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 Showed the Value of a Vegan Diet!

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 diff_sky