There is still nothing more controversial in medicine than diet and nutrition. It seems to be the Holy Grail to find the “perfect” diet combination to keep you trim and strong. I have gone on this journey myself and I’ll share what I learned, the mistakes I made and what I believe is the key to making you Immuno-strong.
Remember, in the introduction to this book I quoted Louis Pasteur, the French chemist, who said on his deathbed to a colleague: “it is the soil, not the seed.” Well, our “soil” our bodies are influenced by our genetics, and equally by our environment which includes our diet.
My philosophy of what diet works to enhance immune health is based primarily on medical anthropology- understanding what our ancestors ate, and how they ate. It is also based on a deeper level of spirituality in appreciating the food we eat.
This next experience almost seems like a parable out of Grimm’s Fairytale. The story begins with this young doctor with his shiny white coat and lots of medical knowledge travels around the country to find the best advice on nutrition and diet to keep his patients- and himself, strong and healthy. He travels to the West Coast, where all the latest health fads seem to emanate. He even travels to work with a famous, wise doctor(Dean Ornish) who promises he can prevent and reverse heart disease by following his way of eating only fruits and vegetables- a vegetarian diet. The doctor follows this diet and at first, feels great. He is so proud of himself avoiding meat and fish- the fact that he is so disciplined and watches his cholesterol goes lower and lower- at one point almost to 100!
However, over time the doctor gets thinner and thinner. His colleagues ask if he is sick. He starts to notice himself that his hair is thinning- a barber even says to him I think what you are eating is affecting your hair. The doctor also starts to feel less energetic and even irritable. He finally sees doctors and has his blood checked and his Vitamin B12 level is very low- as is his iron stores in his body.
The doctor realizes this diet of only fruits and vegetables isn’t adequate. So where does he turn?
He went back to his favorite health food store. In the store was an elderly lady with the shocking black hair, but incredibly energetic eyes and a warm smile. She could be found stocking the shelves of the store with items. But in the back, she had a small little room, where she did “consultations” with clients. The health food store had a juice bar and customers would head back to the consultation room to meet with this woman.
The doctor in the shiny white lab coat is me.
I inquire who this woman is and everyone called her Willie- short for Wilma. She had worked in the store for several decades and seemed to have this wealth of knowledge about nutrition.
I asked if I could sit down and talk with her and see if anything she had to say had merit.
The first thing she did was take out a legal pad and pulled out her box of magic markers. I thought I was back in grade school- but I was about to get the lesson of a lifetime.
Willie began to draw her stick figure of a person. She drew with a greater proportion of the head with the mouth and teeth. Then she drew her schematic diagram of the stomach and intestines. It was like a nursery anatomy lesson.
She first emphasized human teeth. She said The Creator had given us 36 teeth- a combination of grinders and incisors. This meant we were supposed to be able to lots of plant-based foods because our grinders were shaped for that. We also were designed to eat meat, because our incisors were sharp like animals to process this type of food.
Next, she focused on the rest of the mouth. How important it was to chew the food and let the saliva break down the nutrients.
The next phase was the stomach. I felt like I was back in first-year medical school being schooled on physiology. Willie emphasized the importance of our body’s ability to produce Hydrochloric acid. Hydrochloric acid( or HCl) was critical in chemically digesting our food and prepare it to be absorbed later by the intestines in its journey through the digestive tract. She kept emphasizing so much disease occurs because we lose HCl as we age and also so many medications today can affect HCl. Everything she was saying to me made sense. She spoke about how you can increase your HCl with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice.
The parable ends with the young doctor in the shiny white coat discovering he had met a wise advisor not in the hallowed halls of a medical building, but in the unassuming friendly health food store.
Biblical Diet: Back to the Future
I came to appreciate that our bodies were designed thousands of years ago to digest and absorb food in a particular way. The man continues to come out with savory foods that smell and taste delicious but aren’t necessarily good for us. The reason being they are highly processed. I frequently tell patients that I believe in the Biblical diet- if the food was around in Biblical times you can probably have it. In Biblical times, they had olives, they had almonds, they had lentils, and they had meat, poultry and, fish. It was fresh, not processed. They didn’t need preservatives because the food was eaten quickly- not shipped across the country. It probably makes sense to eat the new trend of local foods.
In one of my favorite books, The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner, traveled to areas of the world where the highest percentage of people lived to a hundred- and in good health. It is not surprising that many of these areas, was where the food was simple and unprocessed.
Melvin Konner, the medical anthropologist, has published scientific articles showing that early man’s diet was high in omega-3 fatty acids- this was due to the meat eaten was wild-or free-range as we would call it today. He also found their diet was much higher in Vitamin C; interestingly, the green leafy vegetables were higher in vitamin C content than we find in many cases today- probably, again because it was eaten quickly and not processed.
