[Me & My Naturopath] Why I’m a Hopeful Skeptic

Fed up with my increasing impairment due to chronic pain, I went to see a naturopath last week. I left her office with plans and recommendations for a five-pronged approach to lessening my pain, and increasing my strength and function:

1. Weekly acupuncture

2. Regular yoga practice

3. An anti-inflammatory diet (such as this one).

4. Daily use of supplements (such as vitamins, fish oil, and herbs)

5. Some psychological counseling, to explore whether and how stress and anxiety might be affecting my physical state.

As of this writing, I’ve had two acupuncture sessions, been following the anti-inflammatory diet about 90 percent of the time, and have had one yoga class. It’s still early in the game to know if much is changing. I’ve had a back injury for about two weeks, and initially, my back felt worse the day after my first acupuncture. But by two days later, not only was my back feeling better, but I felt a sensation of lightness, of energy flowing more easily, of being able to walk and move about without holding my breath when something hurts or feeling the effort of each step intensely.

By far, the most beneficial part of this new endeavor is the sense of being truly seen and heard by my naturopathic doctor in a way that I rarely feel with my other doctors. I have some wonderful doctors, and trust them deeply. But they are generally focused on one aspect of my care (my osteoporosis, a particular injury, my chronic pain), and not on me as a whole person, including how I spend my time, what I eat, how I deal with stress, etc. They are generally focused on a particular goal for each appointment, such as assessing the latest lab numbers or writing the correct prescription. When I see my naturopath, the goal is broader—to talk about how I’m feeling and functioning in a bigger sense. Am I feeling well? Am I able to do what I need and want to do without excessive pain and struggle? Do I feel that these new techniques are making a difference?

That said, I am still a little skeptical of whether and how all this works. I am particularly skeptical about the anti-inflammatory diet. As diets go, it appears to be a good one, in that it emphasizes the basics of what we all know makes for a healthy diet: lots of fresh produce, whole grains, healthy fats, minimal sweets. But I’m still hesitant to embrace a diet that leaves out or severely minimizes entire groups of foods, such as dairy or breads made with white flour or meat or anything with gluten. (Although the basic anti-inflammatory diet is not necessarily gluten-free, and includes whole-grain pasta, many people, including my naturopath, think gluten-free eating should be pursued when you’re dealing with certain types of inflammatory illnesses, such as my arthritis.) I’m leery of any diet that doesn’t see a hunk of freshly baked baguette spread with butter, or a savory meat-based spaghetti sauce, or my fabulous chocolate fudge cake, as good things, gifts stemming from the earth’s abundance, thousands of years of human culture and relationships built around hearth and table, and ultimately, a loving God. Moderation in eating such rich offerings is reasonable; cutting them out entirely is not….at least to me.

Our culture, weirdly inclusive of overweight processed-food junkies and foodies of one kind or another, devoted to locavorism or fine restaurant-quality cuisine or particular diets ranging from raw foods to gluten-free, tends to do three things to food:

We demonize certain foods, such as red meat, gluten, sugar, white flour, or anything cooked instead of raw, and preach complete purging of these foods from our diets with the zeal of a preacher performing an exorcism. This leads us to become blind to the goodness in many traditional foods, like that baguette with butter, that have deep cultural and familial roots. Such foods bring people together. They link us with our ancestors who ate the same things, as well as with our family and neighbors, because who doesn’t love a fresh-baked piece of bread with butter? They taste good.

We medicalize food, engaging in what food activist and scientist Marion Nestle calls “nutrient-by-nutrient” assessment of food, basing our choices entirely on the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients contained in particular foods and their effect on our bodies. We treat food as medicine that will cure our particular ills, rather than as a gift that we receive and then share as a way of caring for ourselves and others. (It just occurred to me, in reading this sentence over, that one overarching concern in medical ethics today is confusion over whether medicine’s primary goal is cure or care. While curing someone of a disease is certainly one way to care for him or her, our technologically oriented medical culture often emphasizes cure at the expense of care. Examples are drastic measures to prolong the life of a dying person, rather than helping him or her to die well, with minimal pain and with the loving care of family and medical providers. Or the reproductive technologies that are my area of expertise, in which efforts to cure (really, eliminate) certain genetic disorders via pre-embryonic genetic screening can undermine efforts to care for children and adults with those disorders by celebrating who they are and providing the supports, accommodations, and care they need, which are too frequently labeled as “burdensome” to families, schools, medical providers, and the wider society. Confusion around the proper place of curing and caring is a common phenomenon, whether we’re talking about diet or medical care.)

