Ask someone for their beliefs on diet and health and hopefully they’ll be able to come up with a somewhat cogent answer. But ask them how they came to adopt those beliefs and for most the answer won’t be quite as easy to come by. The truth is our perception of health, like much else, is the product of many years’ worth of experiences, not a singular moment of revelation or discovery; so in this way we can ‘know’ things even though the origin of those beliefs may be lost on us. The problem being that the longer we believe something the more ingrained it becomes, thus making it that much more difficult to expunge should it be necessary. When you consider something as fundamental and topical as diet and health and factor in the nascence of nutrition science and its changing landscape -
especially given the bulk of research produced in the past fifteen or so years – you’re left with a scenario very similar to our own: a society steeped in dietary dogma, most of which is based on decades-old research, and equipped with only a superficial understanding of even the most fundamental issues, if that. So what if it turns out that many of these ‘truths’ are actually false? What do we do then?
I say this because as I began to study health and nutrition glaring contradictions became commonplace. The conventional wisdom (check the link at the end of the section for a nice primer) which has come to dominate our attitudes and approach to health was made to seem suspect, even unfounded. This can be difficult because when we question long-held beliefs we’re forced to acknowledge the possibility that we were wrong – not something most of us particularly enjoy. I had no real basis for my beliefs, but during my ‘enlightenment’ I still clung to them with religious-like fervor, even in the face of compelling evidence. Why? I don’t know, though I’m guessing it’s some sort of intransigence hard-wired in males when faced with the possibility of being wrong about something. If you have similar reactions while reading this blog, I hope you can try to keep an open mind.
To understand how the prevailing conventional wisdom became so conventional, or why we came to believe what we believe in regards to diet and health, we have to go back to the 1950s and the emergence of nutrition science. In the 60 years since, the science has evolved as advances in medicine and technology have come at a brisk pace. As a result, our understanding of human physiology and the pathology of our most pernicious diseases has increased considerably. But obtaining knowledge and widely disseminating that knowledge are two different things, all too often separated by the machinations of those with motives not entirely synonymous with the public interest.
The article below, by scientist and author Gary Taubes, is fitting here for a few reasons. It deals with the history of the so-called diet-heart hypothesis, a theory advanced in the 1960s which implicated dietary fat as the causal agent responsible for heart disease, the first of its kind. What makes it particularly compelling is that much of our current belief system regarding diet and health traces its roots to this very debate and the legislation it prompted. As Taubes illustrates, the path from scientific discovery to public policy is a long, winding, oftentimes unnecessarily circuitous one, in which countless individuals representing various entities and industries with varying, often conflicting interests, wield significant influence over what becomes US policy or law (oftentimes at the expense of the citizens). Most importantly, this goes to show how a set of misguided, ill-informed policy measures made 40 years ago have managed to endure and dominate public opinion and health guidelines to this day, despite the body of evidence in opposition. It puts new perspective on the state of our public health crisis as we deal with epidemics like obesity and heart disease, and calls into question our approach to solving these problems. Furthermore, it raises serious concerns about the degree to which various factions play a role in making or influencing policy. While it is long, I hope you’ll get thru it because its import extends far beyond heart disease and suspect science, and it serves as a good primer for the health debate at large as well as much of what will be discussed on this site.
Regardless of what we’re eating, all of our diets are comprised of three macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates and protein. As you may have guessed, they earned this moniker by being nutrients that are needed in large quantities to sustain life. They serve as the primary energy sources for the body but are also instrumental in countless other bodily functions and processes. While there are several diets out there (using ‘diet’ here in a general sense, referring to the foods one eats, not necessarily a regimen to lose weight), the main distinction between any two – other than the obvious one, the foods themselves – is the macronutrient breakdown, or the ratio between carbs, fats and proteins. This is, and will continue to be, a hotly debated issue amongst those in the health world, but here’s a primer on the two predominant approaches which should help frame the debate.
Standard American Diet
This is the official diet as recommended by the US government via the FDA. For the longest time it was presented in the form of a pyramid, but for reasons unknown we now have a plate. Either way, it’s a visual representation of an ideal diet (at least as they see it) composed of 5 main food groups: vegetables, grains, fruits, protein and dairy.
The recommended macronutrient breakdown looks something like this: carbs – 45-65%, fats – 25-35%, protein – 10-35%. MyPlate recommends substantial servings of grains, vegetables and fruits. It advises protein to come from sources like meat, poultry, eggs, fish, nuts and beans. Dairy is allowed in modest amounts, so long as it’s non- or low-fat. Oils are permitted as a source of healthy fats, so long as they’re of the vegetable and plant variety.
MyPlate is structured around carbohydrate intake and supplemented by moderate amounts of protein and “healthy-fats” (more on this later). It is rooted in the belief that carbohydrates – primarily in the form of grains, fruits and vegetables – are the preferred energy source for humans and should constitute the bulk of our diets. Grains – such as cereal grains, pasta, wheat, and rice – are recommended liberally for their “nutrient density and heart-healthy effects” (this,too). Fats, on the other hand, are allowed only in moderation and are limited to unsaturated varieties, particularly polyunsaturated (sigh, and this) . This is due to the belief (first advanced by Keys and referenced in the above article) that saturated fat plays a causal role in the development of heart disease.
