Don’t Snatch the Food out of Your Child’s Mouth!

I just read a really disturbing article on Peggy Orenstein’s Web site. In Fear of Fatness, Orenstein talks about the bias that even young children have against fat people, and the troubles that fat girls and their parents face. I was particularly horrified by the plight of one mother, who was so frustrated by her 5-year-old daughter’s fatness that she admits that she “fights the urge just to snatch the food out of the child’s mouth.” This is an unnatural problem.

No mother in nature tries to protect her offspring by snatching food out of its mouth. This unnatural problem results from the unnatural diet that is standard in the United States. Mothers are supposed to feed and nurture their children. Why are American mothers struggling to limit their children’s portions?

If the child were being fed the kinds of food that naturally slim populations eat, then the weight problem and the struggle for portion control would simply vanish. The child would also avoid early puberty and have a low risk of breast cancer in adulthood.

Orenstein mentions that the parents turned to the child’s pediatrician for dietary advice. Unfortunately, medical doctors typically know little about nutrition. Back in 1963, the American Medical Association reported that doctors weren’t learning enough about nutrition and dietetics in medical school. A few years later, their follow-up report showed that nothing had changed. Periodically, some other expert panel studies the problem and comes up with exactly the same conclusions: our doctors are not being adequately trained in nutrition and dietetics. Thus, it’s not surprising that the child’s pediatrician has given the family horrible advice that is corroding the mother-child relationship.

The pediatrician has been working with the family to control the child’s portions. No animal in nature controls its weight by eating less than it wants to eat. Nor does any animal force itself to go to step aerobics class. Wild animals rely on their appetite to regulate their weight. Appetite works well for regulating weight as long as the creature is eating the kind of food that is appropriate for its species. We have an epidemic of obesity in people in the United States because the standard American diet is far too dense in calories. It has too much fat and not enough fiber. It overfeeds us before it satisfies our appetite. When people try to “correct” this problem by limiting their portions, they end up even more unsatisfied. They end up struggling against a primal urge, and the primal urge usually wins in the end. When parents end up needlessly struggling against their children’s primal urges, their relationship with the child will suffer.

How can we tell what kind of diet is appropriate for human beings? We can rely on several kinds of evidence. First, we can use the same approach that scientists use to figure out what kind of diet a dinosaur ate. They figure that out by comparing their teeth to those of modern-day animals. If you look at human teeth, you’ll see that they look almost exactly like the teeth of chimpanzees. Chimps are classified as fruit-eaters, but they also eat a lot of leaves. So our teeth suggest that we should be eating a diet with a heavy emphasis on fruit and vegetables. Although chimpanzees do sometimes hunt and eat meat, they actually eat less meat than practically any human population.

Chimpanzees and human beings are almost completely alike genetically. Some of the key differences involve genes that control brain size and body hair. One interesting difference is in the gene for the enzyme that digests starch. Chimps have one copy, whereas humans have several copies. In other words, our genes tell us that human beings are specially adapted to a starchy diet. It’s one of the reasons why human beings are among the world’s elite long-distance runners.

Several different kinds of scientific studies have shown that human beings thrive on a diet of unrefined starches and vegetables and fruit. People who switch to that kind of diet can solve their weight problems automatically. They can also prevent or cure many of the chronic degenerative diseases that are common in the United States but rare elsewhere.

As I explain in detail here, a high-fiber, low-fat diet works on both sides of the weight equation. People end up eating fewer calories and burning more calories. In other words, a starchy diet is slimming, while a fatty diet is fattening. A low-fat, plant-based diet also helps to delay puberty.

Of course, if a family were to feed a child the low-fat, plant-based diet that would solve her weight problem, they would be bombarded with criticism from people who ask, “But where will she get her protein? Where will she get her calcium?” In response, the parents could ask, “Well, where do you think a gorilla gets its protein and its calcium?”

Gorillas don’t hunt. They don’t fish. They don’t milk cows or gather eggs. They get 99.9% of their food from vegetables, fruit, and a few nuts. Yet those foods provide enough protein and calcium to enable a silverback male gorilla to grow to be 500 pounds and become 10 times as strong as a man.

