Integrative vs. Conventional Medicine from a Future Dietitian’s Perspective
Today we have back with us Elena Kunicki, member of the Nourishing Minds Tribe, to discuss her perspective of combining healing for the best of both worlds.
Over the past year, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that - although I’m not even a dietitian yet - I already don’t fully believe in the profession.
Don’t get me wrong - I’ve learned so much and worked with so many great people during my dietetic internship thus far, and I don’t regret my decision to choose this career path in the slightest. I so respect the work that goes into becoming and BEING a dietitian, especially considering the lack of respect dietitian’s often get. But by and large, we are still taught through the lens of conventional medicine - which is simply not working for the health of Americans.
As a dietetic intern, I’ve found I have to do my own research OUTSIDE of my schooling to get the whole picture on health and medicine, and the role nutrition has to play in it all. Through that research, I realized some pretty significant shortcomings and troubling pitfalls of conventional medicine and conventional nutrition. I also learned about integrative and functional medicine, holistic health, and the role nutrition has to play in THAT (hint: it’s a HUGE role). I learned about Intuitive Eating and the Health at Every Size approach, something that was a key player in my own recovery from an eating disorder and was not part of the curriculum in either my undergraduate or graduate nutrition training.
If I’m being honest, it’s really difficult to go through this grueling program (40-hour unpaid work week plus graduate classes in the evening for one year) and also trying to fill in the gaps of my schooling with my own personal research. At times I feel anger that my mentors, who are all extremely intelligent and accomplished, are so unwilling to question conventional nutrition practices in the interest of human health and wellness.
But the fact is that getting angry doesn’t help anything. Conventional medicine has failed in many ways, but it’s also done a lot of good. And the integrative and functional medicine field is not perfect either. However, it seems to me that these two valid forms of health care are now at odds. You’re either on the conventional side or the integrative and functional side, and have extremely negative views of the opposing side.
But what if we asked how the two could intersect? My guess is that together, they would work far better than they are apart. This shift begins by realizing that both are useful, not poo-pooing each other as BS.
So, in the field of nutrition - and for anyone interested in their own nutrition or health - how do we merge these two seemingly opposing forms of medicine? Here are some tips based on my journey over the past five years of education in nutrition and my work on my own health.
DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH. But stay skeptical.
Don’t be so quick to trust what you hear. Question even the most “widely accepted” nutrition guidelines - the most well respected governing and regulatory bodies on human health and nutrition have been flat out wrong. Also question online articles that make no attempt to site any of their sources. There are many limitations to nutrition research but for better or for worse, most people want you to be able attach a peer-reviewed study to all of your health claims. So, if you’re going to talk about it or recommend it, you’ve got to be prepared to back it up with something.
When in doubt - trust your intuition and tradition.
The above point can be confusing, because if you have to question everything - what the heck do you trust??? Believe me, I’ve struggled with this too. In these times of doubt it helps me to try to tune into my gut feeling on something. If an MD prescribes me a medication and I just don't feel 100% right taking it, I’ll do my research on other options. If an integrative medicine professional tells me I need to avoid a certain food group and I have a bad feeling about that, then I can choose not to and research other options. I believe in the saying “you know your body best” - just because someone is a professional in their field, does not mean they are a professional on YOU. Be skeptical of any health care professional who brushes aside your own worries or gut feelings about something because “research doesn’t support it”.
When it comes to nutrition specifically, I find the most comfort in the confusing climate of nutrition science in looking back on how humans have eaten for centuries. If you’re confused about debates over whether certain foods are healthy or not, try looking back on what and how your family/ethno-cultural ancestors have been eating for generations. Odds are if they survived and thrived on it, it’s not gonna hurt ya.
Find someone who knows their sh**.
Whether you’re a nutrition professional or just someone interested in wellness - find experts whom you trust and learn from them. You may not be ready to take a deep dive into the research, but plenty of people have and would be willing to talk to you about it or have plenty of resources available (books, blogs, podcasts, etc.). The key here is identifying a person you feel is credible, who can back up their claims with SOME form of tangible evidence - whether that be a research article or a textbook on the history of food and health in the United States.
Ask questions and have open conversations.
Don’t approach people defensively and angrily, no matter how much their belief about nutrition opposes yours. Coming from a place of openness and curiosity will undoubtedly lead to more productive conversations. Ask questions because you care about the response, not because you are trying to prove the person wrong. Let them offer their evidence and be prepared to offer yours. If no consensus is reached - agree to disagree or respectfully remove yourself from the conversation if you feel triggered. Nutrition is a CHARGED topic, with strong opinions on all sides, but if we come at it from a less personal and more objective place - I think we can get a lot further.
To me, there couldn’t be a more appropriate vehicle for the intersection of conventional and integrative medicine than nutrition and dietetics. Food CAN be medicine, that’s for sure. It can be a tool for the management or treatment of an already existing disease. However, it can also be such a powerful tool for disease prevention. It can affect a person holistically - mind, body and soul - as an expression of love, a source of comfort during hard times, a point of connection between people.Just like there’s no black and white when it comes to food, I think the same goes for medicine. There’s a place for everything at the table if we can learn to see the value in both sides, integrate, and ditch what doesn’t work.