“He that takes the medicine and neglects diet wastes the skill of the physician.” – Chinese Proverb
By Susan Tretakis – Coral Springs, Fl – November is a terrible month to write about food and health.
I have to be honest; for me, beginning in September and throughout December, I feel as if I am under a continual attack from a variety of poor, unhealthy food choices. Tempting choices.
Foods that I rarely think about now literally scream my name – from the television, from the free samples being given out at markets, from recipes demonstrated daily on morning television. Beginning with the chocolate covered macaroons at Rosh Hashanah, to candy corn (as well as sales on everything chocolate) at Halloween, to pumpkin pie, stuffing, and sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving, to the chocolate “Hanukkah Gelt” and Christmas cookies and the far too many alcoholic choices available, these four months are for me, quite simply, “food hell”.
And probably, the very worst time to rehabilitate from bi-lateral knee surgery.
One of the things for which I am grateful this year is that we live in a world with countless opportunities to research, review and question the many dietary theories that bombard us on a daily basis. The news articles and television documentaries are out there – we just need to know how to review, to question, to research what they are saying – if only to verify what is true and what is not.
Views on healthy food change all of the time – usually depending on the latest research study or in some cases, some idea from some lone company as a means to increase their customer base. (I am speaking to you, unnamed company, who is touting their “plant burger” to appeal to those who are opting to eat more “plant based food”. I am hoping people ask for and check the ingredients of this so called “healthy alternative” to see the staggering amount of sodium and preservatives that fits neatly in the doubly preserved bun.)
Yes, it’s a battle and a nuisance to have to question everything. But when it comes to your health, what fight is more worth it?
For me, these four months are critical to my rehab and recovery. I wanted to know what foods to eat that would help my body rebuild and heal as quickly as possible. I wanted to lessen those times when my self-control would falter. I wanted to know what foods to eat to help me keep my usual holiday anxiety and free-floating depression in control.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has written about nutrition for over 3000 years. TCM differentiates between “Food Therapy” and “Medical Diet Therapy”. TCM believes the role of food and medicine overlap. While “Food Therapy” aims to maintain balanced nutrition through one’s diet, “Medical Diet Therapy” aims to keep health, prevent disease, remove illness and slow aging.
For a TCM practitioner, a watermelon is a food, but it can also have a medical effect because of its hydrating properties. Celery is a food, but it can also help the liver rid itself of impurities. A trained TMC practitioner can advise on the foods an individual needs to treat the root cause of their symptoms. Before prescribing any treatment plan, TCM practitioners regard the body and lifestyle as one system.
For me, one of the major appeals of TCM is how it recognizes the powerful connection between the mind and the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners view these two as inseparable. Perhaps this is why we all tend to identify individual, personal, so-called “comfort foods”; foods that calm us when we are not, scents and tastes that remind us of better times, easier times. I suspect that many choose comfort foods in an attempt to balance oneself spiritually. For me, poor food choices create an imbalance that wreak havoc on my emotions, my skin, my digestion; poor choices lead to skin rashes, runny eyes, bleeding gums and, yes, dark thoughts.
In researching this post certain phrases kept re-appearing. I read multiple articles about “Food as Medicine” and reviewed many references to “Nutritional Psychology”.
Indeed, the conventional and on-going scientific studies speaks for themselves; documented study after study shows the dangerous link between sugar and alcohol on the brain. For me, I knew I did not spend ten days in a hospital to give into a siren’s song for chocolate, candy corn and sweet potato pie. I knew that wine was not the answer for relaxation. It became apparent very quickly that a complete rehab required me return to my TCM teachings of daily meditation. To Chinese herbs. To acupuncture.
My orthopedic surgeon told me that after orthopedic surgery, both the speed of recovery and the effectiveness of the surgery is largely determined by what a person eats. Not only does the body need more calories to recover, but surgery also causes a stress reaction that elevates the metabolism and increases the need for calories. I found – almost instantly – that the times that I ate throughout the day changed. I am an early riser, but I needed to fuel up for each PT session in order to get through them successfully. Sleepiness would lead to sloppiness – and sloppy form leads to other aches and pains.
After surgery, nutritionists urge patients to focus on whole foods. By “whole foods”, they mean unprocessed foods. Therefore, an actual orange is better than orange juice. Fiber is recommended to help improve digestion. Certain foods help with wound healing, fatigue and aid in the body’s “recovery process.” Protein, nutrient-dense foods with Vitamin C, B12 and Iron are also recommended. Here again, rather than a created – aka – “processed supplement” – doctors agree that it is best to get these necessary nutrients from fresh fruit, fish and eggs.