It makes sense for parents to rely on a pediatrician for medical care for their children. But for nutritional advice, parents should turn to someone who has been trained in nutrition and dietetics. A lot of people claim to be “nutritionists,” but not all of them have real training in the science and practice of nutrition and dietetics. When I had a health problem that was potentially food related, I got advice from a registered dietitian. An RD has at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, has completed a hands-on training program in dietetics, and has passed a national examination. To keep their registration, they have to pursue continuing professional education.

The American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada have issued a position paper that argues that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of the life cycle and provides certain advantages. If your child has a weight problem, or any problem that might be diet-related, it makes sense to talk to a registered dietitian about a plant-based diet.

The appetite for food is not the only primal urge that is creating conflicts between American children and their parents. Peggy Orenstein has pointed out in articles and books that girls are being urged to be inappropriately “sexy” at earlier and earlier ages. This trend is bad enough. What’s worse is that girls’ bodies are becoming sexually mature at inappropriately early ages. Thus, girls are being plagued by powerful primal urges long before they are emotionally mature. If you think that the dinner table wars are ugly, just wait for premature puberty. The good news is that the same kind of diet that ends the struggle over food portion size can also postpone the child’s puberty to its natural age.

The Magic Realism of a Healthy Diet

Magic Realism is a literary style that explores the seemingly magical effects of commonplace things. Consider, for example, the following scene from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Marquez. Melquíades is an old gypsy who normally comes to the village once a year with a group of gypsy peddlers who sell wondrous and magical goods and services, such as magnets and magic carpet rides Melquíades looks older than his true age because he has lost his teeth to scurvy. Yet one year, Melquíades shows up with his teeth magically restored. To everyone’s amazement, he can actually take the teeth out of his mouth, along with his gums, making himself look old again. He can put the teeth back in, making himself look young again.

The reader knows that there’s nothing magical about a set of false teeth. However, the villagers have never seen anything like it before. Dentures are outside the scope of their personal experience. Therefore, the transformation produced by a set of dentures seems like magic to them. Similarly, a truly healthy diet is simply outside the scope of personal experience for the average American. As a result, we think that it’s normal for people to get fat and sick in middle age. We think that it’s normal for middle-aged and elderly people to have to take a fistful of prescription medications every day. Thus, the effects of a truly healthy diet might seem magical to us.

A truly healthy diet would represent a radical change from the way that Americans have been taught to eat. When I was in home economics in sixth and seventh grade, I was taught that people are supposed to eat two servings of meat and three servings of dairy products every day. Otherwise, we’d supposedly run a risk of protein and calcium deficiency. Even today, I still see warnings against “fad” diets, which are usually described as diets that “eliminate entire food groups.” Unfortunately, the “experts” who peddle this advice are not experts in nutrition. In contrast, the American Dietetic Association has come out with a position paper that provides support for a purely plant-based diet.

A truly healthy diet for a human being would get less than 10% of its calories from fat and would be based exclusively on high-fiber plant material. It can include plenty of unrefined starches, such as potatoes, rice, or corn. In other words, people really ought to eliminate two of the “basic food groups.” Some people also need to avoid particular plant foods. For example, people with celiac disease can’t eat wheat, rye, or barley.

To see the seemingly magical effects that this radical change in food choices can have on ordinary Americans, look at the “Star McDougallers’” page on Dr. John McDougall’s Web site. Many people show how they’ve managed to reverse supposedly incurable disease simply eliminating two of the basic food groups and cutting way back on fat. It’s not magic. It’s magic realism.

A Famous Vegan: Sports Illustrated’s 1973 Athlete of the Year

Vegans aren’t creatures from the planet Vegas. They’re individuals who won’t eat any animal products at all. Here’s a famous vegan athlete, who was named Sports Illustrated Male Athlete of the Year in 1973. I vividly remember watching this race.

Now, there are some naysayers who will quibble that he was wearing leather, which a true vegan would refuse to do. I would argue that he probably would have preferred to run around naked.

