Even in my little rural Alaskan town, Plant Paradox by Stephen Gundry is making the rounds and conversations about it unavoidable.
People talking about what it means to eat healthy—this is wonderful!
Short on time and looking for answers this is a book written for pop culture, easy to read and high on anecdotes.
The strongest critiques of this book make the point that Gundry’s work thus far has not been peer reviewed, lacks scientific studies, he exaggerates, his facts aren’t facts, that the references he uses to make statements don’t match his claims, and his book and products are a marketing scam.
One example of such an opinion he presented late in the book and without any supporting evidence or other scientific research is that he doubts the existence of vitamin D toxicity. This is certainly a departure of any medical wisdom (western or alternative), as I certainly advocate that people keep their vitamin D within a certain optimal range and limit dosing.
Anytime someone claims that their product or their way solves ALL problems such as Dr Gundry does, I feel a little toreador inside me waving red flags like mad! I have yet to experience something in this world that is a panacea for everyone.
Yet, it is worth perusing this book and continuing this discussion on food; I find I respect much of what Dr. Gundry had to say. Is he correct? That is a different question, there is much more to learn about lectins (some lectins have anti-cancer properties and some lectin containing foods [peppers] have numerous health benefits). In the meantime, anyone who is curious can put Dr Gundry’s diet can try it for themselves as he outlines his 3 phase program, meal plans and recipes all in the book.
In spite of all the advances of science, as a general public, we are still unclear how to do the simplest of things—nourish ourselves, and so make these drastic swings into the next diet revolution…
Isn’t that incredible?!?
It’s humbling to realize that the more we think we know the more aware we become of the complexity of the matter.
The overall advice of this book to eat more leafy greens and (certain) vegetables, seaweeds, mushrooms, to choose healthy fats, decrease sugars and carbs, and that gluten is wreaking havoc on many people’s health – not exactly news for the health conscious.
The controversial areas of Dr Gundry’s assertions are that the fructose in fruits, lectins which are specific phytochemicals that are part of a plant’s defense mechanism in nature and that are found in whole grains, beans, some seeds, and vegetables such as nightshades and squashes are destroying many people’s health. I wish he would have spent more time elaborating on the details of the criteria for his “yes” and “no” foods and the as it does not always appear straightforward (for example berries are a limited food item with no discussion about it) and the physiological processes and science behind his clinical experience with patients. Also, it is an over-simplification to make a list of yes and no foods for everyone-- for example, if you have a food intolerance to one or more of the foods on the "yes list" then these are aggravating symptoms and your health condition may not improve until those foods are eliminated too! Overall Dr Gundry's dietary recommendations are similar to those I would recommend for people facing autoimmune type disorders.
Grains and Carbs – bad players? Dr Gundry strongly recommends eliminating wheat and most grains. This of course has been echoed by the Paleo community for some time. Many people believe that the wheat, corn, and soy of today, which have been overbred and doused with pesticides for commercial purposes lack redeeming value in our diets.
Should we take grains out of our diet completely? Should we only eat refined grains? These are debated questions and have been for a while. I have heard some practitioners say that wheat negatively effects every person’s gut by opening up the tight junctions in the colon, at least temporarily. But this is another one of those assertions that is not proven truth (yet?). However, if this is any truth in this, then we each perpetually need to make sure we are doing all we can to keep our guts healthy and prevent inflammation! And gluten-free is not so simple, as Dr Gundry recommends against packaged gluten free foods as he asserts they often have harmful additives that are not required to be listed on the label. He has a chapter devoted to thoughts on optimizing gastrointestinal health by avoiding 7 disruptors [antibiotics, NSAID, PPI & Acid Blocking pharmaceuticals, artificial sweeteners, GMOs, and the blue light of our electronic devices].
There is an increasingly large population reacting to grains with food sensitivities, allergies, and at the extreme Celiac disease. The rise of these ailments does make it appear that something has changed in the grain itself, our bodies, and/or our bodies ability to process these foods.
