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Where ‘healthy diets’ can go wrong…

By February 13, 2018 No Comments

A practitioner’s journey through various diets (and things to pay attention to)….

Confession – over  the last 20 years, I have jumped on the band-wagon for almost every kind of diet out there. From the ‘low fat diet’ in my early teens (yikes!)  to relying on 3 protein bars a day for easy sustenance (also yikes!), I have finally found a way of eating that I consider balanced, nutritious, pro-health, within personal weight goals and most importantly, enjoyable! While I am excited to share where I have personally experienced popular diets to go wrong, keep in mind that what works for my body may not work for yours. With any kind of dietary change, the highest intention  should be to have compassion for yourself and to recognize that health is a journey that requires consistent small changes. When you listen to your body, exercise discernment and understand the pros and cons associated with certain types of eating, ‘diet’ doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

 Gluten Free: It’s hard to walk into a restaurant or grocery store these days without noticing ‘’gluten-free’ on the menu. There are now entire sections of the grocery store dedicated to this diet. So, what’s the big deal and if something is labelled ‘gluten-free’, does that make it healthy? Not so fast.

Gluten is a food protein found in wheat, rye, barley and malt products including pastas, baked goods, crackers etc. that can trigger abnormal reactions in a person’s immune system. Symptoms like joint pain, brain fog, fatigue, bloating, skin rashes, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, hair loss and other reactions can lead to the diagnosis of  either what is called a sensitivity or celiac disease (an autoimmune disease) whereby gluten must absolutely be avoided and completely removed from the diet.

When a gluten free diet is recommended for reasons related to sensitivity and/or celiac disease, it is important to note that just because a label says ‘gluten free’,  it does not by default mean that it is nutritious or healthy. For example, many pre-packed food items labelled ‘gluten free’ are often still full of refined sugars and other highly processed ingredients. So, just because a packaged brownie says ‘gluten free’ does not mean that it is healthier than e.g. a fresh piece of fruit.  As a general nutrition guideline, processed foods and sugars should be avoided, as they offer little nutritional benefit, can be inflammatory to the body, and may further exacerbate symptoms of ill-health.

For gluten-free living and beyond, it is important to focus on whole foods – vegetables, fruits, some nuts/seeds and legumes etc.  Not only are these foods inherently gluten free, they come straight from the earth and are therefore full of beneficial nutrients. If you are gluten free, there are many and diverse dietary choices that you can talk to your healthcare provider about. [As a naturopath, I love making customized food plans for patients to support a healthy lifestyle.] While a boxed/packaged snack can save the day on the road, on the fly and on busy days, it is important that these options don’t make up the bulk of your gluten-free diet.

Paleo: The paleo diet is one I followed closely about 4 years ago. Paleo focuses on the way our athletic and muscular hunter gatherer populations ate – veggies, some fruits, seeds, meats/fish and nuts, and while it has some great attributes to it in the sense that it promotes eating whole foods, I know I fell into a ‘paleo trap’ where I lost a sense of balanced eating with too little focus on veggies/some fruit and just begin eating way too much meat. Just because one food group exists within a healthy diet, it does not mean ‘eat as much as you want’.

From both an Eastern and Western Medicine point of view, excess meat can be hard on the body. Choosing paleo requires an awareness of  “am I integrating enough of each paleo food group into every meal/day’? As I confessed, I stopped paying attention to perfect balance and realized one day that I was consuming way too much meat. Our body relies on fibre for elimination, blood sugar balance and so much more, and veggies simply cannot be the lower priority. 

Vegan: I spent the early part of my high school life eating vegan and came back to it about 2 years ago. What I believe is the most important to highlight about this diet is to make sure that there is enough protein within the diet. Protein can be a challenging part of the vegan diet because many vegan proteins are not ‘complete’, meaning foods need to be combined properly to ensure that one is getting all of the 20 essential amino acids that the body relies on for repair and good health. Also, since vitamin B12 and iron are much easier to get from meat, it is important to work with a healthcare provider to ensure these levels don’t get too low. Note: (low levels of B12 and iron can lead to fatigue as well as a plethora of other symptoms). Also, within a vegan diet it is important to pay attention to what percentage of the diet is being afforded to grains.

Food sensitivity elimination:  

For a number of reasons, food sensitivities have been on the rise in the last few years. With food sensitivities, your body will start giving you small, consistent clues that its just not happy. For me, I developed sensitivities to a type of food group known as ‘the histamines’. I had numerous headaches and itchy skin when I ate foods with histamines in them, including avocado, strawberries, chocolate and wine to name a few. Food allergies are a sign that our immune system is out of balance. It can take time to figure out what is causing the reactions, but with the help of a healthcare provider you can get your diet so clean that it becomes easy to identify what the culprit foods are. My friend who is a herbalist points out that this is also clear evidence that on top of removing these foods for a while, the body’s organs are backlogged and need some help with a detox before the foods may potentially be reintroduced down the road.

 Where I have landed: 

After 20+ years of ‘dieting’ and ‘experimenting’, for myself, I have landed on what is called a ‘Pegan’ diet’ (a concept introduced by Dr. Mark Hyman)(1).   This diet is a cross between paleo and vegan whereby I focus mostly on veggies, some fruits and nuts, some legumes and whole grains and limiting meat to 2-3 times a week.  This is what works for my body and has given me the best energy, least ‘cravings’ and most love of food that I have ever had.  Again, each body is different and has different nutritional requirements so it is important to discuss the best path for you with a healthcare provider. In my opinion, one of the most important considerations when choosing a diet is to tune into your body enough to know what works for you, to shop organic where you can and to practice mindful eating such that you are only eating up to 80% full. In the words of Hippocrates, “let food be thy medicine”.

Disclaimer: This website is not meant to diagnose, prevent or treat disease. Please talk to your healthcare provider before beginning any new treatment or regimen in relation to diet, exercise, supplements, herbs, lifestyle etc. and or modifying your current medications, dosages and health care plan. This website is not to be interpreted as medical advice.

(1) Hyman, Mark. Why I am a Pegan – or Paleo Vegan – and Why You Should Be Too! Retrieved from: http://drhyman.com/blog/2014/11/07/pegan-paleo-vegan/

Dr. Emily Elliot, ND

Author Dr. Emily Elliot, ND

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