Why Your Diet Isn’t Working & What You Need to Know About the Power of Personalized Nutrition

Weight loss is a challenge, especially when you have a chronic illness. Here’s how learning about the importance of personalized nutrition helped me and my family reach healthy weight goals.WHY YOUR DIET ISN'T WORKING

After a gluttonous Christmas one year, my husband and I looked at ourselves and decided we had to go on a diet. Things had been spiraling downward for a while. The primary factor was that I had been diagnosed with a chronic condition the year before (fibromyalgia). Pain and fatigue made cooking healthy or moving more just seem too difficult. In my husband’s case, catered meetings at work meant one too many many muffins. So we went on a plant-based, nutrient dense diet. I lost weight, about 20 lbs., and kept it off. My husband did not – even though he swore he only looked at the muffins. How does that work?

The answer lies in the fact we each have a unique physical and genetic makeup. A 2015 study investigated post-meal glucose levels in 800 individuals over the course of a week. They found significant individual variation among the participants in the blood glucose levels caused by different foods, even when they ate the exact same, standardized meals. For example, in one participant sushi caused their blood sugar to rise higher than ice cream, while another found that healthy tomatoes spiked her blood sugar.

Researchers attributed this variability to a combination of physical makeup (weight, blood pressure, etc.), lifestyle and gut microbiome (the unique gut bacteria in our digestive tract). In fact, an algorithm based on these factors was able to accurately predict personalized post-meal glucose reactions to specific foods. Using this information, researchers designed individual nutritional recommendations that eliminated the foods that caused high glycemic reactions, which led to overall lower blood sugar levels among study participants.  It is this individual variability that explains why one of your friends is trying to convince you to eat like a carnivorous caveman to lose weight (hello, Paleo), while another swears that rabbit-food veganism is a game-changer. Essenially, different people respond differently to different diets. My husband found a high protein, low(er) carb vegetarian diet worked for him. He needs high protein dairy options like greek yogurt and cottage cheese, while I don’t.

Another example of individual variability in nutrition is sensitivity to dietary cholesterol. For most of us, the liver produces 85% of our cholesterol and the rest is acquired from our dietary intake. If we eat a cholesterol-rich meal, our body responds by manufacturing less cholesterol to maintain healthy blood levels. However for about 30% of people, their sensitivity to blood cholesterol is blunted, leading to problems regulating healthy levels. For these individuals, if they eat cholesterol-high foods, their blood cholesterol goes up because their body fails to sufficiently reduce how much cholesterol is manufactured in the liver. These people are at an increased risk of having high cholesterol.

As you might expect, research into the relationship between our individual genetic makeup and our nutrition, called nutritional genomics, is a rapidly expanding field. Lactose intolerance is one example of how genes can affect your reaction to food – certain variations of specific genes confer lactose tolerance, while other variations cause intolerance. Many researchers argue that personalized diets are the future of nutrition, rather than broad dietary recommendations or one-size-fits-all diets. However, the application of these research insights are not yet widely available to enable people to develop an individual diet based on factors like genetics, physical makeup, and gut microbiome.

One step everyone can take to personalize their diet is to try an elimination diet, which will helps to identify food intolerances and sensitivities. A food intolerance is a nonallergic reaction that causes negative bodily symptoms like digestive problems, skin irritation and fatigue. Food intolerances can cause inflammation of the digestive lining. If one diet plan is not helpful, then consider trying another, until you find what works best for your body. Here is a list of the three best diets for fibromyalgia, according to science (vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free and FODMAP free), as well as helpful resources to get started.

The good news is that there is one diet plan that is always good for you. What is that diet? Eating whole foods. Not necessarily raw, organic, GMO-free or local foods (although there are lots of good reasons to choose some of those options too). Whole foods mean food as close to their natural state as possible – carrots in the earth, grapes on the vine, or fish in the sea. Real foods are not processed, refined, added to, fortified, or otherwise messed about with by a food chemist. This is the one diet you can’t go wrong following.

References:

Dr. William Sears. Prime-Time Health (2010): http://www.amazon.com/Prime-Time-Health-Scientifically-Proven-Feeling/dp/0316035394?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0#

Nutritional Genomics and Lactose Intolerance http://nutrigenomics.ucdavis.edu/?page=information/Concepts_in_Nutrigenomics/Lactose_Intolerance

Zeevi, D. et al. (2015). Personalized Nutrition by Prediction of Glycemic Reactions.  Cell. 163(5), p. 1079-1094.

