I can’t be the only person out there getting fed up with all the conflicting information about what we’re supposed to be eating. Every week, it seems as though a new superfood is promoted, or a previously innocuous food is suddenly demonized. Trans fats have finally been recognized for the artery-clogging poisons they are, whereas food scientists are beginning to question whether the saturated fat in red meat is as awful as we’ve been hearing it is for decades.
I’ve been following health news for quite some time now. Back in high-school, I started to get a little pudgy. It wasn’t much of a shock… obesity is fairly rampant in my family and I had seen my mother go through countless diets in an attempt to stave off the diabetes and bad knees and other health conditions similarly rampant in my family. When my pants started getting really tight and the scale numbers ominously began to climb, I tried to nip it in the bud by going on a bona fide diet for the first time.
In those days, fat was seen as the be-all, end-all evil. Nonfat foods were the rage. Susan Powder’s shaved head belted out the evils of fatty food from the television screen–she had gotten famous for losing tons of weight, transforming from a frumpy housewife to a svelte GI Jane by keeping her fat content extremely low. When I consulted a nutrition specialist for help with my spreading waistline, she echoed the sentiments of the day by prescribing a strict diet of 10 grams of fat a day along with 70 grams of protein.
Boy, was that tough. Even a slice of bread contains a couple of grams of fat. It was pretty much impossible to follow those parameters with real food… you had to dig into specially processed fat-free food products in order to meet your quota of protein. I ate a LOT of nonfat cottage cheese with canned fruit dumped into it, as well as a LOT of fat-free cheese, which tastes and melts remarkably like day-glo orange plastic. Cottage cheese is alright, but months of eating it twice a day put me off the stuff for about a decade.
The diet worked, though by the end of it I was starting to hysterically fantasize about eating anything with actual flavor. It was hard to imagine a lifetime of eating the same horrible crap. By my early twenties, I was starting to get a bit tubby again, but this time, the diet pendulum had swung in a completely opposite direction. Suddenly, carbs were enemy #1, and the industry’s replacement of protein and fat with empty calorie sugars became the whole basis for America’s obesity crisis. Like one in three Americans at the time, I went on the Atkins diet, ravenously tearing at the bit to try long-lost friends like beef, eggs with the yellow parts included, salty butter, and real cheese.
The Atkins diet kinda worked too, though you’d be surprised how unappetizing a steak begins to sound and how wonderful a piece of bread suddenly seems when you’ve stripped your diet of carbohydrates. What’s worse is that you completely lose the ability to eat socially. Hardly any restaurants cater to a non-carb lifestyle, and you can’t enjoy a piece of someone’s birthday cake when a single bite will throw your body out of ketosis. Still, plenty of people I knew had lost a hundred pounds or more by giving up the white stuff.
America’s love affairs with no carbs eventually died down. Constant reports about the dangers of saturated fat, the sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t a good idea to give up fruit, and Mr. Atkins himself dying of heart disease while clinically overweight didn’t help. My next adventure was the South Beach diet, which is fairly balanced and reasonable. South Beach kept my weight from getting out of control, but I had to wonder if it didn’t work more because it forced you to avoid fast food and processed crap than from any special magic in its theories.
I have read more diet books than I can count and kept up with health reports in the news for decades now. What can be intensely frustrating is that much of the logic behind the various diets makes perfect sense, yet they all seem to contradict each other. Not even the food scientists at top universities can agree on what we should be eating. Remember when eggs were going to give you horrible cholesterol problems? Now they are considered healthy and we are told there is no link between eggs and cholesterol. Remember when the food pyramid included about 6-11 serving of carbohydrates? It has been flipped on its head. You know how fish is a fantastic source of omega-3 oils, which we are sorely missing in the American diet? Well, they are also packed with mercury and toxins, so we are supposed to avoid them. Except now they are saying the benefits of fish outweight the risks.
Take the Paleo-Caveman diet, for instance. They make a good point. Humans were hunters and gatherers for thousands of years, much longer than we have had agriculture. Farming allowed populations to thrive, but didn’t necessarily make us healthier in the long run. If we didn’t eat bread and grains for most of human history, then it is flatly illogical to assume we need to have them to survive. If you follow the Paleo method, you can have meat and produce, but you lose dairy, grains, beans, and sugars.
Since humans mostly ate this way for ages, it makes sense. But on the other hand, life expectancy wasn’t nearly as high as is is now, and even if you attribute that to antibiotics and other medical innovations, it still suggests that our ancestors might have eventually succumbed to heart disease had they not been gored to death by a mastodon or brought down by infectious diseases. Our ancestors might have been a lot more active than us too, needing to gather berries for hours and hunt wild game rather than sitting at our computers and Playstations being the wonderfully sedentary being we have now become. So maybe they could handle a few more calories.
