"Food is Medicine" was the topic of Mary Greeley Medical Center's Prime Time Alive presentation last week which featured Family Medicine physician Michael Bird, MD and Adult Medicine physician Shauna Basener, DO.
Choosing What You Eat
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Dr. Michael Bird began the lecture with a presentation on his top tips for nutrition. Bird said the food you eat is more important than the medication your doctor prescribes because of how vital good nutrition is to fuel the body. A thought process that should be debunked, Bird said, is the role of genetics and how patients believe a presumed fate of their health is their only option.
“You don’t have to resign yourself to a family (health) history,” he said.
Exercise plays a limited role in weight loss, Bird said, but he doesn’t want people to stop exercising because of the importance it has for the body as a whole.
“If you do not change the way you eat you will have difficulty losing weight,” he said.
When it came to what people are eating, Bird gave tips on what they should have more of and what to avoid.
Avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages and sugar-sweetened snacks was Bird’s first piece of advice. Although glucose gives the body energy, fructose is not used well by the body. It is metabolized in the liver and stored as fat. This can lead to a fatty liver, insulin resistance, and a sign of type 2 diabetes.
Trans fatty acids are fats that have been chemically altered to change food texture, taste and prolong shelf life and Bird said they should be avoided. Trans fatty acids can increase the risk of heart disease and inflammation. The problem is, trans fats are in some of our favorite guilty-pleasure foods.
“That would be French fries unfortunately,” he said. “We all get exposed to them, we all get them, but we have to do our best to avoid them.”
Processed meat is defined by any meat preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying and canning. The worst part about processed meat, Bird said, is that it can cause cancer.
“Who knows how much bacon you eat, can cause cancer?” he said.
Fiber is an essential part of our diet with a daily consumption goal of 25 to 35 grams, Bird said. Unfortunately, the average adult only gets half the recommended daily intake.
The benefits of fiber are satiety, decreased food absorption in the stomach and small intestine, and its ability to reduce constipation.
Bird said people should not be obsessed with getting enough protein because it is very difficult (in America) to be protein deficient, unless a diet is very restrictive.
“You would have to be on an all-fruit diet to be protein deficient,” he said.
The growing trend of protein shakes and powders is not supported by science and are not needed since becoming protein deficient is difficult, Bird said.
How to Start
Starting to eat healthy is as easy as Googling recipes for the type of diet you want to follow, Bird said.
Whether it is plant-based only or mediterranean, there are simple (and delicious) recipes to find online and experiment with.
“Your body is an amazing and complex machine. Give it the right fuel and it will run smoothly,” Bird said.
How Food Becomes Medicine
Dr. Shauna Basener said some people use alcohol or substances as their way to self medicate, which can cause a few side effects. What you eat is important because it is essentially the medicine for your brain and body.
“Food can work in the brain a lot like alcohol,” she said.
She said that certain foods can release dopamine to the brain, just like sex, cocaine and amphetamines. Those foods can become hard to stop eating. When people become “addicted” to those foods, they can be hard on themselves because they don’t choose food that they know is better.
“We need to be kind to ourselves. When realizing sugar is everywhere and is addicting,” she said. “These are powerful chemicals making it difficult to choose (healthier options).”
The Five Stages of Making a Healthy Choice
Basener said making the healthy choice comes with stages to change that each person has to go through.
- Stage 1: Satiation – “I am experiencing too much of this thing.”
- Stage 2: Dissatisfaction – “I am having a negative reaction to this thing.”
- Stage 3: Threshold – “I can’t take it anymore.”
- Stage 4: Truth – “It’s up to me to change this thing.”
- Stage 5: Opening – “I am taking the leap and making the change.”
She said once a person goes through Stage 5, that is when everything becomes clear.
“That’s when they go for it, they take charge,” she said about patients she has observed reaching the final stage.
With getting to Stage 5 comes roadblocks that people set for themselves. This is what Basener said is called “a story we tell ourselves.” These stories include not having enough time, healthy food is expensive, and the idea that people are eating healthy food when they actually aren’t.
Basener said people who tell themselves these stories have to understand that changing your eating isn’t easy, so don’t beat yourself up about that.
“The problem isn’t that you don’t care about yourself,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
Basener closed with the thought that "kindness matters." She said changing the way you eat is hard work, but in the end it is worth having a healthy life, body and mind.