…is The Dirt Cure.
Before I delve into that, I want to mention the other book I recently finished (on Audible): Grain Brain. I cannot even remember now where I first heard about Grain Brain, but I listened to it in full and was intrigued by its assertions. After reading more about the book and the author, however, I would advise taking the studies and examples he provides with a grain (ha, ha, pun intended) of salt. While I certainly agree that sugar and processed grains have done significant damage to our society, I can’t say the same for whole grains and rice, especially considering that these are staple foods in many healthier cultures. There is also a big difference between the rice that my parents and grandparents grew up on in India (kuthari/matta rice) and the white long-grain rice we grew up on in America.
Our Indian diet is heavy in starches (rice, chapathis, pooris, and starchy vegetables and fruits like yucca, plantains, jackfruit, bread fruit, etc.), but it is also balanced by a variety of vegetable dishes, fish, and meat (for the non-vegetarians). Like most other cultures, people’s everyday work involved labor-intensive tasks and high levels of physical activity, up until very recently. I remember the last time I visited family in India, my uncle took me down the road to the house he grew up in. It was at the top of this small hill and I hiked up it, huffing and puffing and trying to keep pace with my 60-something year old uncle. I mean, if you have to go on a hike a few times a day just to get into your house, you’d be carbing it up too! Sadly, with the advent of transportation and technology to provide convenience, we see the unfortunate effects in the form of numbers — waist inches, scale pounds, blood glucose levels, prescription drug milligrams, health care dollars.
Although I don’t agree with much of Grain Brain‘s postulations and question the author’s side business selling supplements to improve brain health, I do believe that processed carbs and refined sugars contribute to inflammatory processes and chronic disease. This is totally anecdotal, but when I cut out carbs nearly six months ago, my chronic SI joint pain totally disappeared. No joking. I’ve had that pain for literally 10 years and had tried stretching, yoga, physical therapy, chiropractic therapy, TENS units, you name it. Nothing alleviated it except quitting carbs. Not to mention I was finally able to lose the weight that I had been unsuccessful at losing thus far! (*Healthy weight loss was attained through a combined effort of changing my eating habits and exercise).
So this brings me to The Dirt Cure. Author Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD is a pediatric neurologist who asserts that natural foods can have healing properties in modern medicine. It is quite alarming to note the number of children these days who suffer from allergies (nuts, eggs, gluten, dairy, soy, etc. etc.). When I was growing up, I don’t think I knew more than a handful of people my age who had food allergies. The author also notes the higher rates of autoimmune diseases, ADHD, and autism spectrum diseases in children recently. Although little is known about their etiologies, it is worth considering that food and nutrition are playing a part. And with discussions of food and nutrition come discussions about the agriculture industry and food regulation in the U.S., a topic far too broad to cover here.
Some people may attribute little thought to the possibility that what we eat affects our health. But why wouldn’t it? It is unfortunate that current medical education teaches so little about food and nutrition, compared to the volume we are taught about pharmaceuticals. I certainly respect the role of medications for treating disease and in no way support using only herbal remedies for serious conditions (such as Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicines that claim to cure cancer). Not that I think herbs are never useful. On the contrary, when I was bitten by a billion mosquitoes in India, rubbing Tulsi leaves on the bites provided instant relief. My mom put turmeric powder and coconut oil onto my baby’s umbilical cord stump to let it heal, since turmeric has anti-septic and anti-inflammatory properties. But when it comes to certain diseases, you just can’t mess around with herbs, especially since they can interact with prescription drugs you may be taking.
Unlike Grain Brain, The Dirt Cure allows for grains in the diet so long as they are sprouted or natural and freshly ground. The heavily processed stuff on supermarket shelves is not included in this. I mean, why is it ok that “whole wheat” English muffins last for weeks in my pantry without molding? Homemade breads would be preferable, especially sourdough. My husband, who is a huge fan of Cooked on Netflix, is a proponent of “Eat what you want, if you can make it from scratch.” I agree, but that doesn’t mean we should eat homemade cheesecake everyday either. The Dirt Cure allows for other healthy ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth, etc. which have numerous health benefits. However, for my current goals, I am avoiding all of these because on the rare occasions I have eaten grains in the past six months, it has left me totally drained of energy and noticeably sluggish.
Aside from grains, The Dirt Cure offers valuable tips and resources for choosing a wise and healthy diet all around. This includes making a conscious effort to buy and consume foods free of pesticides and meats free of antibiotics. The importance of grass-feeding animals and allowing them to roam in their natural surroundings rather than cramped quarters and cages goes beyond animal rights. This is a noble cause, but for many including myself, it was just not enough motivation to stop buying the less expensive and easier to find meat and dairy products. The higher price tag of buying organic, pasture-raised, and biodynamic was also a major deterrent. But something the book’s author said stuck with me: “Pay the farmer now or the doctor later.” By choosing healthier foods to nourish our bodies, we can stave off obesity and its associated chronic diseases. We can also show respect for the animals which provide us with meat, eggs, and dairy products by choosing organic, grass-fed or grass-finished, pasture raised, and biodynamic foods.
So you want to find such products. Where to start? Aside from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, I really did not know where to go to buy quality organic foods. Living where I do, I am surrounded by farm land, so I figured at least one of these must sell farm eggs, raw milk, and the like. I kicked myself for not thinking about this sooner! After a quick google search, I came across an amazing service, Agrilicious. Signing up is free, and you can find farms around where you live that provide the products you are looking for. Of course, any local farmer’s markets should also have farm-raised meat and plant products. You can also join a local CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture). Membership provides you with a weekly or biweekly box of fresh, seasonal produce. This can really expand your palate and encourage new recipes. I have a colleague who uses such a service, and she notes that regular supermarket produce is just tasteless in comparison. The ones I have found locally are only available in the Spring and Summer seasons, so I will have to wait until 2017.
The Dirt Cure also addresses numerous other topics including the gut microbiome, the dirty dozen, fermented foods, and the benefits of soil and dirt on health versus the opposite effect of bleach and anti-bacterial products. I highly recommend this book, for it has dramatically changed my outlook on food, nutrition, and health for the better.