Debunking Detox and Diets, Designing Wellness

Fifty healthiest countries 2017

An article in The Guardian talking about the Angry Chef on a mission to confront the ‘alternative facts’ surrounding nutritional fads and myths delves into the truth about healthy eating. The Chef says,“A lot of the clean-eating people, I just think they have a broken relationship with the truth. They’re selling something that is impossible to justify in the context of evidence-based medicine.”

This is something that when we pay attention we do know, our grandmothers did — eat a varied diet of in season vegetables and fruit, use natural ingredients, take smaller portions, cook more so you know what's in the food, and be more aware of how you feel based on what you eat.

Just like in so many other fields of inquiry, this has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with science, especially behavioral science. When we look at global health and longevity indexes, we see it — rich countries filled with the latest technologies and plenty of diet formulas trail struggling economies.

Statistician Hans Rosling life's work should open our eyes to looking at the big picture. It's counter intuitive, but the data is there. Italy takes the top spot on the World Health Organization index for healthiest people.

As Bloomberg reports:

Each country in the index was graded based on variables such as life expectancy, causes of death and health risks ranging from high blood pressure and tobacco use to malnutrition and the availability of clean water.

Iceland, Switzerland, Singapore and Australia rounded out the top five most-healthy countries in the index.

Though it's a good idea not to generalize, having been raised in Italy and being familiar with its culture and ways of doing things, even over the years, I can debunk the myth that Italians are not hard working, or that they don't take risks. For example, Emilia Romagna, the region where Modena, my hometown, and Bologna, my Alma Mater, are filled with enterprising people and small and medium-sized businesses.

In 2012, when earthquakes shook the area in and around Modena, a story that was under-reported in international news, thousands of people lost their homes and their business. At least 15,000 people had to live in tents during the hot summer months. A couple of friends who had just gotten married lost their house, but not their mortgage, and both jobs at the same time. My family was affected as well.

People rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt, helped collect funds, saved what they could of their aged Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar business thanks to the support of neighbors and friends. Anywhere in the region people pulled together, even if it was to lend a much needed ear to someone who was shaken deeply.

This spirit is why I'm still at home there after living half my life in the Greater Philadelphia Area. New York City has pockets of the same feeling, working there in recent years I had the opportunity to see that side to contrast its competitive current.

What is wellness

I consider myself an athlete. I started roller skating for fun early in life, then played European football, volley ball, and hand ball in middle school. Our team even placed third in Italy at the championship in Trieste. In high school I started long distance running and never stopped — I ran the Broad Street Run five years in a row.

I also love walking, especially in Europe where it can be a mode of transport with train stations so central in cities and public transportation still good. In the last two years I added Barre classes to my daily 6-mile runs, eventually switching frequency between the two — to six times a week Barre, and one to two running. It made a huge difference.

A second aspect of the wellness equation is nutrition. It's a big one. When we think we can eat more because we exercise we're misunderstanding how it works. It's the food that has the biggest impact on pant size. If the research studies weren't enough, I have more than twenty years of personal data and evidence to support the claim.

Here I've tried many things to understand how to do better. Out of curiosity, in 2011 I went to see a nutritionist who charged me a hefty sum for a visit where she basically told me to count calories. I did and it worked, but I was hungry all the time, not sustainable. So I tried something else — listening to how I felt after I ate certain things.

Many of us figure out we're allergic to certain foods because we have reactions. For example, allergies to peanuts, or nuts in general, are among the strongest. But there are many others, like grains, or onion, and so on. This is how I figured out corn and corn derivatives like corn starch or corn syrup were not so good for me. So I eliminated them. Anyone living in the U.S. will appreciate how hard it is to find foods with no corn in them. They even roll French baguettes in corn at Whole Foods! It's everywhere.

Nutrition vs diet

In the context of food and eating, diet is what we consume, and one of the meanings of the word is a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight. Nutrition is a process and specifically the process of eating the right kind of food so you can grow properly and be healthy. We eat a diet, we go on a nutrition program.

It was late 2014. My mother decided to see a nutritionist in Bologna. She was a pregnancy diabetic who had trouble with her metabolism her whole life. Our organs take a beating when we're heavy, our joints have to carry around more weight after years of work. The specific program designed for her required a change in eating habits — five small meals a day, different combinations of foods than before.

People who diet learn to live with scales — one to weigh foods, one to weigh yourself. In the beginning of a new nutrition program, we do the same.

For ten months, my mother went to see the nutritionist each month and had two to three diet changes as a result. At 70, she re-learned how to eat in a way that agrees with her body, shed 50 pounds and has kept them off three years later. After the reintegration phase she's been eating pretty much everything again.

Encouraged by such stellar results and seeking to feel better, my sister went to see the nutritionist. She followed her personal diet for five months, shedding almost 40 pounds in the process of feeling much better. She's now reintegrated most food except for that that doesn't agree with her at all and feels great.

