You are what you eat. Garbage in, garbage out. Everything in moderation.
You’ve heard these right? Everyone has. But because you are someone who is naturally inclined to seek out trends in natural medicine and holistic health, you have probably heard even more specific things. You have heard that paleo is the way to go, and then everyone started talking about ketogenic diets. And no sooner do you understand the ketogenic diet, you read about the nutritarian diet that says you need to eat the exact opposite way!
It is enough to make my head spin. I have significant medical training that helps make it easier to dissect these various diets. I can only imagine how much your head is probably spinning with all of the conflicting information out there.
Let’s try and put it to a stop.
First and foremost, let’s acknowledge that most strict diets are therapeutic.
That means that they are meant to try and correct a specific pathology or diagnosis. This is true of the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Diet, The Feingold Diet, the Ketogenic Diet, and many aspects of low carb diets such as Paleo, South Beach or Atkins. When we are working on achieving resilience, we are working on a lifestyle that can help us achieve optimal, yet balanced wellness. This means that a strict therapeutic diet, while beneficial in early stages of healing, will not be the long term strategy you want to follow.
Part of being resilient is being flexible, and therapeutic diets are very inflexible in order to be effective.
So let’s focus on what our end goal is – resilience in the body and mind as well as in how we live, our lifestyle.
Our dietary resilience strategies don’t require counting calories or macronutrients. That is too restrictive and inflexible. It doesn’t require specific periods in which you fast or eat, that too is inflexible. Flexibility and adaptability is our mantra, for life and our diet.
Principle 1 – Eat whole foods
This means food that didn’t go through any changes or processing before ending up in your kitchen. These are fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and minimally processed meats. Minimally processed meats have been butchered and then packaged to get to you, that’s it. Steak is minimally processed, whereas sausage is highly processed. Make sense?
Fruits and veggies are easier because most of them come in their own packaging.
This principle means that you will avoid processed foods. This is anything that comes in a box or a package, or has a nutrition label on it. These foods have been dramatically altered from real foods (and sometimes completely made in a chemistry lab) in ways that strip them of their nutritional value. Yes, many companies will “fortify” foods with vitamins and nutrients, but they are using cheap synthetic forms that our bodies do not absorb or use as well. Additionally, these foods are always (yes, always) inflammatory and feed addictive pathways in the brain, causing you to feel worse, then crave the food to feel better for a short time only to feel worse again.
I find that the more resilient a person is becoming, and the more resilient their diet, the less food they crave.
Principle 2 – Avoid food allergies/sensitivities
If you have a food allergy, you know, and you likely carry an Epi pen. True food allergies cause an emergency condition called anaphylaxis, in which a person has rapid and severe swelling that often closes off the airway and impedes breathing. If people even come in contact with a food they are allergic to they can have this reaction. Common food allergies are peanuts and shellfish.
Food sensitivities are less well understood because they don’t cause the same severe reaction.
Food sensitivities are mediated by IgG antibodies (as opposed to the IgE antibodies activated in food allergies). IgG antibodies are slow acting, IgE are fast. This means that an IgG response takes time to build up, and many times goes unnoticed by patients until they have eliminated the food and see how much better they feel.
I know this was true for me. I had the opposite problem of most medical students. Usually we hear that medical students learn about a condition and start to think they have it. I was the opposite. I didn’t think anything applied to me. I even said to my classmates that I felt pretty lucky that I didn’t have any gastrointestinal issues. It wasn’t until I reluctantly took a food allergy test because of worsening migraines and eliminated the foods shown to cause an IgG response that I learned that I actually did have gut stuff going on. I had just been so used to feeling not so great that I wasn’t even aware that I didn’t feel great.
Who knew that you could feel energized from food, and that bloating wasn’t a necessary evil of the digestive process?
So let’s talk about identifying food sensitivities. There are 2 methods – elimination and challenge diets or blood testing. Both should be done under the guidance of a naturopathic doctor or other licensed integrative practitioner. Elimination and challenge diets require you to strictly remove all possible food allergies and eat a very strict (ie. not flexible) diet for 2-4 weeks, followed by reintroduction of individual foods once per week until all foods that cause distress have been identified. This is the gold standard for identifying your food allergies but it is very time consuming and can interfere with other areas of your life that promote resilience. It is not the course I recommend. Blood tests give you rapid results that you can act on quickly without significant disruption in your life.
So how do food sensitivities impact resilience? When you eat foods you are sensitive to, you increase inflammation, which affects your nervous and immune system. You will be more susceptible to the negative impacts of stress, and far more likely to get sick. Essentially, it will be much harder for you to bounce back from the small stresses and minor bugs that you encounter in your daily life.
Of note – avoiding the foods you have identified a sensitivity to is the one area where inflexibility promotes resilience. When it comes to food sensitivities, avoiding them 90% of the time will leave you in the same place as avoiding them 0% of the time. If you include a healing therapy such as homeopathy in your resilience protocol, you won’t have to be 100% strict for the rest of your life, but in the early stages it is vital to promote healing in a way that your body can eventually take in foods it is sensitive to and not have a reaction that will impair your resilience.
Principle 3 – Eat organic
The science is still out on whether foods grown organically actually have more nutrients. As a midwest farmer’s daughter, my gut tells me that unless you are eating organic foods from a small farm that frequently rotates fields and let’s some fields lay fallow for a season or two, they probably don’t. The commercialization of the food industry has forever changed the way we farm and how the people who make a living providing us food have to work.
So why spend the money on organic food?
To avoid pesticides and herbicides that are toxic to our nervous, immune, and endocrine systems – the 3 systems that are the most impacted when we have low resilience.
It is true, many farms use planes to spray chemicals, and some of these chemicals may land on your lovely organic produce just by movement of the air. But getting a small fraction of the chemical is far better on your body than what you get when you have industrial spraying directly onto the food itself.
From a bigger picture perspective, buy and eating organic foods promotes the growth of the organic industry. If farmers can’t make a living growing organically, they won’t do it. We have to create demand for chemical free food if we want to reduce the chemicals used. And reducing the chemicals used doesn’t just make a difference in how we feel in the moment, it makes a difference for the planet. Chemicals sprayed on crops don’t just stay on those crops. They move through the air, and get into our water system. Everything that the air or water touches has to adapt to those chemicals, and in many cases develop ways to protect themselves from chemicals. We see this in animals, bacteria, and mold/fungi. Sometimes the ways these other organisms protect themselves from man-made chemicals is to produce chemicals themselves, which are toxic to humans. Mold is a perfect example of this.
Ultimately, we need to eat organic not only for our own health, but for the health of the planet. Until we have a way to live on another planet, we have to work more at living in harmony with the planet we have. A resilient planet will infinitely reduce the work you have to do to stay resilient as a person.
That’s it – short and simple.
Eat organic whole foods (mostly plants) that you aren’t sensitive to.
This strategy will keep you and the planet healthy while allowing you the flexibility to dine out and enjoy time with friends and family. It will help keep your mind free and clear to focus on more important things that you need to do for resilience, such as play, create, and connect with your work and your people.
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Dr. Jennifer Bahr
Founder of Resilience Naturopathic