This whole movement of “slow food”- even a new term to me, meaning eating fresh and local is gaining a lot of momentum.
The latest research on strengthening our immune system is by feeding our microbiome with good old-fashioned fiber foods. Research done at Oxford University in England, published in the journal Science found that foods high in fiber helped the good bacteria grow in mice. Fermented fibrous foods were even better. These types of foods keep our good microbes “happy” and our regulatory T cells even happier.
Gluten-free vs. Wheat-free vs Grain-free: what can we eat today?
There is certainly a movement to avoid gluten. Poor gluten, it’s become labeled as poison. I don’t think it is, but unfortunately, it has become super processed. An article I read in The New Yorker magazine talked about how they use something called “vital gluten” in many foods to make them doughy and tasty. This vital gluten is like a superhuman form of gluten which is very difficult for many people to digest.
I frequently do a simple mouth swab to do a genetic test to see if my patients are genetically prone to gluten intolerance.
What about wheat-free? Well, all wheat has gluten. So, if you are gluten intolerant this has to be avoided. But what if you test that you can tolerate gluten, is wheat still good to eat. This is the conundrum. In his best-selling book Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis makes a strong case that the wheat we eat today, again is highly processed and not the same strain of wheat that our ancestors in the Middle East ate thousands of years ago. The problem with the new strains of wheat we find on our supermarket shelves cause our blood sugar to shoot up rapidly, Also, today’s wheat is filled with salt and other preservatives. And this all seems to lead to belly fat- who wants that. It also seems to be inflammatory to the immune system.
Finally, can we have any grains? Dr. David Pearlmutter, a frequent guest on the Dr. Oz show, says all grains are bad for you. He makes the case they are inflammatory and our bodies were not designed to digest grains. These foods were not part of the early man’s diet and didn’t become a food staple until thousands of years ago. He makes the argument that Alzheimer’s disease and many other neurological diseases are due to eating grains.
Vegetarian vs. Paleo (Caveman meat-eaters)
If you take the bible literally, it says while we were in the Garden of Eden- what seems like a short time in history but probably was thousands of years- we were only supposed to eat food that came from the trees- our fruits and vegetables.
Then biblical history takes us thousands of years later to the Great Flood in the time of Noah. It was written that after that time man should eat from all the Creator’s creatures- fish and fowl.
So, it seems the Bible leans toward us having a varied diet of both meat, fish and our vegetables.
The merits of a vegetarian diet are many. The vegetarian diet helps keep your cholesterol low as well as your saturated fats. I think Dr. Ornish’s diet which is vegetarian but also low fat may be good for heart patients to keep their arteries from clogging up, but many others I think it is too restrictive. However, in reality, a largely plant-based diet makes sense since it was what was probably the main staple of any early man’s diet just because of availability- man wasn’t always successful in landing the “big fish” as we would say today, but actually, are meaning is quite different.
My concern with the ardent Paleo followers is that they are eating too much meat, not realizing the quantity and quality of this meat is much different than was available to the Paleo guy or gal. The quality of the meat is also quite different as Melvin Konner, the medical anthropologist has pointed out: the wild animals were much leaner than the meats we have available today. And their Omega-3 content is also much lower.
Raw vs. Cooked Foods
There are even followers of a mainly raw food diet. This means no cooking of their vegetables or meat. It’s true that some of the nutrients are lost when food is cooked. However, Michael Pollin, The New York Times writer and author, has made quite a good case for the advantages of cooked food.
Aside from the wonderful smell and taste of various cooked foods, there are also nutrients that are released when foods are cooked. And again, there are anthropologists that trace man’s brain and spinal development in conjunction with the discovery of fire and thus cooked foods.
I personally think a combination of the two has tremendous immune health benefits.
Supplements and ImmunoHealth
Omega-3 Fish oils and a Healthy Immune system
In the Biblical diet, fish was surely a staple- if you lived near a river or ocean. The well-known Mediterranean diet emphasizes fish as an excellent source of protein. Certain fish, are high in the desirable Omega-3 fatty acids: salmon, sardines, mackerel. The benefits of eating fish today have to be balanced with the toxins in our oceans. Unfortunately, I do see patients who eat fish too frequently- four to five times a week- with high mercury levels in their blood. I enjoy fish and try to eat it at least once a week.
I agree with Dr. Barry Sears, the well-known author of The Zone books, that supplementing your diet with Omega-3 fish oils seems to be the way to go. It is very hard today to emulate the Omega-3 content in our diets that may have been available to early man. This is why I too believe that supplementation with high-quality fish oil seems to make a lot of sense.
