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.
Back in November 2011, I explained that children who “refuse” to have bowel movements in the potty or are “holding” their stool for days on end aren’t misbehaving, they’re constipated. Recently, I saw some published studies (click here and here) that showed that constipation can also cause pants-wetting and bed-wetting accidents. Those studies showed that the problem could often be solved by giving the child laxatives. A better solution would be to feed the child a diet that would prevent constipation to begin with: a plant-based diet with no dairy products.
Lately, many nutrition gurus have been promoting what they call a “paleo” diet. The word “paleo” comes from Paleolithic, which literally means “early stone age.” They think that human beings ought to be eating a diet like the diet that people ate during the early stone age. Personally, I think that the arguments in favor of the paleo diet are silly, for several reasons. I think that the appeal of the paleo diet is based on adolescent male fantasies of being an unwashed, unshaven big game hunter who gets to spend time with a hot-looking maiden in a fur or leather bikini. Real men don’t eat quiche. They eat brontoburgers:
If you’ve ever watched Sesame Street, you may remember the song about categories: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” That song ran through my head when I looked at the USDA’s My Plate food group system, which features vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein. One of the foods groups isn’t like the others and just doesn’t belong. Can you guess which one?
A friend of mine recently had a brush with death. She was unknowingly carrying a time bomb in her large intestine, and when it went off, it nearly took her with it. She had a diverticular abscess, which burst and thus allowed the bacteria to get into her abdominal cavity. That caused a problem called peritonitis.
All things considered, she got off easy. She had to have emergency surgery to remove the damaged portion of her large intestine and clean up the mess in her abdomen. She may have a fierce-looking scar, but she’s alive, and she can still go to the bathroom normally, instead of into a colostomy bag on her side.
The problem started when part of the wall of her large intestine “ballooned out” to form a little pouch called a diverticulum. When you have these diverticula, the condition is called diverticulosis. Here’s what diverticulosis looks like, from inside the large intestine:
About half of Americans over 50 years of age have diverticulosis and don’t even know it. Diverticulosis may cause mild, intermittent symptoms of pain and bloating in the lower left side of the belly. It may cause bouts of diarrhea and constipation. It is a common cause of rectal bleeding in people over 40 years of age. Or it may cause no symptoms at all. If one of the diverticula gets infected, the condition is called diverticulitis. It’s just like appendicitis, except that the symptoms are worse on the lower left, rather than the lower right, side of the belly. If the inflamed diverticulum bursts, you can end up with life-threatening peritonitis.
Diverticular disease is common in the United States. However, it’s rare in places like Africa and Asia, where people eat a high-fiber, plant-based diet. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the best treatment for most cases of diverticulosis is a high-fiber diet. Both soluble and insoluble fiber are helpful, because they retain water and make the stool softer and easier to pass. If the muscles of the large intestine don’t have to strain so hard, they won’t generate the high pressure that can cause a diverticulum to form.
Some doctors say that people with diverticulosis should avoid eating small seeds, such as those in tomatoes or raspberries. However, the NIDDK says that there is no scientific information to support that recommendation.
Dairy products increase the risk for diverticulosis by causing constipation. When dairy protein is digested, it can produce morphine-like compounds that slow down the muscles that are supposed to push food through the intestines.
To prevent diverticulosis, prevent constipation. Eat lots and lots of unrefined starches and vegetables. Avoid dairy products. A diet like that is also good for maintaining a healthy weight, controlling your cholesterol and blood sugar, and preventing osteoporosis.
Yes, you can reverse type 2 diabetes if you starve yourself. In fact, a medically supervised water-only fast can be a useful way to manage many different kinds of diet-related diseases. Fortunately, you do not have to starve yourself to reverse your type 2 diabetes. Instead, you could simply eat a low-fat, plant-based diet—like the populations that don’t get type 2 diabetes to begin with.
