We are constantly bombarded by the media with dubious claims about the nutritional benefits of the food and drink we consume. We interviewed Elizabeth Butler, member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and founder of Body Soul Nutrition. She provides nutritional therapy and body soul coaching. Elizabeth’s passion is helping clients to recognise the power they hold over their own health, happiness and life.
Following the completion of a degree in biochemistry, Elizabeth trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition to become a nutritional therapist. After qualifying in 2000 she immediately focused her work on the area of cancer support and has continued to specialise in this area.
1. As a Nutritionist, are all of your food purchases made on the basis of their nutritional benefit?
I believe that the healthiest diet nourishes not only the body but also the soul. So yes, I do base my food choices on their nutritional content but I also choose foods that I enjoy, those that make me feel happy inside. Thankfully the 2 criteria usually coincide because processed junk food is not my thing; I love fresh, natural foods – lots of vegetables and other plant foods as well as good quality animal products. There are times however, when my love for a food is not equalled by its nutritional value, a good example is cake. I’m a big cake fan and my life would not be nearly as much fun without it. So, I choose to include cake in my diet as a treat (usually once or twice a week) and then I get the best of both worlds – my diet remains low in sugar but I get all the pleasure (and pleasure chemicals = health benefits) of indulging in my favourite food now and again.
2. Have you heard about the trend towards people eating a ph-balanced diet and what are your views on this? Is it beneficial or pseudo-science?
This is a fantastic question to ask because there’s a great deal of misunderstanding around this subject and the majority of medical professionals I come across still believe there’s no evidence that diet influences body pH. Only last week I was asked to remove references to diet and pH from a presentation I was giving to cancer patients in a hospital. The truth is that diet’s contribution to the acid/alkali state of the body is now well documented, for example in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study of over 22,000 men and women a more alkaline diet was signiﬁcantly associated with more alkaline urine1. A 2010 paper published in the British Journal of Nutrition2 gives a great overview of this subject and in the conclusion the authors state that ‘the available research makes a compelling case that diet-induced acidosis is a real phenomenon, has signiﬁcant clinical relevance, may largely be prevented through dietary changes, and should be recognised and treated’.
Unsurprisingly the diet that best supports healthy acid/alkali balance is the type of diet we have evolved on – fresh unprocessed foods, the majority being plants but with small amounts of animal products.
3. Is organic food a necessity?
I wouldn’t describe organic food as a necessity but I do favour organic food for myself and my clients when circumstances allow for it (availability and budget). There is still very little known about the long-term health consequences of an accumulation of toxic chemicals within the body (such as pesticides and herbicides) but increasingly scientists are speculating that health problems such as increasing rates of infertility and cancer may be linked to environmental chemical exposure. I feel it is a good idea to minimise exposure to these chemicals whenever possible and eating organic food is a relatively simple way of doing that.
4. Is it possible to eat well for people in low-income households?
Absolutely and most definitely yes! Generally speaking the more processing a food undergoes, the less nutritious it becomes, and processing food involves costs. Plant foods in their natural state – fresh vegetables and fruit, grains, nuts, seeds and pulses are relatively cheap particularly if the vegetables and fruits are bought in season and are locally grown (exotic tropical fruits are never going to be a cheap option). Where people buy their food also needs to be considered, supermarkets may be convenient but they don’t necessarily offer the best price for the healthiest foods and markets or grocer shops are often cheaper. This also applies to animal products, the supermarkets sell us the easy-to-prepare premium cuts of meat but in a butcher’s shop you’ll find a wider range of cheaper cuts.
It’s certainly possible to eat a highly nutritious diet on a tight budget but it does require basic food preparation and cooking skills and a little knowledge. For this reason better cookery and nutrition education should be offered in schools and to families struggling on low incomes.
5. What are your views on vitamins and supplements?
I’d like to say that nutritional supplements are completely unnecessary if the diet is balanced but this is not always the case. Even a diet high in whole foods may be lacking vital nutrients, particularly trace minerals as over the last few decades our soils and therefore our foods have become depleted in these vital nutrients3. The level of omega 3 fats are also insufficient in most diets due to a high intake of vegetables oils (raises omega 6 levels which increases the need for omega 3) and lower levels of omega 3 in our food chain due to modern farming techniques. For people with particular health conditions there may be other reasons to use supplements and a nutritional therapist would generally pick and choose from the wide range of supplements that exist to meet the specific needs of an individual. For example this may include probiotics for someone who has completed a course of antibiotics to replenish the healthy gut bacteria, or nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, boron plus vitamins D and K for someone requiring bone support.
6. How can we improve global nutrition standards?
In a word ‘educate’. There are several forces driving us to eat in increasingly unhealthy ways but the most damage to our diet is being caused by the often hidden pressure applied by those with financial interests in the way we eat (often referred to as Big Food). People are being misled in many areas of food and nutrition in order to serve commercial interests which has led to much confusion as to what really constitutes a healthy, balanced diet. And the influence of Big Food is not reserved for Western nations, not at all. In fact virtually all growth in Big Food’s sales currently occurs in developing countries4.
The only way that people across the globe will gain the power to make the right food choices to serve their health is by being knowledgeable about food and this requires good education.