I could do this; in fact, now that I was able to stand for longer and longer period of time, I could cook for myself. I live in a neighborhood where everything – including alcohol – is easily delivered. As nice and convenient as this service is, I missed selecting my own food. By October, I was cleared to drive, and urged to walk a minimum of 5000 steps a day. It was a pleasure to walk the grocery store, and aisle by aisle, shop for my own food. And, as much as this shocks me to write, my “comfort food” became that which I made for myself because I knew the ingredients. My “comfort food” became that which was handled less by others.
My comfort came from being able to take care of myself.
I found it interesting that conventional medical reviews claimed the most successful surgical rehabilitation takes place when the patient equally balances rest, exercise and nutrition. My surgeon – and physical therapist – told me there would be days when I would be more tired than usual, that I would not feel like eating, and that I needed to remember that sleep was an important part of the equation of recovery.
This emphasis on “balance” – from two very conventional practitioners – brought me back to the TCM concept of Yin and Yang. This, in itself gave me comfort. For post-surgical patients, sleep is difficult. With a new joint, as your body adjusts and accepts, sleep is elusive. Stiffness, nerve pain, knee and ankle bloating can cause interrupted sleep cycles. With bi-lateral surgery, I was doubly cursed. Four nearly four weeks, more than two hours of sleep a night was a miracle; three hours was a blessing.
A friend of mine, a clinical psychologist, urged me to develop a “bedtime ritual”. In addition to eliminating certain foods and drinks, he encouraged me to journal the days’ accomplishments, and even to notate my disappointments. Somehow, writing everything into a notebook – both the good and the bad – helped me to get these insomnia-enhancing thoughts out of my head. Journaling literally allowed me to “turn the page” to better balance my Qi for the next day.
Today, more and more information is emerging about the connection between anxiety, depression and other types of mental illness and the connection with food. Psychiatrists, psychologists and scientists are drawing connections between bipolar disorders and schizophrenia due to a lack of specific nutrients. Published documentation reveals that inflammation in the brain is the basis of more and more mental health problems. The inflammatory response in the brain actually begins with what we eat. A lack of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, omega 3 fatty acids and probiotics can wreak havoc. Increased, unprocessed vitamin D, B complex, omega-3, magnesium and zinc have all been shown to improve mood. In fact, one study shows that taking a daily probiotic has resulted in a significant reduction in both anxiety and depression.
It makes sense if you stop and think about it. Nutrition can’t help but not play an important part in one’s mental health. The brain is always “on” – and it needs fuel (as well as rest and exercise) to function at its best. Truly, “we are what we eat”; poor food choices result in poor brain performance. One Dutch study found the damage to tiny blood vessels that is caused by consuming a poor diet can raise a person’s risk for depression by almost 60%. A study from the University of Melbourne found that women who consumed excessive amounts of junk food and sugary food had a 50% higher likelihood of suffering anxiety or depression than those with healthier diets.
For me professionally, this interest in nutritional psychology is long overdue. As a psychologist, I can only watch the sales of antidepressants skyrocket. The current system is apparently not working for the over 12 million American adults with depression. So many people with mental health issues face a life-long struggle simply because current medicines do not address the root cause of their problem. Switching to a healthier, non-processed diet could save a lot of people from unnecessary suffering.
For me personally, I needed this information NOW to deal with November. Life is crazy. We are all human. I barely made it out of Whole Foods yesterday without tossing the dark chocolate peppermint bark in my cart. And while I had loaded my cart with fruits and vegetables and other healthy, unprocessed food – it was – still – an extremely close call.
True observation: I may have been able to bypass the dark chocolate, peppermint bark, but I am pretty sure I will indulge in Thanksgiving stuffing and pie. I also know that nutritionists advise that to stay healthy it is best to eat 7-13 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. I know what I can healthfully put on my plate – so this indulgence can be balanced out.
Keyword: Balance. (Do you hear the tingle of the TCM bell?)
I would never presume to tell anyone what to eat; I am not a nutritionist, nor am I a doctor. If anything, I am simply a “Food Survivor”. I recently celebrated my second anniversary of keeping off the 170 pounds I had lost by November, 2017, one year after my acupuncturist re-did my diet and changed my life. This Thanksgiving, as I have been each Thanksgiving since meeting him, I am grateful for him and his teachings.
I have much more to be grateful this year. I have new knees – and while we are still becoming acquainted with each other – they have opened an entire new world to me. A world of being able to walk stairs, of being able to sit in a restaurant booth, to be able to sit in a movie theater, of being able to walk – all pain-free.
But I am also incredibly grateful for the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I am thankful for the practitioners who helped me understand the connection between Yin and Yang – for teaching me the need for my inner balance – in thought, life, and yes, in food choices.
I am thankful for my renewed Qi.
I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving – filled with positive balance and positive thoughts.
- Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center