September 11, 2019

Diet Diversity—the Many, Mysterious Manifestations of “Healthy Eating.”


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My sister-in-law Emily heaves two giant tubs of mascarpone onto the cart as I shiver and marvel at our otherworldly surroundings.

Luscious basketball-sized black truffle burrata to my right and up ahead, fresh mozzarella loaves as big as my cat when she’s curled up. We are at Restaurant Depot, a warehouse wonderland the general non-restaurateur public never usually gets to see.

Standing in the giant refrigerated section of the commercial restaurant grocery and supply store, I am accompanying Emily while she buys bulk supplies for her business. She makes ketogenic desserts in reusable glass jars. The ketogenic (or keto) diet is a low-carb, high-protein, high-fat diet that cuts out all sugar, bread, pasta, and alcohol, forcing your body to burn fat rather than carbohydrates. For those following this diet, or simply avoiding sugar, Emily’s desserts provide a guilt-free treat fix.

Then again, guilt-free might not be absolute truth. Though the desserts contain no sugar, they do contain generous amounts of other brain-stimulating joys of the culinary realm. Enter the mascarpone we just picked up, as well as other creamy dairy delights which are the backbone of her lemon berry cheesecake, midnight mousse, and other mouthwatering flavors.

I’m not diminishing her wizardry in the slightest—it’s amazing how satisfying her products are to a sweet tooth without any added sugars whatsoever. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I have seen her sell out at the local farmers’ market week after week. People with diabetes, cancer, and other major health conditions, even a regular customer who studies diseases for a living, have found relief on the keto diet and rejoice over these desserts.

In fact, I myself have been dealing with a life-altering medical condition that has puzzled multiple doctors for months.

Blood tests show that I am healthy. I practice yoga daily and I have studied other bodywork techniques extensively. I eat a healthy diet full of vegetables, fish, and lean meats. But I am still sometimes debilitated by physical pain. I have been trying all kinds of things, including dietary changes, to try and help. I, too, rejoice that not only are there sugar-free treats out there that don’t feel like a compromise, but—not to brag—I get free samples.

Fast forward to the summer solstice. Our family is celebrating with a gourmet spread of berries, figs, and cheeses. I feast on a lemon berry cheesecake jar, as well as several crackers decked with artisanal cheese and honey, and I’m feeling the happy brain chemicals so strongly, I can’t comprehend why people would ever need hard drugs to get high.

But the next day, my pain is severe. It’s hard to know for sure why, because there are always so many factors at play, but a week prior, I had cut out dairy on a doctor’s recommendation. And now my body seems to rebel to the deviation.

Over the next few days, I watch the compelling documentaries “Cowspiracy” and “What the Health” made by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, and my mind is blown open. It is now impossible for me to ignore that animal agriculture is responsible for so many of our health and environmental problems.

Over a month later, I can’t say the diet has miraculously cured my pain. But on the days following some relatively innocent violations (chicken meatballs, salmon, and a single green tea ice cream mochi from Trader Joe’s), I notice a big uptick in pain, while on the days following a completely oil-free, turmeric-dusted tofu and roasted veggie Buddha bowl, I feel cleansed, grounded, and energized.

And yet Emily and her customers feel cleansed, grounded, and energized from being in ketosis, consuming cheese, milk, bacon, and steak.

And then there’s Paul Rudnick, the writer, who has famously subsisted his entire life on a diet of almost nothing but Hershey’s milk chocolate and baked goods and has no medical issues to speak of (how in the…?).

Medical intuitive Caroline Myss says in her book Anatomy of the Spirit that if you’re in balance spiritually/energetically, you could eat nothing but cat food and be completely healthy. It’s absurd, but I tend to agree. If our life force is strong and wants to shine through, then it will. If we’re in balance, we’re not so fragile that we need to worry about every little thing we put in our mouths.

But why do some people really seem to need help from food to get into that state of balance?

As an alternative to the ever-changing, often politically motivated info from the United States government about nutrition (the American Heart Association receives money from the Texas Beef Council), I’ve always enjoyed reading about Ayurvedic medicine and thinking about my health through this lens. The ancient Indian system says there are three doshas, or types of energy, and every individual has a predominant dosha. Knowing which is your predominant dosha helps you plan a routine of diet, exercise, and general care to stay balanced.

According to Ayurveda.com, as a vata-predominant, I should adopt a diet high in dairy and low in hard-to-digest legumes (a point for keto).

But no matter what the specific instructions, it’s Ayurveda’s underlying principle that is compelling—that we need to locate our tendencies and seek balance from there, rather than follow some externally prescribed regimen designed for the lowest common denominator.

Similarly, in Buddhist teaching, nonjudgmental observation is the only path to transformation, a lesson I have personally experienced the truth of, and one which I continually have to relearn.

So, for example, if you’ve got leaky gut due to a dairy sensitivity, then keto would not be the right diet for you. If you have severe IBS, going plant-based could be a hard row to hoe with all that fiber.

I yearn to follow some kind of system that I can be certain will help me. I yearn to be fixed. I resist doing the hard work of self-discovery as much as anyone. But let’s face it—we may all just need to be willing to do some honest lifestyle inventory, shine a light on our personal issues, and balance our systems using multiple tools, including nutrition. Then, just maybe we can aspire to that all-cat-food diet.

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