Fight the fad: Can Nutrition Cure All Disease?

nhA few weeks ago I posted the first in the fight the fad series on detoxes. The next day I heard about  Belle Gibson, plant-based diet guru who claimed to have healed herself from brain cancer through a healthy diet. Apparently it was all a fake. She never had cancer and used her lie to scam thousands of people and make hundreds of thousands of dollars. She was even on her way to having a book published. She basically fooled the entire world.

I took an interest in this whole thing because I actually had been following her on instagram. Not because I wanted her “detox” advice, but because she took amazingly beautiful food photos and I wanted to learn how to make my bowl of fruit look so fancy–In case you’re wondering, I haven’t learned a thing, I suck at instagram.

The other day she made international headlines again by speaking out about her deception to the world. So I thought it would be the perfect time to bring up a big sticking point for many who are wanting to improve their relationship with food – the fear that eating the “wrong” foods is the cause of all disease.

I wanted to heal the world with food

When I was a teenager my youth leader was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This woman was a role model to me. She was kind, smart, married to her High School sweetheart… everything I hoped for from life it seemed like she had. Her diagnosis shook me and scared me. If someone so wonderful could be diagnosed with such a horrible disease, what would I be in for?

I worried about everything from that day on. In nursing school I learned about all sorts of diseases to add to my “cross my fingers I don’t get this” list. Honestly, I was horrified of disease: of cancer, of sudden heart failure, of neurological diseases… the only ones I wasn’t worried about were the psychological diseases (which is ironic considering I would likely have been diagnosed with an eating disorder at that time).

Then, I discovered the holy grail of health and healing: Nutrition! Or so I thought. I started reading mommy blogs with all sorts of advice on how to cure everything from autism to arthritis to lyme disease to autoimmune disease.

This is it! I thought. I want to become that person that teaches others how to never get sick again!

I started diving into every nutritional theory out there to try to find the “perfect diet”. At the time I was working in the most highly skilled intensive care unit in a 6 state region, and saw plenty of people who I thought could benefit from some serious nutritional therapy. Are the doctors and medical establishment really suppressing all of this stuff? Why aren’t we giving these patients supplements to support their livers?

So I decided to go back to school and get an advanced degree in nutrition. I sought out a highly respectable, yet open-to-alternatives program out there in order to learn all points of view. I read everything and anything I could about how to “heal naturally.” I worked under mentors in natural healing, I also learned how to read and interpret scientific research.

Nutritional healing: Not what it’s cracked up to be?

Here’s what I learned: there are a lot of claims out there on nutrition that have zero scientific evidence to back them. The only claims they have are of first hand accounts of someone who was cured by cutting out this or that. Unfortunately that does NOT make for adequate scientific evidence, as the placebo effect for any treatment has been shown to be as high as 30-50%…. meaning no matter what you tell people to do, someone will feel better doing it – that doesn’t mean it is curing anything.

Now this is NOT to say that nutrition has no role in disease management: there are many conditions that can be improved by changes in food intake: for example a low purine diet for gout, low glycemic diet for diabetes, gluten free diet for celiac disease. But that doesn’t mean that ALL diseases are caused by the wrong foods, or that finding the right combination of foods will cure everything.

In fact, searching for that magical cure, that “holy grail” may cause more problems than it solves.

#1: it can be damaging to mental health and quality of life -  The amount of time, energy, and emotion spent trying to find “the answer” usually will lead to disordered eating and fear around food. especially as you feel like you aren’t getting better, you dig deeper and deeper, and the experts keep claiming you aren’t doing it “right” restricting more and more. Or you spend thousands of dollars on supplements, specialty foods, and special “treatments” only to find that it doesn’t do a thing for you.

#2: there is a chance that people will turn away from proven, effective therapies and opt for nutritional treatments instead. This was the case for the mother of a prominent wellness blogger, who had been diagnosed with a form of breast cancer that typically has a high success rate with chemotherapy. She chose instead to go for juice detoxes, coffee enemas, and a strict diet. Unfortunately she passed away in the same time frame as someone with “untreated cancer.”

#3: often the suggested alternative nutritional treatment is counter to what the person really needs. Let’s go back to the cancer example. A person who is on chemotherapy has nearly no appetite, constant nausea, and is at risk for malnourishment and muscle wasting. What does that mean? That means eating a raw vegan diet is NOT supportive of that person’s health. What this person needs is calories, and highly palatable foods that are easy to eat. Like ice cream. There, I said it – some cancer patients need ice cream more than they need kale.

That’s not to say some people don’t feel better on a special diet. Many do. As I said already:

so anyone who says something “worked” without a properly conducted study backing it is usually not really “cured.”

So should we toss out the veggies and live off of hot dogs and donuts?

Healthy nutrition can prevent a lot of things such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes and can help us thrive in our bodies, but it isn’t a cure-all for every illness and disease. It can be way too easy for someone to take one piece of nutrition research–that has probably been debunked by another– and turn it into a gospel truth on how we should eat. Check out this article on the inconsistency of nutrition research.

So does that mean we should throw all caution to the wind and spend the rest of our days eating nothing but pizza and donuts? Um, no. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Here’s what I am saying: Eating a moderate, balanced, nourishing diet can give us a better quality of life, but cutting out sugar, gluten, corn, wheat, dairy, soy, meat, certain veggies… and so on… isn’t a magic bullet for curing disease.

If you want some great weekend reading, I’ve been reading a fascinating piece of autobiographical fiction of a well-meaning former “Holistic” MD. It’s absolutely worth a read.

In the meantime, share your thoughts in the comments. There was much much more I could have written on this topic, so if you have questions, ask them. I’ll take the time to answer.

I also know I’m getting some hate for this one, so lay it on thick :-P

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