Nutritional Harm Reduction

By Juliet Elisabeth 11/19/15

I am on a mission to practice nutritional harm reduction to get my health back on track. 


Today, as I write this, I am embarking on a new diet eliminating red meat. Fourteen years ago, about a month after my first child was born, I received a cholecystectomy to have my gallbladder removed. Since then, I’ve had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and have been unable to narrow down the food culprits behind my daily stomach aches, which interfere with my day-to-day life because whenever I walk into a big-box store or restaurant the first question I have to ask is “Where are the restrooms?”

Lately, I noticed I am consuming too much processed lunch meat, hot dogs, and cheeseburgers. I had my upper teeth removed for dentures and these meats are easier to mash up with only half my teeth available. It’s also resulted in weight gain and health concerns about my diet. Fortunately, while researching removing red meat from my diet, I learned the term: Nutritional Harm Reduction.  

As a harm reductionist, I know the importance of reducing health risks from drinking but I have yet to apply that to my diet. I hadn’t considered it, actually. When I’m writing about HR I have limited my reading to alcohol, drugs, needle exchanges and safe sex. I have completely ignored the magnitude of nutritional health in overall health. It’s been reported by The Suppers Programs that 7 out of 10 causes of death are related directly to lifestyle, behavior and personal choices. Still, as a culture we are sleepwalking into the epidemic of obesity and diabetes, not to mention all the diseases and addictions that are their companions. Fatty, sugary foods are like drugs themselves, contributing to fatigue, depression, anxiety, and poor concentration as well as weight gain, diabetes, and obesity. As The Suppers' website explains: We now know that’s because ingesting refined foods and drinks is like mainlining to the comfort centers of your brain.

My gut instinct is if I change my diet it could reduce my stomach problems. I’m guilty of skipping meals or snacks to avoid stomach aches, even though snacking may reduce symptoms of my CPTSD because low blood sugar can contribute to panic attacks and PMDD. Many of my health problems can be linked to poor nutrition or malnutrition. 

Very recently it was reported that the World Health Organization has made the association that processed meats can cause cancer. The public remains undeterred. Forbes ran an article titled: “Bacon Causes Cancer, But Don’t Worry About It.” Wired’s website also ran an article about the report with the snarky title: “Bacon Causes Cancer? Sort Of. Not really. Ish.” 

Forbes writer JV Chamary reported WHO’s conclusion, which linked consuming bacon, hot dogs, and other processed meats to colon cancer if a person eats 50 grams of such products every day. Sarah Zhang, Wired writer, ascertains: 

"Hold on. Let me stop right here. Eating bacon is not as bad as smoking when it comes to cancer. Just no...The way WHO classifies cancer-causing substances, on the other hand? Maybe a little dangerous to your mental health. Because it is really confusing."

No, my decision to cut out red meat is not because I’m afraid of cancer, but the WHO story did kickstart my decision to start eating healthier. I’ll be the first to admit I was one of those Facebook friends posting bacon-memes. I love bacon. I also love myself and my family enough to know I’d choose them over bacon.  

In the past six months, I've gained over 20 pounds, yet to be honest I was marginally underweight before I put on the pounds. The bulk of the problem was that I was overeating prior to having my teeth removed because I was scared to go without some of my favorite foods, which included very addictive foods chock full of additives: Slim Jims, bacon, steak, Doritos, chicken wings, chips and dip, more bacon, pork chops, fried chicken, and even more bacon.

I’ve had some cognitive dissonance with knowing which foods are unhealthy and actually following a healthy diet. It is well-known that red meat and processed meat put a person at risk for cardiovascular disease, cancers, and diabetes. Fortunately, I also enjoy the iron-rich substitutes for red meats such as whole grains, beans, nuts, fish and poultry. Unfortunately, my diet is further limited by not having my top teeth, which has contributed to increased depression and more IBS symptoms.

Alcohol, although digestible, depletes iron, zinc, Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, and minerals. Although I do practice abstinence with harm reduction, it is important to realize too much alcohol consumption depletes nutrients. Which means, I must factor in drinking habits while examining my eating habits.

While I’m interested in vegetarian and vegan diets, personally I do not feel I want to change my diet that drastically at this point in time. I’ll be a semi-vegetarian instead. Surprisingly, foods like Oreos and Baco-Bits are vegan? That doesn’t mean they’re nutritious, though! Because I’ve lived 14 years without a gallbladder, I will especially steer clear of fats and fried foods and will increase my fiber intake. Some of my favorite foods, like dairy and soda-pop might be aggravating my stomach problems.  

Nutritional harm reduction can help anyone. It is extremely important for people who have consumed a lot of alcohol in their lifetime and have quit drinking because for too many years nutrition was on the backburner. It’s a must for those who still drink moderately or practice harm reduction. Just like a health-conscious person counts their drinks, a health-conscious person should count the amount of carbs, sugars, and fats they are ingesting daily. Replacing a candy bar with a carrot is one small change anyone can make.  

Juliet Elisabeth is a writer and artist. She is also a former court-mandated attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her activist cause for 12-step alternatives in Ohio is the AARMED with Facts blog.

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Juliet Elisabeth is a freelance writer and independent contractor as a research analyst focused on the healthcare field; also an artist and mother of two. Activist for choice in recovery treatment. Her blog is AarmedWithFacts.