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Holistic Nutrition by John Burns BVMS MRCVS

Holistic Nutrition

by John Burns BVMS MRCVS

Our affluent Western society has largely overcome the problem of infectious disease. This is due mainly to public health measures. Similarly, our pet animals rarely die of infectious disease (unlike farm animals which suffer epidemics due to poor hygiene and overcrowding).
But although we have seen off infectious disease, our hospitals and mental health clinics are swamped, veterinary clinics are busier than ever and our society is fragmented and ill-at-ease.
We have replaced the problem of infectious disease with that of degenerative disease.
Thankfully, Holistic Medicine offers us a solution.

The Bible says “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” So too with Holistic Medicine. So, to begin I would like to explain what I mean by the term “Holistic”.

My dictionary defines Holism as the “theory that the fundamental principle of the universe is the creation of wholes i.e. complete and self-contained systems from the atom and the cell by evolution to the most complex forms of life and mind.” It also defines Holistic Medicine as “a system which treats the whole person, physically and psychologically, rather than simply treating the whole part”.

While I empathise with the broader definition, as a clinician I will be focussing here on the latter definition; at present, there is no system of pet nutrition which satisfies Holistic principles of food production, transport, and environment and so on but which also meets the needs of pet owners.

In my opinion, nutrition is fundamental to the practice of Holistic Medicine. Correct diet underpins all other Complementary therapies and may make them unnecessary.

Although I am a veterinary surgeon (veterinarian) I came to my understanding of pet nutrition by way of human complementary therapies. As a recent graduate I quickly learned that my conventional veterinary training had left me ill-prepared to deal with chronic illness. In the 1970s complementary medicine did not exist in veterinary practice in the UK as far as I was aware. I trained in human acupuncture but at the same time I became interested in Macrobiotics which attempts to interpret traditional lifestyle and philosophy in a way which is appropriate for our modern society.

Evolution is the process by which living things survive and prosper by adapting to a changing environment – food supply, climate, avoidance of predators etc.

By definition, evolution ensures that all living things which exist today are well adapted to their environment provided that they live according to the forces which shaped their evolutionary development.

A similar way of thinking is found in Naturopathy. The term has fallen from common usage (thankfully in my opinion because its derivation suggests Natural-disease. I prefer to think that health is natural.)

According to the Macrobiotic philosophy it was by eating whole cereal grains as his principle food that man[kind] developed his superior intellect. Use of fire for cooking allowed man to change his food which in turn allowed man to become more flexible and adaptable and therefore the most successful species.

It was the abandonment of this traditional way of eating in favour of our modern (Western) diet which has led to most of the illness which is so prevalent in modern society.

The Macrobiotic philosophy is that if we return to a diet based on whole cereal grains and vegetables with animal products, fruits and pulses as secondary foods rather than our present reliance on animal products, refined foods, sugars and chemicalised foods we can regain our health, physical and mental.

This way of thinking gives rise to a set of Principles of Natural Health Care:

  • Good health is a natural state
  • The body will always attempt to maintain balance and heal itself
  • Acute illness is a manifestation that the body is attempting to heal itself
  • Chronic illness is a sign that healing has failed

Using these ideas and with particular reference to the dog I have formulated a description of how disease develops. For convenience I have described three distinct phases but in practice the stages meld into each other with no clear division.

Development of Disease

Stage 1

By definition there is an imbalance between intake of, and requirement for, nutrients. In theory this could be a deficiency but in our modern, affluent society there is much more likely to be an excess.

There may be a loss of appetite ( the dog becomes fussy; most pet owners try to over-ride this by tempting the dog with ever more tasty food)

The excess may be stored as fat (nature’s way of providing for lean times which never happen with domestic pets)

Do not make the mistake of thinking that if an animal is lean it is not being overfed. Instead of storing excess, the body may try to maintain a balance by eliminating the excess (Principle2 above)

In the dog this gives rise to one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Increased physical activity, boisterousness
  • Persistent moulting/shedding of hair
  • Waxy ears
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Itchy skin and ears
  • Biting or licking the feet
  • Occasional vomiting
  • Occasional diarrhoea
  • Discharges from orifices – eyes, genital system
  • Full anal glands
  • Tooth tartar
  • Unpleasant body odours
  • Strong-smelling urine, urinary crystals
  • Bad breath

These are signs of elimination rather than true illness. They are our early-warning system. They show that the body is making adjustments to maintain its healthy status. If only one of these symptoms is present this is a warning that changes to the lifestyle – especially diet – are needed.

Development of Disease

Stage 2

If imbalance between intake and requirement persists, the build-up of wastes will eventually lead to impairment of the major organ systems. If the organs of elimination are affected this will accelerate the process of deterioration.

In time, (days or months depending on the individual) signs of true illness will appear. At first these tend to be physiological in nature rather than as a result of degenerative changes in the organ systems:
Signs of inflammation e.g. Pancreatitis, hepatitis
Abnormality of the immune system – allergy/intolerance, susceptibility to infection
Hormonal imbalance – false pregnancy, abnormal oestrus, thyroid problems

Development of Disease

Stage 3 

As the build-up of waste products continues, the major organs will eventually begin to fail. Signs of organ failure may not appear until some 75% of the organ function is lost.
At this stage the animal’s life is in danger
E.g. kidney or liver failure
Malignant tumour formation

This description provides a framework for the categorisation of almost all the disease conditions we see. Using this we can form a holistic view of what is happening in the body and offer a prescription for action.

Let’s have two examples

1. Idiopathic epilepsy (idiopathic means the cause is unknown).

Holistically this can be considered to be a discharge of excess energy (Development of disease Stage 1). Therefore management would require a low protein, low fat, and chemical free, high in complex carbohydrate (unrefined grain). The amount of food should be kept low to meet but not exceed needs.

2 Pan-osteitis (Widespread bone inflammation) I mention this, not because it is common but because it is comparatively unusual. What causes it? Without the benefit of holistic thinking we wouldn’t know where to begin. But we can see here that as generalised inflammation it fits neatly into the category of Stage 2 of the Development of Disease. From there, control and prevention become obvious.

I have been applying and developing these principles to the management of disease in the dog for the last 25 years. Back in the late 1970s, I adapted the principles of Macrobiotics to my veterinary practice. I advised my pet-owning clients to avoid commercial pet foods but to feed their dogs on a combination of cooked brown rice, vegetables and meat (1/3 rd of each by volume)

This diet was of course based on the standard Macrobiotic diet for humans but with a higher proportion of meat than for humans. I saw excellent results even in dogs which had long-standing health problems. But most people were unable or unwilling to keep it up for any length of time. I am sure I lost many clients as a consequence of promoting this system.

Who wants to pay to be made to feel guilty? I am sure many pet owners went off to find a veterinarian who would tell them that their pet’s problems were nothing to do with diet.

I beat that drum for a number of years before finally realising that if clients were going to feed their pets holistically, the food would have to be convenient and readily available.

That is why I developed Burns Real Food which is based on my original home-made diet.

I must confess that at first I was worried that a commercially prepared dry dog food would not provide the same health benefits as a home-cooked diet. However, in my experience, the commercial food gives as good if not better results as home-made, especially when treating an existing health problem.

I suspect that this may be because the commercial food has a fixed formula whereas home-made diets are subject to the whim of the cook. It is also easier to advise on treatment when you have a clear idea of exactly what is being fed.

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©2004 John Burns

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