Nutrition and Chronic Illness: Taking Out the Garbage

carrying garbage bag in kitchenHave you ever heard the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out”? This saying refers to the fact a computer can only do what it is programmed to do, and can be only as good as the data it receives and the instructions it is given. But when it comes to nutrition’s impact on our physical and emotional health, it takes on a whole new meaning.

Think about the last time you ate fast food. How did you feel while you were eating it? You may have felt joy or even euphoria while you indulged. Processed foods are high in carbohydrates, sugar, fats, and salt that can spike blood sugar, sending signals to the brain to release “feel-good” chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. But how did you feel an hour later? Chances are you felt lethargic, foggy, or even depressed. Junk food lacks the essential vitamins and nutrients to sustain energy. That spike in blood sugar is followed by a drop in blood sugar, which can lead to irritability and sluggishness—and cravings for more junk food, which perpetuates this “garbage in, garbage out” cycle.

Poor eating habits have many negative impacts on our health. In an article on, Julie Daniluk writes, “About 70% of our immune cells are in our digestive system, making direct contact with the food we enjoy every day. If the immune system is triggered by bacteria in food, or flags a food as an allergen, or has an imbalance of important hormones such as insulin, it can set off the red alert of inflammation” (2012). Poor nutrition can contribute to Type 2 diabetes, digestive problems, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, and liver damage; it can even increase the risk of cancer. Poor nutrition can also trigger pain flare-ups, joint inflammation, and increased A1c levels.

Not only does poor nutrition wreak havoc on our physical body, it can have negative effects on our mental health, causing anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors.

There is good news: You have control over how you feed your body and mind. Controlling one’s nutrition can help manage both the physical and psychological, keeping our bodies and minds in tip-top shape.

Here are some tips for ditching the garbage:

  1. Don’t be a junk-food junkie. Fast food and junk food (Twinkies, potato chips) are high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals. It can cause spikes in blood sugar that lead to sluggishness and irritability, and may ultimately leave you feeling physically and emotionally empty.
  2. Taste the rainbow. Iceberg lettuce has insignificant nutritional value compared to red leaf or romaine lettuce. The darker the pigment of the fruit or veggie, the more packed with vitamins it generally is, so go for color.
  3. Nix the sugar fix. Sugar and high-glycemic starches can destabilize blood sugar and increase insulin, which directly causes inflammation and swelling. Avoid added sugar, flour, and other high-starch treats, and swap them with fruit or even dark chocolate to tame your sweet tooth.
  4. Fat is your friend. The right kind of fat, that is! Fat is an essential part of our diet, but the wrong kinds of fat can contribute to health problems. Unsaturated fats and omega-3s are the good guys. You can find them in olive oil, avocados, olives, nuts, peanut butter, fatty fish (tuna, salmon), and tofu.
  5. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Both alcohol and caffeine have been proven to trigger inflammation and joint pain in people with arthritis and fibromyalgia. Excessive amounts can also cause irritability, depression, and anxiety. Limit or eliminate them.
  6. Control carbohydrates and calories. Too often, our plates are overloaded with carbs (bread, pasta, rice) and not enough colorful veggies. Though there is debate on the ideal ratio of macronutrients (carbs/fat/protein) we should consume, most studies agree that low carbs are the best bet for a healthy diet. Load your plate and your palate with veggies and lean meat.

Choosing to eat a healthy diet is, in essence, choosing to build a healthy body and mind. By making healthy food choices, people can manage and even prevent chronic illness and improve mental clarity. When we feed our bodies with nourishing food, we thrive both physically and mentally. So get rid of the garbage and get “healthy in, health throughout”!

Daniluk, J. (2012, July 20). When food causes you pain. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, Health / Illness / Medical Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • gerald

    October 8th, 2015 at 12:13 PM

    i know i know that junk food isn’t the way to go when you are looking to establish healthy beating routines
    but man there are times when nothing will beat a good juicy hamburger

  • deirdre

    October 8th, 2015 at 9:51 PM

    There is far too much emphasis on a healthy diet. People can live and have done for millions of years on inadequate diets. What is much more important to a person’s well being is their sense of belonging and community and sadly with all this emphasis on theoretical learning family and community bonds have completely broken down. I would argue that what you eat is much less important than who you eat it with!