I'm a team player, so I went as well last Christmas when I was visiting. I started my program the day after and have completed five months with email reports and tweaks recently. People who have met me in real life say this — there was really not much to shed weight-wise, and that wasn't my goal, but I did lose quite a bit… and I wasn't hungry once. 

My goal was to learn which foods were not good for me long term. Some I had figured out were bad were indeed bad. Corn is one of them. I can do without. One or two holdouts where I was on the fence because I liked them too much I had to let go. But it was a great trade off as I feel myself again.

In the process I debunked a myth I had bought into — that carbs are bad. My prior diet was basically protein-based. My nutrition program had me eat carbs for breakfast, morning snack, and lunch and proteins only at dinner.

A third dimension to wellness is mental habits, including our choices of what we read, where we work and who we work with to deal with stress. This is a theme I've written a lot about over the years.

Caring for self

There's a personal component that none of us — my mother, my sister, and I — could have guessed had we just followed a common sense Mediterranean Diet, which was the basis of our nutrition programs.

It was and still is a bear for me to do well with it in the United States. Fruit and vegetables abound, and that is good. But packaged foods with simple ingredients that are available and very affordable at Coop in Italy simply don't exist here. Much of the imported to the U.S. food is the more complex and commercially-known. The power of branding and marketing dollars at work.

I came back on New Year's Eve and Trader Joe's, which has some of those imported from Italy foods at reasonable price (thank heavens) was closed for two days. It was the day I re-baptized Whole Foods “whole junk” when it comes to packaged goods. Isle upon isle of ultra-expensive boxes containing four things filled with corn starch, dairy, corn syrup and so on. Reading labels is a good exercise, and we don't even know all of it!

Maybe Amazon can figure out there is a whole market for things like Orzo (coffee substitute), Italian toasts, grissini, things made with ancient grains and natural yeast, and water-based dark chocolate gelato — it knows everything about us. If they get behind the less known brands, there's hope for simple food beyond the few items Trader Joe's imports.

The silver lining with eating more fresh foods and cooking for ourselves is that it's one way to get to know our preferences all over again, and it supports a healthy form of care and love of self. Some equate cooking with a form of meditation — and a feast for the senses.

Debunking the myths

It's more nuanced than “don't eat processed food” or “detoxing,” which is basically not eating. We want to take it down to the molecule and see what's in it, we don't want to skip meals, we want to eat what's better for us. Even the debunking ends up being binary if we're not careful.

There are principles that underscore the philosophy of eating that are common to the programs my mother, sister, and I followed individually, along with those of many others who go to see the nutritionist in Bologna.

Eat the classic Mediterranean Diet, don't mix proteins with carbs in the same meal, add plenty of fresh vegetables and no more than three fruits per day, preferably before lunch or as a mid morning snack. Prepared food is fine, as long as we know what's in it and stay clear of certain ingredients that don't agree with us. For example, I was completely dairy free for five months so no things that have butter or milk listed as ingredient.

Dairies are an interesting topic in the diet world. What I learned from my nutritionist is that certain dairies are better for the system — skim yogurt, Emmental and real Parmesan cheese. It's better to make a meal out of dairies than to have dairies with every meal. The body processes soy, almond, cashew, and rice milk as if they were milk. They bog down the system. Water-based is better. Hence why water-based gelato has become a huge trend in Italy, at least in my neck of the woods. It's creamy and delicious, too. Try the dark chocolate flavor.

Ironically, in the last conversation with the nutritionist, I learned his research comes from the U.S. and specifically Denver and California. I have not seen the same principles applied here, nor found nutritionists who support the same method (and are reasonable in their fees.) But the research exists to validate simple eating.

Designing new behaviors

It's not until we translate the data into behavior that we improve. That counts also for market availability. Angry Chef says the rise in popularity of many of the detox and fad diets is based on our struggle with uncertainty. We don't like answers like “it depends,” we want formulas that succeed. Yet all we can guarantee is good effort, and some days are better than others in that department.

The program, once started, was fairly straight forward and did not take too much time to do. Plus we spend so much time on screens that we can redirect some of that energy to benefit our health. It's a good self-ish thing to do.

My great-grandmother lived to 100 through the famine of two world wars, and the abundance that ensued later. She kept it simple — eat a little bit of everything but not all together, eat slowly, when you're eating, just eat. The ideas that endure in time are those that meet emerging consensus in culture. Rome wasn't built in one day, as the saying goes.

Telling fads from trends makes a difference for long term results. Over the last few years we've seen a shift to meaningful experiences over things, natural and authentic over fake, and a general dissatisfaction with business as usual. The consequences of these trends are not far behind. To replace a system that is not working anymore, we need another system. Designing new behaviors is a good starting point to create better habits.

Nutrition is an important topic and I wanted to provide a different perspective, free of incentives. I don't sell programs, books, diets, or foods though I'm biased for the made in Italy.