For years, the bestseller lists have been dominated by books urging people to eat plenty of meat and fat but to shun carbohydrates. The Atkins Diet led the parade; but there have been many imitators, such as the Zone, the South Beach Diet, the Paleo Diet, and the Dukan Diet. Even some of the vegan-oriented books encourage people to avoid starches. Yet the scientific evidence shows us that human beings are specifically adapted to thrive on a starchy diet. So I was delighted to see that the title of Dr. John McDougall’s latest book is The Starch Solution. He explains something that nutritional epidemiologists and experts on clinical nutrition have known for many years, namely that human beings stay naturally slim and healthy on a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables.
I chose the gorilla motif for this blog because gorillas are the biggest and most powerful primates, along with being about as close as possible to vegan as you can get while eating many pounds per day of vegetation in a rain forest. I wanted to point out that people simply don’t have to worry about getting enough protein or calcium from a plant-based diet. In reality, the animal-based foods that we have been urged to eat don’t provide any nutrients that we can’t easily get from plants or bacteria. If you are still worried about protein, think about where elephants get their protein. Elephants are even bigger and even stronger than gorillas. A big elephant can eat up to 600 pounds of food a day.
Photo by mcoughlin
The United States Department of Agriculture has ditched its creepy Food Pyramid, which for many people conjured up grisly images of Aztec human sacrifice.
Unfortunately, the USDA’s new “plate and cup” graphic still provides deadly nutritional advice. It still urges people to eat far more fat, cholesterol, calcium, and animal protein than is good for them. Thus, it will contribute to our major causes of death and disability in the United States, without doing much to solve any of our real public health problems.
The new “plate and cup” graphic is simply a way to communicate the lessons from the most recent edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Federal law requires these guidelines to be reviewed, and updated if necessary, every five years. The guidelines are created by a joint committee of the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services, with input from other federal agencies and the public. The 2010 edition was issued in January 2011.
Unfortunately, the guidelines are designed to address two nonexistent problems, while failing to help people avoid or recover from our biggest causes of death and disability. The guidelines are designed to ensure that Americans consume “enough” protein and calcium, even though it’s practically impossible to find any real human beings who have a true deficiency of either one. Meanwhile, the guidelines actually encourage people to eat foods that increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, low back pain, osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
Nutrition scientists have known for more than 100 years that human protein needs are easily met by any practical plant-based diet, as long as people are eating enough food to get enough calories. For more than 50 years, they’ve known that all of our common staple plant foods provide enough of all of the essential amino acids. People would get plenty of protein even if they ate nothing but potatoes; thus, there’s no justification for urging people to eat animal-based “protein foods.”
The “protein foods” that come from animals pose serious health risks. They are devoid of fiber and digestible carbohydrates. Instead, their calories come in the form of fat and protein. Any overload of protein stresses the liver and kidneys. Worse yet, animal proteins also tend to promote cancer, osteoporosis, and autoimmune disease. The heavy dose of calcium from dairy foods actually seems to increase, rather than decrease, the risk of osteoporosis.
The current guidelines also encourage people to eat far more fat than is good for them. The current guidelines do encourage people to eat less saturated fat, but to replace it with polyunsaturated fats. The result would be only a slightly lower risk of heart disease, offset by a higher risk of cancer. Most people should keep their fat intake to 10% or less of calories.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans do encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables and to replace refined grain products with whole-grain products. However, they fall far short of telling people how they can achieve optimal health. That’s a scandalous failure, considering how many Americans lack health insurance and thus have limited access to professional guidance, including advice from a registered dietitian.
Like our government’s failure to provide an efficient, publicly-financed universal healthcare system, the shortcomings of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans represent our government’s failure to “promote the general welfare.” Instead, our food and healthcare policies promote the welfare of the powerful corporations that finance our elections and whose lobbyists stalk the halls of Congress.
These problems have persisted for decades. They are not going to solve themselves. These problems will be solved only if health activists work to elect Representatives and Senators and a President who care far more about human beings than about corporations and if health activists provide such pressure during the “public comment” phase for the next edition of the guidelines that USDA will have no choice but to serve the American people instead of the food industry.
The Hidden Danger of the “Fat Acceptance” Movement
You know the old saying, “If something is too good to be true….” Well, the “fat acceptance” movement is telling people something that sounds too good to be true. They are insisting that people can be “healthy at any size” and sometimes even that being overweight is healthier than being slim. They’re wrong, and the smarter and more educated people among the “fat acceptance” movement should know better. They “cherry pick” misleading findings from a few studies and ignore a vast scientific literature on the effects of diet on health. Such behavior is sickening, and the advice they give is dangerous.
Here’s the simple truth: excess body fat is only one of the possible bad effects of eating the wrong kind of food. Eating too much fat and too much animal protein can send you to an early grave even if you are thin and exercise a lot. The classic example is Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, a 1977 bestseller that launched the running boom. Fixx had claimed that his grueling exercise regimen, which had enabled him to lose 60 pounds, allowed him to eat as much as he wanted of whatever he wanted. When I read that in his book, I thought, “But what about cholesterol?” So I was saddened, but not surprised, when Fixx dropped dead at age 52 of a heart attack while running. To my disgust, the media reacted to his death by asking whether running was good or bad for you, ignoring the obvious dietary angle to the story.
The simple truth is that eating the wrong kind of food can kill you, even if it doesn’t make you fat. Another simple truth is that you can’t outrun cholesterol. As a member of the high-IQ club Mensa, Fixx should have been smart enough to figure that out before it was too late. Unfortunately, he believed what he wanted to believe, and ate whatever he wanted to eat, and in the end it killed him.
