In Episode 04: Nutrition Superstitions, Geof and Todd discuss how even the experts (Todd) make erroneous correlations between diet and health and suggest that you critically think about some of the nutrition superstitions that you may hold. If they provide you value (health) we say keep them but if they could be holding you back or causing you harm, it’s time to change.
On a 2017 hike in Aspen, Colorado I (Todd) experienced pain in my right big toe. It was the first time I could ever recall having this type of pain in my big toe. On hikes subsequent to that one I had pain in that same toe on again and off again. The pain seemed to be getting worse over the ensuing months so I made an appointment to see my primary care physician. He took an x-ray and gave me the bad news, I was developing foot osteoarthritis. I couldn’t believe it, I was only 36 years old and thought that, yeah, this was something I might develop in my 50’s and 60’s but not in my 30’s. In any event, my doctor offered me a cortisone shot to reduce some of the inflammation and I said a resounding YES. I wanted to get back to my regular activities and to have this pain go away. The cortisone shot didn’t make it better, if anything it made my toe more inflamed.
The doctor suggested that my next course of action was to get fitted for foot orthotics as my disease/condition wasn’t nearly far enough along for any type of more invasive procedures. Months had passed since my Aspen hike and I was waiting for my orthotics to arrive after getting fitted for them (they were custom made). I can vividly remember walking or at least trying to walk around my house during the Eagles-Patriots Super bowl of 2018 and feeling really intense pain in my right big toe. The pain was so much around that time that I told my wife that I really wanted to cut my toe off and be done with it!
My orthotics finally arrived and at first I didn’t think they were working very well. But after several months I began feeling a little better. I still wasn’t pain free and didn’t like walking very much but it was becoming tolerable at least. Ok, so fast forward to June of 2018. It’s my mom’s 60th birthday party back in Wisconsin and I went up to Wisconsin for a week long vacation. And here’s where the birth of my nutrition superstition begins.
But before getting to my superstition I need to provide you with just a little more backstory. During college I worked as a merchandiser for Pepsi-Cola in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I was in charge of stocking 2-3 grocery stores/day with Pepsi products and building displays. My shift started at 6:00am and being a college kid and non-coffee drinker I decided I needed a little caffeine in the morning so I started drinking Diet Mountain Dew (diet because I didn’t want the extra calories; which is kind of funny seeing as how active I was at the time). I developed a Diet Mountain Dew habit. I was hooked. I never drank an exorbitant amount on any given day but I always had 1-2 cans/day for the next 15 years.
Fast forward back to my mom’s party. While staying at my mom’s house, she didn’t have any Diet Mountain Dew available and I wasn’t too concerned with going out to get any. My vacation came and went and when I was back in Denver I realized that my feet were feeling really good! (at this point in time both feet now have osteoarthritis). I began to think about what, if anything, I had changed on my Wisconsin trip. And it hit me, I hadn’t had any Diet Mountain Dew!
I said that’s it, I’m not drinking that crap anymore. Despite my new found connection between Diet Mountain Dew and my foot health, it was really hard to kick the habit. I really enjoyed my afternoon soda. But I did it. I quit it cold turkey. And guess what happened? My feet started hurting again. It wasn’t the Diet Mountain Dew after all.
The author, Nassim Taleb, likes to say that the human mind is an explanation machine. It takes the available evidence in any given situation, makes a connection, and draws a conclusion. It would have been simple and clear cut if Diet Mountain Dew had caused my foot osteoarthritis. I could have had a culprit and moved on. But I realized that there were actually many other factors that contributed to my feet hurting in the first place and for my feet gradually feeling better (and really quite good while in Wisconsin).
First, let’s talk about the reason why I developed foot osteoarthritis in the first place. The shape of my foot is the same as anyone else’s, yet, when I was little my older sister used to tell me that I was actually born with 6 toes, not five and that they had one removed. She would tell me this because I do have an abnormally large gap between my big toe and my next toe. And when my foot strikes the ground, I have had too much stress placed on my big toe and not enough on my other toes. The forces on my big toe not only broke down some of the cartilage but also potentially promoted bone growth.
During my PhD at East Carolina University a professor of mine used to explain physiology by stating that “the body is a demand driven system”. What this means is that your body’s cells and tissues respond (appropriately most of the time) to the stimuli/stress provided to it (i.e. you lift weights you get stronger, you run long-distances you build muscular endurance). It is more than likely that the stresses running through my big toe provided the stimulus for bone growth and cartilage breakdown more so than it did for cartilage health.
At the time that I developed my condition I was also wearing minimal shoes. I have size 14 feet and enjoyed wearing shoes that weren’t humongous. The shoes, however, also didn’t offer much support and likely sped up my condition. Prior to that I was also obsessed with getting my 10,000 steps/day in. So much so that I would wander around my house at night during television commercials to get in those extra 2,000 steps that I oftentimes needed. It is far more likely that the shape of my foot, the wrong footwear, and excessive use lead to the joint’s destruction more than drinking Diet Mountain Dew. I should also add that my feet are almost always cold. Unless the temperature is above 90 degrees I’m almost always wearing socks. This could also be a contributing factor.
So why were my feet feeling better during my trip to Wisconsin? Well, when you go to visit family are you doing a bunch of projects and on your feet all day or are you hanging out and enjoying one another’s company? The reason that my feet were feeling better in Wisconsin was more than likely because I wasn’t on my feet. I was sitting in lawn chairs, playing card games, and going fishing. I wasn’t on my feet as much as I normally would have been, had I been at home.
I’ll also add that my foot orthotics have definitely helped and that I changed out my pedals on my commuter bike to match my bike shoes. My bike shoes are extremely rigid and do not allow my toes to flex. This coupled with my reduced amount of walking has made my toes feel much, much better so much so that I am happy to say that I am now able to go out on a 30 – 40 minute daily walk with my daughter.
Lessons to Be Learned
Not everything is caused by or fixed by nutrition. There are so many other factors at play. In my case, it was more likely that genetics (foot shape), poor circulation, incorrect footwear, and overuse lead to developing osteoarthritis than something I ate or drank.
I ended up making the same mistake twice as at one point in time I increased my salad consumption and also was feeling better. After discontinuing my salad consumption, my feet stayed feeling the same. However, with that being said, my nutrition superstitions, even if they were short lived made me healthier. I don’t think many people will argue that not drinking diet soda and increasing my salad consumption is bad for my health. These are good behavior changes. But did they reverse my foot osteoarthritis, no.
The point is, Geof and I want you to think about some of the nutrition superstitions that you might hold and try to critically assess whether they are helping you (in some way), hurting you or are neutral. If the behavior is hurting you, please find a way to stop/change it. If it is helping you, keep doing it. If it is neutral, ask yourself whether it is convenient and/or providing you with pleasure. If it’s not, then I think it’s time for that behavior to go as well because in nutrition (and life in general) the less that you have to keep track off/manage, the better off you’re probably going to be.
Our podcast music was generously provided by Sheridan.