Food Is Our Body's First Line of Defense

Last weekend in NYC there were two conferences of note that were going on simultaneously. One, was the Integrative Healthcare Symposium ( featuring talks and workshops by some of the notable, distinguished and visionary M.D.s, Ph.D.s and N.D.s involved in new studies and work with chronic illness and preventative medicine.

The doctors attending this symposium from around the world included any number of specialties in five key areas: nutrition; integrative oncology; endocrinology; brain and mind health; and leadership and policy. The goal was to create an environment where doctors could hear about new ways to enhance a practice and apply it immediately, because the bad news and the latest CDC statistic is that one in three Americans will have diabetes, 65 percent of us are clinically obese and 41 percent of all of us will have cancer sometime in our lives.

Stunning, right.

The other conference going on about four blocks away, was Just Food's 11th annual CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in New York City. Just Food works with farmers, gardeners, and community members to bring fresh, locally grown food to the New York City region. There were workshops like: Building your Community Kitchen; Food Security and Farmland; Fracking in the Foodshed; NYC Food Policy; Know Your Farmer; Rooftop Gardening Innovations; and finally, Young Farmers of the Valley. Everything was geared toward getting good clean food to everyone in NYC.

My primary doctor, Nasha Winters, who practices naturopathic medicine, flew in from Colorado for the Integrative Healthcare Symposium and I went to the Just Food Conference. And what we agreed these two conferences had in common was, as Dr. Winters says and Michael Pollan has endlessly written, Food is the first line of defense for the body. Winters said that during the three days of talks at the symposium, food as a curative came up again and again, the lecturers talking about how each of us has to search out food that has been grown without poisonous chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, hormones and unnecessary antibiotics.

We all know we are what we eat, right.

Dr. Winters introduced me to a new term, Epigenetics (the science of gene expression) and how food can influence genes. We've been told that people with certain genes (e.g. BRCA I & II) have a much higher chance of getting cancer. In fact, 90 percent of gene expression is determined moment to moment by our thoughts, food choices and environment.

Winters said that along with anything else we might choose to do if we carry these genes, could be something as simple as eating cruciferous plants -- plants that have methylating nutrients which help the liver to detox hormones, chemicals and regulate blood sugar; plants like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and bok choy. These cruciferous vegetables might improve the expression of the gene both in the gene carrier as well as to carry over into the gene carrier's unborn offspring (and some studies show up to three generations down the line). By practicing epigenetics we might just be harnessing our own potential.

Dr. Winters also told me about how there was lots of talk about sugar overload: corn syrup and the carbohydrate-dense foods that turn to sugar in our body by increasing IGF (Insulin Growth Factor), which is a tumor inducer. How to lower the high level of sugars in our body we need a clean, lean protein: organic vegetables and fruits (in every color); spices like turmeric, rosemary; berries; fish oil; green tea; and vitamin D. Food. Food. Food. With only 25 percent of the medical schools teaching 25 hours of required nutrition education, our medical system is not poised to empower patients to make these changes.

At the Just Food conference, the speakers spoke about knowing your farmer and everything with which they grow your food.

At the Integrative Health Care symposium, they spoke of knowing where your food comes from, limiting toxic environmental exposures, knowing your vitamin D levels, and the need for 30-minutes of walking or other exercise six times a week. Speakers at both conferences spoke repeatedly about organic, grass-fed animals; raw dairy or organic low fat dairy, and eating food without GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).

One of the take home messages from the Integrative Health Symposium was, that yes, we are born with our genes but not our destiny. And we have the power to change our destinies. Likewise the take home message from the Just Foods Conference was that we have the power to change the environment in which we derive our nourishment. We can choose what we put into our bodies.

Here's to using each meal as a powerful tool for continuing good health and to treat and prevent disease.

Katherine Leiner
Author of Growing Roots: The New Generation of Sustainable Farmers, Cooks, and Food Activists