August 14, 2015

Down with Food Dogma.

Mike Licht/Flickr

*Editor’s Note: No website is designed to, and can not be construed to, provide actual medical advice, professional diagnosis or treatment to you or anyone. Elephant is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional advice, care and treatment.

*Author’s Note: This post does not apply to people with serious food allergies or health concerns. Eliminating certain foods if they create a highly dangerous immune reaction is absolutely necessary.

I fully believe in therapeutic, healing diets. Eliminating some foods for a period of time is absolutely necessary for certain healing. The subject of this post is addressing a sustainable way of eating.


Vegan. Paleo. Vegetarian. Pescetarian. Low carb. High carb. Atkins diet. Zone diet. Low fat. High fat.

I grew up in a very religious community. Church, Awana, youth group, bible courses in school—you get the idea.

I grew up with dogma firmly leading me by the hand: “We are right, they are wrong.”

Perhaps this is why I am very sensitive to dogma. In college I learned the invaluable thing known as an “open mind.” A mind that can interpret information free of dogma. A mind that, hopefully, can make sense of information through its own rational faculties.

Dogma is a mind in shackles. Dogma is comfortable, however. There is one tidy box from which to select opinions.

Without dogma, there are millions of boxes to choose from—but since traipsing to one box every day in which to pull an idea out when you need it for politics, religion or how to eat is so much easier, why bother with the dangers of opening another box?

Dogma, in one of its brilliant, manipulative stunts has taken an emotional, intimate human experience and has boxed it up, each box with a prettier bow on top than the next: food.

We are in magnificent, scientific era of research and new discoveries. We have control groups and lab tests and studies done on massive groups of people. And here we are, still debating viciously and dogmatically what the right way to eat should be.

Meat? You’ll probably die early from heart disease.

No meat? B12 deficient and have no idea how to put together a complete protein.

Dairy? Congested and breaking out from all the excess hormones.

No dairy? Calcium deficient for sure.

Grains and legumes? Probably not absorbing nutrients from the phytic acid and lectins.

Coffee? Yeah, your adrenals are shot.

Kale and spinach? You’re overdosing on oxalates.

Onions and garlic? Way high FODMAP, definitely contributing to bacterial overgrowth.

Nightshades? Definitely contributing to inflammation.

I love science. But science has a way of breaking things down into individiual constituents instead of looking at the big picture. We call this Nutritionism:

“An alleged paradigm that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine the value of individual food stuffs in the diet. In other words, it is the idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all it\’s individual nutrients, vitamins and other components.”

When we look at individual constituents of food, it’s so easy to villainize food instead of looking at it holistically. Yes, a banana has a lot of sugar. But it also contains chromium, which is a mineral that aids in maintaining blood sugar balance.

Life should not be a cyclical process of eating healthfully and dieting versus eating unhealthfully and indulgence. We hear about balance everywhere. But balance is so damn hard because it has no rules, we make them up oursleves. That means listening and hearing our bodies.

One of the best ways to listen to our bodies? Eat in season. Our bodies needs are constantly in flux. Winter is for warming, hearty foods; we need healthy fats and grounding root vegetables and spices. Summer is for cooling foods like cucumber and melon.

Many people come to me with studies and “evidence” of one particular diet that they’ve read about on blogs, seen on a documentary or heard on a podcast. Most evidential claims are biased and sensationalized. Books that are dogmatically in one camp are quite proficient at hand picking bits of evidence from studies and making overwhelming claims. At the base of these claims is fear. And I bought into it for too long. Make sure experts who are citing these studies are looking at the whole study, not just the parts that fuel their agenda. It’s the same with religion; religious books are dissected and mamed to support different peoples opinions and ideals.

Perhaps I have a hedonistic view of food, and being a nutritionist I flounder to find “my people” in this great big world of dogma.

When I was seeing a nutritionist for some chronic health issues, it was the classic, “Oh no, my nutritionist is going to take away my favorite food” scenario. I had loads of lab tests done, indicating my apparent food sensitivities. When I was in school for nutrition, food intolerances and sensitivities were always at the forefront of conversation and we learned how to do “elimination diets,” where one eats a restricted diet for one month then adds back in possible trigger foods to see potential negative reactions. Unless this is executed perfectly, this technique becomes extremely muddled. Some food reactions can be caused up to three days later, making one think that it was a different food than the one they ate three days ago. I went through my time studying nutrition slowly eliminating food after food because I was terrified of inflammation and disrupting my hormones and breaking out and being constipated.

