Reclaiming the intuition in nutrition
Before I became a chef and nutrition educator, I was a professional mover. I studied and taught dance, Pilates, Gyrotonic, and somatic movement theories. While I gained many skills, most importantly I learned to trust my body and to always respect its wisdom. This gift became most valuable when I fell ill with an intestinal parasite. I had to relearn to listen to my body and feed myself the right foods that would help restore proper digestion. Along the way nutrition advice from allopathic doctors was not offered, however I did find refuge in Functional Medicine, a systems-based approach that looks at root causes of disease to heal the person with a personalized approach.
Functional Medicine (FM) wasn't as popular as it is today. This was back in the early 00's. I was a green Pilates teacher, working at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. Dr. Mark Hyman, now a considered a celebrity doctor, was the co-medical director. We would share a table during lunch and schmooze over elimination diets. Suffering from daily pain and being given one anti-parasitic medication after another, garnering knowledge from Dr. Hyman felt like winning the lottery. . Being surrounded by a group of incredible doctors, nutritionists and healers was an enormous learning and growth opportunity for me. Then each day after work, while in my little apartment in Great Barrington, I would tinker in the kitchen, concocting meals that would help heal intestinal inflammation and restore my gut bacteria. But I wasn't just healing my physical body, I was healing my mind and my soul. The parasite had wreaked so much havoc on my body, that massive anxiety ensued at mealtimes. . What I was learning ignited a newfound sense of pleasure and the more I cooked and healed, the hungrier I was to learn.
That's how I landed at the former Natural Gourmet Institute of Health and Healing. I became a health supportive chef and cooked for many years for those undergoing cancer treatment. Then I went on to get my Masters in Nutrition. I worked for an FM doctor, ran a teaching kitchen, wrote recipes for her books, led retreats for other FM doctors, and taught in masters nutrition courses. I was deeply invested in the field. And believed I was carving out a niche in the FM field working as a chef and nutrition educator, or what my colleagues and I call a Culinary Nutritionist. Yearning to fit into the nutrition field, particularly with those practicing FM, I was regularly disappointed.
The more the field started to brand itself as a personalized healthcare, the more I watched it box itself into "diets" with little patient education. I know this because I would see the FM clients, who were utterly confused about what to eat, or worse, develop orthorexia from being told to eat so "cleanly".
In my nutrition counseling practice I found myself relying more on culinary education because when you talk about practical kitchen skills, recipes, meal planning, and mindful eating, people have something to really chew on, digest, and absorb. You can't give someone a Paleo diet of chicken and vegetables when they are used to eating a SAD diet and expect them to make lasting changes to their health. You can't give them powders to put into smoothies and expect them to enjoy what they are gulping down. Sustainable food choices have to involve good taste, balancing, quality sourcing, and an experience of translating the science to the plate.
The impetus to write this piece has long been coming. What broke the camel's back was Instagram. I saw a post from a young FM doctor who took a jab at the term "intuitive eating", that the concept had no place in nutrition sciences. I don't usually give posts like this much attention, but this one got at my core. I wrote to him, saying that patients need to be given permission to listen to their bodies and that nutrition is more than what science reveals. He wrote back, "How do you know what feels right? And if what feels right is physiologically necessary or appropriate?"
Dear readers, I think you know processed foods are not physiologically necessary and yes, they are sometimes appropriate (a pandemic will tell you that). The general public knows eating a whole foods, plant-based diet is nourishing and bolsters health and well-being. Each person is on their own journey between "knowing" and "doing" what is good for herself. It takes skill in the kitchen and it also takes an awareness of your body. The message in his reply is that the person cannot know for him/herself what is nutritionally appropriate and that only lab tests can tell us what is necessary.
Here is where the nutrition field needs an about-face. Maybe a renaming to 'Nourishment'. Nutrition is ultimately about nourishment and you can't talk about nourishment without softer terms like intuition, sensing, and feeling. This might be too soft for doctors, but it isn't for chefs. We're all about intuition and it might just be the ingredient we need more of in medicine.