Food Combining is Important
Years ago I read a book, Fit for Life, by the Diamonds. They weren’t doctors but they made some logical points. Based on just pure physiology, there were sensible ways to eat food in certain combinations.
For example, when you eat a carbohydrate, your digestion begins in the mouth with the secretion of certain enzymes to break down carbohydrates. These specific enzymes don’t work for proteins. This may be why sandwiches aren’t the best thing for your stomach.
A perfect example where I think people don’t realize food combining and timing is important involves the main meal and dessert. I remember on many occasions going to a restaurant and enjoying my main course- steak or chicken and then having a “healthy’ dessert of some fruit. I would notice by the time I was driving home that my stomach was feeling bloated and hyper acidic.
The Fit for Life book explained this perfectly. The meat sitting in my stomach – would remain there being undigested for several hours. The fruit I just ate would be digested within minutes. However, the fruit couldn’t pass along the GI tract because the meat was still in its way. So, instead, the fruit would ferment on top of the meat and give me those uncomfortable stomach pains. Food combining matters!
Food Color is Important
I am a big fan of the book, The Color Code by J.Joseph, Nadaue, and Underwood. The premise that the different fruits and vegetables we eat have different colors, which in turn contain various nutrients that are important for our immune health. I keep this book close by because it always encourages me to try new foods I may have overlooked. I find that Nature truly has all the secrets to keeping our immune system’s strong and vibrant. It can seem like a job to maximize your nutrition, but you can also look at it as a fun challenge. My key point is that your plate should be filled with colorful vegetables and fruits.
I took a course about a decade ago with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the famous meditation instructor from the University of Massachusetts. The first thing we did in the course was to eat a single raisin with mindfulness. Mindfulness, if you are not familiar is essentially trying to be present at the moment. This is the antithesis of multitasking and almost impossible in our world of cell phones. However, at the time I couldn’t believe that eating that single raisin mindfully was so enjoyable and satisfying. Like so many of us, I gulp down my food reading a newspaper or watching television. Our early ancestors didn’t have either and were probably quite content to focus on their food- and enjoy the moment of a full belly.
I find I am most mindful and appreciative of eating slowly when I’ve just recovered from a bout of gastric reflux. The reflux upsets my stomach for days and no meal is enjoyable. Go to Youtube and watch the mindfulness eating exercise- I think it will open your eyes, and calm your belly!
One more thing: I also feel on some level we have gotten away from spiritually appreciating our food. I’m not advocating any religious belief on these pages, but whether you do believe in higher authority or if you can just be grateful to Mother Nature for granting you the gift of food I promise your digestion and immunity can only benefit. Early man and still many civilizations didn’t and don’t take for granted food on their tables. We have for a long time been granted easy access to an abundance of food- and this can lead to poor choices and poor digestion.
- Eat like your primitive ancestors: unprocessed foods as much as possible, small quantities at each meal and lots of colorful foods. High fiber foods in their natural state from plant-sources should be the basis of your diet.
- Try to limit your grains, especially wheat and gluten-seek out alternatives such as quinoa.
- Get adequate Omega-3 foods in your diet like our early ancestors through foods such as walnuts, avocados, and fish. Fish oil supplements are also an important way to ensure a strong immune balance.
- Be careful in your food combining. Try to avoid combining starches with proteins; instead, eat proteins with non-starches and fats.
- Eat mindfully and spiritually. Try not reading a newspaper or watching TV when you eat. Try even one meal a week in complete silence.
- Follow my rule of 2’s for a balanced immune health diet: 2 days of lean meat or poultry, 2 days of fresh fish and 2 days of vegetarian meals- your 7th days can be a detox day with just fresh juices to let your system cleanse.
– Dr. Dean Mitchell, M.D.
Mitchell Medical Group in NYC & Long Island
About the Author – Dr. Dean Mitchell, M.D.
Dr. Dean Mitchell, M.D. is a Board Certified Allergist and Immunologist based out of NYC. He graduated from the Sackler School of Medicine and completed training at the Robert Cooke Allergy Institute in New York City. He is also a Clinical Assistant Professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, and the author of Dr. Dean Mitchell’s Allergy and Asthma Solution: The Ultimate Program for Reversing Your Symptoms One Drop at a Time. Dr. Dean Mitchell, M.D. has also been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Fitness Magazine, Dr. Oz and News NY 1. Dr. Mitchell also hosts the podcast The Smartest Doctor in the Room – a combination of a lively, personal and in-depth interview with top healthcare specialists.
Excerpt from his upcoming book: ImmunoLife Diet: The Best Ways to Eat to Keep you Immune Strong