I wasn’t happy, I was confused. I didn’t feel any better. In fact, I felt worse because I was eating mostly fiber and meat, both of which slowed my sensitive digestion even more and was missing out on dinner with friends because I “couldn’t eat anything on the menu.”

I was miserable trying to strike that balance of being a foodie and health nut when I had eliminated all grains, dairy, legumes, sugar, starchy vegetables, FODMAPS (a class of indigestible carbohydrates), fruit and other random foods that came up on my food intolerance test.

I couldn’t eat, and I love to eat. I felt like a traitor to my Italian heritage and I was so confused as to how I would keep this up for my entire life.

Almost every food became demonized and inevitable; guilt was constantly on my plate and fork.

This dangerous way of thinking can develop into a condition known as orthorexia: when a person is religiously and dogmatically adherent to a healthy, specific way of eating.

Ramani Durvasula says orthorexia

“…often starts from a place of good intentions-with a person maintaining a healthy lifestyle or making changes to a more healthy lifestyle… Over time it becomes a bit more obsessional—with a rigid focus on types of ingredients, types of foods, quantities, and times of day things should be eaten.” (Barclay, 2015)

Now, I eat real food. I keep it utterly simple: I eat whole foods that speak to me. That includes dairy, grains, meat, sugar and wine (in their most natural forms and in moderation).

However, I am highly in tune with how my body responds to food and naturally don’t over indulge because I know the brain fog and low energy that will follow if I over do it. Food is my biggest source of joy, fulfillment and my creative outlet. I don’t restrict anything entirely. And I am healthy.

However, it took a great amount of experimentation and paying attention to my body to reach this place. I’ve done an immense amount of gut healing, which is my business niche and the foundation for optimal health. One of my biggest tools for staying healthy is keeping my emotions healthy. This means a lot less indulgence in sugar and refined carbohydrates. I now know how these foods make my body feel, and I like to feel good, so I naturally eat less of them.

Within my time and experience as a nutritionist, I have identified one quality that separates people from being successful or not when it comes to committing to health: self love and compassion.

When we operate from a place of absolute acceptance and love for who we are, we will naturally want to fuel our bodies with clean food that makes us feel great. I believe chronic overeating and an inability to eat what one knows to be good for them stems from shame and guilt, never enjoyment.

Balance, joy and fulfillment are never achieved through dogmatic self discipline.

It’s important to differentiate between quality of ingredients as well when finding balance. You can imagine the difference between two different types of gluten: a packaged hotdog bun and a homemade, sourdough loaf made with organic spelt. A cup of fruity, Yoplait yogurt versus twenty four hour fermented yogurt made with quality dairy. A frozen TV dinner of spaghetti versus homemade semolina pasta and bolognese made with heirloom tomatoes and local meat. It’s not that I choose not to eat a hotdog bun because I don’t eat gluten, it’s because it’s not a quality product and I no longer view it as “food.”

No whole food is bad for you. It’s time to stop labeling foods as good or bad.

It’s the quality and quantity that matters.

Food is defined as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink… in order to maintain life and growth.”

It’s not possible to maintain life or growth on Twizzlers, Big Macs and preservatives for very long. When you allow yourself a bit of every whole food, it will be much harder to over do one particular food item.

For a time, I thought I had to choose between loving food or nutrition. Thankfully that is no longer the case, I love both equally. I am not perfect and I’m still learning, but I am flourishing and healthy.

Health is about what you add, not what you take away.

And the best part about not adhering to food dogma? You can order anything you damn want off the menu.


Bonus: Ironically, after writing this post I listened to a podcast on Underground Wellness interviewing Alan Levinovitz, author of The Gluten Lie. I highly recommend listening to this podcast as it was bizarrely similar to what I wrote here. I haven’t read his book but will be purchasing it shortly!


Relephant Reads:

Orthorexia: Healing From Disordered Eating.

Ten Steps to Eating Perfectly.



Author: Hannah Brantley

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Mike Licht/Flickr






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