2014 Nutrition and Health Conference: the Cutting Edge and the Common Sense

As I mentioned last time I posted, this past week I had the incredible opportunity to attend the 2014 Nutrition and Health Conference in Dallas. The conference is put on by the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, the groundbreaking holistic clinic/research/training center founded by Dr. Andrew Weil 20 years ago this year. I have followed Dr. Weil’s work for quite awhile now and have even visited the Center’s clinic as a patient (which, by the way, was the greatest health care experience of my life so far). Last year when I first heard about the conference, I applied for one of the limited student scholarships to attend, but did not receive one. Then this year it was like a little alarm went off in my head around February saying, “ding-ding-ding-Nutrition-and-Health-Conference!” I looked up the conference and sure enough, applications for student scholarships were due in two days. I wrote my 250-word “this is why you should choose me” statement and sent it off. Much to my surprise and delight, the next week I got the wonderful news that I had been given a scholarship!

Dr. Weil giving the opening presentation

The conference was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Addison and lasted two and a half information-packed days. It’s hard to even know where to begin to describe all that I learned–I only hope I can retain it! If I had to distill it down to a sound byte, my parting impression of the conference as a whole can be described with these two phrases: the cutting edge and the common sense. Yes, I heard about a lot of trials/journal articles (even research that has yet to be published–cool!), but I also heard a lot of simple, practical advice that could apply to anyone seeking a healthy diet. I attended lectures on everything from the benefits of the polyphenols in blueberries to managing pain with diet to using guided imagery to treat diabetes. Because I know I can’t record anything close to a comprehensive inventory of all I learned this week, I thought I’d give a summary of my biggest takeaways, along with a few random interesting facts.

Big Takeaways:

One of the most frequently addressed topics throughout the conference was the importance of “gut microbiota” (also known as intestinal flora or the bacteria in your belly and bum) for overall health. As a population, our gut microbiota has been compromised over the years by a variety of factors, including

  • overuse of antibiotics
  • over-sanitation
  • rise in processed food
  • increase in C-section deliveries
  • decline in breastfeeding

These little buggers have an astoundingly powerful affect on so many aspects of health, from the obvious (the GI tract) to the surprising (mood and behavior; obesity) to the scary (Western diseases). Thankfully, we have a large measure of control over our gut flora through

  • diet, such yogurt (not the super sweet kind) and other fermented foods, as well as fruits and vegetables
  • pro- and prebiotics
  • fecal transplants (this is for the very ill–don’t worry)

In the future, we will probably see probiotics custom-made for individual GI tracts. Until then, we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat by eating a diet rich in probiotics and taking them in capsulated form, as well as increasing our fiber intake.

A second big takeaway from the conference was putting the nail in the coffin of the myth that saturated fat is a culprit in cardiovascular disease. Recent studies have shown that saturated fat is not responsible for cardiovascular disease. In fact, the low-fat diet push of the ’70s through ’90s is probably one factor that has driven the obesity epidemic–in the absence of satiating fats, people turned to increased carbs–which has only increased the incidence of CV disease. This isn’t a reason to eat cheesecake with abandon (darn) but it is grounds to stop demonizing fat.

In addition to taking the focus off of fat as a dietary bogeyman, presenters at the conference repeatedly stressed the importance of viewing overall dietary patterns, rather than nitpicky numbers and percentages. For the average layperson who wants to lose weight or simply be healthy, this kind of myopia is unnecessary and burdensome.

So what do we tell that layperson who wants to lose weight or be healthy? In the midst of a million diets, cookbooks, blogs, and self-proclaimed experts, is there a one-size-fits-all piece of advice? Well, probably not. But the one recommendation that seemed to come through from most presenters as a great place to start was the Mediterranean diet. It’s plant-based, low-sugar, and healthy-fat-focused. I call that common sense.

And now that we’ve talked Big Takeaways, it’s time for the…

Random Interesting Stuff:

  • Calorie intake in the U.S. has increased around 400 calories/day since 1970
  • Nutrition facts about nuts are deceiving (in a good way). Because the body only digests about 70% of a nut, you only get 70% of the calories. Also, eating a handful of nuts decreases caloric absorption by 3% over the next 24 hours. So go nuts!
  • When Taco Bell recently ran a commercial depicting someone being embarrassed by bringing a veggie tray to a Super Bowl party, all it took was about 40 tweets decrying the ad for Taco Bell to pull it off the air. Grassroots nutrition advocacy, man!
  • The top source for omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet? Italian dressing (because of its soybean oil content). Make the better choice and get them from fish and nuts!
  • Despite the 18% rise in food allergies from 1997-2007, there are promising treatments for food allergies. The idea of building up an immunity to something is not new, but it can work when applied very gradually. If a child with, say, a peanut allergy eats incrementally larger and larger amounts of peanuts (starting, of course, with a teeny-tiny amount), s/he can eventually become asymptomatic to peanuts. Kinda like…

Interestingly, most people who go through this process then have to eat some small amount of peanuts (or whatever the food may be) every day to maintain their immunity.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

So there you have it. What a whirlwind of information my two and a half days in Dallas were. I’m already looking forward to next year, when the conference will be held in Phoenix!

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