This is part 3 of a 3 part series where I connect some dots about our collective health. In part 1, I run down a few things about our microbiome – like some current applications and research that make me think our non-human cells have serious control over our health. In part 2, I chat about all of the innocent victims. Part 3 relates our food choices to our gut health and mental health. Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here.
Observation #3: Food is Nourishment and sometimes Food is Medicine – not necessarily the same prescription for everyone.
There are so many dietary camps out there, with strong voices in each attempting to convince the masses that their way is THE way.
These days, if you’re eager to label your dietary approach, you can choose to be:
- Vegan – eat no animal foods
- Vegetarian – sort of Vegan + some combo of eggs and dairy
- Flexitarian – mostly Vegetarian with self-permission to eat meat/fish once in a while
- Macrobiotic – Grain-heavy approach with emphasis on quality local foods, intuition, and balance
- Paleo – grain-free, legume-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, seed oil-free – hunter/gatherer type approach
- Primal – Paleo + full fat dairy
- WAP (Weston A Price) – sort of Primal + traditionally prepared grains
- Low-carb – high fat, med-low protein, maybe 50 – 100 grams of carbs per day
- Very low-carb/ketogenic – maybe 20-50 grams of carbs per day
- and oh-so-many-more
There are hundreds of dietary approaches out there. The people who are proponents of any specific approach like to classify the typical western diet as the ‘SAD’ approach (standard American diet). So even if you opt out of sticking your approach in a box – someone has done it for you. Awesome.
But I digress.
First of all, there ARE health benefits to having a dietary approach – no matter what it is. For example – if you really BELIEVE that the foods you choose are health promoting – if you have awareness and any reasoning as to ‘why’ you’re eating what you are – chances are you’re health conscious and indeed - you’ll reap some benefits. <<< This is fascinating. And also probably a super important piece to the health puzzle. I mean, on the contrary, if you just know that you’re ruining your health by the food decisions that you make, well, you probably are. Food guilt is a huge stressor.
You’ll hear people claim that sugar is killing us or that fat is killing us or that animal food is killing us or that all carbs are killing us… (seriously – you can’t win – it’s really the stress of worrying about this I think)…
But also – let’s not only look at what we’re eating, but who exactly we’re feeding (re: We are not alone).
There’s some great research on this right now - but it’s all in it’s infancy as far as I can tell. We’re still defining exactly who is in our microbiome, what is a healthy balance, who are the ‘bad guys’, how we can alter it etc… but watch this space, because I firmly believe this is the future of medicine.
IF the root cause of autoimmunity and metabolic disease is related to an imbalance of your gut community, then we’ve got to figure out how to re-balance it. Right now – we’re hearing about the importance of a high fiber / high resistant starch diet for feeding a thriving gut community. There’s research that increasing resistant starch in your diet improves blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity. Maybe this is due to the increase in abundance and byproducts of certain gut bacteria.
Your gut flora munches on fiber from whole foods to create a short chain fatty acid called butyrate – which does you HUGE anti-inflammatory favors. (FYI – you can also get butyrate from… butter. Eat your butter.) That’s right – your gut bugs turn plants into fat – and that fat reduces inflammation. This is how herbivores – like cows – can get the nutrients that they need just by eating grass. This is probably how a human who chooses not to eat animal foods can thrive – they have the right microbiome to create the nutrients that they require. (That and there’s probably a serious contribution from insect protein in their diets – but again – that’s a story for another day. <<<< speculation.)
Anyhow – so far we think healthy, beneficial gut bacteria thrive on carbohydrates/fermentable fibers/resistant starches.
Do they eat fat or protein? I think so – but there’s a lot we still don’t know. A diet rich in fat and protein supports a very different gut flora than a diet rich in fermentable fiber… but is one diet any better or worse for our health? That is the question that the Human Food Project aims to answer.
So do you simply go ahead and introduce more fermentable fibers into your diet to re-balance your microbiome if you are sick? Maybe, maybe not.
This is where a low-carb approach might actually be therapeutic. Or a ketogenic approach - in an extreme case. These low and very low carb diets may be useful in starving / rebooting an unhealthy gut microbiome. I say therapeutic for a reason – for many people, this means it’s a great temporary approach.
[Aside: It also turns out - that if you live in northern climates - and you strictly eat seasonal foods - you'll likely be eating more carbs in the summer months and fewer (if any) carbs in the winter months. So too will your microbiome change seasonally.]
Part of a microbiome reboot/rebuild could then include fermented foods to introduce a variety of bacteria to your body for your physical and mental health. This is a tenant of the Weston A. Price / Primal / Paleo / traditional foods approaches. This along with playing in the dirt, removing unnatural personal care products, responsible use of antibiotics, eating more foods from the Earth, avoiding toxins… sleeping, destressing, finding a passion in life so you don’t obsess about food… Clearly – there’s a lifestyle shift involved with rebooting your microbiome.
Anyway – from a lower carb approach – a re-seeding with a healthy balance of gut bugs – one might work to increase their whole food carbs, starches, fruits, veggies to feed their new symbionts such that they thrive. I understand that women in particular may require more carbs for hormonal balance.
But introduce westernized foods, and all bets are off.
I suspect that the key is natural food here. Maybe seasonal and local food to - because maybe there’s a change in the available microbiome depending on your geographic location on Earth. If you’ve ever traveled – you may have noticed that your digestive system can be off even if you eat the same foods <<< local bugs may be your culprit.
Of course, I love to believe that our guts hold the answers (see dogma: Part 1). I’m open to other ideas as they develop, but for now, I’m watching this research with serious interest. I’m keeping my kids just barely clean, I’m letting them walk around outside without shoes, I’m encouraging them to eat from the garden, and I’m trying let their own food instincts rule (within the limitations of what I bring home from the market to be honest), I’m doing a lot of kitchen science – fermenting sodas, kombucha, sauerkraut, even chicken feed… bottom line, I’m trying to cultivate some family microbiome here.
It seems to me that while we can’t put a finger on just one thing that’s causing our ill health today, an unbalanced microbiome keeps popping up as a potential culprit, that once addressed, seems to help.
I hope you’ve clicked through a few of these links… or maybe you’ll bookmark this series and come back to play sometime. If you’re still with me – please let me know in the comments… because you really rock for sticking this out.