By Dr. Carla Denham, MD
We all have a relationship with food, and much of the time, it’s complicated! Most of us go through phases where we are inspired and ‘eat clean’, but then other times fall into less healthy patterns. Understanding the ways we think about food can be a big help in choosing better foods more consistently, because in this relationship, we are smarter than our food (presumably, that’s why it usually can’t argue it’s way out of being eaten.) This is not to say that people with legitimate eating disorders such as severe binging, anorexia, or chronic morbid obesity are not smart enough to overcome their disease; those conditions need specialized professional attention but are certainly treatable. However, just as with the humans and animals in our lives, every relationship needs consistent attention and nurturing to remain healthy.
We usually recognize that for most of us, food is associated with pleasure and comfort, or at least that’s the aim! This is a continuum and varies between individuals, some of us are ‘emotional eaters’ and reach for comfort foods when anxious or sad, others can’t or won’t eat then. This can also vary within individuals from time to time- PMS ladies? We also are very familiar with food as ‘fuel’ and building blocks for every physiological process in our systems. These are well accepted parts of our relationship with food; there are other aspects that may not be as obvious but can be very illuminating while trying to optimize nutrition.
If you think about it, food is the most direct communication to our systems about the state of the outside world. Remember, your GI tract is technically ‘external’, and as the cells and organisms that make up this system transfer some components to your bloodstream, they are doing far more than just delivering molecules. The quality and quantity of the fuel and building blocks communicate to all the systems- and most especially the nervous system- what’s going on ‘out there.’ Not enough minerals or amino acids? Maybe it’s a famine. Loads of sugar? Must be late summer, time to pack on fat for the winter. Remember, your body and brain have developed over the eons of human existence into formidable machines for survival, but they have no way of knowing that you were fortunate enough to be born in a place and time where widespread famine isn’t a concern, or when high sugar consumption doesn’t only happen for several weeks every year. ‘What do I want my system to know about my environment?’ can be a philosophical but yet still highly practical way of thinking about the food you eat.
We were taught to focus almost strictly on pharmaceuticals and high-tech treatments. Turns out we weren’t nearly as smart as we thought we were- and many of us have become very disenchanted with the side effects and interactions that medications can cause, all while not being very effective in the long run. A disclaimer- I am not ‘anti-medication’ and don’t blame all our medical system problems on Big Pharma. That’s too simplistic and ignores the many legitimate uses of medication, not to mention the numerous medical developments motivated by profit. This is much too complicated an issue to use black and white thinking.
A more realistic approach is to operate with the attitude that nutrition should always be the first medicine used, and sometimes artificial pharmaceuticals are useful or necessary. In the same way, profit motive doesn’t need to be vilified but accepted as a necessary aspects of growth and development, and considered when evaluating whether to accept a medication or treatment.
Something to think about: In Hippocrates’ original writings he said, ‘Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food’ and the original Hippocratic oath included ‘I will apply dietetic and lifestyle measures to help the sick to my best ability and judgment; I will protect them from harm and injustice.’ A newer translation, and the one now used by many medical schools, instead reads ‘I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing.’ Notice the shift from ‘dietetic and lifestyle measures’ to ‘treatment’. Sometimes, newer isn’t better.
And sometimes, let’s face it, our relationship with food can be a toxic one. I remember having an ‘ah-ha!’ moment in residency after listening to a lecture about the impact preservatives and additives in prepared food have on brain chemistry. It had not occurred to me before that the engineering behind those processed foods was directed straight at the brain- to ‘trick’ it into thinking that this delicious tasting substance was exactly what it needed! Now we understand that trickery only delivers sham results at best and true harm at worst- anxiety, poor concentration, weakness of mind and body. Of course, preservatives and additives are the most obvious ‘poisons’, but not the only ones. The Standard American Diet (aptly nicknamed SAD) is generally characterized by high intakes of processedand pre-packaged foods, fast foods, ‘empty’ carbohydrates, vegetable oils, candy and sweets, fried foods, conventionally-raised animal products, refined grains, potatoes, corn (and high-fructose corn syrup) and high-sugar drinks. What do these have in common? Generally speaking, they are poorly metabolized by the body, causing disruption to the system and ultimately, inflammation. Inflammation, in turn, causes a whole host of problems including, well, pretty much every disease you can think of. Obviously this is an oversimplification of a very complex topic, but I state it that way to illustrate an important concept: decades of scientific research continues to find that chronic inflammation sets the stage for all lifestyle related diseases! These include obesity, cancer, heart disease, dementia, neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s, even depression and anxiety disorders. Many of these also have a genetic component, which is more, not less, of a reason to make certain that inflammation is kept to a minimum, to decrease the chances that these genes will express themselves.
So, ask yourself- what is my relationship with food? Like any important relationship, it delivers many things. In this case, most are positive; pleasure and comfort, information, healing. And yes, sometimes pain and suffering. No healthy relationship should be entirely one-sided, in this case I believe we all owe a healthy dose of respect and gratitude to our food for nourishing us! But beyond that, once we realize we are solely in charge of how this interconnection plays out, we can much more effectively maximize the positive and minimize the negative of the relationship.