Big picture, please

No science today, folks. Just a good old rant.

It’s the evening rush in a city gym. A 20-something personal trainer with biceps bulging out of his sleeves is leading a middle-aged woman into a designated PT area. This is clearly her first time here. She is wearing the world’s biggest t-shirt, nervously tugging it down to the knees, looking flushed already from going up the stairs. The PT pulls out a funny-looking half ball and gestures her to come to a push up position. She obediently kneels down on the ground, places her hands on the flat part of the ball, hikes her hips high into the air, lifts her knees off the ground and promptly starts to shake all over. Two seconds later she collapses back down and the PT kindly encourages her to come up again. The second time she works out that she can take her feet wider and this time she stays up but her whole body is shaking uncontrollably from the wrists to the pelvis. I mentally shoo away the image of her falling flat on her face and breaking her nose. Her PT enthusiastically announces that she will be doing 3 sets of 12 push ups with one leg in the air and this is “great for her shoulder stability and core muscles”.

Oh my…

It’s a no-brainer that a 40-something overweight de-conditioned woman should be first building her base strength and fitness. Maybe wall push-ups and half-squats would be a good place to start. Seems like a common sense approach. Then again common sense is not very common.

Similar approach is used in health and nutrition on a regular basis. I love berries. But if I hear of another berry which has been found to reduce inflammation/fight cancer/bring about world peace, I swear I will lose it. A quick browse through a popular bodybuilding magazine reveals that apparently honey has antibacterial properties and lycopenes in tomatoes are good for prostate health. How many times have you seen a woman (not to be a sexist or anything, but it is normally a woman) standing near the fridge with a frozen meal in each hand earnestly comparing the nutrient composition? Hmmm… This one has more antioxidants, and this one has more protein. Which one of these highly processed refined carb-loaded artificial nutrient- fortified examples of food manufacturing science is better for me?

Talking about food manufacturers, they bit down on this concept very quickly. Every commercial is quick to point out that one magic ingredient which makes their product essential for health.

Food “reductionism” has been rife in health and nutrition for a long time. It’s as if the elusive search for gold in alchemy has morphed into its modern scientific equivalent.

Spag Bol is Italian. Italy is in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean diet is healthy. Ergo: spag bol is healthy

The Mediterranean diet is a common example. After we have successfully promoted red wine into a health food category (no objections here) with resveratrol, we found another magic component which mitigates the unhealthy saturated fat levels in the diets of the a French, Spanish, Italians and Greeks: polyunsaturated fatty acids. Actually, the studies talked about omega-3 polyunsaturated fats but omega-6 is riding along on the wave of a sudden “omega” popularity. The market reacted instantaneously. Olive oil, being holier than thou, is now used in spreads, frozen meals, tuna cans, body butter and strangely enough, perfume. I will talk about the Mediterranean diet another day but Stephan from Whole Health Source did a good analysis of the famous Lyon Diet-Heart Study which started the whole craze.

I am sorry to say it but even some well educated people in the primal/Paleo community fall into this trap. I have read many a forum where a question from a newbie turns into a heated discussion: is white potato Paleo? What about nectarines, since they are technically a new breed of fruit? What’s the best ratio of DHA/EPA in my fish oil? Am I doomed if I can’t source grass-fed beef?

There is nothing wrong with wanting perfection in your diet. And if you have that much time and energy to devote to your diet, that’s great. If you choose to count your calories, I think you are wasting precious brain power, but whatever floats your boat. However, let’s not forget that the majority of people are still buying banana bread because it contains fruit. And if you are one of them, no amount of blueberries is going to fix that damage.

I’m a visual kind of person so to make things easy I’ve designed a little pie chart representing how the majority of the community (as I know it) sees nutrition.

Food attitudes in modern society. Source: Anastasia's extensive life experience

“Disinterested Rebels” are the ones who are happily chugging away the pizzas and the burgers washed down by liters of Coke. They don’t care about heart disease, cholesterol or getting a beer gut. I nominated the 20% figure because the smoking prevalence in Australia is 19%. And if you are still smoking it’s pretty safe to say you are not terribly concerned about living.

“Endeavouring Hopefuls” are the concerned consumers, representing the majority of the population. They listen to the nutrition guidelines, buy diet magazines and are the main marketing targets for low-fat muffins and diet sodas.

Major Healthnuts” take their health and diet very seriously. They painstakingly research the nutritional benefits of every mouthful. They are the organics, the fruitarians, paleos, vegans, raw foodists…They also tend to have a firm unwavering belief that their way is the only right way and they will fight for it foaming at the mouth. If you receive this via an email subscription and follow numerous bloggers on Twitter and Facebook, congratulations, you belong to the last group. Welcome to the club.