We individualize food, crafting diets that emphasize certain foods and exclude others, drawing strict lines between which foods we will and won’t eat. People with certain disorders of course, such as celiac disease, have no choice but to say, “I can’t eat such and such.” Likewise for those with food allergies or who have discovered through trial and error that, for example, dairy foods cause rashes or other ills that disappear when dairy is cut from the diet. But for the rest of us, this isolated, individualized approach to food not only leads to self-absorption, but stymies the possibilities for fellowship around the table. Try hosting a dinner party when you are inviting some people who don’t eat white flour, others who eat gluten-free, some who won’t touch dairy, a few who will only eat organic, a vegan or two, and a Paleo dieter. The meal is likely to be highly stressful for the host, and not terribly tasty, particularly if the host is an average home cook without a huge repertoire or a great deal of kitchen creativity.

All this demonization, medicalization, and individualization takes the pleasure out of cooking and eating for many people, and makes it hard for us to connect around cooking and eating. Pleasure and connection are, I believe, two of the primary purposes of food, and I believe God made things that way on purpose. Our modern attitudes toward food also tempt us to believe we have ultimate control over our bodies and our health, if only we choose to eat the “right” things (the dangerous corollary to this idea is that those who are not 100 percent healthy must be eating the wrong things, leading to a culture of blame and shame).

This week, someone posted on Facebook the testimony of a woman who believes she cured her breast cancer by eating raw foods. So many things about her story exemplified, to me, the dangers of our current attitudes toward food. First, an entirely raw foods diet essentially tosses out several thousand years of human culture and foodways as irrelevant. But more troubling, the writer transformed her story into a morality tale, complete with villains (traditional doctors) with evil potions (chemotherapy), claiming that she is sure that, if she had done chemotherapy, it would have killed her. She closes by insisting that, if we only paid attention to the power of food, we could all heal ourselves, just as she has.

One of the mixed blessings of having a genetic disorder is that I’ve known, from an early age, that I cannot heal myself, no matter what I do or eat. And it grieves me to know that the false message that we can heal ourselves from whatever ails us, so long as we do the right things, leads more likely to shame, guilt, anger, and bewilderment (when despite our best efforts, the most stringent diets, the most heartfelt prayers, we don’t get better) than to true healing, which recognizes that life is more than the body and health is more than having great numbers on your annual blood work and not having cancer at the moment.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas said to me in our meeting a few weeks ago, “People today are desperate for anything that will get them out of life alive.” Indeed.

So I’m a little skeptical of my new naturopathic journey, particularly of the diet. But I’m hopeful too. And I have a good sense about my naturopath’s overall attitudes toward food. When she mentioned that the diet is low on dairy, I mentioned that I would really miss Greek yogurt. She responded, “Then eat your Greek yogurt. Food is about pleasure too, after all.”

This is the first in an occasional series called Me & My Naturopath that will discuss my experience with alternative medicine, or naturopathy. Anything that I share in these posts is a reflection of my experience and does not constitute medical advice. Please consult your own medical care providers before adopting any new practices, diets, or techniques.

And if you want a much more thorough treatment of food, health, gratitude, and God, read my friend Rachel Stone’s new book Eat With Joy, which I will write about here next week. On her blog this week, Rachel writes about her struggle with an eating disorder and how she eventually came out of it by understanding that God intends food for pleasure and connection. Rachel writes:

Eventually, I learned at least two things about God and food: First, that God, much like my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, loves to feed people with good food and watch them enjoy it; and, second, that God is pleased not by my asceticism, or by my efforts to get “my best life now” and to “expand my borders” while contracting my waistline, but instead, by my hospitality. By my willingness to eat, as Jesus did, with people different from me; by efforts, big and small, toward justice for those whose quality of life is impoverished by the endless expansion of portion sizes and fast-food market shares. I found that the urge to binge secretly subsided as did the urge toward pious asceticism. I learned that the secret to finding happiness — or joy, which is better — isn’t in reaching for it, but in reaching toward others.

Read more here.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Kerrie-Anne

    Hi Ellen, love your thoughts about more “holistic” health care from your naturopath. And I agree to a certain extent that complete abstinence is not always the most helpful or necessarily healthful way. However, I do want to offer a small caveat on your idea of enjoying “the goodness in many traditional foods, like that baguette with butter.” Your traditionally made baguette would look pretty different to today’s fast-baked, GM wheat-flour, baker’s yeast variety. Traditional foods were and are made with love, care and lots of time. Sourdough starters were kept as kitchen treasures, and breads were proved over days. The health benefits from this aspect alone are light years away from what you get from mass produced baked goods.

