Guest Post – The Religion of Food: A Nurse’s Perspective

My sister is awesome and had this written before I have even taken the time to think about my next post for my Theology/Philosophy of Food series. The rest of this post will be her words.

Let me start off by saying that the following expresses my opinion and I happen to be a nurse. My opinion is not to be taken as the opinion of most or all nurses, most or all medical professionals, and I am not a nutritionist. I am a bachelor’s degree prepared Registered Nurse who works on a floor that specializes in Oncology. While I have taken all of the classes concerning the disease process and treatment of cancers that all registered nurses take as well as a few additional classes at my place of employment, I have not yet received special certifications in chemotherapy or Oncology. Though I have more education and training in nutrition, preventative and curative medicine, and the disease process and treatment of cancers than the general public, I in no way claim to be an expert and my advice should not supersede or replace any of the advice that you have received from your medical doctor or a certified nutritionist. All opinions should be taken into account, but when in doubt, listen to those with the best training and education. In the case of diet and health promotion the BEST information comes from certified nutritionists and fully licensed and practicing medical doctors.

There is no doubt in my mind that food has taken over our lives. Our culture plasters pictures of near naked, impossibly thin women everywhere. It is to the point that if you venture onto the internet or out of the house to run errands for thirty minutes or more, you are practically guaranteed to see at least one of these pictures. There are two major problems with these images right away. First of all, a high percentage of the models that feature in the pictures are clinically anorexic. Secondly, almost all of these pictures are altered and airbrushed to further distort the images represented. The average American woman is five foot four inches tall and a size 16. The average model featured in these pictures, especially after alterations to the picture, is five foot nine plus and a size 0-2. These images alone are enough to set us up to be completely obsessed with body image and food.

There is a relatively new movement, especially among young adults, which is bringing our obsession with food to qualify as religious devotion. This group shuns anything that they do not view as all natural. Words such as “toxin” and “toxic” are being used to describe anything that has experienced any type of modification or other interference by man or machine. Genetically modified foods, processed, and manufactured are dirty words to this group. The words toxin and toxic have historically meant something that causes serious injury/illness or death. Quantifying something that is not even necessarily harmful to the body as “toxic” can create a lot of confusion and undue fear to those that are not familiar with this group’s liberal usage of the word. While there is nothing harmful in eating only organic, non-processed, non-modified, non-manufactured foods; there is not sufficient evidence that it is overly beneficial, especially when the high cost of these foods is factored in. Due to the increased demand for “organic” foods and the government red-tape companies have to go through to get their foods labeled as “organic,” the price difference between the “organic” foods and the foods sitting next to them on the shelves that have not been labeled “organic” is significant. Using a weekly ad from the grocery store that I frequent as an example, you can buy a 12 oz. bag of salad mix for $0.99 or 5 oz. of organic salad greens for $2.45. Organic food sometimes has different storage requirements and/or may spoil faster.

As I said, there is no harm in eating only “organic” food, but there is little proof of increased benefit, and there is definitely an increased cost. Especially among young adults, there is a lot of pressure to join the “all natural” movement. There are some practices in this movement in terms of their views on medicine, especially preventative medicine, which can be very harmful to the heath of the participant and detrimental to public health, but that is a topic for perhaps another blog. The main problem I have with this movement is the peer pressure and bullying that can sometimes arise should a person not follow these practices. For many the main issue is financial. There is also an increased time demand for following the “all natural” practices. Those specifically related to food include more frequent trips to the grocery store or farmers market due to more rapid spoilage, increased meal preparation time due to minimal prepackaged, frozen, or ready to eat foods, and for some time-demand of home-growing food and/or tending farm animals for eggs and milk and/or animals for butchering.

For those who have the time and money required to maintain an “all-natural/organic” diet, by all means go for it. There are some benefits to this type of diet, which I will more fully explain in a moment. However, this lifestyle is not for everyone, and that is ok. For some the issue is money, for others it is time. In our society, the majority of homes are two-income households with the kids enrolled in school and extracurricular activities outside of the home. Though this is definitely universal, money and/or time can be an issue in most American homes. Another reasonable issue is motivation. There is little evidence that even if time and money are not an issue that the extra effort is worth it. There are many simpler things that people can do to maximize their health and minimize their risks of diseases.

