By Eric Pilgrim | Fort Knox NewsDecember 18, 2018
(Editor's Note: This and subsequent articles are a first-person account of one man's attempt to get back to a healthier lifestyle after retiring from the U.S. Army in 2013.)
When talking about health, Brent Newell likes to geek out.
When I showed up to the Army Wellness Center last week for my BOD POD follow-up to find out where I stood with my weight reduction regimen, I dropped by his office to get some pointers on healthy eating. We ended up talking about so much more.
I asked him about my newest diet plan -- which happens to be my oldest and most successful to date -- the low carb diet. He said he wasn't a fan of diets in general but was okay with them as long as they get us to avoid one area: processed, synthesized foods.
Take, for instance, the keto craze. Newell highlighted a recent documentary that promotes the keto diet to make his point.
"It talks about keto being the best end-all form of medicine. If you watch the film, they talk to every client as they're going through their house. They talk about what is in their food products every time they pull something out of the cupboard; and they're just throwing away things," Newell said. "It's all highly processed foods they're throwing away, so even the keto diet is teaching us to reduce processed, synthesized foods-- the very foods that are killing so many people every year.
"It's estimated that this year alone, according to the health statistics right around 2.5 million people will die from the legal food in our country."
The shock must have shown on my face.
Newell explained he is not some hippy who throws out random numbers and beats violently on a conspiracy drum. The numbers come from the American Heart Association's estimations of worldwide deaths from heart attacks, strokes and other heart-related diseases. The association blames high sodium in processed foods for these deaths. Newell said synthesized foods are the culprits, which includes tobacco and alcohol.
Several recent articles published by the National Institutes of Health support Newell's concerns about processed foods, smoking, and most recently, alcohol consumption. According to a Cleveland Clinic article published Dec. 4, a new study by the NIH has concluded that "no level of alcohol, even casual drinking, is entirely safe."
"The study looked at global data from hundreds of previous studies and found that for all ages, alcohol was associated with 2.8 million deaths each year," according to the article. "Researchers found that alcohol-related cancer and heart disease, infectious diseases, intentional injury, traffic accidents and accidental injury were some of the leading causes of alcohol-related deaths."
Newell also pointed out that genetically modified and chemically altered meats are being linked to psychological and neurological illnesses, which he said the government has recently acknowledged could result in the deaths of as many as 700,000 Americans each year. The solution regarding food is simple, according to Newell. All choices should take into account one factor -- what's natural compared to what's not: from my perspective, what God has made for us to eat as opposed to what we've manufactured.
That all sounded easy enough for me to understand. I have thought a lot about it over the years as my health has slipped. My mother died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 56. My father was diagnosed with dementia two years before he died in 2005. I was first diagnosed with high cholesterol and mild hypertension in 2007.
More recently, my wife and I have watched several documentaries on the effects of processed foods and how ridding ourselves of them can purportedly reduce dangerous cholesterol levels, thwart the chances of dementia, heart diseases and autoimmune disorders, and even cure some cancers. I have sometimes wondered if my parents might still be alive today had they changed what they ate years before.
As I thought about this seemingly simple solution while sitting in Newell's office, I quickly realized the complexity of it. Processed foods are virtually everywhere in our society, and they're cheap to buy. And yet, according to Newell modified food consumption is dumping poisonous chemicals into our minds, which is leading to added pounds and reduced health in our bodies.
Our society seems to reflect this, too.
"It causes stress to increase," Newell said. "So you can't reduce the stress without first cleaning up the diet because that can increase stress response. That stress response is also going to enable you to not choose the appropriate foods. They go hand-in-hand."
My stress was beginning to increase at this point.
Newell must have sensed it as he admitted that all this information can be very depressing and stressful for those who are simply trying to make healthy choices on what they eat. He offered a very simple technique to help alleviate the stress--
Wait, what? It sounded like he just turned full-on hippy on me. I tend to be a fairly practical guy for the most part -- I don't believe in ghosts and UFOs, for instance -- so anything that sounds like '60s transcendental meditation will send me running in the opposite direction. However, when Newell described what he meant by restorative practices, it made sense, and on some level I agreed with it.
"Something like meditation, sitting in and listening to your breath, has been proven around the world to reduce stress," said Newell. "Meditation alone is now being conducted in various means to reduce sickness -- whether it's cancer or stress, depression or sleep issues."
For this reason, the Army Wellness Center offers classes on topics like healthy sleep habits, resiliency, healthy lifestyles and self-care. They have a room complete with a comfy chair where they provide biofeedback training and offer sessions in meditation.
"It's one of the most overlooked categories of wellness in general. It's like a triad of triads; you literally have to have a restorative practice to reduce all the damages and fight-or-flight responses we are inducing throughout the day. It is basic sports psychology, as well."
Newell explained that all the food choices I make, along with all the restorative choices, have one common denominator -- me. And that is probably the biggest, most important takeaway in all of it.
"It's really the choice of responsibility," said Newell. "It starts with you."
Afterward, we talked about my test results -- I had managed to lose over two pounds and reduce my body fat percentage in the midst of the most processed-food consuming holiday season of the year. I walked out feeling hopeful and encouraged to keep on keeping on.
Indeed better health starts, and continues, with me.