Diet Danger

Eating healthy is important, but not all diets are created equal, especially when it comes to SCI.

With a New Year come New Year’s resolutions. Many people are making public vows to do something to help others, help the environment or help themselves.

Whether it’s for overall health, environmental awareness or weight loss, if a vamped diet is part of your New Year plan, make sure you’re choosing a well-balanced diet that won’t cause harm to your body or your spinal-cord injury (SCI).

It might be tempting to jump on the latest dieting craze. But before making any rash decisions, consider the diets SCI nutritionist Kylie James, co-author of the Paralyzed Veterans of America-supported book Eat Well, Live Well with Spinal Cord Injury, says are “do’s” and toss out her “don’t do’s.” 

DO Vegetarian

James approves of a vegetarian diet for people with SCI because lacking meat and overloading on produce makes it beneficial due to its anti-inflammatory effect on the body. But only if you do it the right way.

One mistake James cites vegetarians frequently make is eating too many starchy carbohydrates (i.e. bread, pasta, potatoes, etc.) to substitute the lack of meat in their diet.

Although it might be tempting to order a heavy pasta dish when your stomach is rumbling at the end of a long day, carb-heavy foods can be inflammatory — something those with SCI should avoid.

Because those with SCI are in a constant state of inflammation, eating too many carbs can cause pain and negative effects on mood, sleep and cognition. Overloading on carbohydrates also puts a dieter with SCI at risk of significant weight gain because of increased insulin resistance.

“There can be vegetarians out there that eat very well, and vegetarians that eat very poorly,” James says. “If someone’s a vegetarian, it’s just important that they have that balance of the proteins, the fats and the carbs, and they just don’t overdo it on the breads and the rice and stuff.”

Things to look out for: Keep track of protein and vitamin B12 intake to ensure you’re meeting the minimum daily recommendations — taking a B12 supplement may be necessary.

Limit your carbohydrate intake. James suggests zero to one serving of wholesome grains per day such as quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice or wild rice.

DON’T DO Vegan

Although vegetarian is a relatively healthy choice, James doesn’t recommend going all the way to vegan — which eliminates all animal products including dairy, eggs and seafood.

“[People with] spinal-cord injuries have a ton of nutrient deficiencies; it’s very, very common,” James says. “Vegan is way too limiting for [people with] spinal-cord injury between terms of protein and getting the variety that they need.”

The deficiencies James mentions include vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C, D, E and K as well as minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, fiber and folic acid. A vegan diet eliminates too many of these nutrients, like the B complex found in meat and calcium found in dairy.

Like a vegetarian diet, if it’s not done carefully and correctly it can put the dieter at increased health risks. Therefore, it’s better to start with a smaller change, like vegetarianism.

DO Paleo

Sometimes called the “caveman diet” because it’s how our ancient ancestors ate, this healthful routine is a bit new to the dieting scene. But it’s a definite standout in James’ eyes.

“It’s very wholesome-based, so it’s looking at whole foods, which are nutrient dense and it’s a well-balanced diet,” James says. “I would definitely support the paleo [diet] with spinal-cord injury.”

The paleo diet avoids all cereal grains, legumes (including peanuts), dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, salt and processed foods. Instead, it focuses on grass-fed meat, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seed and healthy fats like olive oil, walnuts, flaxseed, macadamia nuts, avocados and coconut oil.

This prioritizing of foods comes with a long list of benefits including more protein, which as mentioned earlier, is important for someone with SCI in order to maintain lean muscle mass.

It’s also lower in carbohydrate intake, which consequently has a lower glycemic effect on the body. This means the foods are more slowly digested in the body, decreasing blood sugar spikes, which is helpful to those who are insulin resistant.

This option is also very helpful to the aforementioned nutrient deficiencies common in people with SCI. By cutting out grains, the dieter is forced to replace those servings with meats, fruits and vegetables, all of which are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and potassium and lack in sodium. This combination fights off risk of many health conditions including excess weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and bone and muscle loss.

Things to look out for: Although protein is an important and necessary part of a healthful diet, consuming it in excess can put a strain on kidneys.

Keep it to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Despite the paleo rule to exclude legumes from your diet, James suggests this is the one rule to break.

“Legumes are a rich source of vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and protein … I would include legumes,” James says.

DON’T DO Atkins

Despite all the talk of lack of carbohydrates being a good thing, this plan includes too much protein, which James says can put your body in danger.

“That’s not a well-balanced diet. It’s very high on protein and that can put a strain on the kidneys,” James says. “[People with] spinal-cord injury, they often have issues with the kidneys anyway because of poor nerve innervation and they’re at risk for kidney stones and bladder stones.”

Despite the Atkins diet’s success in the area of weight loss, the diet is not sustainable for overall health. The high amount of meat makes it high in saturated fats while increasing acidity and inflammation in the body, which leads to pain and reduced bone density.

For more information on putting together a healthful New Year diet, consult James and Joanne Smith’s book Eat Well, Live Well with Spinal Cord Injury.



“The nutrition plan should be individualized because everyone has different genetic make-up, and with spinal cord injury, too, there are so many variables,” James says. “I do strongly emphasize to take a more personalized approach based on the individual’s needs, their issues and their lifestyle.”

It’s also important not to diet if you have a pressure sore. In that state the dieter needs increased calories, protein and good fats. No matter what the situation, every dieter should consult a healthcare professional before acting on significant diet alterations.


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