Food as Medicine Conference 6.9.11

Posted in Susan Fekety on June 10th, 2011 by susanfekety
Unless otherwise noted, © Copyright 2011 by Susan Fekety. All Rights Reserved.

And so.  Here I sit in a fancy-ish hotel room, having just consumed a lovely Thai meal of big salad and chicken satay…with my fingers, because I forgot that I do not have eating utensils at this particular Temporary Home. Thank goodness for towels, is all I can say.  Peanut sauce was involved.

There were no grains in this meal (well, the chicken came with a slice of Wonder-what-that-is bread, an embellishment I do not typically consider when I think of Thai food) (and would not have consumed even if I did) and I am not missing them — in fact, I suspect that I’m a touch more alert at this hour (10 pm and counting) than I might have been had I had my usual brown rice serving beside. In fact, I’m thinking that I might experiment with eating no grains at all for a little while, just to see what happens.  A couple years ago I could not have even imagined doing this — but now, it feels right. Of course I’ll keep you posted.

I am at the Harvard Center for Mind-Body Medicine Food as Medicine conference.  I’ve wanted to attend this for years, but the timing was never suitable. This is one of those professional education things you dream of (well, I dream of them), where a bunch of smart, motivated, talented people all hang out together sharing wisdom and business cards, plus there are some extraordinary foods on the lunch buffet. We learn from each other about how to support people to heal themselves — themselves.  Dr. James Gordon MD, who heads the Center, calls this a “fundamental revolution” in healthcare, and I couldn’t agree with him more.

In addition to Dr. Gordon, many of my favorite “famous people” are here, or will be over the next several days; folks at the top of the field of lifestyle medicine, optimal nutrition, and whole-person preventive clinical care. Even after just one day I have several pages of great ideas, primarily to bring back home to my practice but also, as is the way with this sort of thing, including some ideas about improving my own self-care.  (I always experiment on myself, and won’t ask YOU to do anything I’m not willing to do.) Hence, the grain-omission experiment inspiration.

Why ever would one avoid the Staff of Life? More and more as I learn about what it takes to keep a human body functioning ideally over the long haul, it is becoming apparent to me that a simple, foundational principle that works is to mimic the food habits of our ancient ancestors as much as you can without going bats. I wrote about this some time ago (see Eat Like a Caveman) and today I was gratified to learn that there is an even larger and growing body of research that suggests that OLD, OLD food styles hold promise for modern hominids (and for the planet; thank you, Dr. John Bagnulo.)

The cutting edge science emerging from the human genome project, and increased genomic exploration of human nutrition and metabolism, has revealed that food information (what your body “learns” from digesting something, whether it’s a chocolate chip cookie or a heap of chard) is either compatible with your genetic makeup or not. We now know that genes turn on and off depending on the instructions provided by the food environment; what is becoming apparent is that we have put OLD, OLD genes in a very novel and nutrient depleted food environment. This combination does not spell longevity; in fact, it excels at activating genes that you’d really rather keep quiet. For things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia — you know the list.

I’m not trying to pull any wild or crazy new rulebook on you; let me just suggest that you experiment with this idea if it has intuitive appeal.  If you ate like your genetic ancestors, you would eat huge piles of plant matter (those fruits and vegetables I’m always after you about); clean animal protein in modest amounts (John says grubs and bugs were more common protein sources than wooly mammoths, but I’m not into worms and I bet you’re not either so maybe carefully-sourced chicken and fish would do); cooked root vegetables; nuts and seeds; and hardly any sugar.

The longer humans have been eating a particular sort of food, the more likely we are to have a genetic pattern that “works” with it. Since our ancestors started out on the planet before the advent of agriculture (allowing for the cultivation of grains and beans) and dairying (for milk foods) these would not have been on their plates, if they had plates, which of course they didn’t. If this is unfathomable and you’d prefer to just eat the most ancient grains, looks as though those would be millet and barley.  It will be interesting to take another step in this direction, backwards.

Dr. Bagnulo also indicated that for our ancestors the advent of fire for cooking root vegetables was a huge step forward for the human brain, which really appreciated a ready source of carbohydrate energy.  In fact, he suggested that yams were one of our most ancient food sources — they are full of vitamins and fiber in contrast to many of the other foods we think of as starchy carbohydrates. (I know the simple addition of a mid-day sweet potato was transformative for at least one of my patients, and I thought of her when this part of the talk came up. This was an intuitive selection on her part, thus lending credence to my belief that we are all hard wired to know what we really need.)

Tomorrow, I will tell you what I learned and did not like at the Portland Jetport Starbucks!  Shocking!

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