Why the latest diet won't cure you, or your digestion
Hippocrates didn’t say “Let food be thy medicine”. After years of chasing a cure for my digestive issues through a dizzying number of diets, my perspective has changed. I realized that diets are not a cure but a tool, a helpful framework to support change. But I wanted more than supported change, I wanted a cure.
To find my cure, I first had to ask, “What am I trying to heal?”
My dietary history
As a foodie biohacker, I have eaten algae from northern cold lakes, sipped bone broth like it was water and treated carbohydrates like the plague. I want to live a high performance life, so I am always on the hunt to optimize my energy, improve my thinking, and maximize my thriving. Trending diets seem to offer magical results, so I adopted in sequence the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), Simple Carbohydrates Diet (SCD), Auto-Immune Protocol (AIP), Paleo, low-FODMAP, anti-Candida, and even a low-histamine/salicylate/oxalate plan. Phew.
Getting dizzy on the merry-go-round
Each new diet provoked excitement and anxiety. I excitedly anticipated that this time I had the answer to my digestion and energy woes. However, my excitement was always tempered with an anxiety concerning what, when and how to eat. To offset my anxiety, being the type-A personality that I am, I religiously learned and followed the principles for each diet. Each diet yielded a new experience but led me to the same conclusion. I felt better overall, but not quite thriving.
Even worse, sometimes I couldn’t figure out what went wrong when I had sudden brain fog, bloating or abdominal pain. Did a bad ingredient sneak past my detector? Am I developing a new sensitivity? Typically, I would redouble my efforts but often I felt a general despair. That is, until I found the next new diet claiming to solve all my problems. Does this merry-go-round sound familiar?
When optimal isn't optimal for you
The research on optimal diet is very clear. A diet consisting predominantly of plants in their whole-food form will decrease the chance of chronic illness and increase longevity. Yet, some of us cannot tolerate whole categories of plants due to poor digestion or food sensitivities. How can we solve this?
Finally, I had a revelation. These diets were helping me stabilize inflammation and eliminate irritants. But I was missing the first step: Identifying the root-cause of my health issues. I had to ask "What am I trying to heal?". Only with this crystallizing focus could I choose the right dietary tool to meet my personal goals.
Find your root health issues and stay off the dietary merry-go-round.
This first step, though, can be a daunting challenge. So often, clinicians and patients stop too soon when treating an illness if they are able to get symptom relief. Functional medicine offers a new approach by asking why illnesses occur and addressing the patient’s root causes to promote optimal wellness.(7) Using this approach and my medical training, I discovered that my genetics and high stress levels led to an overactivation of my immune system resulting in histamine intolerance. I finally understood why I developed new symptoms on a “curative” anti-Candida diet.
Even after identifying my unique issues, the challenge was not over. As I reviewed the sea of diets available to me, I focused on how they would address my root causes. Yet, I still felt like the dietary changes would be reactive instead of supportive. That is, until I began to see food as fuel.
It is our choice what grade of fuel we put in our bodies every day. Many do not realize that this food-fuel quality affects performance (aka your energy, thinking and mood) Your body deserves the best fuel so you can live your best life. The question remains, what fuel is best?
Ancient body type wisdom
Here is where I reach back to traditional Ayurvedic medicine for help. For thousands of years, Ayurvedic medicine has guided nutritional choices based on your constitution or body type. Just like some exotic cars need specialized fuel and additives to run at their peak performance, so it is in people that delicate constitutions will run best with a particular meal preparation and ingredient choice. On the other extreme, some body types run like a Mack Truck and can digest very rough or raw foods without a problem. Finally, putting the wrong fuel (such as the Standard American Diet) into an automobile can really diminish performance or even damage an engine. You wouldn’t put diesel fuel in that Ferrari would you? Thinking about food as fuel helped me move from a feeling of limitation to a feeling of liberation.
How is your digestive engine running?
Continuing with this analogy, I realized why identifying my root causes had to come before choosing a diet. Imagine automobiles where fuel is not the performance problem. Perhaps they have a poorly functioning engine due to a faulty spark plug or clogged fuel filter (think: IBS or chronic constipation). In these cases, modifying the fuel and additives may help for a short time, but you will eventually need to deal with the mechanical problem. Getting to the root cause is the key first step, and often this means calling in a professional for help. No, not a mechanic! Finding a trusted and knowledgeable clinician to help you identify your root issues and a diet tailored to your specific needs can get you out of the pitstop and back onto the racetrack of life.
Finding your best diet requires knowing both your unique constitution and the root causes of your health issues. Every meal then becomes a healing and nurturing opportunity for stabilizing and fostering your progress to a thriving life. The final goal should be a highly varied diet consisting of predominantly plant based and whole foods. I like to say, a rainbow on the plate will bring a rainbow to your day.