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.

Natural my a#%!

Natural. The popular catch cry of nutrition gurus, the favorite fallback of all diets.

Let’s start with a simple fact. Just because it is natural doesn’t mean it is good for you. Take cyanide… Ok, let’s not go that far. Let’s have a closer look at the new darling of weight loss magazines: “heart healthy whole grains”. The clever advertising normally involves one of the following: vast expansive fields, shimmering gold wheat, sunburnt farmers, a shape of a heart and a coy mention of “regularity”.

Apply STEP 1 of the FCS: Metabolism
How many mammal species eat grains as a major part of their diet, let alone the base of the food pyramid? When did the human digestive system learn how to process the food group that in the animal kingdom is a leftover for birds only? The reason why you don’t see herds of cows stampeding the wheat fields is that they instinctively know the toxic components of grains: gliadin proteins, wheat germ agglutinin and other lectins, phytic acids and enzyme inhibitors.

STEP 2: Evolution
Since the advent of agriculture people used many processing methods to neutralise the poisons in grains: milling, sifting to remove most of the toxic bran (yes, the one in your bran muffin), fermenting (8-12 days for traditional sourdough), forming into batter, fermenting again for a few hours and finally baking. Making bread was hard work and you can be sure it wasn’t possible to make 6-11 serves recommended today. Bread became a poor man’s meat, an inferior substitute source of nutrition when precious animal products were no longer available on regular hunts.
Today life is so much easier. The industrial processes mill grains into super-fine flour. The fermentation process is largely unused. For “health conscious” consumers, seeds and bran are added back into the mix.

STEP 3: Scientific evidence
Much evidence exists on the damage grains cause to our body. Coeliac disease is the most well-known condition in which gluten causes widespread damage to intestinal lining, causing malabsorption, debilitating digestive complaints, skin rash and higher rates of some cancers. But coeliac is just the tip of a big ugly iceberg. Other conditions linked to grains are less well known: autoimmune thyroid and liver disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, type I diabetes and even schizophrenia.

Natural? You gotta be kidding me.
Sigh… Moving on…

In the yuppy heaven of the trendy suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles or London you will come across organic/natural cafes frequented by very casually but expensively dressed 20-somethings who look like they desperately need a feed. The drink of choice is usually soy (possibly chai) latte. Somebody please tell me what is so very natural about soy milk. Have you ever seen a soy bean and does it look like you can easily get “milk” from it? The process of creating this dubiously “natural” beverage is a genius of food chemistry and machinery.

Click for better resolution

Baby food and Adhesives… Yummm

Organic soymilk coffee: the irony

And why is it sold in a dairy section of the supermarkets? (together with margarine made from industrial seed oils in a container with a picture of a cow). To grow herbs on your own balcony and to shop at local farmers markets does not go with drinking soy milk! Let’s not even get started on phytoestrogen and isoflavone content of unfermented soy products and its effect on your thyroid and testosterone. Every time I walk past a baby food aisle in the supermarket and see baby soy formula it makes me physically sick. Some of the most prominent New Zealand scientists, like  Dr  Mike Fitzpatrick and Professor Cliff Irvine, have been calling on NZ Government to completely ban infant soy formula after what they have discovered in the course of their research. (Fitzpatrick “Soy formulas and the effects of isoflavons on the thyroid” NZMJ 2000)

Other pseudo-natural food items that come to mind are egg whites and skinless chicken breasts. I’m trying to  remember the last time I saw an animal documentary where a predator raiding a birds nest carefully breaks each egg into two pieces, decants the whites into a prepared container and then discards the nasty yellow in the centre. Eggs are a complete food. Yes, they have cholesterol and (gasp!) even saturated fat. But they provide a complete profile of essential nutrients, including choline, the deficiency of which has been linked with fatty liver disease. Eating egg whites is a bit like eating the peeled skin off an apple and discarding the rest. Ditto applies to chicken skin, fat on the meat and offal (highly prized in the animal kingdom).

The prize goes to low fat dairy products. If you are lactose-intolerant or just sensitive to dairy due to digestive or autoimmune conditions, that’s another story (unless you substitute it with soy – see above). People who drink skim milk because of their lipophobia have a lack of basic understanding of what  a natural product actually is. Every constituent of food plays an important role. You can’t just remove fat in isolation and expect everything else to remain the same. Fat content of dairy products allows for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Why do you think skim milk is often “fortified” with these vitamins and calcium? Milk is another nutritionally complete food. The
macronutrient content of human breast milk is as follows.

Human Breast Milk. Per 250 mL. Source: CalorieKing.com

As you can see the saturated fat content is very high. The medical profession is united in advocating breastfeeding. However, according to conventional wisdom, on the day the child turns 2 years of age they miraculously cease requiring fatty acids for healthy brain development. What was highly beneficial at 1 year and 364 days becomes a silent killer the very next day. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.

Four pillars of modern “natural” nutrition: wholegrains, low fat dairy, egg whites and soy.

I don’t care whether you believe in God or Mother Nature: neither are stupid enough to provide us with natural foods that need industrial-strength modifications and pharmaceutically-supported supplementation just to make them edible. Humans are the only species on this planet which require multi-million dollar investigations to tell them what to eat. Because clearly after 2 million years in existence we clearly still haven’t worked it out.

End rant.