My family adjusted to two separate dinners and sometimes even ate the rice, beans and tofu that I was eating. I was careful to balance my diet, eat organic and get all the complementary amino acids needed. I thought I was on the road to health because everyone knows meat only leads to clogged arteries and heart attacks. But something wasn’t right. Why was I so cold? Why was my hair falling out? Why did I have indigestion all the time? Why did I catch so many colds?
More than two decades later, as a naturopathic doctor, I have a different perspective. Some people do well as vegetarians and some simply don’t. Some people don’t methylate folate as well and have a greater need for B12. Some people can use the omega-3 fatty acid in flax seed oil and other people need their EPA/DHA from fish oil. True vitamin A only comes from animal sources. Some people can convert beta carotene from vegetables into vitamin A; others cannot. And vitamin K2 from animal sources is better assimilated than K1 from vegetables. Biochemical individuality matters and foods that some people thrive on, just don’t work for others.
In my early twenties I made a decision. Eating food was going to be about nurturing the body and that alone. It wasn’t going to be political statement, and I didn’t have to carry the weight of the world and all the problems of where our food comes from. It’s also important to show compassion toward oneself. If I could be honest about my cat’s carnivorous nature, shouldn’t I be honest about my own nutritional needs? The truth was I was just a lot healthier before the vegan diet. Seven years of vegetarian living came to a crashing halt with one fateful filet mignon.
It seemed like selling out. What was next…McDonald’s? Bacon? Wearing fur? But luckily there are more choices than just the Standard American Diet and veganism. Humanely raised, grass-fed meat is available—from places where a cow can be a cow, grazing and walking freely. I didn’t have to support the factory farms. If I was going to eat meat, I was going to do it right and support the farmers that shared my values. Sure, it was expensive, but so were all the supplements, enzymes, and interesting ways to dress up tofu.
Listening to my body worked. I felt better and people noticed. Comments ranged from, “You have a healthy glow” to “Gee, you don’t look like death warmed over anymore.” Once you find a diet that works for you, you know it. You can feel the difference.
Research on Nutrition Doesn’t Always Bring Clarity
What if our choices are not straightforward? Every day it seems there’s a new study looking at health and some parameter of the diet. And for every piece of advice there’s a counter argument. For every study advocating whole grains, there’s a caution against wheat belly. For every high-protein advocate, there’s a caution against acid-forming foods and a need to alkalize. There are advocates of the China study and there are critics. For every Dr. Atkins emphasizing heavy protein, there’s a Dr. Ornish advocating lighter foods and complex carbohydrates.
Finding the right diet can be a challenge, especially for those who want to lose weight. Some of the patients in my clinic want to lose more than 100 pounds. Others have been dealing with chronic conditions like fibromyalgia and fatigue for so long, they’re not even sure what signals their bodies are giving them. Patients need clear guidelines concerning what to eat. And they need, as well, to pay attention to how their body feels. Are fresh juices giving them the enzymes and nutrients their bodies crave or just a sugar rush?
When we want advice on nutrition, we tend to look at the latest research for answers. But sorting out research on nutrition doesn’t always bring clarity. We’re measuring individuals within a sick population. We were raised on food of much poorer quality than our grandparents had. We never had a healthy starting point and most of us in our formative years ate plenty of processed foods. We also need to consider the quality of the studies—how long did they run and did the researchers cherry-pick their results?
We demonize fat, in particular saturated fat, but has flooding the market with fat-free products really made us healthier? We use the same word, “fat”, to describe lipids in the diet and the adipose tissue where we store excess calories, and tend to equate them in our minds. But fat in our diets is essential. There’s no way to absorb fat soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K—without fat. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to take the fat out of a product like milk and fortify it with vitamin D that we can’t absorb without the fat. And once the fat is out, we have to add something for taste, and that something is usually sugar.
If we broaden our perspective through history and cultures, we find a different story. There are some cultures where the diet is mostly vegetarian, but not completely vegan and these people can thrive and live well. Then there are Eskimos who can live on whale blubber and have no cholesterol issues, and the Masai of Africa who are primarily carnivorous with very few plants in their diet. Or even the French with their paradox of good health that goes along with beef, cheese and wine.
