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”.
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.
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.
“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.