What were we saying not so long ago about government health advice? Now there’s this in the British Medical Journal:
The expert report underpinning the next set of US Dietary Guidelines for Americans fails to reflect much relevant scientific literature in its reviews of crucial topics and therefore risks giving a misleading picture, an investigation by The BMJ has found. The omissions seem to suggest a reluctance by the committee behind the report to consider any evidence that contradicts the last 35 years of nutritional advice.
Yes, despite all the chatter about – and interest in – the possible addition of sugar data to the nutrition facts label and an emphasis on “healthy lifestyles” over any particular diet, it looks like the “new” nutritional guidelines may well turn out to be a whole lot of the old, wrong info that has helped to lead Americans astray with respect to healthy eating. (Some have since taken the author of the BMJ article to task, but we believe her larger point is valid.)
Following the conventional wisdom about diet, it’s just too easy to get so worked up about the wrong things that we miss the right things. Arguably, right thing number one is that healthy eating isn’t actually so complicated once you know what to focus on.
The trouble arises as we move further and further away from the diet that we were designed to eat.
Back in the 1920s, a remarkable study was done – one that probably couldn’t and wouldn’t be replicated today – in which a Chicago pediatrician separated 15 infants from their mothers for 6 years to observe what happened when they went on an experimental diet. None of the infants had ever eaten adult food, so for the experiment, they were allowed to eat whatever – and however much – they wanted from a selection of 34 whole foods. Remarkably – or not so remarkably, depending on your point of view – the children ate everything, sampling at first, then eating according to their needs. As Mark Schatzker describes it in his recent book The Dorito Effect,
Taken as a whole…, the children chose remarkably balanced diets. They “throve,” as [the pediatrician Dr. Clara] Davis put it. Constipation was “unknown.” Colds lasted only for three days. When the children were growing and needed protein, their protein intake shot up. When the growing slowed and activity increased, their energy intake increased. During the one “epidemic” – an outbreak of “acute glandular fever of Pfeiffer” (now called mononucleosis) during which every child “came down like ninepins” – there was a curious spike in the consumption of raw beef, carrots, and beets as the children convalesced….
These children, Davis found, were master nutritionists. By the end of the study, their overall state of health was so good that another pediatrician, one Dr. Joseph Brennemann, called them “the finest group of specimens from the physical and behavior standpoint that I have ever seen in children that age.”
We are born with nutritional wisdom. Then we get distracted – by the eating habits of those around us, the general food environment in which we live, the constant bombardment of marketing from food product corporations, all the “expert” voices telling us to eat this and avoid that, and more. Again, we get hung up on the wrong things.
Here are our top 3 things we think we’d do better forgetting about – followed by the one thing we think we’d all do well to obsess on a whole lot more.
Contrary to the way most folks talk, a calorie is nothing you can eat. It’s a unit of measurement – like gallons or pounds or inches. It means nothing until we know calories of what? For as we’ve noted before, not all calories are created equal. There is a qualitative difference between 200 calories of soda and 200 calories of carrots. Calories tell us nothing about how the body will use that energy – let alone the nutritional components (or lack thereof) in what we’re eating. Which would be better for your body: 100 calories of hyper-processed ingredients and synthetic chemicals in a breakfast bar, say, or 200 calories of whole grains, healthy fats and lightly cooked whole vegetables?
While some fats – omega 3s, for instance, and monounsaturated fats – are considered “healthier” than others, we need all kinds for optimal health, saturated and non. The only fat we have no need for is trans fat – which, fortunately, is ever less present in the food supply. Contrary to popular opinion, fat does not make you fat – nor is it a contributor to heart disease. The science now makes it pretty clear: When it comes to heart disease, sugar and other refined carbs are the real culprit; fat alone has little to do with it.
As we’ve discussed before, while food can be healing, individual foods are not drug analogs. It’s the whole diet that matters. Yes, broccoli, for instance, has anti-cancer properties, but just eating more broccoli isn’t a cure for cancer – especially if other lifestyle factors remain unaddressed. This isn’t to say don’t include this or that nutritional powerhouse food in your diet, especially if you like it’s taste. The caution is against treating them as panaceas, as “miracles” that will cure your ills.
So what should we focus on instead? As we indicated last time, diet quality is everything. If you focus on eating a well-varied diet based on whole foods, you’ll be eating healthfully. You’ll necessarily be avoiding hyper-processed foods with their synthetic chemicals. You’ll be getting a good dose of the vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytochemicals, fiber and other elements your body needs to do its daily work. You’ll be more in tune with your natural nutritional wisdom, knowing what to eat and when.
It all boils down to quality – ideally, organic, local and seasonal. If your budget doesn’t allow for doing that 100%, prioritize using tools like EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” as produce guides. Consider eating less animal protein and more vegetarian sources, including whole grains, nuts and legumes. There are also many wonderful resources online for buying healthful food on a budget, with tips and examples that show how doable it actually is, even on a food stamp level budget.
Also keep in mind that by improving quality, you may easily find yourself feeling the need to eat less. One of our patients recently noted how when she switched to eating only organic, grass-fed beef, she was surprised to find that she “needed” to eat less of it to feel satisfied. Half the amount would do. She noticed the same thing happening when switching to other higher quality foods, as well. The heightened flavor and denser nutrition made less mean a whole lot more.
Attend to the quality, and everything else really does have a way of taking care of itself.