Eating Your Way to Better Health
By Erin J. Shea
Photo: Beth BerryIn March 2008, Beth Berry was very sick. Her body was wracked with pain so severe she spent most days in bed. She suffered from a herniated disc, but more troubling, Berry’s doctor diagnosed her with fibromyalgia, an autoimmune disorder characterized by widespread joint and muscle pain.
“I was given a 90-count bottle of Vicodin,” Berry says. “I got mad. I was pissed, and kept saying: ‘That’s it? Just take narcotics for the rest of my life? I’m only 38 years old!’”
Instead of filling the prescription, Berry pored over the latest research on the benefits of diet and nutrition on autoimmune disorders and learned about the successes people suffering from symptoms similar to hers were having with raw food diets. “That’s when the real journey began,” she says. “Within three days of being on raw food, almost all of my symptoms had gone away.”
In an era of ever-rising healthcare costs and increased attention to holistic, organic living practices, using diet and nutrition to treat disease and illness has become more popular than ever. Raw foods, probiotics and macrobiotics are just some of the diets people are following on the path to better health.
What Is a Raw Food Diet?
According to Berry, a raw food diet consists of removing all processed foods from the diet; eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, avocado and young coconuts; and avoiding any foods that have been cooked at higher than 105 degrees. The idea is that raw food is easier to digest and expends less energy in digesting and more in cleansing and healing the body.
“When people first hear about the raw food lifestyle, they instantly imagine sitting down to a glorified veggie tray for every meal. But with cookbooks full of raw versions of tacos, nori wraps and the most incredible desserts you’ve ever tasted, you’ll rarely resort to a veggie tray,” Berry says. She estimates most people on a raw food diet follow it 75 to 85 percent of the time, incorporating some cooked whole grains, or as she says, having “an occasional slip off the old wagon.”
Eating primarily uncooked foods was a daunting proposition, and Berry looked for help from others. In August 2008, she created Raw Fu, a online social networking community that today boasts nearly 3,000 members who incorporate raw foods into their diets. The group exchanges recipes, strategies and support on a daily basis, making the journey easier. “We take 100-day raw food challenges together, and our members commit to all different levels of raw food,” she says. “We have members who start with just eating one salad a day and others who only drink smoothies or juice.”
Though some of the more complicated recipes require pricey kitchen equipment—the dehydrators, mixers and juicers that most raw foodists swear by can run upward of $500—Berry says the cost of food depends on how many people in a household follow the diet. For a single person to follow a raw food diet, she estimates $80 a week for produce, with the summer months providing a break when local food is in season and more widely available. Typical grocery lists include greens such as spinach and kale, apples, bananas, raw dairy products, sea vegetables and raw meats like sushi. Grains that have been sprouted are allowed, and many sprouted-grain breads are available in mainstream grocery stores. Crackers and chips made from flaxseed, corn and nut flours that are then dehydrated at a low temperature until crisp are allowed on the diet.
For Berry, the immediate changes in her health have changed her life, to say nothing of her relationship with food. “I took all moral value away from food,” she says. “I began to make choices based on which food would give me the most nutrition, instead of the guilt-induced diet system of making choices of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods.” Though it took her some time to retrain her taste buds, she said after 40 days she quit looking at salads as deprivation from something better to eat.
“You begin to feel a connection with the earth and feel like a creature of the planet where your food comes from,” she says. “I play a game with my 5-year-old in the grocery store when he picks up a bag of chips. I ask him, ‘Have you ever seen a bag of chips like that growing on a tree?’ He naturally giggles and says, ‘No!’ Then it’s not food, and we don’t eat it.”
What are probiotics?
The human body contains billions of bacteria and other microorganisms. According to Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. Michael Picco, probiotics are those dietary supplements or foods that contain the sort of good bacteria naturally found in the body. “Although you don’t need probiotics to be healthy, these microorganisms may provide some of the same health benefits that the bacteria already existing in your body do, such as assisting with digesting and helping protect against harmful bacteria,” he says.
While probiotic supplements are widely available, probiotics also can be incorporated into the diet by eating foods such as yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso and some juice and soy drinks. They work by restoring the balance of intestinal bacteria and raising resistance to harmful germs. Some supplements can run up to $20 a bottle, with yogurts costing up to $8 for a pack of 16.
Dr. Picco says that while more work is needed to confirm their effectiveness, research suggests that those who suffer from diarrhea (especially after treatment with certain antibiotics), yeast and urinary tract infections, irritable bowl syndrome and bladder cancer recurrence are especially helped by probiotics. A 2005 Swedish study found that employees who were given the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri missed less work because of respiratory and gastrointestinal illness than those who were not given the probiotic.
New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope wrote in a September 2009 article that only a handful of probiotics have proven effective in clinical trials. It’s difficult to ascertain which products contain those effective strains, she writes, given the lack of standardized labeling requirements for probiotic products. Lactobacillus GG is the most widely studied strain and, according to a 2008 report in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, has helped in the treatment of children who suffer from eczema.
How do you follow a macrobiotic diet?
Following a Macrobiotic Diet
The word macrobiotic comes from “macro,” which means large, and “bio,” which means “life.” Practitioners of a macrobiotic diet generally seek a way of eating that incorporates physical and spiritual health. Rich in soy and phytoestrogens, which are a diverse group of nonsteroidal plant compounds found in food such as nuts, oilseeds and flaxseed, the macrobiotic diet is predominately vegetarian and emphasizes whole grains and vegetables.
“The real spirit of macrobiotics is about freedom,” says Jessica Porter, author of The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics. “One eats healthy foods most of the time so that one can eat more extreme foods some of the time. People in good health can go out and play, having a glass of wine or a piece of chocolate cake. They return to their regular macro foods in order to maintain their health and eventually play again.”
Porter says the philosophy in macrobiotic thinking is explained through the lens of yin and yang. “We eat foods that are whole, local and in season [so] that our bodies get perfect yin-ness and yang-ness needed for the natural environment in which we live. When we harmonize with nature, we experience strength, flexibility, freedom and happiness.” For example, she says those who live in New York City and eat what she calls “yin foods” like bananas, yogurt and sugar on a daily basis become weakened and lose touch with the natural world.
Cooking macrobiotic food takes time. Porter suggest people start by cooking and eating whole grains on a daily basis, which can take up to an hour to cook. “Just make some brown rice and chew it well,” she says. “In my experience, after people begin to eat whole grains daily, [they'll] want to cook an hour a day.”
Though it can be expensive, Porter says certain items such as sea vegetables and miso last a long time and the elimination of meat and dairy in exchange for grains and beans balances out any high costs on a grocery bill.
“These days, with muffins, cappuccinos and microwave dinners making up our daily fare, we’re eating in a way that weakens our bodies and minds over time,” Porter says. “When we end up depressed or anxiety-ridden, we’re told it’s all in our heads, when very often, it’s all on our plates.”