As I mentioned, obesity is only one of the bad effects that is likely to result from eating the standard American diet–not just the heavily processed “junk food” that everyone knows is bad for you, but the meat and dairy products and eggs and fish that the US Department of Agriculture has been encouraging us to eat.
Collectively, the bad effects of eating the standard American diet are called “Western diseases.” This is because medical doctors who had been trained in Europe and the United States were stunned to find that these health problems, which were common back home, were rare to nonexistent in Asia and Africa. Besides overweight and obesity, they include heart disease, diabetes, various cancers, arthritis, varicose veins, multiple sclerosis, etc. etc. etc. Western diseases were (and still are) the major causes of death and disability in the United States and Europe because people there eat too much animal protein and too much fat. These diseases were rare in Asia and Africa because the populations were eating a low-fat, largely plant-based diet. A monumental study of nutritional epidemiology in China (http://www.thechinastudy.com/) showed in detail how closely the consumption of animal protein and fat were linked to many of these diseases. The less animal-based food and fat people ate, the healthier they could be.
The good news is that if you eat the diet that will protect you against the other “Western diseases,” your weight problem will solve itself. People who eat a low-fat (<10% of calories) diet based on unrefined plant foods rapidly become heart-attack-proof (total cholesterol, <150 mg/dL) and can prevent and even reverse many of the other Western diseases. It’s hard to stay fat when you are eating a truly healthy diet. When overweight Americans switch to a low-fat, purely plant-based diet, they lose weight easily without having to count calories or limit their portions. They can eat to their hearts’ content and still stay slim. The “fat acceptance” advocates overlook that obvious fact.
The “fat acceptance” advocates are right that thin does not equal healthy. But they are wrong when they say that you can be healthy at any size. Rather than wasting their time trying to make people feel better about being fat, they should work toward educating people about a truly healthy diet, which will enable people to improve their own health and maintain a desirable weight without feeling hungry. The activists should also use their political clout to improve the nutrition curriculum at medical schools, which has been shown repeatedly over the past 40 years to be inadequate.
On one point, I do agree with the fat acceptance advocates. I think that people should be treated with respect regardless of their size and state of health. However, I feel that overweight people deserve to be told the truth about how their weight affects their health and about how their food choices affect both their health and their weight.
An acquaintance of mine has scleroderma, and she asked me whether scleroderma has anything to do with diet. The answer to that question seems to depend on whom you ask.
People who haven’t bothered to study the scientific literature on nutrition insist that food has nothing to do with scleroderma. Such idiots deserve to be swatted on the snout with a rolled-up medical journal, because they are spreading dangerous nonsense. On the other hand, the scientists who have dedicated their scientific careers to studying the relationship between food and diet say that the autoimmune diseases, including scleroderma, are strongly related to diet.
The rules for avoiding autoimmune disease are simple: don’t eat your relatives, don’t eat too much fat, and make sure you get plenty of vitamin D. If you get an autoimmune disease anyway, get tested for celiac disease and ask a registered dietitian to help you plan an exclusion diet to see if something you are eating is triggering your problem.
Like other autoimmune diseases, scleroderma is common in the same populations that eat a lot of animal-based foods, which means a lot of animal protein and a lot of fat. On the other hand, autoimmune diseases are rare in populations that eat a low-fat, plant-based diet. Autoimmune diseases are also less common in sunny climates, which suggests that vitamin D (the “sunshine vitamin”) plays a role in preventing them. A diet-related illness called celiac disease seems to increase the risk of other autoimmune diseases, probably because it causes “leaky gut.”
Why do I say “don’t eat your relatives”? Why does eating animal protein pose such a risk of autoimmune disease? It all has to do with a simple fact about DNA. The more closely related two species are, the more alike their DNA is, and the more alike their proteins are. The more alike two proteins are, the more easily they can be mistaken for each other by the immune system.
Let’s imagine that you eat some meat and some potatoes. Ordinarily, the proteins from the meat and the proteins from the potatoes would get broken apart into individual amino acids in your digestive system, and from there the individual amino acids get absorbed into your bloodstream. But let’s imagine that you have a problem with your intestine. It leaks a little, so some fragments of protein from the meat and from the potatoes make their way into your bloodstream before they are completely broken down. The immune system may mistake these proteins for a foreign invader and make antibodies against them. Unfortunately, the proteins from the meat look a lot like your body’s own proteins, so the antibodies against them end up attacking some of your own tissue. The proteins from the potato have no “family resemblance” to anything in your body, so any antibodies that you produce against them will probably not attack your own body. So don’t eat your relatives! Eat plants, instead. However, you may have to be a little picky about which plants you eat.
In people with celiac disease, a protein from wheat (or from rye or barley, both of which are closely related to wheat) triggers the immune system to attack the intestine. Celiac disease can cause a wide range of problems, ranging from malabsorption to “leaky gut.” So you’d expect people with celiac disease to be at particularly high risk for an autoimmune disease like scleroderma. As a matter of fact, they are!
Fat in the diet can also be a problem in autoimmune disease. Roy Swank was warning people about this problem this starting in the late 1940s, but he was largely ignored, even though he published his results the world’s most prestigious medical journals. The role of a high-fat diet in causing multiple sclerosis has recently been “discovered” again. Unfortunately, no one can make a fortune from this discovery, so I’m afraid that it will fall back through the “memory hole” yet again.
If you want to put out a fire, the first thing to do is to stop pouring gasoline on it. Likewise, when you get a diagnosis of a disease that is known to be related to diet, stop eating the foods that are known to provoke that disease! In general, a low-fat, plant-based diet has been associated with a low risk of autoimmune disease. However, a few people may have trouble with wheat or some other plant-based food. Consequently, they should consult a registered dietitian for advice about an exclusion diet. People with autoimmune disease should also ask their doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner to monitor their vitamin D levels and test them for celiac disease.