Photo by santanartist

The World’s Oldest Clinical Trial!

Results From Ancient Babylon Say, “Eat Plants!”

Clinical trials are a crucial part of the modern scientific method. Yet the earliest recorded clinical trial, which incidentally dealt with food, was conducted around 2600 years ago, in ancient Babylon. There were no scientific journals back then, but we know about the study because it was reported in a book that is revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I’m talking about the Book of Daniel, which is part of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament.

The Book of Daniel is about the Babylonian Captivity, when Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered Judah and Jerusalem and sent the Jews into exile, in roughly the year 600 BC. During this period, it would have been customary to take some of the sons of prominent people from the conquered lands and hold them hostage in court. This explains how Daniel and several other Hebrews ended up in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. They weren’t there voluntarily. Later on, Psalm 137 described this period as follows:

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

One of the biggest problems that Daniel and his fellow captives faced in the court of Nebuchadnezzar was the fact that they would have been expected to eat the food that was being served in court. For devout Jews, of course, this was nothing short of blasphemy. To eat the food at court meant that they would be eating meat from animals that had been sacrificed to pagan gods and drinking wine that had likewise been offered to foreign gods. In other words, by eating the food at court, they would be violating their own religion and taking part in the religion of their captors. To refuse to eat the food at court would thus be a risky act of civil disobedience.

Daniel’s challenge was to figure out some way in which he could get permission for himself and the other Hebrews to avoid offending either God or Nebuchadnezzar. He decided that he and his friends should eat only “food that comes from seeds” (i.e., vegetables and fruit and grains and pulses, such as peas) and drink only water. Thus, they would avoid the meat and wine that were ritually unclean because they had been used in rituals for pagan gods. The overseer in charge of Daniel and his friends was reluctant to let them follow this strict diet. He was afraid it would ruin their health, thus landing him in big trouble. So Daniel suggested a simple experiment. He and his friends would eat plant foods and water for 10 days, and afterward their health would be compared with that of the people consuming meat and wine.

According to the Book of Daniel, after 10 days Daniel and his friends looked healthier than the youths who had been eating the king’s food. It also says that they were “fatter,” but it’s more likely that they would have been thinner than the people who were pigging out on “the king’s dainties.” It’s easy to gain too much weight on a meaty diet, but it’s hard to get fat on a starchy, high-fiber diet. However, that small inaccuracy probably resulted from the fact that the study report was published roughly four centuries after the study itself was completed. As a recent article on this study noted, “Daniel perished, then published.” [1] With tongue firmly in cheek, the article also noted that the methodological weaknesses of the study include “probable selection bias, ascertainment bias, and confounding by divine intervention.”

About 2600 years after Daniel’s experiment, a group of researchers in the United States did roughly the same experiment, this time comparing Daniel’s diet with the standard dietary recommendations of the American Diabetes Association, which allows people to eat controlled portions of “the king’s dainties.” [2] This study differed in several ways from the study reported in the Book of Daniel. The modern study involved people with type 2 diabetes, which is a disease that is known to be linked to obesity and a fatty diet. The subjects were randomly assigned to either the Daniel-type diet or the ADA diet. Also, the trial lasted longer than 10 days, to show improvements in the subjects’ glycosylated hemoglobin levels (HbA1c) and to provide a clear picture of how much weight they lost and how many prescription drugs they could stop taking.

I was not at all surprised to see that a diet like Daniel’s was far more effective than the ADA’s standard recommendations at improving the health of people with type 2 diabetes. What surprised me was that the participants were more successful at sticking to the Daniel-style diet. This success probably stemmed from the fact that although people’s food choices were limited, their portions were not. The ADA dietary recommendations are about portion control, which most people can’t achieve. The Daniel diet lets people eat to their heart’s content, while still losing weight.

Reference List
1. Grimes DA. Clinical research in ancient Babylon: methodologic insights from the book of Daniel. Obstet Gynecol. 1995;86(6):1031-1034.
2. Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ et al. A low-fat vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in a randomized clinical trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2006;29(8):1777-1783.

Photo by Sakena