I was part of an interesting twitter debate about integrative medicine this weekend. And I am not one to bother with twitter debates… but I suppose I started it.
It all started with a minor rant about the backlash against integrative medicine I have seen of late. Vocal opponents are equating integrative medicine with snake oil medicine…and I can see why. A lot of crap is being spewed on the internet under the guise of integrative medicine. And yes, definitions of the discipline – somewhat vague and inconsistent – talk about integrating conventional medical therapies with various traditional and mind-body approaches like Ayurveda and meditation. But does that mean it’s all bunk?
Of course not. So what’s an evidence-informed dietitian to do?
For me, integrative medicine represents a departure from the diagnose-medicate cycle so commonplace in our healthcare system. It integrates nutrition (shocker!) and physical activity, stress reduction and appropriate (research verified) supplementation. It does not assume that health is merely the absence of disease. It assumes that you should feel energetic and vibrant and well. So yes, if meditation and yoga make you feel well…go for it. And if a paleo eating plan has been part of your recovery from an auto-immune disease, I am here to support you.
I like to remind people that lack of research to support a treatment’s efficacy is not the same thing as research to show inefficacy of a treatment. And I have seen many methodologies and assumptions in integrative circles – like leaky gut, for example – poo-pooed by conventional medicine until they end up being verified in the literature (even if some, like leaky gut, are still tricky to deal with in practice).
Where I draw the line, however, is in accepting a bunch of pseudoscience hooey that uncredentialed – or worse credentialed and irresponsible – practitioners spout on the daily. We have never been more confused about what should be the simplest thing in the world: eating a plant-centred, whole food diet.
Healthy eating is foundational for better health but eating gluten free is not a magic ticket to a healthier diet. If you want to explore reiki, cool, but do so knowing it is a traditional practice without research to support its use. Don’t talk about its effectiveness like it’s been verified in countless medical journals.
I am a firm believer that you have to do what is best for you. If a food makes you feel sick, talk to a dietitian about it and stop eating it. If your mindfulness practice helps you cope with a high-stress life, enjoy it. But know the difference between personal experience and scientific evidence so that you don’t go down the internet rabbit hole and pop up with a diet filled with nothing but lightly steamed kale and purified angel tears.
So, without further ado, here are five of the most persistent wellness myths I have encountered and why they need to die a humane, immediate death.
You should avoid nightshades as they are inflammatory.
Given that I wrote a book on anti-inflammatory nutrition, I get this one a lot. The nightshades are a family of fruit and veg that include potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplant. Also known as, the deadly nightshades. That sounds scary, right? Well, if you leave your potatoes exposed to sunlight, they turn green with solanine, which is a toxic alkaloid… and if you eat a ton of green potatoes, it could make you pretty sick. But eliminating the whole family? Call it veggie death by association. None of the other nightshades contain solanine…and if your potatoes aren’t green, they don’t either. To write off these incredibly healthy veg, which include research-verified anti-inflammatories such as the lycopene in tomatoes or soluble fibre in eggplant is nuts. Still not convinced? Dana James, Food Coach NYC, wrote an awesome piece on it.
You should eat right for your blood type.
I cannot believe how popular the book ‘Eat Right 4 Your Type’ still is. It came out in 1996 (that should ring the first alarm bell) and I get questions about it every month. I think it appeals to our logic – that different blood types would mean different metabolisms and require different nutrition. Of course, I am a blood type A and a vegetarian…so I play right into the book’s argument.
The author uses some interesting science to back up his claims…but his book is essentially a really long scientific theory. And an untested one at that. With bizarre lists of avoids and allowed items in every food group. The author admits that there is no research to prove the benefits claimed in the book…and he’s had almost 20 years to make it happen, so no excuse there. A 2014 study that tested the diet – although the methodology was hotly contested by the book’s author – showed no improvement in cardiometabolic profile.
The fact of the matter is that good nutrition is individualized. There are 7 billion diets for 7 billion people on the planet. Following any dietary regime that asks you to eat real food instead of the hyper processed garbage we usually swill will make you healthier. But pseudoscience lumping us all into a group according to our blood type just isn’t going to cut it.
Lemon water boosts your metabolism (or any of the other magic it’s supposed to work)
Oh my goodness…if I had a dollar for every piece written on the magic of lemon water.
Don’t get me wrong. Water is super good for you. So are lemons. And adding flavour to water, via lemon and not sugar, may help you drink more of it. But is it a magic, liver-cleansing cure all? Absolutely not. People spout the various properties of lemons as a reason to drink lemon water but unless you are pureeing a whole lemon into that water, you are not getting much vitamin C or anti-inflammatory phyto-chemicals in your morning cuppa.
The worst is saying it ‘wakes up the liver’. If your liver ever went to sleep, you’d die.
So drink your delicious lemon water and be hydrated. Brush your teeth first because if you brush after, you can erode your acid-softened enamel. Still looking for something to stimulate digestion first thing in the morning? Daydream about breakfast as you prepare it. Seriously. Your body is so cool that just thinking about eating begins the digestive process for you.
You shouldn’t combine proteins and starches (and eat fruit on its own!)
The food combining people have no concept of basic human physiology. I’ll try to make this quick because you’ve been reading for a while now.
For starters: fruit doesn’t ferment in your stomach if you eat it with a meal. If anything fermented in your stomach, it would signal a serious lack of stomach acid and a major bacterial infection.
And…if you aren’t supposed to combine protein and starches, you have a major problem because most starchy grain foods contain protein. Whole wheat has a considerable amount of protein and you know what? Your pancreas turns out an armada of enzymes that digest it all in stride.
Rant aside (it must be mercury retrograde), I do believe in a form of food combining. Like my protein + produce method for staying full. At every meal, eat a bunch of veggies and always have some protein…the fibre and water from the veggies combined with the protein will help you feel full. And for those with blood sugar concerns, pairing your carbs with a protein is a good thing because it will help slow stomach emptying and keep blood sugars stable. Like eating a piece of fruit with some raw almonds. So my food combining rules are kind of like the opposite of the internet food combining rules because they use science. Read this, further debunking the myth…it’s so good!
You should follow an alkaline diet
Don’t freak out…because everyone thinks this is a tried-and-true dietary strategy. Because, it’s fruits and veggies, right? Celebrities are all over the alkaline diet because, quite frankly, it is good for staying slim as it cuts out all hyper-processed food and fills you up on produce.
The premise goes like this: eat 80% alkalizing foods and 20% acidic foods so that your body doesn’t have to work hard to keep it’s pH in balance. Depending on the website, acidic foods can be just animal-based foods, sugar and alcohol…or it can be extended to include all protein foods like legumes. Typically, alkalizing foods are high in potassium, magnesium and calcium (the alkaline ash) and acidic foods are high in sulfur and sodium (the acidifying ash). I don’t even know where to start with this one…you could be reading for days. Instead, Dr Tanis Fenton, a Canadian researcher (and a dietitian!) put this one to rest quite nicely in this piece from Refinery 29.
The bottom line? Eat a plant-centred diet that focuses on whole foods, prepared simply at home. Stop letting celebrities tell you what to eat or how to take care of your body. Trust the experts…I promise you, we’re up to the job.