The Great Food Debate

I've been embroiled in a debate on different eating habits for a few weeks. It's been a heated debate. Information has been passed back and forth, but the science is a hard sell for those that don't know or understand it. I say, science, because it's not just the facts about Paleo, gluten-free, Mediterranean, or whatever eating patterns/diets, but about nutrition in general. It's about how our bodies handle food and what they need to be healthy.

There are a million and one (and probably more) "diets" out there. Right now, Paleo and gluten-free seem to be trending the most. Celebrities are using them to "get healthy." People are using them for weight loss or to control the symptoms of one disease or another. Some are using them to lower their inflammatory levels. But few seem to know the actual science behind any of it.

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I'm admittedly biased. I've been a diagnosed Celiac, and gluten free for 16 years. The more information that I learn about grains, etc. -- the more I'm glad that I don't eat gluten. But the general public doesn't have the information that I have. In fact, it seems that most professionals don't either. But that's not the purpose of this posting.

When I started out writing this, I thought about my friend and how vehemently she adheres to her beliefs about "nutrition" and eating. She's a registered dietician. We've argued back and forth about grains, about how she thinks that Paleo/Mediterranean is bad for athletes, about how impossible it is to follow, and about how there's a lot of "false" science/claims about that particular eating pattern. The whole experience has been a major illustration on the adherence to beliefs that people have -- not just for her, but for me. It's also been an exercise in frustration.

I can only "recommend" what science (and anecdotal evidence -- but that's another story) shows to be true. For example, I can explain that zonulin destroys tight junctions in the gut, brain, and reproductive organs, and that the main sources of tight junction destroying proteins are grains and legumes. I can quote studies all day long (and all night long) -- and I have. I can distill the science down to very simple words that anyone could understand by using pictures, analogies, and more broad terms. I can do all of these things, but that doesn't mean it's going to change anyone's mind, and it also doesn't mean that they're going to be willing to put it into practice.

We're very steeped in our beliefs. Usually, those beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with evidence. My friend, for example, focuses on athletes and sports nutrition. The concept of carb-loading with pasta or the use of sports drinks is very much a part of her reality. She's concerned about having energy available for use. She's not concerned about inflammation, overall health and well-being, the prevention of disease, or whether or not someone might develop cancer or an autoimmune disorder. She wants to run marathons, or play 4-hour-long matches. Her reality and mine are very, very different. Chances are, that no matter what I say or provide her with, she will always adhere to her thoughts about nutrition. It will always be about the quick fix. My hope is that she'll come across a difficult case and be forced to broaden her concept of what healthy eating is.

Patients aren't any different. Some may have more or less information than my friend. They may be coming in with a copy of some new fad diet book, or a cookbook of recipes that their Aunt Sally said worked really great to help her lose weight. People may walk into the office carrying a well-worn copy of the all-carrot diet, asking what to do about their increasingly orange skin. They'll be emphatic about drinking their diet coke, eating their bowl of pasta, or consuming 3 Tablespoons of apple cider vinegar before every meal.

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It will be our job to walk them through their questions, hopefully bring some experience and education to the table, and talk them through ideas and possibilities that will help them find some form of healthy, sustainable ground. They may resist with everything that they have in them. As I write this, I'm thinking about how much I struggle with sugar or eating rice, and how hard it has been for me to give them up; I'm not there yet. It's our job to work with them, using their limitations (even if those are beliefs), and our education to help them get to someplace healthier.

My friend and I will probably continue to argue about what we should or shouldn't be eating. The only thing we've been able to agree on so far, I think, is that there's no one single "right" way. There's no perfect way that everyone should be eating. We're all human, and each body is different. The science may figure out that everything we "know" is wrong, and everything must be changed. I may never be able to fully give up sugar or rice. But whatever happens, we'll all hopefully be happier and healthier because of what we learn -- about food, about our relationship with it, and our relationships with each other.

Have a great week, everybody.