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Move More: How I Actually Started Exercising with a Chronic Condition

Move More: How I Actually Started Exercising with a Chronic Condition

Does just seeing another article about exercise make you want to turn the page? It often makes me want to. When I got diagnosed with my chronic condition all the information about exercise seemed so out of touch with the reality of my life. If I’m already tired, sore and busy then I’m not going to be able to go to the gym. I can’t afford a personal trainer. With my back pain there is no way I can participate in the group yoga classes I used to take in university. Even more frustrating was the fact that all the research I came across proved how beneficial exercise is to health. I knew that I should exercise but I felt like I couldn’t.

 

But what if I could?

One day I came across an(other) article reporting on research that showed yoga could improve fibromyalgia, my chronic condition (OHSU, 2010). The results were impressive – pain was reduced by 24%, fatigued by 30% and depression by 42%. Great, I thought, another thing I can’t do that would help. But in this case I also found that two of the researchers were part of a nonprofit organization that produces exercise DVDs for fibromyalgia, including one on yoga and Pilates (link below). I ordered the DVD and skeptically waited for it to be delivered. I was surprised and excited to find that I was able to do the routine – which was shown at three different intensity levels so I could modify the poses as needed. I found that the at-home instructional DVD format was affordable, convenient and accessible – I could do it when I was able, for as long as I could and without wasting energy traveling somewhere and back.

Woman stretching arms behind back

Photo by Steven Depolo

During my health coach training I learned that yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and stretching are all range-of-motion or flexibility exercises. These types of exercise can also build strength and promote balance, but primarily focus on lengthening tight muscles and moving joints through the full span of movement they are intended to achieve. “Limited flexibility can cause pain, lead to injury, and make muscles work harder and tire more quickly (p. 92, Lorig et al., 2013).

My positive experience with the yoga/pilates DVD encouraged me to find other programs with a similar format. One of my favorites is the Tai Chi for Health series by Dr. Paul Lam (link here), especially the Tai chi for Arthritis program that was designed in conjunction with the Arthritis Foundation. This instructional video that takes you step-by-step through 12 lessons until you have the movement sequence memorized.  I enjoyed learning an entirely new way of moving and began to feel more confident that I could include exercise in my weekly routine.

I also started seeing a physiotherapist who put together a thorough stretching routine for me to do daily. Without doubt, this is the single most effective thing I tried to improve my health and well-being. My pain has decreased and my daily functioning has improved, along with my quality of life.

Many flexibility/range-of-motion exercises programs also share a second common feature as mind-body movement practices. For example, “Yoga is a set of theories and practices with origins in ancient India. Literally, the word yoga comes from a Sanskrit work meaning “to yoke” or “to unite”. It focuses on unifying the mind, body, and spirit, and fostering a greater feeling connection between the individual and his/her surroundings” (Moonaz, 2015). Greater body awareness, stress reduction, emotional balance, and improved energy are all benefits of mind-body exercise programs (Moonaz, 2015).

Flexibility/range of motion exercise programs are a great starting point for anyone who has not exercised for awhile, or who has a health condition that makes movement challenging. They are easy to do at home or you can find many classes offered in your community. Gradually incorporating these routines 2-3 x/week and practicing daily stretching is how I was able to actually begin to  move more. Below is a quick primer on what these kinds of activities are so you can pick the right one for you and a link to programs that I have tried:

Yoga: “Yoga involves directing your attention and breath as you assume a series of poses, or stretches” (Gaiamlife, n.d.).

Qi Gong and Tai chi: “The term qi gong (or chi kung) describes the complete tradition of spiritual, martial and health exercises developed in China. Tai chi is one of the most common of these. Practicing qi gong involves performing a series of movements while paying attention to the body and staying aware of the breath. The exercises are especially effective for developing balance, focus, coordination and graceful, centered movement” (Gaiamlife, n.d.).

Stretching: Poses to lengthen muscles and increase range of motion in joints

 

References:

OHSU. (2010). OHSU Research Suggests Yoga can Counteract Fibromyalgia. http://www.ohsu.edu/xd/about/news_events/news/2010/2010-10-14-ohsu-research-sugge.cfm

Moonaz, S. et al. (2015). Yoga for Arthritis. Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. http://www.hopkinsarthritis.org/patient-corner/disease-management/yoga-for-arthritis/

Gaiam Life. (n.d.) How to Choose a Mind Body Exercise. http://life.gaiam.com/article/how-choose-mind-body-exercise