At further odds with this theory, though, is the fact that the Mediterranean diet seems to keep people so dang healthy. The Mediterranean diet is packed with vegetables and beans, and includes dairy and loads of heart-healthy fats. It seems to forestall heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and all kinds of other nasties we want to avoid. The problem with the Mediterranean diet is it covers a vast region of different populations, everywhere from the Middle East to Spain to France and Crete, so what are its exact parameters? I have read books on the Mediterranean diet and many of them suggest crap like fat-free yogurt and dairy, even though I know damn well that Europeans aren’t chowing down on processed fat-free crap the way Americans are. Apparently, scientists saw that the Mediterranean diet was working out but took it upon themselves to determine what was good about it and want to present us with an altered food plan that brings down the fat levels because they can’t let go of the idea that fat is terrible for you… even though we already made that mistake in the 80’s.
So then we hear that the Mediterranean diet is good for us because we should be eating whole, unprocessed foods like white bread, rice and flour. That sounds plenty reasonable, except I have spent a good deal of time over in Europe and know folks are in fact eating white bread and flour and are still slimmer and healthier than us. The French, for example, start each day with a buttery, fluffy croissant or white bread roll smeared with butter, washed down with lashings of hot coffee with full milk included. They are most certainly NOT eating fat-free cheese. In fact, I would be afraid of mentioning the stuff in their presence. Yet, they have a longer life expectancy than we do.
The Italians are also living well and they aren’t going out of their way to find wholegrain pasta. Asians have a great life expectancy and they eat plenty of white rice. Once I asked a Chinese friend of mine why he thought Asians are so healthy despite all the dietary advice to avoid white rice and I’ll never forget what he said: “The Chinese have been around over 10,000 years and Atkins has been around for 30.” Hard to argue with that, isn’t it?
Speaking of Asians, apparently lactose intolerance is pretty rampant among Asian populations, as well as among African-Americans. Europeans are genetically better able on average to handle dairy, which makes sense when you consider that dairy has been a staple in European diets for a very long time and this might effectively weed out folks who can’t stomach it. There are plenty of health studies out touting the great benefits of dairy, and of course also a large anti-dairy contingent that blames dairy for nearly every health issue. More contradiction. Is it then possible that various populations have evolved that respond well to different diets? It makes sense that if a population ate a certain way for thousands of years, the people might adjust to favor that diet… kind of like how the Europeans developed some resistance to smallpox but then inadvertently brought it over to the Americas and devastated the vulnerable Native-Americans with it.
So, maybe differnet genetics favor different diets. The Eat Right 4 Your Type system touches on this, and I know many people who swear by that diet. However, if you look at the parmeters of the diets for each blood type, they are so bizarrely restrictive that you can kiss eating out goodbye. Plus, researchers have debunked its theories left and right.
We can’t agree on dairy and also can’t agree on how much protein we need. Some researchers are promoting the satiating qualities of protein and claiming its replacement with empty carbs has led to obesity and shortness amongst Americans. Other researchers, however, are saying most Americans get far more than enough protein without even trying. You’ve got the vegan contingent claiming our protein needs are overstated and throwing out studies about drastically improved cholesterol and whatnot after giving up animal products.
It’s hard not to be impressed with some of the vegan results. Add to that, the horrors of the slaughterhouse industry make the idea of a vegan diet sound morally righteous. The problem, however, is that just because we like the idea of not hurting other living beings in order to live, it doesn’t mean that’s how we were designed. The fact that it’s very easy to suffer nutritional deficiencies on a vegan diet, that there isn’t naturally a solid, non-animal source for B-12, and that no vegan cultures have existed on earth that we know of for any length of time all contradict the idea that we are supposed to be vegan. Cavemen didn’t have Brewer’s yeast, Spirulina, and fortified tofu trees at their ready disposal.
Just because we weren’t designed to be vegan, of course, doesn’t mean it can’t be a healthy way to eat. We have managed to send people to the moon. We may have figured out our nutritional needs so well that we can be vegan and perfectly healthy though the wonders of modern science. I know that I have personally felt like crap anytime I have experimented with veganism, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work for people. On the other hand, now we have targeted gluten as the next big dietary enemy. The Wheat Belly diet is making waves.
I have no problem with adjusting my diet for a good cause. Like many other people, I want to be healthy and don’t want to end up miserable and broken down before my time. But I don’t like to suffer for no reason whatsoever and am starting to fear that whatever new insights the food scientists are coming up today with will be reversed tomorrow. Even exercise is coming under scrutiny. Some studies are reporting that it is good for you but doesn’t help much with weight maintenance, and others are even saying long bouts of cardio, the darling of fitness experts for ages, may be terrible for you in the long run.
On top of all this, one has to wonder about the role of placebo and nocebo effects. The mind is a terribly powerful thing. If we are suddenly convinced that wheat is killing us, can we think ourselves sick after eating it? We have heard about how important one’s optimism is when battling dread diseases… what is it doing to us to start to fear meat, fish, dairy, salt, wheat, fruit, beans, sugars, genetically modified soy, barbecued food, jogging, not jogging,now getting enough protein and getting too much protein? Are we able to take a bite of food anymore without being afraid it is slowly poisoning us, or alternatively that we have cut so many foods out of our diet that we are becoming grossly deficient in something? Even vitamin supplements, once thought a good form of nutritional insurance, are coming under scrutiny.
I think I’ve about had it.