The Flexitarian (or, Nutrition and Chronic Illness, Part 1)

In the wake of the book’s release, I’ve talked a lot about gender and pain. In a social history of chronic illness, gender and pain is indeed important to the storyline, but it is just one of many themes.

One question I’ve gotten is, what about the role of nutrition and lifestyle?

The short answer is that you simply can’t talk about how changes in the way we work, live, and spend our time—a recurring theme of industrialization and innovation—without looking at the influence of nutrition and diet. Some of the most common and costly chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, are so closely linked to lifestyle. In many ways, this can be empowering, because it means there are concrete things we can do to prevent or mitigate conditions that don’t involve medication and intervention.

The longer, more complex answer is that of course, it isn’t always as simple and easy as that. Health literacy, socioeconomics, and many other factors go into it. (There is a much more eloquent discussion of all of this in the book, thanks to some insightful interviewees.)

People are incredibly passionate about nutrition and diet, whether it’s Atkins or Paleo or WFPB (whole foods, plant-based). I have celiac disease, so I know firsthand the power what we eat has in terms of improving our health. I’ve also routinely gone dairy-free; I am not lactose intolerant but cutting out dairy helps reduce mucus production. I know that eliminating certain foods can be incredibly liberating, and that even if you don’t have an allergy or food intolerance, choosing to eat a particular way can absolutely make you feel better.

To that end, I’ve been loosely following Mark Bittman’s “vegan until 6pm” mantra for a few years now, and over the past several months, I’ve slowly been adding in more vegetarian family dinners: butternut squash chili, peppers stuffed with quinoa and vegetables, garlic, cumin, and chili pepper roasted chickpeas (a toddler favorite—she has an eclectic palate), etc.

I don’t envision a point where all my protein sources will be plant-based, for pragmatic reasons. For example, my daughter loves salmon and we usually share a serving, so I wouldn’t want to cut that out, and I don’t always have the time to make separate meals. Sometimes, after a day of working, running around with a toddler, chest PT, then working all night again, it’s just easier to eat some (healthfully prepared) chicken, you know?

But still, I am definitely increasing my plant-based proteins and while I don’t eat a lot of processed foods (remember, I have celiac, and I don’t buy into packaged foods that are originally made with gluten and then are reformulated with GF ingredients), I am more conscious of selecting whole foods.

You can imagine my pleasure this week, when I stumbled upon Mark Bittman’s new column, The Flexitarian, and his measured approach towards a diet high in plant-based protein. While I am sure there are critics of the name itself, the philosophy here resonates since it’s what I’ve been gradually working towards on my own.

Interestingly enough, I read the column the same week I had the chance to interview Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study and the forthcoming Whole. If you’ve heard of his work, then you know Dr. Campbell’s research suggests many chronic diseases can be either prevented or reversed through eating a whole food, plant-based diet. Keep an eye out for interview material and my thoughts on Whole–so far, it is engrossing.

I recently read an extreme comment on an article that said something to the effect of, nutrition is at the heart of everything and there is simply no reason for anyone to live with chronic illness. My gut response to that was, well, what about people with genetic or autoimmune disease? Would a change in nutrition suddenly grow working cilia for me? Or, isn’t it problematic to place the “blame” for lupus or multiple sclerosis solely on nutrition?

So as a preview of this discussion, I think you can acknowledge the enormous impact of diet on costly and preventable chronic disease without putting unattainable expectations on whole populations of patients. I also think that no matter what conditions you have or what causes them, the better you eat, the better you will feel, and I also think that conscious nutrition choices can do a lot to improve symptoms of existing disease.

What’s your gut reaction? More soon!

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5 thoughts on “The Flexitarian (or, Nutrition and Chronic Illness, Part 1)

  1. My gut reaction is the same as yours – it’s problematic to start thinking about food as the source of all good/evil when it comes to illness, especially when we know there are so many other elements at play. Undoubtedly, food choices have SOME influences for SOME people, but – like you said – there are a lot of things that proponents of diet-based medical treatments (as I’ve begun to think of them) seem to discount. I think this about basically every approach to health I’ve ever come across, though – why do you think your way is the ‘one true way’? Why isn’t a combination of treatments – CAM, food, pharmaceutical, life-style changes – more realistic and more often recommended? I also think that, (and maybe this is just me, and maybe this is just particularly when it comes to chronic illness), but I’m sick of everything being approached as if it’s going to be some miraculous cure, when it most likely is not: why can’t they (not you, but proponents of approach X or Y) just say “I think this will be a little bit healthier choice for ANYone, and it might be particularly helpful for those with CI because..(make claim based on evidence here).” Obviously, you do a great job of saying “this is what works for me, and why”, but too often, I find that proponents make claims of ‘totally life changing effects’ and I’m put off before I even begin. That said, I really appreciated your take on how your diet has impacted your life & health, and am looking forward to your take on Whole.

    • Thanks, NTE! Yes, I find the more extreme, “this is the one true way” mindset rigid and off-putting. I think it’s pretty clear that if you eat more vegetables and whole foods, your body is better for it, and I think anyone can benefit from that, healthy or otherwise. The rest is much more complicated than it might appear on the surface…

  2. I was reading recently somewhere about the Rule of Thirds when it comes to medical treatment: for most interventions, 1/3 of patients will have really good results, 1/3 will have mediocre results, and 1/3 will see no improvement, or feel worse due to side effects. I suspect this is true for changing the diet as well, with some people making small changes (switching from coffee to green tea or somesuch) and feeling tons better, while others make major diet overhauls that give moderate improvements that may or may not be worth the trouble.

    Personally, as a long-time vegetarian with PCD (I found your site via the PCD group on Facebook!) who is allergic to wheat and has recently given up dairy, I find your story hits close to home for me. I agree about the GF replacement products – $1 a slice for bread made primarily of cornstarch and has the consistency of stale styrofoam? No thanks… Lunch today was a chickpea-salad sandwich on homemade cornbread with lots of romaine.

    Thanks for mentioning the “Whole” book – this was the first I have heard of it. I’ve noticed that most diets touted as health-improving, whether vegan or paleo, all seem to have “more vegetables, less Cheese Puffs” at their core. I’ve always wanted to see a study comparing the health of those who eat “good meat” (grain-fed, slow-roasted) vs. “bad meat” (feed-lot, bbq’d, processed, etc.).

    • Great to hear from another PCDer! Interesting to think about how the rule of thirds applies to changing diet–I suspect it isn’t far off! I am going dairy free again because I find I really do feel better without it.

      Hope you are doing well!

  3. See “The Case Against Fluoride” by Connett, Beck, Michlem; Chelsea Green Publishers.
    Toxic fluoride use reduction may not solve all of our problems but toxic fluoride residuals are so comprehensively present in our lives (getting it out of the water is an essential start) that I can’t think of a better choice.
    Just mentioning ‘the silent enemy’–pass the word on–would work wonders. Portland Oregonions did just that on May 22, 2013, when
    they voted down fluoridation 61% to 39%; population 900,000, and
    Wichita did it several months earlier. Make MWRA turn off the fluoride tap!
    I’d like to see the Boston area as a mecca of medicine not be the last holdout because of a certain dental outfit or media ban holds sway.
    Make MWRA turn off the fluoride tap!

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