By switching from the pharmacy to the produce section, 32-year-old Gabrielle Fennimore hoped to tame her worsening ulcerative colitis. But did it work?
By now, we’ve all heard that eating a plant-based diet protects against cardiovascular disease. But can you eat your way to better health if your medical problem is chronic pain? And if so, which diet could accomplish that, and how quickly? And could it do so even more effectively than prescription drugs?
“The pain was coming all the time. The bathroom was becoming more frequent—20 or 30 times a day. So I decided, ‘All right, let’s go the route of diet and see what we can do.’”
In June 2016, 32-year-old dental hygienist Gabrielle Fennimore decided to find out. She’d suffered for years with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the colon and triggers severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. She took anti-inflammatory medications in hopes of controlling those symptoms, but the pain kept getting worse. And the bloody diarrhea did, too, forcing her to make as many as 30 trips a day to the bathroom.
Then last summer, she took the gutsy step of flying from her home on the east coast to attend a 10-day dietary program in California run by internist John McDougall. Here’s what you need to know about McDougall: he’s all about eating exclusively starches, vegetables and fruit. That means no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no cooking oils, and no junk food. In other words, goodbye, typical American diet! Unlike Fennimore’s physician back home who championed medications instead of diet to control her ulcerative colitis, McDougall argues just the opposite.
He claims that eating low on the food chain can fend off the plague of chronic ailments targeting countries that follow a Western-style diet. Those diet-related diseases, he says, include the obvious ones: clogged arteries and diabetes, for starters. But he also insists that our Western way of eating puts us at greater risk for certain cancers (including breast, colon and prostate cancer) as well as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In fact, those diseases are rare in parts of the world where people eat primarily grains, vegetables and fruit. Moreover, McDougall contends that a plant-based diet can promote healing in people who already have those diseases.
Other researchers have also linked the Western diet with an upswing in various chronic diseases. For Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, however, the scientific research to date has been inconsistent in nailing down that cause-and-effect relationship and pinpointing which specific elements within the Western diet might be most to blame. So McDougall’s approach sounds promising in theory. But when you put a plant-based diet to the test in the real world, can it actually reduce chronic pain and other symptoms enough to make a difference?
Well, it’s now been the better part of a year since Fennimore took McDougall’s advice. And it hasn’t been easy. Her colon was already so fragile that for the first few weeks she subsisted only on pureed squash soup. And because of that hyper-spartan menu, her weight quickly dropped to an emaciated-looking 88 pounds.
Despite those challenges, she stuck with it. And today, eight months after she opted for a plant-based diet and weaned herself off medications, we find out if her symptoms have improved; how she weathered the trial-and-error ordeal of figuring out which foods to include on her grocery list; why that list is still limited to just 15 items; and lastly, how hard it’s been for this self-confessed foodie to give up fine dining in favor of a menu that’s heavy on squash, rice, and purple sweet potatoes.
Today, Fennimore talks about:
• The emotional shock of waking up after a colonoscopy as a 21-year-old and being told that she had inflammatory bowel disease
• Why she tried a powerful immunosuppressant medication recommended by her doctor—but stopped taking it after only five days
• How she managed to work full-time despite needing to use the bathroom as many as 30 times a day
• Why she decided to stop taking the prescription medications recommended by her doctor back home
• Why she went to the trouble and expense of traveling cross-country to learn about plant-based eating from a leading expert rather than adopting the diet on her own
• Why she stuck with a plant-based diet even though her symptoms initially failed to respond
• Her method of identifying which foods help control her ulcerative colitis—and which foods are likely to ignite a flare-up
Gabrielle Fennimore has experienced digestive issues since she was a girl. She works as a dental hygienist.
Straight from the lab:
Wondering if a plant-based diet might help ward off inflammatory bowel disease and other ailments? Scientists have been asking that same question. Explore this sampling of their research to date:
• This 2016 review article published in the World Journal of Gastrointestinal Pharmacology and Therapeutics finds that a high-fat, low-fiber, Western diet is strongly associated with an increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease, while vegetables, fruit, and omega-3 offer a protective effect.
• This 2016 review article by Austrian researchers cites epidemiological evidence indicating an increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases among people who eat fast food at least twice a week or follow a Western-style diet that emphasizes meat, animal fat, refined sugar, and foods high in omega-6 fatty acids (found in red meat and certain types of cooking oils and margarine). Other data cited in this study suggest that some strains of probiotics may be helpful in managing ulcerative colitis and pouchitis. The data also indicate that the risk of pediatric inflammatory bowel disease—particularly Crohn’s disease—appears lower among children whose diets include plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, fish, and olive oil.
• Drawing upon data from human and animal studies, this 2016 French study adds fuel to the theory that the high-fat, high-sugar Western diet may promote inflammation within the digestive tract and increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease.
• In this 2014 study by John McDougall, patients who followed his plant-based diet for just seven days experienced measurable improvements in a variety of important biomarkers—including blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol levels, and body weight—despite many of those individuals simultaneously discontinuing their prescription medications.
• This 2015 review article explores the rationale and scientific evidence behind several other types of diets used by people to control their inflammatory bowel disease, including the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, the low-FODMAP Diet, the Anti-Inflammatory Diet, and the Paleo Diet.
• This video report by NutritionFacts.org gives a quick overview of studies investigating the anti-inflammatory properties of various foods, with purple potatoes providing an especially potent anti-inflammatory benefit.
For more information:
• The Starch Solution by John A. McDougall, M.D., and Mary McDougall provides a readable, easy-to-follow guide to the plant-based diet he recommends for preventing and treating a variety of chronic diseases.
• In Dr. McDougall’s Digestive Tune-Up, McDougall makes the case that a plant-based diet can help fend off and treat a wide assortment of digestive-tract-related diseases, including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulosis, celiac disease, constipation, and gallstones.
• Also in Santa Rosa, Calif., TrueNorth Health Center offers live-in accommodations and an integrative-medicine approach to treating autoimmune diseases, diabetes, hypertension, and many other health disorders.
This episode’s featured image, a circa-1930 photograph entitled “Danforth Fruit Store,” is from the City of Toronto Archives (Fonds 1244, Item 339).
Our theme music is “Gentle Storm,” composed and performed by Betsy Tinney (betsytinney.com).
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