    Likewise with butter, the traditional approach would be to make butter from the milk of healthy, local, grass-grazing cows. Not from anaemic, over-milked, grain-fed and basically abused animals, not to mention the whole process of homogenisation and the damage that does to the milk fats molecules. Basically there is no love there, and definitely not nearly the same kind of quality product at the end.

    So, while I agree with your overall aim, I do think there are thoughtful ways and less thoughtful ways to engage with traditional foods. If we want the benefits of the traditional ways, we have to be willing to put in the work that our forefathers and mothers once did!

    Some people, understanding this, who are not able/willing to put in the effort required, prefer to simply cut out the modern versions of these foods that may well be contributing to ill-health. That might be required for a season. I know it was that way for me for some time while I healed, so that today I can enjoy (in moderation) almost any foods I like (although I have found my tastes have shifted and I no longer crave sugary desserts or floury baked goods) and have my glass of red too :)

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I absolutely agree. And when I’m talking about the baguette with butter, I’m thinking of a baguette purchased from one of my local bakeries that uses only quality ingredients and traditional methods, and good quality butter. I’ve mostly stopped buying supermarket bread other than sandwich bread (because of its convenience, although I also have a bread machine that I use to produce sandwich loaves at home). You would really like Rachel’s book “Eat with Joy,” which I mention in this post and will review more fully next week. She makes arguments about our food choices and how they intersect with justice, creation care, and related issues. She also, however, argues for incremental changes, as most of us are overwhelmed (particularly if we have a family to feed, instead of just ourselves) by the idea of going local, organic, whole foods, homemade, and homegrown all at once. And she argues that, when it comes down to accepting the hospitality of someone who offers food we might not otherwise eat vs. our own dietary values, hospitality should always win. It is an approach that holds up the ideal (the freshly baked artisan baguette with organic butter made from milk from grass-fed cows) while acknowledging that we might not always get it…but that we should eat with gratitude and joy nonetheless.

  • Kerrie-Anne

    p.s. Also LOVE your idea that eating is about pleasure and connection. Exactly. Any joy-filled, long-lived cultures would say amen to that!

  • DaveP

    Hi Ellen, sounds interesting, I’ll enjoy hearing how it goes for you.

    Our old family remedy for arthritis: chewing all the gristle off of chicken (and beef, etc) bones.

    No one in our family who eats all the gristle off of chicken bones has ever developed arthritis, going back as far as I can remember (to my grandfather when I was a kid).

    There’s even recent medical research to support it, and two possible causal reasons. 1) our cartilage is most easily repaired if we eat cartilage because the long chain proteins used to repair cartilage can be absorbed through our intestinal walls instead of being reconstructed from amino acids, and 2) our immune systems may be trained by what we eat (edible: friend; poison: foe) so that eating cartilage may prevent our bodies from developing the auto-immune response against our own cartilage that may be responsible for some forms of arthritis.

    The Harvard professor who carried out one of the studies actually tried to patent chicken gristle, but he was too late because it was already known as a home remedy (which he was trying to disprove, but ended up confirming). http://www.chickencartilage.com/harvardstudy/

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      That is fascinating. I’ve never heard of that. Thanks for that little nugget of wisdom!

      • DaveP

        P.S. We coincidentally had chicken for dinner tonight, which reminded me of two things.

        1) Some of my relatives and I gnaw off not only the chicken gristle on the bones, but also gnaw off the softened ends of the bones too.

        2) My wife was a vegetarian until she hurt her back (slipped disk? ruptured disk? something like that) lifting a big ladder. The doctors advised surgery, but she had known several people who had had problems with that. Having seen my relatives and me with the chicken gristle, and after doing some internet research, she decided to start eating chicken again, including the gristle. Her back got better. It wasn’t as dramatic as overnight, but after a month or two she was feeling much better, and after about a year and a half it was back to normal. Maybe it was just time that healed the wound, but she still eats chicken and chicken gristle.

  • DaveP


    > … it emphasizes the basics of what we all know makes for a healthy diet: lots of fresh produce … I’m leery of any diet that doesn’t see a hunk of freshly baked baguette spread with butter, or a savory meat-based spaghetti sauce, or my fabulous chocolate fudge cake …

    Recently, “what we all know” about “fresh produce” has changed. It turns out that some cooked or frozen vegetables are better for you (nutritionally, perhaps not spiritually :) ) than fresh because cooking or freezing breaks the cell walls and releases the nutrients, but eating them fresh means that the vegetable cells pass intact through our digestive system (for a yucky example, think corn kernels). http://voices.yahoo.com/two-vegetables-healthier-cooked-than-raw-6660886.html?cat=5

    And one of the best examples of that is spaghetti sauce, with cooked tomatoes. :) All three of the items on your menu are among my faves, so I’m salivating on my keyboard.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Well, that’s a…um…pleasant picture (the salivating part). But yes, you’re right. Frozen and canned veggies are often full of nutrients because they are packaged so soon after picking. So eating frozen veggies in mid winter is probably better nutritionally than eating fresh veggies trucked in from far away.

