When certified health coach Ali Shapiro was experiencing crippling IBS flare-ups in her early twenties, the medical experts she visited had nothing but ineffective prescriptions to offer. “After a lot of visits to many different doctors,” Shapiro says, “I realized I was on my own.”
She dove head-first into the study of nutrition and health, gradually making the connection between what she ate and how she felt. After noticing improvement when she ditched processed foods, she later kicked dairy and gluten to the curb. Finally, her painful symptoms were under control. “Today, 15 years later, IBS is no longer an issue for me,” she says.
These eye-opening experiences led Shapiro to become a certified health coach so she could guide others through the same kind of healing process she went through. And she isn’t alone. Practitioners of alternative and traditional medicine alike are urging patients to look to their refrigerator in addition to their pharmacy for optimal health.
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
“Diet has an influence on most medical conditions,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., holistic health expert, author, and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, who routinely asks patients to clean up their diets as part of treatment.
“For example, people with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes often improve when following an anti-inflammatory diet,” he says. This program is heavy in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats.
His prescription has a lot in common with the one often prescribed by Victoria Maizes, M.D., director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine; she favors the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. “It’s not uncommon for us to see someone go on that kind of diet and reverse early stage type 2 diabetes or be able to get off insulin,” she says.
But you don't need an illness to see how changing what you eat can give you more energy, help you maintain a healthy body weight, and sharpen your mental focus. David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, believes you can’t overstate the role of food in good health. “Diet is the single best way to get and stay well. Even in the short term, dietary changes can shrink the plaque on artery walls,” he says. Basically, your grocery list is the foundation of feeling good.
Everyone’s a Snowflake
While food is certainly a powerful tool for maximizing your health, it’s important to remember that diet is never one-size-fits-all. “It would be silly to suggest someone living on an Inuit diet of salmon and walrus to give the Mediterranean diet a try,” Maizes says.
Sure, that's a purposely extreme example, but even minor food tweaks vary a lot in their effect from person to person. Many people report the clearing away of “brain fog” on a gluten-free diet; others feel foggier than San Francisco without plenty of whole grains. Some people feel powered up on a vegan program, yet others need some meat for maximum energy. Feeling your very best is always about what works best for you.
Sometimes the wrinkles in our diet that need ironing out are extremely hard to predict. “I had one patient with a pain syndrome find out his triggers where nightshades, lamb, and black pepper,” Maizes says. Once the offending ingredients were identified, improvements for that patient came swiftly: Within six weeks, the formerly bedridden man could walk with a cane.
Playing Diet Detective
Clearly, finding out which—if any—foods are affecting how you feel is a bit of a guessing game. (Have you ever heard of the nightshade-, lamb-, pepper-free diet? Neither have we.) A detailed food and symptom journal is one strategy Maize recommends for zeroing-in on root causes. “You see patterns emerge over time,” she explains. That intel gives you hints about what to subtract (like chocolate if you repeatedly suffer headaches soon after) or add (better workouts after having a salmon-topped lunch salad might mean you should eat more midday protein).
Other health pros, including Erin Peisach, a registered dietician at University of Maryland’s Center for Integrated Health and Healing, put clients on elimination diets to get to the bottom of things. An elimination diet means that patients abstain from some of the most common offenders—dairy, gluten, and soy, for example—for a number of weeks or months before systematically reintroducing the foods while monitoring how they feel. This extreme approach is not for everyone, but if you have issues that haven't been resolved through other methods, it might be worth trying. “Elimination diets can be useful for identifying and treating gut issues, like IBS, Crohn's, or colitis,” Peisach says.
Shapiro is also a fan of using elimination diets to figure out food triggers. In her practice, she’s had clients learn that laying off soy can sometimes relieve premenstrual dysphoric disorder and that going without gluten can end the need for heartburn medications.
Proceed With Caution
There is no shortage of dramatic stories of people recovering from their health woes thanks to food, but it’s important to take those tales with a grain of salt—and perhaps a pill bottle too. “There’s nothing in lifestyle modification that can mimic a modern antibiotic,” Katz says.
Most experts suggest combining common-sense lifestyle tune-ups (namely, not smoking, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet) with conventional medical treatments. That’s because, at least in part, there is still a lot to learn about the way specific foods and diets affect overall health. It’s a notoriously tough subject to research.
“If you look at people in real-world settings, you have trouble controlling the diet. And if you put them in a metabolic lab, people won’t stay long enough. It’s too inconvenient,” Katz explains. As a result, we just don’t have the same kind of evidenced-based research for diet as we do for conventional medical treatments. “We need to respect both approaches,” Katz says. “It isn’t an either-or choice.”
Even the least alternative of doctors will tell you that food is very powerful when it comes to your health. And it doesn’t take an elimination diet or sweeping changes to make a big difference. Food isn’t a miracle that can replace modern medicine, but even small improvements to your current diet—such as cutting back on processed foods—can make you feel better right away and put you on a path to a lifetime of good health. Talk to a nutritionist or dietitian if you are considering making changes to your diet.