In June of 2011, some researchers from Britain published the results of a trial in which people with type 2 diabetes who went on a starvation diet (600 calories per day) ended up with normal fasting blood sugar levels. To me, that is not news. By 1841, a French pharmacist named Apollinaire Bauchardat was recommending that patients with what we now call type 2 diabetes should eat as little as possible and that they should fast occasionally to bring down their blood sugar. Since then, however, diabetes researchers have learned that it’s possible to reverse type 2 diabetes without such severe calorie restriction. In fact, I think that it’s better to teach people the diet that will enable them to cure their type 2 diabetes within a couple of weeks without limiting their food intake than to set them on a course of yo-yo dieting and possible eating disorders.
Bouchardat was one of the first clinicians to put patients in charge of monitoring their own diabetes. At first, his patients did this by keeping track of what they ate and tasting their urine to see how sweet it became. Later, Bauchardat worked out a chemical test to detect sugar in urine. From monitoring the sugar content of the urine, Bauchardat showed that when people with diabetes ate sugars or starches, large amounts of sugar passed into their urine. The sugar in the urine reflected high blood glucose levels. However, the problem in type 2 diabetes is not that the person is eating carbohydrates, it’s that the body has become resistant to the hormone insulin.
Starting in the 1930s, scientists started to realize that fatty diets made the body less sensitive to insulin, and that this insulin insensitivity was the underlying cause of the high blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. People who went on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet rapidly became more responsive to insulin.
Starting in the 1940s, Dr. Walter Kempner at Duke University reported astonishing success in reversing type 2 diabetes and diabetic complications with a diet based entirely on rice and fruit. Patients who found that they were losing too much weight on that low-fat diet were encouraged to add pure white sugar to get more calories. In Kempner’s report of 100 patients with diabetes who were fed his high-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-protein diet, most of the patients decreased their insulin doses and many discontinued taking insulin. (It’s likely that some of the patients had type 1 diabetes and therefore would need to keep taking insulin for the rest of their lives.)
The American Diabetes Association currently recommends that people with type 2 diabetes eat limited portions of foods from all of the four food groups. In 2006, however, a clinical trial showed that the people who were randomly assigned to eat as much as they liked of low-fat, unrefined plant foods (75% carbohydrate by calorie) found it easier to stick to their diet, lost more weight, and made faster progress in reversing their diabetes than did the people who were randomly assigned to follow the ADA’s recommendations.
Note: In my book Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes: Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2, I explain the relationship between body weight and blood sugar. French doctors have always used the term fat diabetes (diabètes maigre) to refer to the relative mild form of diabetes that occurs in people who are at least a little bit overweight and that goes away if they lose weight. Fat diabetes is the body’s way to avoid storing too much of the fat from a fatty diet. If you have fat diabetes, it means that you are a naturally thin person. It means that your body is willing to sacrifice everything—your feet, your eyesight, your kidneys, and even your life—to keep you from gaining any more weight. The solution to this problem is to switch to a low-fat, high-carbohydrate, high-fiber diet. This diet reverses type 2 diabetes and is also good for people with thin diabetes (type 1 diabetes).
Have you ever seen an obese wild animal? Look at these wildebeests in Krüger National Park in South Africa. There’s no cellulite on their thighs! Wildebeest weigh only 40 pounds at birth, but then they gain weight rapidly. By the time they’re a year old, they weigh about 200 pounds. The females reach a peak weight of about 350 pounds at 4 years of age. The males peak at 500 pounds at 5 years of age. Yet after that, their weight stays remarkably stable. Why do they stop gaining weight? Since they don’t start counting calories or taking step aerobics classes in adulthood, they must have some built-in mechanisms that regulate their weight naturally. Do humans also have in-born weight-control mechanisms? If so, why have so many people been getting so fat lately?
To keep our body weight at a normal level, we are told to engage in unnatural behaviors. We’re told to eat less and move more. Yet wild animals never limit their food portions, and they do only the amount of activity they feel like doing. I think that their secret for staying slim is that they eat the kind of food that is appropriate for their species. If you trapped some wildebeest in a pen and fed them a diet that was much richer in calories than what they ate in the wild, they’d probably get fat. That’s what has happened to human beings in industrialized societies. To cure our weight problems, we need to escape from our cubicles and start eating a more natural diet. Go play outside, and eat low-fat unrefined plant foods instead of eating animals and processed foods.
