Category: Nutrition

Meet Lee Bell: The Nutritionist Who Uses Food to Fight Autoimmune Disease

Lee Bell has spent her entire career improving the lives of the people around her.

Whether putting together a health-conscious taco night for her family or working on a nutrition plan with her patients, Bell is committed to using food as a path to better health.

As Attune Health’s board-certified holistic nutritionist, Bell is putting to use years of education and training to create individualized nutrition plans for patients with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Most of her patients are surprised to learn that some of the foods they have eaten their entire lives — maybe eggs or dairy or gluten — can contribute to their inflammation and autoimmune symptoms and flares, while other foods they might not have considered — like certain seeds, oils, or vegetables — can reduce inflammation in their bodies.

It’s all about empowering people to take control over their health, she said, to live their best life.

Born in San Francisco and raised in Silicon Valley, Bell settled in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago. She is engaged and is the mother of two sons, one of whom was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes — an autoimmune disease — when he was just 13.

Outside of the office, Bell can be found listening to country music, hiking with her rescue dog Mad Max and, on Sundays, cooking a week’s worth of meals so that she can spend more time during the week doing what she loves.

Here’s more about Lee Bell and why food plays such an important role in our overall health:

 

How did you get interested nutrition and medicine.?

I initially went to USC to study molecular biology so I’ve always had an interest in medicine, the sciences, health and wellness. After graduation, I completed a variety of different post-grad work. I went to a holistic nutrition college in Berkeley called Bauman College: Holistic Nutrition + Culinary Arts.  I’ve also done post-graduate work through the T.Colin Campbell Institute for plant-based eating at Cornell University, a deep dive into the Paleo movement and the study of ancestral diets through the Weston A. Price Foundation  I’ve studied celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity at Harvard University, initially due to its link to Type 1 diabetes. Now celiac disease is a common area of discussion in nutrition circles and even patients.  I’m also a devotee of the work being done through the Institute for Functional Medicine.  Oh, and there’s the work I’ve done on methylation with Dr. Ben Lynch.

 

What motivated you to learn all you could about nutrition and health?

I was always interested in how to maximize my health potential, well, after college.  You’ve heard of the freshman 10, well I gained the freshman 30.  Too much indulgence in pizza and wine coolers. Also, once you become a mother there’s a focus on how to feed your children.

 

You are also really interested in the science of aging and taking care of your body and mind. What should we all know about aging gracefully?

I started my practice with a really simple idea and that was how to maximize health potential for men and women who were feeling the pinch of approaching 40 and the years that follow. Given the metabolic and hormonal changes that become inevitable with age, can we optimize our weight, hormones, mood, libido, and vitality?  As it turns out the answer is yes!

I remember when I was much younger,I had heard my mother say that Sammy Davis Jr. had died in his 60s and that he had said, on his deathbed, something to the effect “If I had I known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.”

So my practice really started with the intention of avoiding this predicament and sent me in search of cutting-edge ideas about wellness.  That’s how I discovered Functional Medicine and as a complementary practice, Functional Nutrition.

 

How did that interest in nutrition and wellness lead you to rheumatology?

After my son was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I delved into the link between nutrition and autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.

There’s no question that food influences inflammation. Are there foods that we have identified as pro-inflammation? Absolutely — fried foods, sugar is notorious for creating inflammation in the body, trans fats, common cooking oils, conventionally raised meat, conventional dairy.  There’s a laundry list, especially in the standard American diet.

And then we know there are various triggers for autoimmune conditions. I look at stress, infections whether they’re bacterial or viral, toxic exposures such as mercury and lead, the presence of leaky gut, and of course, I look into the possibility of food sensitivities.

 

What can patients expect when they come to see you?

First and foremost, patients can expect an individualized look at their health which includes diet, level of movement, sleep hygiene, in some instances hormone status especially cortisol, thyroid, insulin, sex hormones.  I also look at food sensitivities and how they contribute to autoimmunity.  Frequently, I’ll start our patients on a pharmaceutical grade metabolic detox and couple that with an elimination diet so we can ferret out what those food sensitivities may be.

I still very much view an elimination diet as being the gold standard for identifying food sensitivities rather than some of the blood tests that are done which have lots of false negatives and false positives.

The other day I got a call from a colleague who asked me for my rheumatoid arthritis protocol.  My reply was, “I don’t have an RA protocol.”  That’s largely because every autoimmune patient has a unique health history as well as unique goals, which merits a unique treatment plan.

In my clinical experience, 95 percent of those that go on an elimination diet discover that they are sensitive to at least one of the foods or food groups that they’ve eliminated.  I find this to be very useful for treatment plans and immediately beneficial for patients.

I also run functional diagnostics that test for nutritional deficiencies, including an imbalance of gut flora, adrenal function and others.

 

What are some of the culprits?

While there’s a baseline of foods that are known to create an inflammation, such as the foods I listed earlier, the specifics of food sensitivities are unique to the individual. There’s really no such thing as an average patient with autoimmunity.  Through the process, some will discover a sensitivity to eggs or other foods, while others won’t.   Often we think of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers — the nightshade family — as healthy foods, but for those with autoimmune conditions they have been known to contribute to pain and inflammation.   

 

So what foods are good for patients with autoimmune and inflammatory conditions?

That’s always the burning question – given all of the foods and food groups we eliminate, what’s left? Certainly during this elimination phase of the diet, the dietary cuts are deep but I always assure our patients that the objective here is that in a few short weeks, we begin to reintroduce foods and food groups in order to design the broadest possible diet while still keeping inflammatory markers down and optimizing weight, if that’s a concern.

So the focus of meals becomes an abundance of non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and leafy greens, as well as clean-sourced animal proteins such as wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, and the inclusion of healthy fats, like avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, and a modest amount of starch from sweet potatoes, parsnips and squash.  That doesn’t sound so bad, right?

 

Are there foods that actually decrease inflammation?

I always like to see lots of the anti-inflammatory Omega-3s in the diet — so that’s wild-caught fatty fish, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts, assuming there’s no sensitivity.  I like leafy greens like spinach, collards and kale, and olive oil and low glycemic fruits, such as organic strawberries, blueberries, cherries. All the fruits we love as we approach summer.  And of course, an elimination of processed foods which comprise much of the standard American diet.

 

What do you tell patients who have to feed kids at home or who just don’t like to cook?

Naturally, I would recommend everyone find something, anything, they enjoy about home meal preparation.  The healthiest among us prepare most of their meals at home.  Batch cooking can be a real time saver. Pick an afternoon and establish an enjoyable food prep routine.  I have a well-established Sunday ritual. I plan, shop, clean, chop, and prep a variety of roasted or raw vegetables, meats and some starchy vegetables.  I place each in a glass container and refrigerate.  That way, I have a variety of ready-to-go components so when hunger strikes, I just heat veggies and meats, with a bit of starch and I’m good to go. Kids can choose their favorites and you can put together a quick meal for their individual tastes.   

If patients aren’t into cooking at all, one of the luxuries of living in L.A or any other major city. is that we have an abundance of meal delivery services that are consistent with this kind of anti-inflammatory eating. So that’s always an option.

 

Why do you love what you do?

Outside of family life, I get a lot of fulfillment from the work that I do in being able to empower patients who live with the uncertainty that comes with an autoimmune diagnosis.  There’s a strength that comes from being able to exert greater control over our health with dietary and lifestyle interventions rather than relying solely on medications. I believe that my education coupled with my clinical and personal experience makes me a sensitive partner in health for those with autoimmunity.

 

For more information or to schedule an appointment with Lee Bell, call Attune Health at 310-652-0010.