Health Features

What’s on Your Plate?

What we choose to eat can have far-reaching impacts. Whether it’s supporting our health or our community, selecting the right ingredients can provide much-needed rewards. To help you make the most of your meals, we consulted local experts about what you should be putting on your plate.

diets for strong mental health 
The expression ‘gut feeling’ may be more literal than you think. Afua Bromley, a licensed acupuncturist and alternative medicine practitioner at Acupuncture St. Louis & Wellness Center, says the connection between the digestive system and mental and emotional health is evident. “It was long speculated that the majority of neurotransmitters are in the brain, but they are actually in the digestive tract,” she explains. “Around 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut.” Since serotonin is considered a natural mood stabilizer, what people eat could have major positive or negative impacts on depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns.

In studies, eating plans like the Mediterranean and traditional Japanese diets have been shown to reduce the risk of depression by 25 to 35 percent. Bromley says the reasons for this are manifold. “These diets include many fermented foods, which provide helpful bacteria that keep the gut microbiome balanced and help with neurotransmitters like serotonin,” she says. “They also feature nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits, fresh seafood and healthy oils that are great for brain function.” She adds that these diets don’t include a lot of processed foods or sugars, which is better for digestion and causes less inflammation in the gut.

As for what foods to avoid, Bromley notes that it’s more about moderation than permanently excising them from your diet. She recommends limiting the amount of processed foods and sugars especially, adding that processing even the healthiest ingredients can remove their benefits. “Sugar used minimally is OK, but heavy use with processed grains and not enough vegetables isn’t good for you,” she says. “It’s not just what you eat, but how often you eat it.”

food sourcing 
Knowing where your food comes from is becoming more prevalent on the dining scene and at home. With many restaurants promoting locally sourced cuisine, is this the future of food or just a trend? For Hayley Sohn, founder of Basically It Meals, focusing on local produce is something everyone should aim to do. “It’s a great way to ensure food is nutritionally dense,” she says. “When food has to be shipped long distances, it’s often picked before it’s ripe to ensure it doesn’t go rotten, but a local grower is going to wait until it’s ripe and at its best.” Amy Knoblock-Hahn, Ph.D., of Whole Food Is Medicine adds that while a food’s growing location may not directly affect your health, the environmental impact is worth considering. “If you buy strawberries in January, you know they didn’t come from a local farm,” she says. “Did they travel on a truck or an airplane? What impact did that transportation have on things like air quality? It’s important to know how far your food traveled to get to you.”

Locally sourcing food can give you a better understanding of how it’s grown as well. Knoblock-Hahn notes that the ‘organic’ label from the United States Department of Agriculture has several requirements that growers have to meet to be certified. The process is very costly, which is why these products have higher price tags in stores, but smaller, local growers often meet the requirements without the label. “They may have skipped the time and monetary costs of certification, but you can meet with them and learn how they grow their food,” she says. “It’s a way to buy organic while supporting local farmers and paying less.” Good farming practices to look out for include using alternatives to pesticides to reduce bugs and mold, composting to ensure soil is nutrient-rich, and regularly rotating crops to prevent soil depletion, according to Sohn.

tips for sourcing local 
>> buy seasonally. Sohn says buying local doesn’t have to mean changing your shopping routine. She suggests looking for what’s in season at your grocery store because it’s more likely to be locally grown. Local chains like Schnucks and Dierbergs have added labels to let customers know which products are local.
>> visit farmer’s markets. Growers are often available to talk to you about their practices, so you can learn more about the produce you’re buying. JOIN A CSA. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) delivers local, seasonal food directly to consumers. Memberships or subscriptions are purchased from local farms, and regular boxes of fresh produce are delivered or picked up throughout the growing season. Knoblock-Hahn suggests visiting to find CSA options in and around St. Louis.

gluten-free: the facts
One in every 100 people in the U.S. has celiac disease, and researchers estimate that only 20 percent of people with the condition receive a diagnosis. For those affected by the autoimmune disorder, gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains) causes damage and inflammation in the small intestine. A strict, gluten-free diet is the only way to manage the condition, which means abstaining from gluten-containing grains or ingredients derived from them. To help consumers with celiac disease feel more confident in their food choices, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created the following guidelines:
>> Foods labeled gluten free cannot include any gluten-containing grain or ingredients derived from them if they were not processed to remove gluten. The presence of any unavoidable gluten in the food must be fewer than 20 parts per million.
>> The gluten-free label is voluntary, not a requirement. Naturally gluten-free items like bottled water and fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood may not have it despite adhering to the guidelines.
>> The FDA’s gluten regulations do not apply to foods and products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. This includes meats, poultry, certain egg products and most alcoholic beverages.
>> Imported foods that are subject to FDA regulations must meet the same guidelines to receive the label.
>> While the final rule applies to packaged foods only, the FDA says restaurants claiming menu items are gluten free should be consistent with its definition.

the future of treatment
While the only management option currently for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet, exciting advancements in treatment are on the horizon. From reversing the autoimmune response to breaking down gluten, there are a variety of areas showing promising research.
>> NEXVAX2: ImmusanT is working on inducing immune tolerance to gluten through a vaccine that programs T-cells to no longer trigger a pro-inflammatory response to gluten. If it is successful, people with the disease would be able to enjoy an unrestricted diet and improved health.
>> LARAZOTIDE ACETATE (INN-202): Innovate Biopharmaceuticals is developing a drug to regulate tight junctions, which are disrupted when people with celiac disease consume gluten. Tight junctions seal the paracellular pathway and prevent leakage of transported solutes and water. When they are open or ‘leaky,’ it causes inflammation in the intestines. Ingested orally before meals, INN-202 may help keep tight junctions closed, therefore reducing the inflammatory response to gluten.
>> LATIGLUTENASE (IMGX003): This treatment is a mixture of two glutenspecific enzymes that break the protein into small, harmless fragments. Developed by ImmunogenX, IMGX003 has been shown to improve symptoms and reduce damage to the intestines in clinical trials.