The common term Standard American Diet can probably encompass the first 2 groups. And by the way, my American friends, you don’t have a patent on crap food, I think it’s time to change the term to SWD (Standard Western Diet). It doesn’t have the same punch as SAD but it accurately portrays that here is Australia we like our bagels and soda (aka soft drinks) too.

Bottom line: before splitting hairs about your macronutrient ratios and decanting cod liver oil by the millilitre, fix the BIG things that are wrong with your diet. Get rid of processed food. Period. Anything that comes in a box and has a Heart foundation tick should also be burned, just in case. I’m sorry, boys, protein shakes are never Paleo. If you need them, have them, just don’t lie to yourself.

Many smart people before me have identified 4 major components of the SWD which cause the most damage. Dr Kurt Harris has succinctly named them NADs (Neolithic Agents of Disease). They are wheat, fructose, industrial seed oils and soy. Until you eliminate these 4 you can stop worrying about dairy, legumes, nuts and rice. These are the only agents which truly fail the Framework of Common Sense.

And a word of advice: when your truck driver uncle Harry comes home from the doctor dejected because he was told to lose 20 kilos, don’t start a conversation about medium chain fatty acids. That would be the nutritional equivalent of one-legged BOSU ball push ups. Let’s get the “Disinterested Rebels” and “Endeavouring Hopefuls” off the NADs first.

In the world we live in, THIS is a healthy afternoon snack.

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24 thoughts on “Big picture, please

  1. Great post. So true! It’s kind of how I had to handle things with my hubby. We were already off the low fat bandwagon and he was eating plenty of fat and meat, and very little processed food, but he was still eating baked goods every day (mostly homemade, but still…), potatoes and drinking sugared sodas, beer and fruit juice. When he asked me why he couldn’t lose his belly fat no matter how much he worked out and exercised, I simply said “sugar and flour”. (I had recently read Gary Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat”, seen him speak, and watched Tom Naughton’s “Fathead.”) He cut the sugar out in stages (almost–he still has two teaspoons a day in his coffee and refuses to give that up) and with it most of the flour (all the sweet baked goods) and potatoes, all the beer and fruit juice. The belly fat is coming off, finally! And now that he’s seen how well it works, he keeps whittling more and more out. Don’t know if he will ever get it all out, but I am thankful that he has gotten this far and that will do for now! At least he’s an “endeavoring hopeful” rather than a “disinterested rebel”! Looking forward to seeing how it has affected his blood profile. His blood pressure is already lower.

    • So the next stage of his transition will be to a Major Healthnut? By the way, Peggy, I was going to tell you how much I loved your letter to that Australian nutritionist who still lives in a fairy carb-land. Nice one.

  2. I prefer “standard industrial diet” and I like the way SID is so close to SIDS which we already know is death. Because there are dietary patterns that are very much Western but that are a lot healthier for you, which is probably why the French get away with a higher rate of smoking than Americans do, with much less heart disease.

    But yes, pretty much the common denominator here of everything that’s unhealthy in the so-called “Western diet” would be food that has come out of a factory or that was raised in factory-like conditions.

    • Yes, I think we all mean the standard diet as the one enjoyed by the majority of Amercians, Australians, British, etc. SID sounds good to me.

  3. Don’t get me started on the ‘Mediterranean diet’.
    There is a reason Italian, Greek etc women ” of a certain age” traditionally end(ed) up looking like the stereotypical Tuckshop Arms Pasta Mamma once they left their teens, had kids etc.

    Pasta. And oil. Copious quantities cos they were by & large too poor to eat much else.

  4. Nice rant, I enjoyed it!

    Having done a PT course myself, it certainly does teach you sensible progressions, but I think these young dudes get bored of doing what’s right by the client! Pick 5 movement patterns and gain competency before the madness. I saw a guy making his client do squats on the Bosu whilst performing a single arm cable row. Highly unstable does not necessarily equal ‘functional’!

    I am enjoying your site, good to see some quality aussie content!

    Lee.

    • Single arm cable row BOSU squat – love it. People go for what looks unusual and interesting instead of getting the basics right. The basics are boring. Same for nutrition. Thanks Lee.

  5. I’ve already recommended your blog enthusiastically to several people and bookmarked nearly every post, but this seals it. You are my hero. :-)

  6. You know, in one of the most recent studies (that agencies always love to do) we here in Australia are now top ranked for having the longest working hours per week. I just find it amusing, that people out there are willing to everything into their working week, for the small, moderate or large pay packet each week but yet that some how it does not fall into their other big part of life…. their body, their health. I guess this is where the multi-national companies, the celebrity nutritionists, even the vegan cafe’s have just made their $$$$$$. Common sense tells me that if I plan on working a 45 plus hour week, I’d better pay a bit more attention to put the right things in so I can get the right things out but hey, that common sense stuff is definitely a minority! Oh wow, I think I just had a rant…. =D love your work, can’t wait for the med diet!!!! I’d love to hear some more thought to on kids issues like ADD, ADHD, Autism etc and diet. I’ve read some of your links in previous blogs, interesting indeed.

