The new frontier in chronic disease treatment
Chronic diseases are the biggest threat to our global socio-economic development. Lifestyle diseases including heart disease, neuro-degenerative disease, diabetes, and cancer collectively kill almost 50 million people per year.1 With 1 in 2 Americans diagnosed with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, there is no doubt that the food we eat has implications not only for our size, but also our overall health.
Food sits at the nexus of this crisis and poor diet is a leading cause of suffering, disability, and death globally. Poor nutrition is one of the 4 main risk factors for preventable chronic diseases, along with tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity.2
Adhering to a balanced diet is valuable beyond satiation and taste. In their raw form, foods are biological and functional components of nature, providing crucial information that translates into our cells to inform function, recalibration, and senescence.
Our relationship with food is impacted by a number of factors including poor access to healthier foods, high availability of ultra-processed foods, and bad behavioral choices. Social injustice, poverty, and lack of access to whole foods create nutritionally toxic and depleted food environments. At the same time, living in environments plagued with construction pollution, industrial fumes, and contaminated water, interferes with a child’s mood stability, behavior, and neurological development.
Food insecurity promotes dependence on highly palatable, energy-dense, and nutritionally depleted foods which contribute to malnutrition, inflammation, and diet-sensitive chronic disease including obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
Salt and sugar are proven to inhibit specific pathways and prevent absorption of a whole package of nutrients important for childhood development. The mass-scale production, packaging, and distribution of these ultra-processed foods and their subsequent sale in schools and supermarkets can lead to intellectual and developmental delays, anti-social behavior, and ADHD in children.
With so many processed foods on the market, children are facing an achievement gap, further contributing to our global socioeconomic development crises.
During the last decade, governments across the world have highlighted the importance of diet in combating disease.
In 2010, President Obama established a task force on childhood obesity, explaining: “We must accelerate implementation of successful strategies that will prevent and combat obesity. Such strategies include updating child nutrition policies in a way that addresses the best available scientific information, ensuring access to healthy, affordable food in schools and communities, as well as increasing physical activity, and empowering parents and caregivers with the information and tools they need to make good choices for themselves and their families. They will help our children develop lifelong healthy habits, ensuring they reach their greatest potential toward building a healthier and more prosperous America.”
The most powerful tool we have in our arsenal to reverse the global chronic disease epidemic is food. However, medicine has traditionally focused on symptom management, rather than holistically targeting the root cause of the disease.
What’s the fix?
Functional foods, nutritional supplements, and nutraceuticals are the interface between nutrition and pharma. Products such as synbiotics, meta-biotics, natural nootropics, cannabidiol, and sterols are plastered all over organic food shop windows – but what do they really mean for clinical outcomes?
Functional foods are dietary items that provide nutrients and energy while also modulating targeted functions in the body by enhancing specific physiological responses and/or by reducing the risk of disease.3 Fundamentally, they produce health-promoting properties and can be considered as potential candidates in the management of chronic diseases in combination with prescribed medication, to simultaneously alleviate symptoms and reverse disease.
Case study: multiple sclerosis
During the last few years, there has been a real change in trajectory for multiple sclerosis (MS) treatment, with healthcare professionals taking a more holistic approach to treatment and care. MS is an auto-immune disease that causes coordinated attacks and leads to degeneration of the patient’s own neurons. Without treatment, the patient can experience permanent loss of function in affected parts of the brain or spinal cord, resulting in a range of symptoms from weaknesses in limbs, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and loss of vision.
Dr Terry Wahls, pioneer of the functional medicine approach to MS and the Wahls Protocol Diet, has inspired a new wave of treatment paradigms designed to help patients manage their disease.
Rejecting the “one diet fits all” approach, the Wahls Protocol Diet is a modified paleo diet consisting of whole foods, primarily: grass-fed meat, oily fish, leafy vegetables, roots and tubers, nuts, and fruit – evidence-based functional foods that reduce inflammation and support neurological health – whilst heavily restricting dairy, eggs, grains, legumes, nightshades, starches, and sugar.
Not only is this diet central for managing MS-related symptoms, but it has the potential to reverse neuroinflammation when combined with treatments such as neuromuscular electrical stimulation and the necessary medications to protect neurons from further degeneration.