When you look at populations all over the world, you’ll notice that the people who eat a diet based on unrefined plant foods stay naturally slim and remarkably free of heart disease and diabetes and other chronic diseases. For many generations, most of the world’s population ate like that. Only the rich could afford to eat large servings of rich foods, such as meats and butter and honey, on a regular basis. As a result, only rich people suffered from obesity, gout, and atherosclerosis. Because of agricultural policies, those foods have now become cheap while fresh fruit and vegetables are still relatively expensive. As a result, the “diseases of affluence” are now a particular problem for poor people in the United States.
Photo by h.koppdelaney
Note: In my book Thin Diabetes, Fat Diabetes: Prevent Type 1, Cure Type 2, you can learn more about how a low-fat, high-fiber, high-carbohydrate diet helps people lose weight and reverses their type 2 diabetes.
David Sirota wrote an article that suggests that the vegetarian products that mimic meat products undermine vegetarianism by glorifying the consumption of meat. I had to laugh because I honestly couldn’t imagine Tofurkey glorifying anything. Nor do I think that rice milk glorifies cow’s milk or that a tofu scramble glorifies eggs. Yet the use of these foods does raise two important nutrition-related questions: What kind of diet is truly healthy for a human being, and how can we help people find satisfaction and delight from a truly healthy diet?
Many vegetarians depend heavily on the soy fake meats and “cheezes” because they are worried about getting enough protein in their diet. In reality, you don’t need to eat fake meat or cheeze to get enough protein. It’s practically impossible to find real cases of protein deficiency in people who were getting enough calories from any reasonable plant-based diet. To find cases of pure protein deficiency, you have to look at people who have been fed nothing but glucose intravenously, or people who have a digestive or metabolic disease, or babies who were fed some bizarre substitute for breast milk.
Plants provide all of the nutrients that are essential for human nutrition, except for vitamin D and vitamin B12. Your body makes its own supply of vitamin D if you go out in the sunshine, and vitamin B12 comes from bacteria. So there’s no nutritional need to include animal-based food in the diet. On the contrary, the less animal-based food a population eats, the lower its rates of death from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases tend to be.
So what about the refined plant-based foods that resemble animal foods? Do they pose the same health threats as real animal-based foods? The answer is a bit complicated. The health threats that they could pose depend on how closely they resemble the animal-based foods they replace.
Animal-based foods contain fat and cholesterol but no fiber. No vegan products contain any cholesterol, but some of them do contain a lot of fat and little or no fiber. Thus, they could promote weight gain and high cholesterol levels. Potato chips are vegan; but because of all that fat and salt, they’re almost as bad for you as pork rinds.
Animal-based foods contain far more protein than you need. This excess protein puts a strain on the liver and kidneys. The “high-quality” protein in dairy products, in particular, also causes the liver to release a powerful growth hormone (IGF-1) that promotes the growth of cancers. Huge servings of soy protein also promote the secretion of IGF-1, but to a lesser extent than dairy products do.
The proteins in animal-based foods are similar to but not exactly like the proteins in the human body. If they find their way into the bloodstream before they are completely broken down, they may cause the immune system to produce antibodies that go on to attack the body’s own tissues. A switch to a plant-based diet can dramatically reduce this risk. However, some of the fake animal products are based on wheat gluten, which can cause autoimmune problems in a small percentage of the population. For this reason, people with celiac disease or other wheat sensitivity cannot eat seitan.
Real meats and cheeses are high in fat but devoid of starch. The fake stuff also tends to be high in fat and low in starch. All fats are fattening, and some of the fats from plant sources are particularly powerful promoters of cancer. The plant-based diets that are truly good for human health are high in fiber and starch and low in fat.
Animals have hormones that are very much like our own. When people eat animal foods, they get a dose of these hormones, even if the animals were raised organically. Plants have different hormones. Some plants contain phytoestrogens, which are substances that have some sort of effect on estrogen receptors. However, some of the phytoestrogens are estrogen blockers or weak estrogens that compete with the body’s natural estrogens, thus decreasing the effects that our native estrogen has on our tissues.