    • Nice rant! Absolutely, we have our priorities backwards. I was also blown away in the States by how much the Americans work: weekends, double shifts, holidays. We are going the same way. But what’s the point of working your butt off for a bigger house if you are going to need a dialysis machine by the time you pay it off?
      Thanks for the support.
      And definitely more posts on children’s diet are coming.

  7. I love it!! I agree totally on the young guns as personal trainers. What are they thinking? The youth that surrounds us in the fitness industry is unfortunate as they cannot relate to their clients. As a 40 something fitness instructor, I can see that people of a like age get scared off and don’t want to return!

    As to the mediterranean diet….anyone just needs to look at my mother and know that it’s not working. A glass of red wine may be ‘healthy’ but tell my dad and a glass becomes a bottle!

    • Good timing Stella. The post on the Mediterranean diet is coming up later today. And totally agree, fitness industry in general is prone running away with fads and forgetting what they are there for: their clients.

  8. Another great post Anastasia. I agree with your typology – 80% of people are really trying to eat well and be healthy. It’s just a tragedy that the 60% “Endeavouring hopefuls” are being totally misled by the so-called experts (and probably a good proportion of the “major healthnuts too!).

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  10. I am glad that I found your blog, Anastasia! You have a nice way of writing that sums up much of the emerging LC/Paleo information and scientific studies in a common sense manner. I appreciate this because I am not of a scientific mind but so want to improve my and my husband’s health. I have been a little neurotic reading all the LC/Paleo blogs I have been able to find these past 2 1/2 years (I’ve lost over 40lbs and have kept it off now for the pasts 28 months) driving my relatives crazy. After finding Dr
    Kurt Harris, and now you, I am beginning to mellow out a bit and still stick to my program.

    I am look forward to many more of your posts – and rants. Love ‘em.

    Susan

    • Thank you, Susan. I agree, if you get anxiety about every morsel that goes into your mouth, you might be undoing all that protective effect of the anti-inflammatory diet :). Congratulations on your weight loss. I will continue to write for people like you, who want to know about health but never had any scientific training. Keep it simple, I say.

  11. I was very pleased to find your site. Your writing is superb and clear. As well, while you might be a major healthnut, you do not come across as a fanatic or as someone on little more than a major ego trip. Too much of that in the American blogs, I’m afraid.

    A question I have that has not been directly answered (as far as I know) when discussing fructose. Often it is said that fructose is metabolized in a similar fashion to alcohol. Would it be fair to say, then, that alcohol consumption is likely to have the same effects on the body in terms of insulin resistance and weight gain? I know that Lustig said that fructose was
    alcohol without the buzz. However most bloggers seem to skirt around the role of alcohol and focus more often on fructose and wheat. Could you offer all of us the straight goods on alcohol and insulin resistance and weight gain? Perhaps it has seemed to be too obvious a question to bother answering, but I would appreciate it if you gave it a try.
    Keep up the excellent work, Anastasia!

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Michael. To be honest, I think that sometimes Paleo/primal/low carb bloggers avoid the alcohol issue not to come across as complete killjoys. ( What? I can’t eat bread, pasta, pizza, chocolate cake and now you tell me I can’t even have a drink or ten?) I have read Paleo challenge journals with chicken and sweet potato for lunch followed by 2 L of alcohol in the pub after work. Not kidding.
      I’ll probably look more into alcohol later but the short answer is alcohol, like fructose, is a liver toxin. The damage may be both dose-related and idiosyncratic. Alcohol is preferentially processed in the liver into triglycerides. However, low to moderate alcohol consumption tends to improve insulin sensitivity (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2352363/pdf/bmj00565-0020.pdf). I have also heard pathologists say that the cirrhotic liver of alcoholics are indistinguishable to the naked eye to the liver of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. And as always, the more toxic hits your liver gets, the more damage it sustains. So a Coke-drinking alcoholic with hepatitis C taking paracetamol will be really screwed. 
      Looks like you just gave me an idea for a post. Cheers. 

  12. “…The common term Standard American Diet can probably encompass the first 2 groups. And by the way, my American friends, you don’t have a patent on crap food, I think it’s time to change the term to SWD (Standard Western Diet). It doesn’t have the same punch as SAD…”

    How about Standard Awful Diet? It would still be SAD no matter what designation you gave it! I have also heard it referred to as MAD (Modern American Diet) which could also be referred to as Modern Awful Diet ;-)

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