No, It’s a Low-Fat, High-Fiber Diet That Keeps Gorillas Lean!

A recent arti­cle in the New York Times argued that goril­las stay slim because they eat a high-pro­tein diet. While I’m glad to see some­one else point out that a plant-based diet pro­vides ade­quate amounts of pro­tein, I’m annoyed to see sci­en­tists and jour­nal­ists mis­un­der­stand and mis­rep­re­sent the real sig­nif­i­cance of this fact. It’s as if they haven’t read the basic lit­er­a­ture on nutri­tion and can’t under­stand arith­metic.

Yes, the gorilla’s nat­ur­al diet is high in pro­tein, as a per­cent­age of calo­ries. How­ev­er, the goril­las’ nat­ur­al food tends to be low in calo­ries, because the calo­ries are dilut­ed by water and fiber. Goril­las have to eat an enor­mous amount of food every day to get enough calo­ries. When human vol­un­teers tried to eat a goril­la-style diet for a short peri­od of time to see how it would affect their cho­les­terol lev­els, they had to spend more than 8 hours a day eat­ing, just to get enough calo­ries to keep from los­ing weight dur­ing the tri­al. Goril­las stay slim because of the high fiber con­tent and low fat con­tent of their food, not because of the bal­ance of pro­tein to car­bo­hy­drate in their food!

The biggest dietary chal­lenge for a goril­la, as for any leaf-eater, is to get enough calo­ries. When they eat a rel­a­tive­ly high-pro­tein diet, they just end up con­vert­ing the excess pro­tein to sug­ar and burn­ing it for ener­gy. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, pro­tein is “dirty sug­ar.” Burn­ing pro­tein for ener­gy pro­duces waste prod­ucts such as urea and sul­fu­ric acid.

Peo­ple can stay very slim on a high-car­bo­hy­drate diet, if it is also high in fiber and low in fat. For exam­ple, when Chris Voigt of the Wash­ing­ton State Pota­to Com­mis­sion decid­ed to go on a pota­to-only diet as a pub­lic­i­ty stunt, he fig­ured that he had to eat 20 pota­toes a day. In prac­tice, he found it real­ly hard to eat his entire pota­to ration, because pota­toes are so fill­ing. As a result, he lost a lot of weight. Even when he made an effort to eat his entire pota­to ration every day, he con­tin­ued to lose weight. That’s because a starchy diet improves insulin sen­si­tiv­i­ty and thus revs up your metab­o­lism. Peo­ple who eat starchy diets burn more calo­ries than peo­ple on fat­ty diets. Voigt lost 21 pounds dur­ing his 60-day pota­to diet. His cho­les­terol lev­els, triglyc­eride lev­els, and even his blood sug­ar lev­els decreased!

Accord­ing to the New York Times, Dr. Rauben­heimer claimed that mod­ern soci­eties “are dilut­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of pro­tein in the mod­ern diet. But we eat to get the same amount of pro­teins we need­ed before, and in so doing, we’re overeat­ing.” What non­sense!

Nutri­tion sci­en­tists have known for more than 100 years that human pro­tein needs are mod­est and are eas­i­ly met by any rea­son­able plant-based diet. Also, the soci­eties with the biggest prob­lem with obe­si­ty are also the ones with the high­est pro­tein intake! Mod­ern soci­eties are con­sum­ing too much fat and too lit­tle fiber. Ani­mal foods are a big offend­er, because they con­tain fat but no fiber and usu­al­ly no digestible car­bo­hy­drate. Refined foods are also a big offend­er, because they rep­re­sent the con­cen­trat­ed calo­ries from plants–with the fiber and oth­er whole­some things stripped out.

The take-home les­son from the goril­la sto­ry shouldn’t have been that peo­ple need to eat more pro­tein. It’s that peo­ple need to eat plants. If peo­ple don’t want to spend 8 hours a day eat­ing leafy veg­eta­bles, they can eat some nice, fill­ing pota­toes or oth­er starchy sta­ples along with plen­ty of veg­eta­bles and fruit.

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.

Weight and Cholesterol: When Average Is Abnormal

I just dis­cov­ered that I’m nor­mal, which means that I’m way below aver­age. I’m 5 foot 5 inch­es tall and weigh about 125 pounds. That gives me a body mass index of 20.8, which is nor­mal. Yet it also means that I’m skin­nier than about 95% of the Amer­i­can women my age. To become offi­cial­ly over­weight, I’d have to gain at least 25 pounds. To be as fat as the aver­age Amer­i­can, I’d have to gain a total of 40 pounds. To qual­i­fy as obese, I’d have to gain a total of 50 pounds.

If you live in the Unit­ed States, you have prob­a­bly noticed that most of the peo­ple around you weigh more than they should. That’s because you prob­a­bly know, more or less instinc­tive­ly, what healthy peo­ple are sup­posed to look like. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we can’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly rec­og­nize that some of our oth­er mea­sure­ments, such as our total cho­les­terol val­ues, are also wild­ly abnor­mal. That’s because nobody has an instinc­tive feel for what healthy blood val­ues are sup­posed to be. It’s tempt­ing to eval­u­ate them by com­par­ing them to the aver­age val­ues for our pop­u­la­tion, but how can we tell if the aver­age val­ue in our pop­u­la­tion is nor­mal or abnor­mal?