First and foremost, everything within the body is done at the genetic and chemical level. The body does not use a vegetable, but carbohydrates (specifically glucose), fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. The body needs a certain amount of carbs, protein, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fluids, and calories, but because everything is processed at the chemical level, in truth, the source doesn’t really matter. As long as everything that is needed is present, but not in excess, the body will process it effectively and will function properly. In theory, you could eat mostly “junk food” and get everything else from supplements, and experiments have been done doing just that with no harmful effects or weight gain. In theory there is no problem, in practice it is not that easy. Supplements can be used improperly and, let’s face it, if we are not full/satisfied by the food we eat, we are going to eat more.

Secondly, there are some foods that can increase the risk for health problems. When it comes to health problems, the primary culprit is genetics. Our genes regulate all growth, metabolic, immune, etc. processes. There is a reason why certain diseases run in families. Almost all of these diseases, though hardwired in your genes, require some sort of trigger. The number one trigger for most diseases, especially cancers, is cigarette smoking followed by exposure to asbestos, and carcinogenic chemical exposure whether by inhalation, consumption, or topical exposure (such as UV rays). Anything that has the potential to cause tissue damage (DNA damage) has the potential to cause cancer. There are many cancers that are caused by viruses even. I know of at least five cancers that are caused by HIV alone. Every time tissue (DNA) is damaged, it has to repair itself. Most of the time it repairs itself correctly. Often, if it repairs itself incorrectly the body recognizes the cells with the faulty DNA and kills them, though sometimes the cells with the bad DNA are missed. This is what causes cancer. There are some foods that are known to cause tissue damage when consumed frequently and in high amounts such as fatty and or/smoked meats which are linked to colorectal cancers. Obesity related diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and diabetes increase the risk of cancer. Any conditions that weaken the immune system (which usually finds and kills cancerous cells) can increase the risk for cancer. Excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and spicy/greasy foods can cause GERD or exacerbate it. Obviously any foods that cause allergies or food intolerance should be avoided due to the damage that can happen to the GI tract, respiratory system, or the skin (rash/hives).

The truth is, even if you do everything right, you can’t control your genes and you may still develop these diseases. So it all comes down to risk and benefit. What I suggest is treating food as what it is: fuel. Food is neither a friend or an enemy. All food is ok, but not all food is beneficial. I spent 12+ years trying diet after diet after diet, in the end netting a 100 pound weight GAIN. About a year and a half ago I finally decided that I was not going to spend the majority of my time thinking about food anymore whether by treating or denying myself. For the last year and a half I have eaten what I wanted when I wanted, stopped when I was full knowing that whenever I got hungry again, I could have whatever I wanted. In that time, I have actually lost 30 pounds. By allowing myself to eat what I wanted whenever I was hungry, no food is forbidden (which lead to binging when I would finally give into “temptation”) or put on a pedestal. I try to make reasonable choices and will sometimes make slight changes to my habits if I find that I am drinking too much soda for example. Is this the right way for everyone, of course not. I am a diet addict and to place any significant restrictions on my diet will almost surely trigger my dieting addiction. So far my method is working for me, but I do not recommend the same method to everybody.

What I do recommend is this: we need to fix our relationship with food. Food obsession leads to food addiction whether the addiction is to overeating or over-restricting. No food (besides that which would cause an allergic reaction) should be completely off limits. Any diet that is too restrictive is going to lead to cheating and binging. Anytime we depend on food for comfort, it will also lead to binging. Everyone needs to know their own triggers, their own limits, their own needs, and find their own balance. The food wars NEED TO STOP. No one way works for everyone. The “all natural” diet is great, in theory. In practice it can be too expensive, too time-consuming, or just not worth the effort. Success or failure in any lifestyle or diet does not make or break you as a person. The size 2 is not going to be in front of the size 22 in line to get to heaven. God does not judge us on what goes into our mouths, but on what comes out of them. The only meal with specific mandates in place is The Lord’s Supper. As for the rest, all is permitted, but not all is beneficial.



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