These anomalies were questioned by Dr. Weston A. Price in the 1930s. He studied the diets of indigenous people around the globe. A study like his would not be possible today, as just about every place on earth has had some experience with processed foods from the Western world. What Dr. Price found was health—stunning physiques, perfect teeth and freedom from the diseases of the Western world. But he also found variety. Different cultures ate different amounts of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. But all of them adapted to their surroundings and all of them thrived. And it was not the case that these people were genetically superior. Once processed food from the industrial world was available, they succumbed to the same medical conditions as those in the modern world.
Healthy, Lasting Weight Loss
Certainly we cannot blame our genes for the epidemic of the obesity that has become a problem in just the past 20 years. Clearly our lifestyle is to blame, and our quick fixes aren’t working. “I lost so much weight drinking diet soda,” said no one ever. Eighty percent of the time when we attempt weight loss on our own, we either don’t reach our goals or we reach them and then gain the weight back.
When our computer system goes awry, we know to reboot the system. Go back to the last time things were right. Eat local, organic produce and pastured animal products. Eat the way our grandparents and great grandparents ate. As a general rule: If it grows on a plant eat it, if it’s manufactured in a plant don’t.
Eating pure, unprocessed foods as our ancestors did is a healthy foundation, but for those with chronic conditions like diabetes and morbid obesity, specific therapeutic nutrition is called for. When someone has been obese for years, their body has a new set point. Our bodies reach equilibrium, and even an unhealthy state can start to feel normal. Good nutrition will help us not to put more weight on, but if we have 100lbs. or more to lose we need the right diet to help us reach our goal.
What is Your Metabolic Type?
Luckily, there is an approach to dieting that takes our unique biochemistry into account. About 70 years ago Dr. William Wolcott built on the ideas of Weston Price. Where Price saw indigenous people thriving with varied diets, Wolcott examined what specific diet worked for which people. Wolcott found 16 metabolic types and discovered what kinds of food would be best for each.
A diesel engine requires diesel fuel; an unleaded motor needs unleaded, and our bodies, too, function best when they have the right fuel. The metabolic type diet that I use in my practice looks at very specific parameters to determine what foods will work for you. Do you oxidize your food fast or slow? This is important information. We want to avoid a spike in your blood sugar and insulin levels, and we want to keep your body burning calories. Knowing your metabolic type will help determine what you need for optimal wellness.
Another factor in determining your metabolic type is how your autonomic nervous system runs. Do you spend most of your time on the go, in fight or flight mode? Or are you more laid back, taking life as it comes? The nervous system has two modes, all revved up (sympathetic) or resting and relaxing (parasympathetic). And we burn calories best when we have a balance of the two ways of being. Eating according to your metabolic type can help us find a new equilibrium.
Some principles of eating are true for all metabolic types. We need to get rid of the garbage and stop kidding ourselves. We need to stop the artificial sweeteners that wreak havoc on the liver and upset our metabolism. And to lose weight, we need to stop sugars, even the “good” sugars like honey and brown sugar, and we should have our fruit as whole fruit with the naturally occurring fiber, not as fruit juice.
When patients go through our weight loss program, we determine their metabolic type and give them specific foods to eat and specific ones to avoid. Green tea is a healthy food and even sold as a diet aid. Yet for the parasympathetic diet, green tea is a no-no. The sympathetic dominant person who needs more rest and relaxation will do well with green tea, but the parasympathetic person doesn’t need more calm. The parasympathetic person needs to be revved up to burn calories.
The food list that goes along with your metabolic type is almost always full of surprises. Inevitably some of the foods our patients ate regularly, that seemed to be healthy, will be on the list of foods to avoid. But as the old adage says, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you will keep getting what you’re getting. Working with our metabolic type requires discipline, and working with our life coach brings some much needed guidance to break longstanding habits. But we don’t need to punish ourselves as many dieters do. We can show compassion toward ourselves and be honest about what our bodies need for real nourishment.
The Life Center has offices in North Haven and West Hartford, CT. They are Naturopathic Wellness Centers that specializes in integrative health solutions including Natural Medicine, Weight Loss, Massage Therapy, Pain Relief, Stress Management, Hypnosis, Emotional Freedom Technique, Acupuncture, and Allergy Relief. Most of their services are covered by insurance. They can be reached at 203-239-3400. Please visit their website at www.thelifecenterofct.com
for more information on metabolic typing and the many other wellness services they provide.