Opinion

Why our physicians need to know more about nutrition

Community columnist Michael Jacobs can gorge on pasta in Europe. But not in the United States.
Community columnist Michael Jacobs can gorge on pasta in Europe. But not in the United States. The Washington Post

Although I am not a medical professional, I have taken the same number of nutrition classes as the vast majority of doctors—zero. That’s right. Most medical doctors know next to nothing about how what we put into our mouths every day effects our bodies.

My saga with gluten is illustrative. There are 18 million Americans who suffer from gluten sensitivity, an exponential increase in recent years. Yet only about 3 million actually suffer from a true gluten allergy. So, what is behind this explosion in gluten problems?

There are a number of theories. One possibility is a surge in foodies who derive pleasure from badgering waiters about the ingredients in every menu item before ordering a meal. Another possibility is that the human body suddenly and radically evolved to reject gluten, after thousands of years of tolerating it.

However, there is a more plausible explanation: our food has changed.

Nearly a decade ago I started having joint aches and neuropathy (shooting nerve pains). I went to a series of doctors, including a top neurologist at a well-known academic hospital, who offered no explanation whatsoever, just a smorgasbord of pharmaceuticals to treat symptoms, not problems.

After listening to me vent about my team of clueless physicians, a friend of mine who is one of UNC’s leading neuroscientists suggested that I stop eating gluten. After a quick Google search to find out what exactly gluten was, I omitted it from my diet, and within weeks my years of pain vanished.

But it turns out gluten wasn’t the problem after all. Every year, I take my family to France or Italy for a couple weeks where I gorge on bread, pasta and pizza daily, with no discernible effect whatsoever. My problem is with American gluten.

Did you ever wonder why a baguette purchased in France develops mold after a few days, while your American bread lasts a month? American food companies use additives to preserve the shelf life of processed products that cause damaging inflammation in our joints, intestines and stomach (which contains 100 million neurons).

Some people blame the pesticides used on U.S. farms for the toxicity of wheat products, while others blame the genetic modification of domestic wheat. My research indicates the preservatives infused into wheat-based products are a contributing factor.

The vegetable oils used in breads to prevent them from hardening are bleached, deodorized and refined so that bugs, bacteria and other microbes won’t eat them. Inconveniently, most human cells are microbes, and our stomachs are a bacteria convention.

Those tortilla wraps that retain their soft and supple features for weeks contain glycerol, which is a compound used to manufacture anti-freeze and nitroglycerin. Our bodies were not designed to seamlessly absorb these chemicals.

Moreover, studies show that processed or refined wheat leads to greater incidences of Type 2 diabetes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, obesity, and cognitive decline, in addition to pain from inflammation. But rather than instructing us to eliminate the cause of the problem, most doctors prescribe some chemical to offset the problems caused by other chemicals in our diet.

Millions of people who suffer from unexplained digestive maladies and joint pains may well be sensitive to the food products they consume daily, but just don’t realize it.

One possible solution would be to demand that Blue Cross/Blue Shield, or the government, underwrite annual trips to Tuscany or Bordeaux for gluten sufferers. However, a less expensive alternative would be to stop granting medical degrees to people who have never taken a nutrition class.

Michael Jacobs is CEO of Jacobs Capital and on the faculty of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
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