Am I really what I eat?

In the bad old days when life seemed to be filled only with pain, I used to comfort myself and find moments of peace with the thought: „I am not my body!“ If I could see myself at a level of consciousness where my soul and not my body was in charge, then the pain lost its power over me. That was rare, but it did happen.

If I am not my body, then I am also not what I eat, right? Up to now I believed that medication, exercise and stress-reduction are more important for my well-being, than food. However, the more I learn about diet, the more I think that it may be important too. Diet seems to be the question that interests people the most.

The leading Swiss charity for musculoskeletal disorders, the Swiss League against Rheumatism, recognises that many patients would like advice about diet, but do not know where to find reliable information. They publish an excellent series of articles explaining the different views (German, French, Italian). Many rheumatologists are sceptical of or reject any significant dietary influence on the development of chronic disease, and fear that special diets may lead to nutritional deficiencies, and make things worse for patients. At the other extreme there are holistic physicians, and health advisors who believe that diet can even replace medication.

When the disease flares up, I would try almost anything to alleviate the pain; and it seems intuitively plausible that what we eat may affect the progress of disease. It is well-known that a poor diet can lead to other health problems, such as Diabetes or cardiac disease. But what about Arthritis? Health care specialists who believe that diet has no influence, point out that there is no clear evidence that diet makes a difference. But that could be because the subject has not been adequately researched yet. We still don’t understand what triggers arthritis, so in my view it’s too early to eliminate diet from the list of suspects.

But where can patients like myself find the information to make their own decisions?

My General Practitioner sent me to a nutritional consultation at the local University Hospital. I was amazed to learn that they even have a leaflet for people with inflammatory arthritis (published by the Swiss Society for Nutrition in German and French). There I was told that many elements of a Mediterranean diet can help reduce inflammation.

The picture shows me with my kids eating a Mediterranean diet on holiday in 2014. We were doing it years ago!

Family holidays in Sicily

The first thing is to guard against Osteoporosis. I‘ve had reduced bone density since my mid-forties, so that means making sure I get enough calcium (Fish, cheese, yogurt, various seeds – you can find information on the web) and Vitamin D (supplements and going out into the sunshine).

People affected by inflammatory arthritis need a lot of protein, which is contained in meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans and pulses. Some of those foods may promote inflammation, as I explain below.

If there are foods that promote inflammation, then people like me should avoid them, and eat more foods that are anti-inflammatory. That’s where the Mediterranean food comes in. As is well-known many Western diets contain high levels of Omega-6 fats, in particular arachidonic acid. These are considered to promote inflammation and are found in meat, eggs and high fat dairy products. Our Western diets contain a lot of arachidonic acid. So according to the advice I received, these should be reduced as much as possible. The anti-inflammatory „good“ foods contain Omega-3 fatty acids, like fish – so cod-liver oil really is good for you! – and certain oils. Oils that are particularly good are Linseed (we had that at home when I was a child, but it was only used to grease Cricket bats), walnut oil and rapeseed oil. To my disappointment olive oil is good, but not amongst the very best.

The last advice is to eat things containing something called Antioxidants because they scavenge „bad guys“ called oxygen radicals (who would think that something with the word oxygen in it would be bad for you?). You get your antioxidants if you eat lots of fruit and veg, and whole grain products, and nuts and seeds.

I was delighted with this advice, except it described quite well the way I eat anyway, and I‘ve still got active AS. What can I change?

I suspect that I still eat a lot of unhealthy food, even when I think that I am eating healthily. Ten years ago I visited Japan for 2 weeks.

Vegetable seller in Japan
Vegetable market in Japan
Pasta chef in Japan
Fresh pasta chef in Japan

The food was absolutely amazing, lots of weird greens and freshly made pasta. It was before my AS diagnosis, although I‘d had symptoms already for many years. I remember well how astonishingly energised and healthy I felt. I had no idea why but vowed to eat Miso soup for breakfast from then on. My promise to myself didn’t even hold a week! In the rural area in Switzerland where I live it was hard to find Miso for the soup, and my family preferred to start the day with traditional Swiss breakfasts…

Brunch bei Marlene und Sämi Wyss Rubi, Hagiboden
Traditional Swiss farmers’ breakfast

Maybe writing this blog will motivate me to try again and report in more detail in a later blog, on what I discover. The whole subject of diet is huge, and I find it quite complex.

Recently I went on a alpine trip collecting wild herbs. In the evening we prepared a wonderful 5-course meal with these plants. It was delicious, and again I felt marvellous afterwards. I’ll leave you with a picture of our starter.

Herbs from mountain meadows are delicious
Mountain meadows are a source of delicious herbs

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