Food sensitivities

The Winnowing of the Western Diet: Reconsidering Food Sensitivities

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A few weeks ago, I posted some articles on Facebook regarding the need for protein in one’s diet (here, here). I believe that the lack of protein in the modern diet and the subsequent substitution with processed carbohydrates is one of the leading contributors to metabolic disease. Over the last 50 years or so, we have become increasingly afraid of eating protein and fat. Convinced by industry-sponsored advertising and ill-conceived medical science postulating that only calories matter and that eating fat makes one fat, we avoided the higher calorie foods like meat and shifted our diets towards lab manipulated but lower calorie and lower fat, ultra-processed carbohydrates. This has left much of the population starved for both macro (protein, fats, and plant-based carbohydrates) and micro (vitamins and minerals) nutrients. Ironically, the push to avoid high-calorie foods has resulted in higher calorie intakes in those who regularly consume ‘low-calorie’ foods than those who consume the higher calorie whole foods.

Similarly ironic, a corresponding form of malnutrition develops as a result of the low nutrient content in these industrial foods – this despite nutrient fortification. We have labeled this type of malnutrition as high calorie malnutrition. It is a metabolic starvation of sorts that develops concurrently with obesity, but also, with many disease processes including, I would suspect, food sensitivities. With the choice of highly processed foods, excessive calories must be consumed to meet the minimum nutrient requirements. Sugar is metabolically easy energy. So too is fat. Protein, by comparison, is not. Unfortunately, sugar, though technically energy-rich, is nutrition poor, and therein lies much of the problem. Worse yet, the fats used in most processed foods are hydrogenated, and thus, provide few health benefits but carry many risks.

When I bring up the notion of eating more protein, fat, or simply eating more nutrient-dense foods in general, I am met with resistance, sometimes philosophical, but oftentimes, based upon long-entrenched food sensitivities that develop over time, eventually winnowing the number of non-triggering foods down to almost nothing. Over the last several years, the breadth and depth of individual food sensitivities has exploded. Sensitivities to protein and fats, in particular, seem to be growing, but also to fruits and vegetables and, of course, grains. These are not allergies in the traditional sense, though there may be an altered histamine response involved. Rather, they may represent a complicated response to a lack of particular nutrients that results in the inability to digest or metabolize certain foods.

In response to the aforementioned posts on protein, a reader asked:

Chandler Marrs, what about the inability to absorb protein? …About 17 years prior to my husband’s death, he started eating all kinds of junk food (carbs). Every piece of crap he could pick up at Dollar General…he had never had a sweet tooth or liked junk food till then. Visiting with his neurosurgeon after my husband’s death…on diet and progression of his issues, he told me that when [my husband] went to junk food it was for energy, that he was no longer able to absorb protein. He told me that my husband was doing what his body dictated he do, the only thing he could do for energy…

I don’t know the history behind this gentleman’s illness, nor any of the details beyond what was posted above, but I would not be surprised if cancer were involved, perhaps in the brain, either originally or one that metastasized. The reason behind my suspicions is that cancer involves a switch in energy metabolism, wherein sugars are no longer used effectively in the manufacture of ATP – cellular energy – creating a sense of starvation, particularly when other fuels are absent and/or the machinery used to convert the other fuels to energy is deranged. Even if cancer was not part of this gentleman’s illness, the craving for sugars and the suspected inability to absorb or utilize proteins and fats for energy production points to a common metabolic adaptation to a longstanding nutrient-poor diet. It is a chemical conditioning of sorts, much like a drug addiction, that nets cravings for the foods/fuels that maintain the new normal, whatever that state may be.

What is often missed in the discussions of food sensitivities is that to digest and metabolize foods and convert them into usable and beneficial substrates for health, the machinery responsible requires nutrient co-factors e.g. vitamins and minerals. Absent those co-factors, food cannot be processed into ATP in the mitochondria. And absent ATP, none of the other processes in the body work. Since those co-factors come from the foods themselves, it is a reciprocating process. Nutrient dense foods provide the cofactors to process more micro-and macronutrients while effectively producing the requisite ATP. In contrast, nutrient poor foods provide an excess of sugars – potential energy – that can never fully be converted to actual energy or ATP because the machinery responsible for processing those foods is starving for nutrients, and thus, does not work very well. When one is not able to convert the food to energy nor to derive what few nutrients may come with these foods, cascades of ill-health begin. One of those cascades involves storing the excess as fat. To the extent one is able to store this fat, though unsightly, I imagine is a highly adaptive response, as individuals with similarly poor diets who do not or cannot store fat, risk a comparatively higher rate of all-cause mortality.

Returning to the question of food sensitivities, or more appropriately, the inability to digest and metabolize particular foods, I suspect that longstanding dietary factors, along with genetic and/or environmentally induced epigenetic variables, create and then maintain nutrient deficiencies that inhibit one’s ability to ‘eat’ certain foods. Across time and as those foods are avoided, nutrient availability continues to decline. Mitochondrial function is perturbed but adapts to the new environment, resulting in chemical reactions that induce inflammation and the other patterns so common with metabolic disturbances. This may include intense cravings for certain foods that are metabolically more accessible, like sugars. Admittedly, sugars are exactly what a body in this state does not need, but much like the cravings for drugs in an addiction model, I suspect the body has adapted to having this substance present in high concentrations. It has re-regulated itself accordingly, and because of this, both the absence of the substance and the addition of other, metabolically less well-adapted substances, cause great distress chemically. These changes are then experienced symptomatically.

We know from addiction models, that when a substance is present continuously and in high concentrations, the body adapts so that it can maintain some sort of homeostasis and survive. Receptors, transporters, enzymes, and the like, are reregulated. Some upregulate, others downregulate. As this reregulation occurs, the body becomes chemically conditioned to its new state, seeking to maintain it at whatever cost. When what is in excess carries no nutritional value, as it so often does, we have the bonus of starving the enzymes that make metabolism possible, further imperiling health. At the root of much of this reregulation is nutrition or lack thereof. Every enzyme in the body requires nutrient co-factors to function. Absent these nutrients, metabolism falters; not just the metabolism of foods to energy but the metabolism of drugs, the metabolism of neurotransmitters, hormones, and the like. Absent nutrients, we have widespread changes in the totality of our biochemistry. How those changes manifest is dependent upon the individual’s genetic makeup and environment, but make no mistake, they are occurring.

While it is clear that one can avoid many of these problems by eating a nutrient-dense diet, it is not as clear how one recovers these functions once they are lost. Do we simply feed the offending substance until tolerance develops? Or do we tackle the enzyme issues first, supplying the requisite nutrients in the form of supplements so that they function more effectively and then re-introduce the offending foods? I don’t know the answer, but my instincts tell me that enzyme issues have to be addressed first and the vitamin and mineral deficiencies corrected before the offending foods can be reintroduced. What I do know, however, is that something must be done. Human beings cannot live well or for very long without protein and fat. Those are requisite substrates for health.

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This article was first published on June 20, 2019.

Chandler Marrs MS, MA, PhD spent the last dozen years in women’s health research with a focus on steroid neuroendocrinology and mental health. She has published and presented several articles on her findings. As a graduate student, she founded and directed the UNLV Maternal Health Lab, mentoring dozens of students while directing clinical and Internet-based research. Post graduate, she continued at UNLV as an adjunct faculty member, teaching advanced undergraduate psychopharmacology and health psychology (stress endocrinology). Dr. Marrs received her BA in philosophy from the University of Redlands; MS in Clinical Psychology from California Lutheran University; and, MA and PhD in Experimental Psychology/ Neuroendocrinology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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