|Posted on January 13, 2020 at 6:25 PM|
Nutritional Harm Reduction
“The diagnosis or name of the disease is inconsequential compared to identification of the biochemical and environmental causes.”
- Sherry Rogers, MD
Harm reduction is a concept in public health and addictions counseling that acknowledges that while a person may not stop doing a high risk behavior, there is value in promoting behaviors that reduce overall harm. The harm reducing behaviors mitigate the potential dangers and health risks associated with, for example, prostitution, drinking, and drug use. Promotion of the use of condoms, needle exchange programs, and designated driver campaigns are good examples.
As Herr (1998) noted, at least 7 out of 10 causes of death are related directly to lifestyle, behavior and personal choices. Still, as a culture we are sleepwalking into the epidemic of obesity and diabetes, not to mention all the diseases and addictions that are their companions. Even though there is a mountain of evidence connecting poor blood sugar regulation, alcohol addiction, and foul mood chemistry with the consumption of refined carbohydrates (Larson, 1997), most of us don’t recognize even the most flagrant symptoms as consequences of poor diet. These are the loud but inarticulate warnings of a dangerous, pre-diabetic state. Anxiety. Mood swings. Insomnia. Cravings. Irritability. Fatigue. Fuzzy thinking. Weight gain. They fairly scream at us, “Change your diet”, but we haven’t been taught their language.
Of all your organs, your brain is among the most sensitive to poor nutrition (Bland, 1987). That is why the earliest symptoms of poor nutrition usually include learning issues (Simontacchi, 2007), brain symptoms like anxiety and depression (Schachter, 2006), or poor concentration (Bock, 2008). Over time, other systems cave in too, so other health problems accumulate like overweight, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease. But long before this happens, you’re likely to see foul moods and fatigue. If the disease process is started in childhood (and remember, The Centers for Disease Control predict one of three American children will end up diabetic before age 50), it is likely to be interpreted as a behavioral problem or attentional issue rather than as the early signs of an adult-onset disease.
What’s going on here? Misidentification of the nation’s most pressing addictions challenge: At the biological core of these seemingly distinct health challenges are environmental and biochemical forces that combine with our bodies to make for an addictive food supply. To understand why the food supply is so addictive, it’s necessary to recognize that there are two general kinds of brain nutrients: building blocks and fuel. It may help to think of a car engine. You need steel to build the engine and you need gas to fuel it. Our engine – brain – is more than half structural fat (not the flabby kind), the kind that keeps cold water fish flexible in frigid oceans. The working parts – neurotransmitters – are made from the amino acids in the protein food we eat. And the fuel is glucose, from sugars and starches. In our culture, we tend to eat way too much fast fuel (refined carbohydrates like cake, chips, soda) and not enough slow fuel (fiber-rich fruits and vegetables) and not enough building blocks (high quality fats and an array of protein foods). We may eat enough protein, but our processing and preparing methods reduce its food value. In that case, eating what seems to be enough still does not supply the necessary nutrients for learning brains and good mood brain chemistry.
The addictive relationship with Western processed foods rises from quirks of metabolism that make us crave fast fuel (read refined carbohydrates) even when what we really need is building blocks (read high quality fats and protein). In a medical and recovery culture that emphasizes the pharmaceutical, spiritual and behavioral contributions to recovery at the expense of the historical, biological body, we do not typically think about what sets up our bodies for addiction and relapse to begin with.
When the brain is fed too much fast fuel and not enough building material, the logical conclusion is some combination of craving, and mood, behavior and concentration problems (Ross, 2002). Weight and energy are likely to be problems too. And long term, the addictive relationship with processed foods lead us into chronic degenerative disease.
As holistic doctor Sherry Rogers (1995) pointed out, the diagnosis is inconsequential compared to the biochemical and environmental causes of the problem. If obesity, diabetes, problems with alcohol, depression, anxiety and learning issues share common roots in diet and lifestyle, then knowing which changes to make matters more than naming the disease. These issues often cluster in individuals and cluster in families. Which ones express in this or that person or family is a matter of individual biological vulnerability, but the need for a diet of uncontaminated whole foods holds true for all of them.
There is not agreement on what the most costly addiction is. Alcohol, drugs and cigarettes commonly top the list because we are not accounting for the obesity and diabetes epidemics as consequences of addictive food. Given that these and most of the modern health scourges relate to diet, environment, and lifestyle, it’s easy to argue that the food supply is the most costly addictive agent. Working with the idea that an addiction is a relationship with a material or activity which one repeatedly does in spite of the known negative consequences, refined food is the most expensive addiction in our culture. It is costly both in human and dollar terms, but the price tag is often hidden. We aren’t taught to think of treatments for depression, ADHD, diabetes or cardiovascular disease as externalized costs of buying cheap food. They are. These treatments really belong in the grocery budget because they are the pricey consequences of eating cheap, processed food. Dependency on these foods creates the need for medical, educational, and counseling expenditures that would not be necessary if we avoided them in favor of whole foods.
Until we recognize our relationship with the processed food supply as a pervasive cultural addiction, we won’t see significant progress with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, etc. because processing foods is the primary biochemical cause (Ross, 2000). Turning around the epidemics will require reducing harm culture-wide by supporting changes in the content of our diets, improving digestion, and adjusting the timing and circumstances under which we eat. For some people, changing diet and lifestyle will be enough, for others, not. Supplemental nutrients will be necessary. Either way, harm reduction thinking will be required because unlike alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, food is not something from which we can totally abstain. Harm reduction is all we have to work with. .... https://www.thesuppersprograms.org/content/nutritional-harm-reduction-1
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