At least once a week, I have a conversation involving all the reasons why someone cannot/does not/will not consider changes to their diet a necessary step to health. Sometimes the conversation is more about the difficulties of overcoming lifelong bad habits. For those folks, change is difficult but not impossible. Sometimes the conversation involves appreciating that diet and nutrients actually matter. For these folks, change is possible but considerably more difficult. It often does not occur until their health hits rock bottom and they have nothing else to lose by addressing diet. This, of course, makes healing that much more arduous.
Inevitably, however, there are folks for whom eating a particular way is a deeply entrenched philosophical decision. There, I am of no help. Nothing I say and no research I provide will convince them that their body chemistry does not care about their food philosophy. Maintaining that philosophical fortitude is all that matters, health be damned and it often is, sometimes quite severely. These are the conversations that simultaneously infuriate me and break my heart. To watch someone’s health degenerate, knowing all-the-while it does not have to, is perhaps one of the more painful aspects of my work.
It seems that food is no longer valued for its nourishment potential. Instead, it has become a religion of sorts, one that is wrapped tightly in emotion. It is our reason for pleasure and pain, stress, and in many cases, though we don’t like to admit it, no small amount of self-loathing. It seems no matter what we eat, we feel guilt and then, as if to bury that guilt, we give ourselves a reason to eat more of the very foods we know we should not eat. It is a vicious cycle. With all of these emotional tags to food, it is difficult to acknowledge that food, or good food rather, is a necessary component of health. What is even more difficult to acknowledge is that unhealthy foods or even just the wrong foods, can induce disease.
Food, Mitochondria and Energy
A fundamental, though unrecognized, component of health is mitochondrial functioning. As the producers of cellular energy and regulators of a host of other important functions, mitochondria determine how well our bodies respond to stressors. And let’s face it, everything in life is a stressor requiring some amount of energy to resolve. Living itself requires energy. Living in a toxic, ramped up world is a big stressor, requiring more energy. Illness is a stressor, chronic illness even more so. The medications used to treat most illnesses are stressors, damaging the mitochondria by a myriad of mechanisms including depleting vital nutrients. Those nutrients have to come from food, real food, not the processed, sugary, food-like substances we crave. Sometimes, the extra energy needed to fight illness requires supplements, at pharmacological doses, but, and this is important, supplements will never compensate for a bad diet. Ever.
A Healthier Way to Think about Food
What we ingest and how well we metabolize those foods determines to what degree and whether the mitochondria function. In that regard, food is the very foundation of health or disease. It can heal us or harm us based upon its chemistry and ours. For all the complexity of nutrition, it is really quite simple: does the chemistry of the food you eat match the needs of your chemistry? If it does not match, no matter what else you do to improve your health, there will always be something lacking. This is a critical point that is frequently ignored in modern medicine.
Folks often ask me what they should eat and while I cannot recommend a particular diet, here are three questions to evaluate the ‘healthiness’ your diet. Is the inherent chemistry of the food you eat well-suited to your body’s chemistry? Does what you eat provide your body with the necessary macro- and micronutrients it needs to function efficiently? Does what you eat reduce or induce stress in your the body?
How do you know the answers to these questions? Simple. Ask yourself, are you healthy? Are you doing all that you want to do without pain and without medications? Do you have what you consider an appropriate amount of energy? If the answer is yes to each of these questions, then congratulations, you are among the healthy and maybe there is no need to look at diet. For most folks, however, the answer is no to one or all of these questions. In fact, for most of the folks I interact with, energy levels are suboptimal, pain and other issues are present, and medications are used chronically to subsist. This is where diet matters most, and sadly, this is also where dietary changes are often the most difficult.
If one is chronically ill, using multiple medications, chances are the chemistry of the food consumed does not match the nutritional demands. Sometimes the diet is too toxic – e.g. conventionally grown, raised or processed foods. Other times, the diet simply does not provide sufficient macronutrients (protein and fat) and/or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to meet the body’s energetic demands. This effectively starves the mitochondria, evoking the reactions involved in chronic disease: inflammation, immune and metabolic dysfunction. Reactions, that no amount of medication can resolve.
Still Don’t Believe Diet Impacts Health?
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the effects of diet on health can be seen below. Dr. Wahls was essentially chair/bedridden, crippled by multiple sclerosis until she addressed her diet. Sadly, none of her physicians suggested addressing diet. She, like so many others, had to come to this recognition on her own and figure out what her body needed to heal.
If you have not seen this, take 20 minutes to watch it.
And while the Wahls’ diet may not work for everyone, the point it makes is clear. Diet and nutrients matter. Chemistry matters. One’s philosophical or emotional ties to food do not.
If you are suffering from a complex or chronic condition, consider how what you are eating affects your health. Put aside your philosophical views on food and just look at the chemistry.
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This article was published originally on March 7, 2018.