Advice from the Trenches: Macrobiotic Woes

Dear C,

Right now, I feel like a swallowed a balloon. My pants are so tight I can barely zip them shut. Nothing seems to help. I’ve seen a doctor, but nothing shows up on the tests, and all he did is was to suggest taking an anti-gas medication.

I really don’t understand this, because I’m actually eating better. At the advice of a friend, I recently switched to a macrobiotic diet. When she went macrobiotic, she lost 15 pounds and had tons of energy. I thought if I tried the same thing, I would feel better. But instead, I just feel bloated.

Betty Blimp

Dear Betty;

One of the problems with getting advice from your friends is that what worked for them isn’t going to necessarily work for you. We each have a unique and complex system, and we all react in our own ways. This is especially true when it comes to our guts.

You may not realize this, but there are literally billions of alien cells living in your body- and most of them colonize your GI tract. These bacteria are there to help; they assist in breaking down food and fighting off invading microbes. They are a highly specialized mix which is balanced to handle the specific foods that you eat. When you switch point blank to an entirely different diet, the bacteria experience the change somewhat like an iMac trying to download PC software. It doesn’t compute. Your gut is unable to process the incoming “data” and a lot of food passes through undigested. This undigested food then rots and produces gas and bloat. I suspect that the recent change to a macrobiotic diet is what triggered your problem.

First, I would suggest that you really educate yourself about macrobiotics. If you want to make the switch to improve your health, don’t just get generalized pointers from your friends or watch a segment on “Good Morning America” and wing it from there. You need to read some reputable literature on the subject, or, better yet, see someone trained in nutrition. I would suggest a visit to a naturopathic physician or nutritional specialist. Review your previous diet with them, along with your medical history and your current lifestyle. An expert will know how to ease you into a new regimen and avoid the unpleasant side effects you are having now.

As far as getting immediate relief, anti-gas medicines can offer some short-term help with the symptoms, but they don’t really address the problem. You have a lot of undigested food clogging up your gut. You need to move it through and you could probably use some help. Chemical laxatives can be harsh and cause cramping and pain. Bulk laxatives such as psyllium fiber will initially make the bloating worse and can take up to three days to work. I suggest an herbal version, such as senna tea. Another thought: It may sound drastic, but one of the best things you can do is to severely limit your food intake. If you don’t feel hungry because of the pressure, just don’t eat. Your poor gut is overworked, give it a break! When hungry, consume only tiny amounts at a time and chew your food thoroughly. The less breaking down those bacteria have to do, the better. Digestion starts in your mouth, with your saliva. Give it a chance to work before you swallow.

Another thing that will help repopulate those bacteria colonies is probiotics. These can supply a multitude of friendly bacteria that will help ease your gut into macrobiotic mode. But be careful where you buy them; they need to be properly stored. Some brands are specially formulated to be shelf stable, but many are not. Probiotics that are left unrefrigerated will lose potency rapidly. You can check the potency by opening a capsule and watching the grains pour out. If they are clumped or discolored, they are past their prime. If they sift like fine flour, they have probably been properly stored.

We live in a culture that tends to follow trends without really understanding them. Right now, there are millions of Americans who are jumping on various fad wagons that aren’t going anywhere, but are simply draining their wallets. The recent gluten-free craze is an example. There is virtually no benefit to a wheat-free diet unless you happen to be sensitive or allergic to wheat. There are also scores of vegetarians who are becoming protein deficient because they didn’t bother to learn how to balance amino acids. The healthiest diet is one that is one that meets your specific needs, and that you thoroughly understand. A little learning can be a dangerous thing when it comes to your health.

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