There is great research out there by intelligent medical professional proponents of whole grain diets—how do we square this with new ideas on limiting carbs? There is plenty of science that support plant based diets and whole grains for health. Well, I thought even Dr Gundry got a little squirrely on this issue mentioning that plant based diets have benefited folks because organic, unprocessed grains have a “lighter lectin load” than whole grain products (breads, pastas..etc). Reminescent of Michael Pollen’s eat what your great grandparents would recognize as food.
I think we live in a very interesting time. I certainly find that most people today do better when grains are removed from their diet, at least temporarily. Is it because of lectins? Is it because we have binged on these foods so thoroughly in a pervasive array of easy to eat and scrumptious grain based baked goods, cereals, desserts etc that they are now having their revenge on us? Is it because of GMO genes in our grains and the increased use of chemicals like Roundup? Is it because of the unavoidable matrix of environmental toxins that our bodies are overburdened to detoxify? No one knows exactly what is going on: likely there are many factors, and these are all theories the health conscious are talking about.
As we wrestle with the question of grains, we are at the same time learning more and more about the microbiome of our bodies—basically that bacteria support our existence, and we best have a diverse array of good bacteria creating a positive feedback loop of good health within us. If your gut microbiome is harboring pathogenic bacteria, yeast, or parasites then you have organisms ready to feed and breed off sugars and carbs (especially if they aren’t being digested properly) creating and perpetuating a laundry list of health issues. Can diet alone eliminate these pathogenic factors? Not in my experience, a combination of very strict diet and antimicrobial substances (herbal or pharmaceutical) are necessary as these invaders like to hide out. And thus a place where I take a strong stand apart from Dr Gundry that his diet is not the sole solution to the problems which ail us.
Yes, limiting carbs can be extremely helpful for many people until the health of their gastrointestinal tract has been restored--and dear reader who is resistant to the idea that these unpleasant critters are in your gut-- it is more common than you want to acknowledge.
Nutrition is complex. A recent, tangentially meaningful discovery is that Low FODMAP diets https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FODMAP (limiting dairy, fruit and certain vegetables) used by many people to alleviate gastrointestinal disorders should only be followed for a short time as over the long term it has a negative impact on our gut bacteria The good news is that, Dr Gundry’s “yes” vegetable list does include veggies that we recognize as feeding beneficial bacteria and promote overall gastrointestinal health.
As a long time user and fan of pressure cookers, I am pleased that Dr Gundry advocates pressure cooking beans and other foods as a way to greatly reduce lectins in some foods. Pressure cookers make sense as they help keep nutrients from escaping as steam, save time and fossil fuel in cooking, and if they break down phytochemicals that prevent absorption or are possibly irritants to our guts (though only in some foods Dr Gundry warns) then that is an added bonus. Sally Fallon’s recipe book Nourishing Traditions has a great recipe for fermented bean paste . I was taught years ago that beans and grains should be soaked, somewhere between 12-72 hours and the water poured off, then cooked (best with seaweeds for increased nutrition) to destroy some of the phytochemicals that inhibit absorption. The biggest problem is that this can be quite hard to put into practice as you must plan quite far in advance of your meal, but for beans there is a nice final product. I think of this as a partial fermentation depending on the temperature of your soaking water and room where soaking. Try doing this with grains, as was also suggested by my teachers, and you end up with what my husband termed “MOOSHey”!
Food is an interesting confluence of basic need, tradition, culture, ethics and philosophy. For myself, the Paleo diet is a contradiction—in a time of the greatest population on this planet how can we justify eating so high on the food chain? It takes a lot of resources to bring meat products to market and we are living in a world that must come face to face with the limit of natural resources. Do we keep ourselves healthy at the expense of poorer populations of today or future generations of tomorrow?
The most essential element of any dietary advice is whether it works for you!
Lets keep the discussion rolling. There is always value in experimenting with what is right for you. I highly recommend elimination diets to identify food triggers that are compromising your health. Will a diet solve all your problems? I come back to GI pathogen testing and diet together for a better holistic approach.