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 healthypeople.gov 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?