This diet was popularized in the 1970s by Dr. Robert Atkins as a sure-fire way to lose weight. While still popular today, I’ll focus instead on a more recent (at least in terms of popularity) variation of high-fat/low-carb called the Primal diet (aka Caveman, Ancestral,
Paleo, et al., though I’ll generally use Primal or Ancestral). It shares many similarities with the Atkins diet, particularly the emphasis on healthy fats, but without the strict aversion to carbs. Instead, it focuses on the nature of food: where it comes from, how it’s made, what’s in it and, most importantly, how suited humans are to eating and metabolizing it. The staples of the diet are healthy fats, such as those found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, oils and nuts, and unrefined, unprocessed carbs in the form of fruits and vegetables.
The macronutrient recommendations for daily caloric intake are as follows: fats – 50-65%, carbs – 20-35%, protein – 15-20%. These are suggestions and can be modified, but the key thing is the inclusion of liberal amounts of fats and proteins and selectively choosing our carbs. For info on the theory underlying Primal diets, click the link for a good synopsis.
A Primal diet, and those like it, is based on taking cues from our ancient ancestors to help us best structure our diet and lifestyle. There are a number of reasons for this (check the above link), but suffice it to say that these people enjoyed robust health and little to no incidence of many of our most prevalent diseases. The diet is heavy in healthy fats, particularly saturated and monounsaturated, both for their nutrient and energy density and for the vital roles they play in a variety of bodily processes and functions. The carbohydrates recommended offer good sources of vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and ample stores of glucose for energy. Above all else, it emphasizes reliance on clean, whole, nutrient dense food without the harmful synthetic, artificial, and man-made substances which litter much of our food supply today.
At first glance you might think the main difference between eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) and a primal diet is the macronutrient makeup – high-carb/low-fat, low-carb/high-fat, etc. – and without question that’s an important distinction. As I alluded to earlier, this argument is a favorite pass-time of health-nuts and definitely has relevance, but for lay people who are just looking for a basic understanding I think it’s better to take a step back and focus instead on the broader fundamental issues at play. Namely, the quality of the food: what’s in it, how was it farmed/raised, its toxicity (whether endogenous or exogenous), and our body’s ability to metabolize and digest it. While this is a bit more of a nuanced approach than simply assigning a carb/fat/protein label to a given food, it’s impossible to overstate its significance.
I’m afraid the utility of eating is lost on many people, but its purpose is to give our bodies the energy and nutrients they need (without the toxins they don’t) to function each day. When we do a good job of this we’re typically healthy, but when we don’t we invite illness and disease. Our problem today is that our diets simply have too much of the bad stuff and not enough of the good. And combating this is made more difficult when you consider the official government recommendations – I’m looking at you, MyPlate! - are terribly misguided, advising us to base our diets on grains, avoid fats, and opt for vegetable oils over animal fats and other alternatives; not to mention the failure to address the importance of farming and processing practices on the nutritional value of what winds up on your plate.
All too often what’s winding up on our plates has a laundry list of ingredients that are brand new to human consumption (i.e. probably not good for us) and others that are present in quantities that far exceed what we’re used to. Added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and industrial seed oils are three exceedingly
nefarious examples that have managed to find their way into the vast majority of processed foods and are culpable for many of the ills which plague Americans today. Not coincidentally, the meteoric rise in chronic and degenerative disease has paralleled the ascent of processed food. The allure of an ancestral diet, on the other hand, would be that it focuses on foods (or nutrients in some cases because the specific foods have changed somewhat over time) that we’ve eaten for a long time, that are nutrient-dense, toxin-free, and that correlate with low to no incidence for disease!
The overall point is that the way we look and feel is closely linked with our diet; not so much the quantity as the quality. The way food and diet are portrayed today is naïve and overly simplified, reducing eating to the equivalent of a game of Trivial Pursuit; fill up your plate with pieces representing different foods and once complete, pat yourself on the back for ‘winning’ with a healthy days’ diet. All of this is completely irrespective of any other considerations. So for lack of a better system, it falls on us to educate ourselves about what we’re eating and how it contributes to our health. Some may find it interesting, others mundane, but either way it could save your life so it merits attention.
What to Eat
Before I go any further it is important to state, categorically, that there is no perfect diet, per se, for every human being on the planet. Each person is slightly different physiologically from the next, and those differences sometimes necessitate different dietary approaches. It’s important to note that various cultures around the world subsist on very diverse diets and enjoy good health and low incidence of illness and disease, nevertheless. Having said that, there is no doubt that there are certain foods that our bodies are more adapted to and that are more beneficial for us, just as there are certain foods that tend to do more harm than good. For that reason, I advocate the primal approach because it is evolutionarily based and looks to promote foods (in composition, if not always look and taste) that humans have eaten for the bulk of our existence, while eliminating the toxins present in much of our food supply today. Here are a couple lists that can give you an idea of the types of foods that make up an primal diet, and keep in mind this is to be used as a blueprint. It can be difficult to drop a standard American diet cold-turkey and adopt a Primal approach, and it will likely take you awhile to get acclimated. It’s perfectly fine to move at your own pace and do things incrementally; remember, life’s a marathon, not a sprint.