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!