4 Ways You're Shooting Yourself in the Foot (Nutritionally Speaking)

Tamara Duker Freuman


An old proverb says that "The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions," and nowhere is this truer than when it comes to nutrition and health. We're all seeking better health for ourselves and our kids, and often look to food and supplements as tools to get us closer to this goal.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of unreliable information out there -- peddled online by self-appointed gurus or in the supermarket by profit-minded food and supplement companies -- that sways us to behave in ways that wind up having the opposite of their intended effect. In other words, sometimes, the very food and nutrition habits we adopt for the purpose of making us healthier actually wind up making us worse off. Here are four examples of ways you may be shooting yourself in the proverbial foot with your food, supplementation and child feeding practices:

Eating fiber-fortified processed foods to address constipation. If you're not moving your bowels regularly, chances are, you often feel bloated, gassy and distended. And if this describes how you feel sometimes, raise your hand if your first inclination is to run out and gobble down a pile of beans and cabbage to make yourself feel better. What -- no takers? Of course not; because you know that eating loads of foods that produce lots of gas makes you feel worse when that excess gas gets trapped behind slow-moving stool.

What few people realize is that most processed fiber cereals, fiber bars, fiber breads and even "digestive" yogurts are loaded with fructose and inulin (chicory root fiber) -- two highly fermentable ingredients that your resident gut flora love to feast on. So unless you're already able to move your bowels regularly and feel completely eliminated after going, there's a good chance that taking large doses of these processed ingredients is going to make you feel bad. In some cases, furthermore, all that excess gas can even make constipation worse. That's because bowels that are significantly dilated due to excess gas and backed up stool have an even harder time contracting to promote the passing of a bowel movement.

Ironically, it's the people who "need" fiber-fortified processed foods the most who are least likely to tolerate them digestively. A mix of high-fiber whole foods is generally going to be most effective and best tolerated when you've got constipation caused by inadequate fiber or sluggish colonic motility. Oatmeal, berries, spinach and other leafy greens, carrots, peppers, flaxseeds, quinoa, string beans, sweet potatoes and nuts are fiber powerhouses that are low on the gassiness meter, and moderate intake of slightly more fermentable foods such as apples, pears and prunes are well tolerated by -- and extremely helpful for -- many folks as well.

Using probiotics or garlic when you have SIBO. I've written previously about the digestively miserable condition called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, in which normal colonic-type bacteria take up residence en masse further upstream in the small intestine. A common misconception is that SIBO involves overgrowth of "bad" or "disease causing" bacteria, and this misconception leads many patients to believe they should start supplementing themselves with a variety of probiotics, or "good bacteria" to help "fight" the bad bacteria and restore balance to the gut ecosystem.

In reality, there's nothing inherently "bad" about the bacteria in SIBO other than that they're colonizing the wrong neighborhood; rather, SIBO is typically caused by good bacteria living in an inappropriate location. So by pouring billions of extra colony-forming units of would-be "neighbors" into a small bowel that's proven itself so hospitable to overgrowing them, you're literally replenishing the population you're trying to eradicate. Taking a (bacterial) probiotic when you have SIBO -- or frankly, even when you have a past history of SIBO -- is therefore likely to be more hurtful than helpful. If and when your doctor prescribes an antibiotic to treat your SIBO, a yeast-based probiotic like Saccharomyces boulardii (commonly marketed as Florastor) can be helpful to prevent antibiotic associated diarrhea and maintain some semblance of balance in the gut -- without contributing to the risk of bacterial overgrowth.

I've also seen patients with SIBO advised to take garlic -- a food with some natural antimicrobial properties -- to help treat their overgrowth. (Typically, antimicrobial foods and supplements are recommended by alternative practitioners who are not legally allowed to prescribe antibiotic medications.) The problem with garlic, however, is that it's an incredibly rich source of prebiotic fiber -- or the very type of highly-fermentable fiber that feeds bacteria and helps them prosper! Besides the fact that most patients with SIBO find garlic to be incredibly bloating and uncomfortable to eat, there's no evidence at all to suggest that garlic can treat or prevent SIBO, and much reason to believe that may in fact have the opposite effect.

Withholding allergenic foods from infants to prevent food allergy. I've written previously about the emerging body of scientific evidence which suggested that delaying introduction of common allergens such as wheat, eggs, fish, tree nuts, peanuts and dairy may actually increase the risk of a child developing food allergy. But last month, a first-of-its-kind randomized, controlled trial provided the strongest, clearest evidence to date that introducing an allergen early could prevent the development of food allergy compared to delaying introduction -- particularly in kids already at high risk for food allergy.

The already-famous LEAP study looked at a group of 600 high-risk-for allergy infants ages 4 to 11 months, and split them into two groups: One group was given a peanut-containing snack three times per week, and the other avoided peanuts entirely until age five. Only 3 percent of the kids given peanuts in infancy wound up developing peanut allergy at age 5, compared to a whopping 17 percent of kids who delayed introduction of peanuts. The authors concluded that regular consumption of peanuts between 4 and 11 months of age is protective against development of peanut allergy among high-risk children, and that previous advice that called for delaying introduction of peanuts probably contributed to increased prevalence of peanut allergy. The evidence is increasingly clear: Delaying introduction of allergens in order to prevent food allergy in a child likely has the opposite effect, and is the nutritional equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.

Sterilizing a healthy baby's bottle to prevent contact with "germs." Just as early introduction of food allergens seems to calm down the immune system and prevent development of food allergy, so too does early exposure to environmental "germs." New moms are famously germ-phobic, but unless your baby was premature or is otherwise immunocompromised, limiting exposure to normal microbial life indoors and outdoors is more likely to impair the development of his immune system than it is to keep him healthy.

The developing immune system requires constant challenge -- from germy siblings' saliva and the family dog's dander to dropped Cheerios and pacifiers dusted with "floor seasoning" -- in order to learn which environmental proteins are friends and which are foes. When we over-sanitize our babies' lives by sterilizing bottles, using anti-microbial wipes on shopping carts, and preventing them from exploring the world with their mouths, we limit these essential early exposures. In the absence of weak but real environmental invaders, one's developing immune system may create its own enemies in order to practice its emerging combat skills -- and this can take the form of food allergy, asthma or autoimmune disease.

Food and utensils aren't supposed to be sterile -- that's what we have stomach acid for! Think about it: A nursing mom's breasts are far from sterile (particularly those new moms too exhausted to shower every day!), and baby bottles for formula-fed babies certainly need not be sterile, either. Unless a bottle has been exposed to a known source of filth and disease-causing bacteria -- such as human or pet fecal matter, raw eggs, raw chicken or raw meat -- you're probably doing more harm than good by sterilizing a healthy baby's bottles. Simply washing used bottles in hot water and dish soap is a far better way to go.


Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.