(October 2012) It’s not easy being healthy, given all it entails. Wellness information continues to trickle in from all the disciplines – from fitness fanatics, nutrition nuts, spiritual sages, emotion experts, gene jockeys and medical masters. For those who take health seriously, all the new directions and distinctions require constant attention and discernment. Soon we’ll need a nutritional GPS to keep us on the right path.
To make matters worse, the latest ideas conflict with old notions. What was good yesterday is now taboo today, and vice versa. This is especially true in medicine, where modern miracles like synthetic insulin, hormone replacement, vaccines, antibiotics and pain medications often do more harm than good. Also, the low-fat diet was ill-conceived, but the science-supported low-carb approach is slow in replacing it. People love their comfort foods.
Some say it’s as simple as avoiding meat; yet being a healthy vegetarian is not easy. We all know the wisdom of a balanced diet, but also recognize that food isn’t what it was a century ago, and bears no resemblance to the food humans ate 6000 years ago, when everything was organic. Organic food is at least less toxic, and typically higher in antioxidants, than conventional food. Meat made from pasture raised and grass-finished animals is much healthier and less inflamed than meat from a grain-fed diet. Of course, conventional farmers and ranchers don’t want you to believe that, and their political influence is strong.
The best rule of thumb is to consider what our ancestors ate, which was probably anything they could get their hands on. Grains were a very small part of the paleolithic diet, and meat amounted to about 20% of calories. Again, everything was organic, the soils were more fertile and full of minerals, and their palettes were more diversified. Frankly, we’re not getting as much from food as our ancestors did.
There are also several questionable food items in the modern diet. First and foremost are the grains, which came to dominate the human diet about five to ten thousand years ago. Avoiding grains, especially the GMO variety, prevents gluten intolerance (Celiac’s disease). Weight problems and metabolic disorders like diabetes can also be remedied by reducing carb intake. Excess carbs are converted to body fat that accumulates and promotes inflammation. The quality of grain differs markedly, depending on how it is processed. Whole grain is better than refined carbs, and sprouted/fermented grains are far superior. Regardless, moderating carb consumption is a surefire way improve health.
Some folks do not fare well on dairy products, for a variety of reasons. Those with lactose intolerance can tolerate yogurt and cheese better, and can opt for lactose-free milk. Other people react negatively to casein, a major protein in milk that can cause serious problems for infants and those with leaky gut problems. Giving up dairy means finding alternatives for calcium, protein, zinc and vitamin D. Taking over the shelves are soy, almond, hemp and coconut milk, which offer similar benefits. But whey is the best part of milk and should not be left behind. Add undenatured whey protein powder to your favorite milk alternative to fortify the protein and add flavor. And, if you can find a safe source of raw milk, grab it, full fat and all.
Eating fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish is ideal, as exemplified in Mediterranean cuisine. But, the quality and taste of these foods are all over the place, depending on where, when and how these foods were made. Vegetables from one farm may be radically superior to those from another, depending on soil mineral and microbe content, genetics and climate. Milk from a company like Organic Valley is of much higher quality than “organic” milk from the food conglomerates. It’s best to know your farmer, and to buy these foods locally, so you can see and smell where they came from.
With all the complexities, it is challenging to obtain adequate nutrition from diet alone. Our ignorance (and greed) is manifested in the epidemic of obesity, the growing burden of chronic disease, and the documented deficiencies in the diet. Looking for answers is hard, in part because they are not the same for all of us. While iron is the most deficient mineral in third world countries, magnesium, zinc and selenium are most lacking in industrialized countries. Macular degeneration is pronounced in industrialized countries, like the U.S., which do not eat enough vegetables and fruit. Experts now recommend upwards of seven to ten daily servings of veggies and fruit to stay healthy, which most people cannot and do not want to do. Supplementing with vitamins, minerals, essential oils, probiotics, fiber, etc., has become common practice in more than 50% of U.S. households, and for good reason.
The dietary supplement industry is growing rapidly, despite industry resistance and political influence. Yet, federal health policy leaves consumers in the dark on the promise of dietary supplements. By law a nutrient cannot be said to cure, prevent or treat disease, despite being often the best means to do so. Nutrition companies can merely provide vague claims of well-being, unless they can afford two expensive clinical trials to support their single nutrient for a particular disease. But nature doesn’t work that way, since nutrients work in harmony to bring about health, and any singular nutrient is hard put to overcome stringent medical drug hurdles.
Over 2000 years ago, Greek physicians espoused food as the greatest medicine. Once our most trusted professionals, physicians are now in bed with the pharmaceutical industry and driven by the profit motive, which creates conflicts, confusion and ethical dilemmas. Despite their efforts to dismiss supplements, and emphasize only negative data from clinical trials, more and more positive information is leaking out to the public. Educated people are looking elsewhere for health information.
Consumers are also confused by an overwhelming variety of supplements to choose from. Optimistically, we are witnessing the flowering of nutrition, and the solution to our broken health care system. A veritable revolution is astir, helped by people like Michelle Obama, Dr. Oz and other converts, as well as good nutritionists, nurses, chiropractors and naturopaths, who’ve been leading the way for decades. Eventually, the playing field will simplify, as the industry pours more money into good science and clinical trials, and institutes better manufacturing practices.
Meanwhile, it is impossible to ignore the effects of lifestyle. One cannot stay healthy sitting in front of a computer all day eating junk food. Most people know what’s good for them. Nevertheless, there is a wealth of misinformation out there that keeps people enslaved to the status quo. People still mistakenly believe that fat is bad, that egg yolk should be discarded, that vitamin pills pass through undigested, or make for expensive urine.
Emotional health is equally challenging, and goes beyond basic physical needs. Nevertheless, there is a nutritional component to emotional health that cannot be overlooked. Cognitive function and mood rely on a healthy diet. High-tech supplements are being tailored for conditions such as ADHD, autism, epilepsy, addiction, depression, violent behavior, bipolar disorder and dementia, based on solid science. Stress from metabolic oxidation and inflammation affects the brain as well as the body.
Certainly, there is no quick answer to wellness. Good health is a symphony of biochemical, physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual elements. Each element evolves on its own platform, but overlaps with the others in degrees. The synthesis – which is wellness or illness – becomes more apparent as we age. We can break down prematurely from a lifetime of carelessness, laziness, stress, anger and ignorance, or extend healthy aging significantly by adhering to sound nutritional, emotional, mental and spiritual wisdom. This multidisciplinary anti-aging dynamic is the next vista in medicine.
As such, the path to wellness is hierarchical, similar to that of Abraham Maslow. He posited a pyramid of successive human needs on the journey to self actualization. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most basic needs (hunger, comfort), which form the foundation for higher level needs, such as security, resiliency, sense of belonging, compassion and self-awareness. These are all grounded in love and sound nutrition.
Even the “experts” find more confusion than clarity in the current health arena. The corporate world is more focused on the bottom line than on wellness. But the old guard and their ulterior motives are being exposed, as the current health care system self-destructs. In the meantime, it behooves us to ferret out the truth, which is not likely to be found in supermarkets, restaurants, or clinics. Wellness does not compromise. It’s about feeding the body what it needs, so it can feed the soul.