  • SC

    Hi Ellen, I am so excited that you are seeing a Naturopath, and I truly hope you find wonderful relief and healing with her. ☺ I do understand and respect your concern about people loosing touch with ‘The Pleasure of Food’, or ‘Connecting with our Roots’, but there are cases where going “extreme” with our food, for example – Raw, Vegan or Completely 100% anti-inflammatory, or gluten free could actually save ones life, or increase the quality of ones life extensively; therefore prolonging a healthful life with the ones they love. They can create new and lasting traditions with their family which cultivate health and healing, using more fresh, highly unprocessed foods. I too can enjoy a taste of a rich chocolate cake now and again, but I know that our bodies do not recognize that as fuel or nourishment, and we are REALLY not doing ourselves any favors by adding that into our arsenal of foods to make us feel better, or bring us closer to ‘our roots’. When one needs to go extreme with food, it usually just means going “Extremely Simple.” It is actually easier and MORE enjoyable to eat mostly from nature, without the processed flours, sugars and fats that society deems “comfort food.” I agree, that connecting to our roots through food can be a wonderful thing, if that food is actually serving us, and not creating disease within our bodies. Bread and butter (even if it is from a ‘local’ bakery is most likely not coming from sustainable, humane, non-GMO sources). The food industry in America has created a domino effect of disease related issues that is only spurred on by the pharmaceutical industry. So, to eat clean and pure to heal from disease SHOULD BE comfort food to most…comfort, simplicity, and a longer, healthier life with their families. I choose Simple and so should many out there that are struggling with life threatening diseases. Spending time with family and loving one another should not be enhanced by sugary foods and bread and butter, but by the connection, love, and natural foods that God put on this earth for us to thrive on. REAL food, for REAL health. I wish you all the best in your healing journey, and if you ever want meet up at a Juice Bar for some green juice or yummy fruit smoothie, and some good old fashion laughs, call me, I’d love to spend some time with you. xo

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I don’t think we’re that far apart, but do think perhaps we have a different emphasis. For example, I don’t think it’s *only* “society” that dictates what we perceive as “comfort food.” Family and cultural history does as well. That chocolate cake I make, for example, (which is of course not a normal part of our everyday diet) is a favorite family recipe, one served at my late grandmother’s 90th birthday, for example. So I think it’s naive to decide that kids should be happy celebrating their birthdays with agave-sweetened prune bars or fresh fruit instead of cupcakes, or that families should replace their Christmas Eve cheese-laden lasagna with some quinoa-veggie casserole, and not miss the old foods that TRULY offer both comfort and nourishment, not merely physical. Part of our culture’s problem is that our daily diets are overloaded with sugary, starchy, processed “treats,” so we freak out about the kids’ birthday cupcakes as just one more terrible sugary thing. But if we generally eat less sugary, starchy, high-fat stuff, then having cupcakes for a birthday is a true and appropriate indulgence.

      I am a huge fan of my friend Rachel’s new book, which I mention here, because she balances these various concerns so beautifully. Don’t cut out treats entirely, but save them for special occasions. Try to eat local, organic food, but don’t beat yourself up if sometimes expense or time or convenience makes that difficult or impossible. Don’t turn up your nose at what someone else eats or offers to you because it’s not up to your standards. Try to do one or two small things to change your family’s eating habits in ways that are better for your bodies, for agricultural and other food service workers, and for the earth…and then see where that takes you. And most of all, receive whatever you eat with a sense of gratitude, hospitality, and joy.

      • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

        Oh, and PS, I don’t know if I can do the juicing thing. I’m not there yet. But a green smoothie? I’m there :)

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Food for pleasure – exactly! That’s why God gave us such well-developed taste buds for crying out loud! (A topic I wrote on for Rachel Stone’s blog last year as a matter of fact.) Thanks, too, for introducing me to the concept of “medicalized” food. Never heard it put that way, but I’ve sure seen it in action over the years.


    P.S. Praying for your back.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      So that means you’ve “got my back,” yes?

      Thanks Tim!

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        Ha, yes I do, even if it is from 3000 miles away!

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