  • AmyH

    October 9th, 2015 at 8:08 AM

    This is so relevant in my own life right now as we just found out that my daughter tests positive for celiac disease. We aren’t too shocked because of the problems that she has been having but we know that this is going to be a lifestyle change for all of us as we try to pin down what she can have nutritionally and just getting used to all of the changes that will have to be made.

  • Andrea Risi

    October 9th, 2015 at 9:06 AM

    I hear you, Gerald! I think it’s all about balance. A treat once is awhile isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s seeking those kinds of foods on a regular basis that can be more detrimental to our physical and emotional health.

  • Andrea Risi

    October 9th, 2015 at 9:09 AM

    Amy – Your family is in transition with a new diagnosis, and yes it would be helpful for your daughter if the rest of your family follows the new nutrition guidelines. I have a feeling though that everyone will feel a positive difference with a healthier diet!

  • Grant

    October 10th, 2015 at 8:47 AM

    If you are like me then sometimes it seems like it is SO HARD to make the healthier choice.
    You think, isn’t there a pill or something that could help me with this?
    But all the while you know that this isn’t the truth, that the ability to heal has to come from your hard work.

  • Andrea Risi

    October 11th, 2015 at 2:06 PM

    Agreed, Grant. It seems that there are easier options, but there’s nothing more satisfying than helping yourself with through your willpower!

  • Andrea Risi

    October 11th, 2015 at 2:08 PM

    I appreciate your comment, Deirdre. I also agree that eating can be a social activity, which is also important to our mental health!

  • Reesa

    October 12th, 2015 at 8:38 AM

    I have struggled with an eating disorder in the past so the struggle is very real for me when it comes to maintaining a healthy balance. I want to eat healthy but then I see things like healthy fats and that triggers a whole host of confusion and disordered thinking on my part. Old habits are hard to break

  • apryl

    October 13th, 2015 at 5:53 AM

    The more colorful the plate the happier I am !! :)

  • Andrea Risi

    October 13th, 2015 at 8:40 AM

    Hello Reesa and thank you for sharing your experience with us! Many people (especially women) can get triggered by food and eating habits. My hope is that you are working with a therapist who specializes in disordered eating. Best of luck to you!

  • Andrea Risi

    October 13th, 2015 at 8:43 AM

    Me too, Apryl! The cleaner I eat, the more my body craves that good food; the sugar/salt/junk food cravings decrease…and as a result, I feel cleaner, lighter and happier!

  • Lindell

    October 14th, 2015 at 11:06 AM

    I hate this for our country but I really do not believe that there are very many people who actually put that much clear thought into what they feed their bodies. It just becomes all about what tastes good at the moment with really no thought into what this food is going to do to your body down the road. I wish that there were more of us who were this mindful of our eating habits, and I think that if we were we would see so many fewer health problems in our country. But alas, the world of drive thrus and the prevalence of junk food has taken away that kind of attention that used to be given to feeding our bodies and now all we think about is what is good right now in the moment.

  • louisa

    October 16th, 2015 at 11:19 AM

    From past experience you can be all motivated to make a difference and do something good with your life, but until you make it a habit then you are always going to be so tempted to bring the icky things back in/.
    Stay strong and don’t let them back in.

  • Kace

    October 17th, 2015 at 5:06 AM

    So hard & overwhelming to change. I wish I could figure out 3 healthy breakfasts, 3 healthy lunches & 3 healthy dinners that I like. I need help. I live in pain & I am sure its my diet

  • Andrea Risi

    October 20th, 2015 at 4:44 PM

    Agreed, Lindell! Unfortunately fast food has made it too easy to have unhealthy diets in our culture. There are countless studies on the negative effects of fast food on both the mind and body, and I hope that more people will start to recognize this for themselves. Practicing mindfulness is one way to better control our eating habits.

  • Andrea Risi

    October 20th, 2015 at 4:50 PM

    Thank you Louisa and Kace – I appreciate your comments. It is difficult to “be strong” and stick to a healthy diet. Seeking the help of a certified nutritionist can help you navigate the world of nutrition to find options that work for you!

  • anue nue

    December 1st, 2017 at 6:56 PM

    Unfortunately humans know how to take better care of their homes and automobiles than their bodies.
    Nutrition educating should be a prerequisite to any mental or physical health treatment or therapy.

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