7. How do you deal with stress on a day-to-day basis?
I’m so pleased that you’ve asked me a question about stress as it’s a subject so close to my heart. As a person who in the past used to get easily stressed I’ve had to learn the hard way what a great toll chronic stress takes on health. I now educate my clients very carefully on this subject as I believe good stress management is of absolute priority when it comes to rebuilding and maintaining good health.
The best way to avoid getting over-stressed is to give the sympathetic nervous system regular breaks from the constant stimulation of modern life. My way of doing this is to take time out every 90 minutes or so during the working day to go for a short walk or practice some deep abdominal breathing. This need only take 4 or 5 minutes each time but the benefits to health as well as working efficiency are great. Other than that I try to maintain a good work-life balance and I’m very strict about not working at weekends. Diet-wise, the foods most beneficial for those little glands that come under such pressure during times of stress; the adrenals, are the micronutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, and foods high in protein, such as meat, fish and eggs.
8. A lot of research is being done on Advanced glycation End-products which are present in food that has been cooked and ‘browned’. These molecules are known to cause cancer and other degenerative diseases. This suggests that a raw diet is favourable for the human body. Do you agree? And have you personally tried a raw diet?
Actually I don’t agree with this. While it’s true that cooked foods, particularly those that have been browned on the surface, contain chemicals with the potential to cause damage in the body, you also find examples of damaging compounds in raw foods. An example here is the lectins, which are partially or completely destroyed during the cooking process.
My opinion on raw and cooked foods has always been that a balance provides the best long-term support to health. A raw food diet in the short-term may bring a person some benefits (and yes I’ve tried this myself) but there’s no getting away from it, some foods are more easily digested and are more supportive to the body when they’re cooked. And there’s also the issue of cooling and warming food which is not something we consider much in the West, it’s more a feature of traditional Eastern medicine, but I feel it’s relevant. We can feel in our bodies that during cold, damp weather we feel better if we eat heated, warming foods and during very hot weather we would naturally crave cooling foods which tend to be raw.
9. There was a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that the Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on cardiovascular health compared to other Western cuisines. It was shown that those who were at high-risk of strokes and heart attacks benefited from being on the Mediterranean diet. Should we all start eating a Mediterranean diet or can we still be healthy by avoiding certain foods?
I find it frustrating that such emphasis is placed on specific diets originating from within certain regions or cultures with the idea that they could be the ultimate diet (magic formula) that will save us all. The Mediterranean diet, rich in fresh vegetables and fruits, olive oil etc. certainly has great value for health. But the common theme with this and other beneficial diets highlighted in the research is that they’re based around whole, natural foods. The answer to the question of what diet best serves our health is much simpler than we’re often led to believe and we don’t need to adopt foods from other regions or cultures unless we desire to, we just need to stick to the whole foods readily available to us and eliminate processed, refined products. And if anyone has demonstrated the power of the traditional unrefined diet in preventing disease it’s the under-celebrated Dr Weston Price whose global studies examining the effects of diet on health have been largely neglected by the scientific and medical communities. Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration5 should be required reading for any health professional in my opinion.
10. What are your views on the vegan diet? Have we evolved to properly metabolise animal products?
I believe that we are most well adapted to a diet composed largely of plant foods but including some animal products. While various primate species have been frugivorous and others herbivorous, we see evidence of the dietary inclusion of animal products such as insects and meat, in many species of primates including the very earliest. There is no question that animal products have played a fundamental part in our diet since the emergence of the earliest human ancestors and have been crucial in allowing the human brain to grow and develop as it has. Cultures that adopt a vegan diet always do so for moral or religious reasons, if you consider the vegan option from a purely nutritional standpoint the arguments just don’t stack up.
Over the last 13 years working as a nutritional therapist I have observed many people on a vegan diet. Although I feel some people are better at coping with this way of eating than others, my experience has been that most people don’t thrive in the long-term. Initially there may well be a boost to health due to an improvement in overall food quality but usually it’s not long before there are signs, or the individual feels that they are lacking something. So, while I may recommend a vegan diet to my clients for very short periods of time, perhaps during a period of detoxification, I never recommend it for longer periods of time. And for that matter, neither do my colleagues. Although I can’t speak for the whole community of nutritional therapists of course, I am yet to meet one who regularly recommends a vegan diet to their clients.
11. Lastly, what would be the consequences, if any, for body builders to consume an excessive amount of protein by way of supplements and high-protein foods?
The consequences of excessive protein are not good, for bodybuilders or anyone else. Protein in excess will push the body towards an acidic state and may put extra pressure on the kidneys. That said I’m not in favour of very low protein diets for long-term health, for example a vegan diet. My view is that a regular moderate intake of protein together with carbohydrates (the bulk being vegetables) and healthy fats all in the form of whole foods is the healthiest approach to diet.
1. Frassetto L, Sebastian A. Age and systemic acid–base equilibrium: analysis of published data. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 1996; 51: B91–B99.
2. Pizzorno J, Frassetto L.A, Katzinger J. Diet-induced acidosis: is it real and clinically relevant? British Journal of Nutrition 2010; 103: 1185–1194.
3. Thomas D.E. A study of the mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 to 1991. Nutrition and Health 2003; 17: 85–115.
4. Stuckler D, Nestle M. Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health. PLoS Med 2012; 9(6): e1001242. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242
5. Price W.A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Keats Publishers, 6th ed