Category Archives: Nutrition Education

“The Jungle Effect” as Antidote to Fad Diets

Many of you have heard me rant about various fad diets. I lament how easily these temporary promises of a better, thinner, healthier version of ourselves take hold in our often anxious and preoccupied minds. I know humans innately crave a mix of new experiences (and foods) as well as the comfort of familiar routines (and foods), so I get why at least some of these fads are appealing. We know at some level we will never look like the celebrity du jour touting this fad as the secret to her success. We understand that no matter how much we long for simple solutions to our problems, it is unlikely the complex layers of our issues will be unraveled simply and with minimal effort.

Yet we can’t help ourselves. The power of our imagination is so great that we enter each new fad wide-eyed with possibility. Maybe this time we will lose weight, gain health and self-confidence, and all of the problems we think are tied to our weight and appearance will magically melt away.

I am reminded of my favorite nickname of a hockey teammate in Seattle – “Dream Crusher.” Though I understand very well the myriad reasons all of us are attracted to different fads at some point or another (this extends beyond fad diets for those who think this post doesn’t apply to you), I am here to crush that dream. There are no quick fixes to solve complex problems related to weight and health.

Lucky for you I am not particularly comfortable with the moniker “Dream Crusher,” as appealing as it is for a defensive partner on the ice in the context of a hockey game. I prefer to inspire hope and to support the process of change that leads my clients toward their goals and whatever it takes for them to live in harmony with their values. So I have put together a class called “The Jungle Effect” to appeal to your sense of adventure while honoring your need for comfort and the familiar.

“The Jungle Effect” is a phrase coined by integrative physician Daphne Miller. Miller observed several patients who experienced health problems when they transitioned away from their traditional way of eating and adopted the ways of our modern, industrialized society. One client in particular spent time in a traditional community in the jungle as a child and when she returned to this place for an extended visit years later, many health issues she developed as an adult resolved.

Intrigued by this idea that returning to a simpler way of eating and living could reclaim health, Miller explores five areas in the world where populations still follow a mainly traditional way of life, including eating habits, and enjoy an unusually low incidence of various chronic diseases and conditions that plague much of the developed world.

There are many aspects of Miller’s approach that appeal to me. First, she uses stories of real people to introduce us to these exotic places and to give us ideas about how we can integrate traditional ways into our modern lives.

Next, there is a lot of nutrition myth-busting that occurs throughout the book, especially related to our annoying tendency to reduce nutrition to specific nutrients as a guide to a “healthy diet.” While she does introduce information about components in foods that have powerful health benefits like the omega-3 fats found in fish, she presents a broader picture of nutritional benefits. Popular ideas such as simply eating “too many carbs” is a general problem vanish as we learn that the people of Copper Canyon, Mexico eat a traditional diet that is composed of roughly 80% carbohydrates and enjoy one of the lowest rates of diabetes in the world.

Perhaps the best part of the book for me though, is that Miller provides a picture of each culture that extends beyond what they eat. There is no doubt the “what” is important, yet through Miller’s presentation of cultures as diverse as Crete and Iceland we are encouraged to look beyond what is eaten and contemplate how food is produced, prepared and shared, along with many other aspects of daily life in these communities that benefit their health.

“The Jungle Effect,” and more specifically the idea of pursuing more traditional ways of eating, is the closest thing I think we will find to a “simple solution.” By definition a culture that continues its way of life, including eating habits, over centuries is going to have a more simple approach than our post-industrial modern society.  The challenge then becomes reclaiming simplicity in a complex society, no small feat as many of you know.

Next week’s class through our local branch of Central Wyoming College is based on some of the important concepts from Miller’s book, complete with foods that represent these special places – Copper Canyon, Mexico, the islands of Crete and Okinawa, Cameroon, West Africa, and Iceland. We will explore some of the key concepts common to this diverse collection of cultures that contribute to good health and longevity.  Best of all, we will embrace the excitement that comes with trying something new while uncovering the comfortable, familiar aspects of this simple approach that require no special talents beyond our own inner wisdom.

What Do You Mean “It’s Not About the Food?”

Next week I begin a new series of Beyond Broccoli classes called Food & You: Exploring Beyond the “What.” I am excited about this unique option for nutrition education and support for the many people in our community who struggle with food, weight, and body image, using a behavioral nutrition approach that recognizes in many cases – “it’s not about the food.”

Not long after I started Beyond Broccoli back in 2001 I remember thinking that so much of my formal training and education in nutrition focused on what to eat (or not eat) for a variety of outcomes, and yet the most important work I did with individual clients came down to something we spent relatively little time studying: behavior change.

I remember learning about the “Stages of Change” model that describes the process most people go through to make changes. I was fascinated by this process, though I had no idea at the time this would be some of the most important information to my practice with individual clients. It didn’t take long for me to realize that struggles with food, weight and body image add layers of complexity to changing habits. If I want my clients to be successful in making sustainable changes, together we need to explore well beyond the “what” of their eating habits. So I have devoted much time and energy over the past dozen years to learning more about this whole process.

I suspect some find this idea of a nutritionist not focusing on the “what” confusing. Aren’t nutritionists supposed to be the experts on what to eat (or not eat)? Isn’t that why we consult with them?

As a Registered Dietitian it is important that I know about Medical Nutrition Therapy, or how nutrients can prevent or manage disease and illness. Here in Jackson it also helps me to know about sports nutrition to help my clients optimize food as fuel. Educating clients about the links between food and mood is important for both long-term health and how they feel on a daily basis, often a much more compelling reason to make changes. So yes, what we eat, and don’t eat, is definitely important and a major focus of my ongoing work (and continuing education requirements).

I am also passionate about the need for nutrition education to go beyond just spewing information. I enjoy helping clients acquire tools and build skills to actually apply this information in the context of their individual life situations – or more simply, the “how” related to eating habits.

However, I now know that actually making changes often goes way beyond needing to change, wanting to change, and knowing what to do. I can put together the best meal plan ever for someone, based on all the current research and my clinical experience, but if she isn’t engaged in the process of making the plan and it doesn’t fit into her lifestyle, isn’t compatible with her life goals and values, or doesn’t take into account where she is in the readiness for change process, this “ideal plan” is likely to fail. This leads me to the real crux of changing habits – the “why.”

As I see it, my area of expertise is food and nutrition while my clients and patients are the experts on themselves, even if they are not conscious of this fact. They know why they want to change, or think they want to change, and more importantly what they are willing to do. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to uncover the layers of “why” and sometimes for clients who struggle with food, weight and body image (which is many of my clients) this process works better with the with additional guidance and support from a skilled therapist using a team approach.

This idea of enlisting additional support for the often challenging process of changing habits is why a group situation can be really helpful. The “Food & You” classes are a way to apply some of what I do with individual clients in a group setting. I offer nutrition education and support using this behavioral nutrition approach rather than dictating “eat this” or “don’t eat that.” Together we explore the myriad factors that influence what we eat, as well as how, when, where, and why. Each class includes a different relaxation or mindfulness technique to get things started, creative and interactive class activities to spur discussion, and a host of ideas, tools and a chance to practice building skills that can help participants move forward in their journey toward a better relationship with food.