Food and Parkinson’s: Relearning How to Eat
Relearning how to eat with Parkinson’s disease is more than being mindful of mouth movements. It requires careful observations of the motivations behind what food to eat, when, and how much.
Relearning how to eat required me to examine the drive to start eating and the desire to stop eating. Both are influenced by much more than being hungry. There are habits, emotions, cravings, and cultural practices that affect my food intake.
The first habit to change was not eating three big meals a day at culturally prescribed times. I can’t do big meals with Parkinson’s. I need to eat when I’m not in an “off” period. The off period puts too much stress on my body to burden it with food intake. I need smaller portions four or five times a day.
I schedule consumption of heavy protein at lunch. Sometimes my high-protein meal of the day is a late breakfast, but never dinner or my late-night meal. Those evening meals occur during my off period and need to be light, consisting mostly of grains and vegetables.
Getting the portion size down to “fist size” for every meal took more than a year. The trick was to be mindful of that very first tickle of fullness that signals I’ve eaten enough. Surprisingly, I found myself often eating beyond this initial food satiation response.
My sense of “hunger” was influenced by habit, cravings, or an obligation to clean my plate. Portion control and meal timing help, but attention to my relationship with eating is equally important. That has taken priority over the feel-good effects that usually accompany sugar consumption (particularly ice cream, in my case).
I have a love-hate relationship with ice cream. I love it as it goes down — and hate what it does to me after. It’s 15 minutes of pleasure followed by 15 hours of discomfort due to an allergic histamine response and inflammation. My entire body rebels.
Chronic disease, like Parkinson’s, is driven by inflammation. According to an article in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, a diet rich in colorful, nonstarchy vegetables inhibits inflammation.
An article in Aging and Disease notes that, “As one of non-motor manifestations in PD, intestinal dysfunction has the prevalence as high as 77%-81%, including constipation, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection, diarrhea and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).” All of these are signs of inflammation in Parkinson’s.
As Thomas Holland, MD, of Rush University told MedPage Today, “A higher dietary intake of flavonoids through a diet diverse in fruits and vegetables has the potential to be protective and perhaps slow disease progression.”
It’s currently understood that most, if not all, neurodegenerative disease processes involve some degree of inflammation and oxidative stress. It’s important to ensure our diets are rich in foods that have a diverse quantity and quality of nutrients and bioactive compounds, which can be found in foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, and whole grains, and that they promote good health.
It’s difficult to eliminate soda, candy, cookies, cake, and ice cream from my diet. But I found a trick that made it easier. Mrs. Dr. C makes homemade dark chocolate bars for me with nuts and dried cherries. Not only does the dark chocolate curb the sugar cravings, but it also has an added benefit of damping down the “flicker effect” at night, which disrupts my sleep.
The research on chocolate and Parkinson’s suggests positive effects. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, which functions as a neuromodulator. Phenylethylamine increases dopamine levels, which can help patients cope with symptoms.
Of course, one must be careful of cravings during chocolate consumption. Food cravings and compulsive eating can be loud and intrusive with Parkinson’s. I work through this with a strict regimen of timing (only with meals and before bed) and limited amounts (about a quarter-cup). With meal portion size under control, my weight doesn’t expand with the increased chocolate consumption.
Trading off the feel-good effect for better meals and sitting with the new way of eating required at least 12 months to have consistent positive effects. A thorough article published in the journal Biomedicines relates the benefits of evaluating and adapting one’s diet to chronic disease and aging.
The temptation to eat whatever and whenever is constant. It’s always an effort, and I still fail occasionally.
The good news is that I am finally at a point where I can manage food intake, which helps me live better with Parkinson’s. I’ve relearned how to eat by taking the pause between to consider what, when, and how much. It is helping with weight control, my overall health, and self-management of Parkinson’s.
Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.