It sounds complicated, but making your body work optimally and helping people feel their best is what I do every day. I call it taking the hard work out of getting healthier! And that’s a good goal for any time of year, not just for a New Year’s resolution.