Animals absorb toxins from their environment and store them in their fatty tissue. That’s why it’s good to eat “low on the food chain.” The processed fake meats and cheezes are low on the food chain, but you may have to consider what kinds of additives are in them.
Many people advocate the use of the fake meats and cheezes sort of as training wheels to help people adjust to a plant-based diet. My concern with that approach is that these foods can be unsatisfying because they don’t necessarily taste like the real thing. Rather than serving a food that is a dim echo of something else, why not serve something that can stand on its own? Why eat an unsatisfying soy patty when you could eat a genuine bean burrito?
I use a little bit of tofu or soy milk now and then. The “fake meat” that I use extensively is mushrooms and nutritional yeast. I make a garlicky low-fat mushroom gravy and serve it over huge mounds of mashed potatoes. I add either mushrooms or nutritional yeast to hearty stews, and nobody cares that I didn’t use a hambone.Photo by Andrea_Nguyen
Diabetes is the number 1 cause of nontraumatic amputations in the United States. What’s truly outrageous is that most of these amputations are happening to people with the form of diabetes that can easily be cured, sometimes within as little as a week, by a simple change in diet. Just eat unrefined plant foods instead of animal-based foods and processed foods and cut your fat intake to 10% or less of calories.
One of the most common symptoms of early pregnancy in human beings is nausea and vomiting. Why do so many pregnant women have so much trouble keeping food down at the very time that their need for calories and other nutrients has just gone up? Why is this problem common in women but seemingly nonexistent in pregnant females of other species? Is there something wrong with the design of human pregnancy, or is there something wrong with the food the pregnant woman is eating? I’m inclined to suspect the food, especially because morning sickness is common in the United States but rare to nonexistent in societies whose staple foods all come from plants.
Vomiting is a powerful defense mechanism. It effectively removes toxins and infectious agents from the stomach and even the upper intestines. It’s nature’s way of expelling things that shouldn’t be allowed to enter the body. This defense mechanism may be particularly important during pregnancy. Studies have consistently shown that women who vomit during early pregnancy are less likely to have a miscarriage than are those who merely feel nauseated. Perhaps it’s because the vomiting prevented things that would be harmful during early pregnancy from entering the woman’s body. Thus, it’s probably no coincidence that the nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy tend to be most severe during the first trimester, which is the most sensitive phase of development.
In a classic article, Samuel Flaxman and Paul Sherman explained how morning sickness could end up protecting the mother and the pregnancy. They argued that morning sickness is most common when the major organ systems are developing, and the vomiting seems to be triggered by the foods and beverages that are most likely to be harmful to the mother and the pregnancy. Flaxman and Sherman pointed out that in 9 out of 9 studies, women who experienced morning sickness were much less likely to miscarry.
Flaxman and Sherman noted that many pregnant women have aversions to alcoholic and nonalcoholic (mainly caffeinated) beverages and strong-tasting vegetables, but the greatest aversions were to meats, fish, poultry, and eggs. The importance of animal-based foods in causing morning sickness also became obvious in a cross-cultural comparison. Seven societies that were free of morning sickness were significantly less likely to have animal foods as dietary staples and were significantly more likely to have only plants (mainly corn) as staple foods than were 20 societies in which women experience morning sickness.
Foodborne infectious or parasitic disease could be a serious threat to the health of a pregnant woman or her pregnancy. During pregnancy, a woman’s immune system is already somewhat suppressed, to keep it from attacking the pregnancy. As a result, pregnant women are more likely to catch serious, potentially deadly infections. Infectious and parasitic diseases are also a major threat to the developing embryo. For example, if a pregnant woman catches Toxoplasma, which is a parasite found in cat droppings or undercooked beef, the parasite infection could cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe birth defects.
A pregnant woman can protect her health and her pregnancy by simply avoiding the foods that are likely to make her vomit. A purely plant-based diet provides all of the nutrients that a pregnant woman needs, except for vitamin D (which she can get from sunshine) and vitamin B12 (which is made by bacteria and is available in a nice, clean tablet).
Photo by TipsTimesAdmin