Monday, November 24, 2008

Why Food Matters

In the 15 years that I have supported doctors in their use of clinical nutrition, I have always tried to take a balanced perspective and emphasize the fact that even the most sophisticated supplements should not be expected to take the place of a healthy diet. Diet lays the foundation for health and vitality, and supplements are just that – they supplement the diet.

But therein lies a big problem.

Here in the Midwest the concept of what eating healthier looks like is almost amusing. A lot of people seem to think that as long as their Wendy’s hamburger has some iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato they are eating healthy. But the problem doesn’t seem to be isolated to the Midwest. Current statistics from the NHANES study show that two thirds of the U.S. population are overweight, with a third of those classified as obese. Likewise, a Surgeon General report indicates that 7 out of 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. are preventable and diet-related.

In caring for the chronic health concerns of patients, it is imperative, of course, to coach them on their diet and why the diet is so important. One of the concepts to attempt to get across to patients is the fact that each bite of food carries a message to the cells of the body. What message is being communicated depends on what kind of food is being ingested.

Think of it this way: If your automobile requires diesel fuel, but you put in regular unleaded, it won’t take very long at all for the automobile to respond negatively. While our bodies are far more sophisticated and intricate than an automobile, the same concept still applies nevertheless. The human body was not designed to function on chemical concoctions like bologna and chips and Velveeta cheese and Lucky Charms and the endless assortment of man-made food stuffs. While the human body has the innate ability to make adjustments and function somewhat normally on junk food diets for long stretches of time in some cases, eventually system failures begin to occur.

When system failure does occur, instead of changing the fuel that caused the breakdown in the first place, what most Americans tend to do is put duct tape on the engine light, so to speak, by suppressing symptoms with one or more drugs.

We absolutely must begin to help people understand that heart disease, for example, is not a result of statin drug insufficiencies. Depression is not a Prozac deficiency. Arthritis is not due to not having enough COX-2 inhibiting drugs. These drugs have their place and benefit when used appropriately, but they do not lead to better health.

A Diagram of a Protein Kinase
Achieving better health is contingent upon changing the messages to the cells. Recall that our biochemistry is a complex system of signals involving kinases, hormones, and a delicate balance of other intracellular messengers. These signals can become altered due to the kind of messages being sent from the food we eat. Bad food equals bad messages resulting in poor function. Good food equals good messages resulting in improved and optimal function. It’s as simple as that. The human body in spite of its Divine design cannot function optimally for very long when the signals are destructive, and this is a concept most Americans have yet to understand and that most doctors have yet to communicate effectively to their patients.

In the Christian circles in which I grew up and am still a part it was and is popular to refer to the human body as a temple, a Biblical reference. The concept being communicated is that we need to respect our bodies and not abuse them with drugs and alcohol and cigarettes. I couldn’t agree more. However, it is not uncommon even in Christian circles in America to avoid these vices yet still over-indulge on a daily basis with every nutrient-deficient, chemical and sugar-laden junk food under the Milky Way. And somehow many people remain blind to this double-standard.

Since I’m picking on my church-going brethren a little, allow me to use an historical and Biblical reference to illustrate my point.

In the book of Proverbs, chapter 23, verses 1 through 3, it says:

“When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is set before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.”

This passage was written approximately 4,000 years ago in the Middle East. In that time and place, it was only the rulers and dignitaries – the wealthy of the culture – that ate calorie-rich, nutrient deficient foods. Refined foods, animal fat, and copious amounts of alcohol were daily indulgences. However, the commoners subsisted on wild game and fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains that they farmed themselves. As a result, the “diseases of kings and queens,” as they became known, were common among the elite of the culture, but very uncommon among the working class. What were the diseases of kings and queens? Heart disease, obesity, arthritis, and other degenerative maladies were the afflictions of the rich of that time. And today America is an entire nation of people who know such endless abundance that the entire population is suffering from the diseases of kings and queens. That’s why the writer of Proverbs warns against excessive food indulgences and encourages self control.

By the way, I think the last phrase of Proverbs 23:3 is interesting. It says that that food can be deceptive. What is “deceptive” food? I believe the message is clear. It’s food that looks good and tastes good and thus promises pleasure, but in the end it robs one of life and vitality. It deceives those who excessively indulge in it.

Inspiring Behavior Modification in Patients
Inspiring behavior modification in patients remains problematic for many practitioners because of time constraints in the ability to offer patient education. There are some fantastic resources, however, to aid in this endeavor.

First, there is a new movie due out anytime called, Food Matters. Click here to view the trailer. This will be an eye-opening and educational movie that can inspire your patients toward change.
Likewise, the movie, Super-Size Me, a documentary about a man who ate nothing but fast food for 30 days and almost didn’t live to tell about it, sheds some sickening light upon the fast food industry and what kind of health consequences it is having on America.

Lastly, there is a certification course called, First Line Therapy, which is a three and a half day training on Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) that can aid practitioners in helping patients to undergo the necessary changes to transform their health. The patient education tools and program guides that this program offers make it easy to inspire and guide patients in taking control of their own health.

Not to minimize the importance of supplements, it is true that supplements can often bring about dramatic improvement without lifestyle changes. But I believe the most profound health benefits will be realized when diet and physical activity form the foundation and supplements are used to support these efforts.