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Learning from the dogs

July 25, 2003

We recently adopted a dog, Serif*, from the animal shelter. Part of the new responsibilities have included buying dog food. The first walk down a pet "supermarket" blew me away:

  • "Total Nutrition Advantage"
  • "Scientifically balanced"
  • "Contains vegetables with Vitamin A and other important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients"
  • "Contains iron for healthy blood."
  • "Advanced Nutrition for Active Dogs"
  • "High quality ingredients"

What did it all mean? My regular supermarket instincts told me to distrust the splashy blurbs. I read the subtitles:

  • "Real beef"
  • "Turkey diner in gravy"
  • "Chicken, egg, and bacon"
  • "Chicken, pasta, and carrots"

This made less sense. Even with all of their free time, how many dogs would cook up eggs and boil pasta? Serif has surprised us by managing to open a few door knobs but still, I haven't seen him handle the cast iron frying pan. I shifted down to the ingredients. Most labels began with recognizable ingredients but soon faded into chemical additive gibberish. Here's a sample:

  • Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, beef tallow preserved with mixed-tocopherols (source of Vitamin E), rice flour, beef, soy flour, sugar, sorbitol, tricalcium phosphate, water, animal digest, salt, phosphoric acid, potassium chloride, dicalcium phosphate, sorbic acid (a preservative), L-Lysine monohydrochloride, dried peas, dried carrots, calcium carbonate, calcium propionate (a preservative), choline chloride, vitamin supplements (E, A, B-12, D-3), added color (Yellow 5, Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 2), DL-Methionine, zinc sulfate, glyceryl monostearate, ferrous sulfate, niacin, manganese sulfate, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin supplement, biotin, thiamine mononitrate, garlic oil, copper sulfate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), calcium iodate, sodium selenite.

I had a sudden flashback to when I started the SCD and started reading labels. I had been thrust into a foreign city without knowing the language. I had grown up with all of the food vendors, I was familiar with their packaging. But what were all these ingredients? Who could I trust?

If you're thinking about starting the diet, it can be quite overwhelming. In the case of the pet food I talked to friends with dogs who had gone through the same experience and ended up going to a smaller store which sold healthier brands of pet food. In the case of the diet, I found help on mailing lists and read books as well as online resources to get started. But there are a lot of books. For every diet book on the shelves (e.g. Atkins), there are dozens more in the basement of the Strand*** which no one ever bought. Some good, some bad, but how do you decide?
(*** New York City's largest used book store.)

I realized that I've read many diet related books over the years. If you want to get a better feel for the world of food, a good place to start is Fast Food Nation. It reads fast and takes you inside the food industry including the lab where they make "natural flavors".

After that, start reading as much as you can. IBD and diet is unexplored in most books except for Breaking the Vicious Cycle. Most IBD books discuss several items which seem to irritate the intestine but they don't explain the "bigger picture" which makes the Specific Carbohydrate Diet work. For example, the Self Help Way To Treat Colitis and Other IBS Conditions, Second Edition, which was written by a doctor with IBS, discusses avoiding several corn products and certain sugars. This brings some relief for IBD (perhaps more for IBS) but still symptoms continue.

I'll stop here by saying that if you don't understand why you should or should not eat certain foods: ask questions and read. It's a good investment in time to understand how digestion works, what effects it, and how to have better control over your health. IBD is not a disease where the causes and effects are a mystery leaving you subject to "random" events and bad luck. Diet may be understood and explained--and is currently the best way to treat IBD for the long term.

* Serif refers to the style of a type face--as in "sans-serif".