Graceful Health: Food is medicine

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Chronic diseases are currently the leading cause of death in the developed world. A whole-foods, plant-based diet is excellent for decreasing the risk and treating chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and even cancer, and is very effective for weight control. Plant-based diets are also anti-inflammatory diets, which have been shown to enhance athletic performance, decrease recovery time after a workout or competition, and foster a strong immune system. There are athletes of all sports, from ultra-running to body building, who have adopted completely plant-based, or vegan, diets and have seen improvement in performance.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a physician and advocate of integrative medicine, has developed a food pyramid that helps folks move towards healthy plant-based eating habits and is easily accessible and simple to follow (see www.drweil.com). While Dr. Weil is often a proponent of dietary supplements, if you follow his food pyramid and are not pregnant, breastfeeding, or at increased risk of osteoporosis, the only supplement you might seasonally need is vitamin D. One exception: a completely vegan diet does require minimal supplementation of B vitamins, in particular B12 and seasonally Vitamin D during the winter when there is less sunlight (vitamin D is absorbed through the skin's exposure to sunlight).

I have two young children. They eat what my wife and I eat; they're active and healthy. Still, as I listen to the news on the way to work, I worry about their future. The way we are polluting our environment and the consequence of greenhouse gasses is frightening, and rolling back policies that protect the environment will only make it worse. Many scientific organizations, including the World Health Organization, are stating that as soon as 2030, climate change is expected to contribute to 250,000 additional deaths a year through various mechanisms.

Our national (and global) food industry is a major contributor to global warming. The foods that increase greenhouses gases are the same foods that contribute to global warming. The livestock industry produces more of these pollutants than all forms of global transportation and shipping combined, including cars, planes, trains and ships. Simply put, eating large quantities of meat is bad for the environment.

The U.S. is ranked second highest in meat consumption, at 270.7 pounds per person a year. Every calorie of animal protein (meat) produced requires 25 calories of fossil fuel, compared to only 2.2 calories for plant-based proteins. Shifting to a meat-free diet or even significantly cutting back on meat consumption is the strongest way we can decrease global warming. It is also by far the least expensive.

Organic versus non-organic, or conventional, foods can be a contentious topic. There tends to be a significant cost difference between the two. Surprisingly this is not always the case and some organic foods have become more affordable.

From an individual perspective, there are increased health benefits from eating organic but these are marginal. The ecological impact should also be considered and mitigated. Organic foods shipped from farther away have more of an ecological impact than buying from local farmers. Likewise, conventional foods shipped from agribusinesses far away also have a large ecological footprint and support an industry which adversely affects farm workers by exposure to large quantities of chemicals.

The takeaway: support local farmers when you can. Even if they aren't organic, they probably aren't using the amount of pesticides and herbicides that you'll find in large-scale farming. When deciding how to get the best bang for your buck, consider buying beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables and put a priority on buying locally over organic. If budget is a constraint, prioritize your organic purchases based on Dr. Weil's "Dirty Dozen" list of fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest pesticide levels. In addition, see his "Clean 15" list, which includes the safer fruits and veggies to buy conventional. Both lists can be found online.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, our eating habits are shaped by more than just having reliable information. Hopefully, I have already presented a compelling reason why a whole-food, plant-based diet is not only best for your physical health but also the environment.

Other factors at play stem primarily from our emotional relationship to food. Media outlets are a constant stream, determined to elicit emotional responses and tell us how we should feel about certain foods. The food industry invests millions of dollars in engineering foods using ingredients such as fat, sugar and salt which, when combined, use the same neuropathways as opiates. Our familial eating habits and what we were raised eating as children largely shapes the way we eat as adults and what we consider comfort foods. When we are stressed, it is the natural tendency to seek out go-to comforts. Food is a big one and life is more stressful than maybe ever before.

Becoming mindful about our emotional ties to foods, what our food culture is, and our own stress habits can help change the narrative on how we eat and put us back in the driver's seat.

"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." — Hippocrates.

Danny Ballentine works in the Grace Cottage Hospital Emergency Department. He earned his B.S. in Wellness and Alternative Medicine from Johnson State College and his Master of Physician Assistant Studies from Franklin Pierce College. He joined Grace Cottage in 2012.

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