The U.S. fed­er­al government’s “Healthy Peo­ple 2010” guide­lines regard­ed total cho­les­terol of 240 mg/dL as “high” and a lev­el of 200 mg/dL as “desir­able.” Yet peo­ple are still at risk for heart dis­ease as long as their total cho­les­terol is above 150 mg/dL. The last time my blood was test­ed, my total cho­les­terol was 120 mg/dL. Accord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the Cen­ters from Dis­eases Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, my total cho­les­terol lev­el is unusu­al­ly low. More than 95% of the Amer­i­cans in my age-group have a total cho­les­terol val­ue that’s way high­er than mine. Yet I sus­pect that my cho­les­terol lev­els, like my weight, are nor­mal and healthy. It’s the aver­age per­son who’s dan­ger­ous­ly abnor­mal.

The num­bers are stag­ger­ing. Peo­ple whose cho­les­terol lev­el is “high” by Amer­i­can stan­dards (over 240 mg/dL) have more than twice as much cho­les­terol in their blood as I have. The aver­age Amer­i­can has a total cho­les­terol lev­el of about 200 mg/dL. This means that even the aver­age per­son has far more cho­les­terol in his or her blood than I do. No won­der their arter­ies are get­ting clogged!

My blood cho­les­terol lev­el may seem amaz­ing­ly low, but it’s about aver­age for some­one in rur­al Chi­na. In the late 1990s, the Chi­na-Cor­nell-Oxford Project found that the aver­age total cho­les­terol lev­el in rur­al Chi­nese peo­ple was 127 mg/dL. As a result, heart attacks were rare in Chi­na. Over­all, Amer­i­can men were 17 times as like­ly as Chi­nese men to get a heart attack. Amer­i­can women were about 6 times as like­ly as Chi­nese women to get heart attacks.

In some areas of rur­al Chi­na, coro­nary artery dis­ease was prac­ti­cal­ly nonex­is­tent. A pop­u­la­tion of a few hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple could go for a cou­ple of years with­out any­one under age 65 dying of a coro­nary. Not one per­son. The study didn’t ana­lyze the caus­es of death among the elder­ly, but there prob­a­bly weren’t many coro­nar­ies among peo­ple over 65, either.

Why were cho­les­terol val­ues and rates of coro­nary artery dis­ease so low in Chi­na? The study showed that diet makes the dif­fer­ence. Over­all, the Chi­nese were eat­ing only about a tenth as much ani­mal pro­tein and three times as much fiber as Amer­i­cans were eat­ing. The less ani­mal pro­tein peo­ple ate, the low­er their cho­les­terol val­ues were, and the less like­ly they were to die of heart dis­ease and var­i­ous can­cers. There didn’t seem to be any “safe” lev­el of intake of ani­mal pro­tein. Eat­ing even a small amount of ani­mal pro­tein pro­duced a small but mea­sur­able increase in risk. On the oth­er hand, the more veg­eta­bles peo­ple ate, the safer they were.

My cho­les­terol val­ues look like those of some­one from rur­al Chi­na because I eat no ani­mal pro­tein but lots of rice and oth­er grains and veg­eta­bles and beans and fruit. Any­one who thinks that this kind of diet is bor­ing or unsat­is­fy­ing has sim­ply nev­er had din­ner at my house.

I know from read­ing the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture on nutri­tion that peo­ple in the Unit­ed States could dra­mat­i­cal­ly improve their health and increase their life expectan­cy by shift­ing from the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet, with its heavy empha­sis on ani­mal pro­tein and its heavy load of fat, to a diet based on unre­fined plant foods. This sim­ple cor­rec­tion in the diet would enable peo­ple to drop to a nor­mal weight with­out count­ing calo­ries or lim­it­ing their por­tions. It would prac­ti­cal­ly elim­i­nate heart dis­ease and great­ly reduce the risk of oth­er dis­eases. So why doesn’t our gov­ern­ment tell us about this?

Worse yet, our gov­ern­ment is still urg­ing peo­ple to eat ani­mal pro­tein. Although the Healthy Peo­ple 2020 goals sup­pos­ed­ly “reflect strong sci­ence,” their dietary advice flies in the face of what we learned from the Chi­na-Cor­nell-Oxford study. In par­tic­u­lar, the Web site says the fol­low­ing: “Amer­i­cans with a health­ful diet con­sume a vari­ety of nutri­ent-dense foods with­in and across the food groups, espe­cial­ly whole grains, fruits, veg­eta­bles, low-fat or fat-free milk or milk prod­ucts, and lean meats and oth­er pro­tein sources.” Since we know from the Chi­na-Cor­nell-Oxford study that eat­ing ani­mal pro­tein is the major con­tribut­ing cause of our major cause of death, and that there’s no safe lev­el of intake of such foods, why in the name of good com­mon sense is our gov­ern­ment say­ing that a diet that includes these foods is health­ful?