Diet Contradictions? Vitamin Donuts?
Why is nutritional and health advice so confusing and contradictory? How can best-selling nutrition books – each with pages of references – argue for such different things? Listed below are five facts about nutrition that should make you think hard about joining the latest food fad.
The Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. Nutrition is simple yet agonizingly complex.
Back in the old days when I did research, I worked on a project with a specialist in nutritional efficiency. She was trying to figure out how much of a food’s energy actually makes it to our cells. We talked a lot about nutrition and she said that, as far as she could tell, we should eat as many different kinds of real food as we can. That was the best healthy diet that she could come up with. Another person I know who studies nutrition says that ‘meat should be bloody and vegetables dirty.’
Good nutrition is easy. It’s so easy and boring that people ignore it. Eat vegetables and fruits. Eat lean meat sparingly. Eat fish (especially cold water fish) a couple of times a week. Eat whole grains. There are no super foods. There are no foods you can never eat. Drink water.
That’s about it.
But what happens to the apple and it’s nutrients between the teeth and the colon? That is as complex as anything I know of. A hundred different biochemical paths all collide in a hundred different ways. Learning the standard biochemical pathways can take most of grad school. Learning to insightfully apply them can take a lifetime. It becomes easy to focus on one thing and forget that it interacts with a thousand others.
This complexity makes it easy picking for someone wanting to sell something. Pick any biochemical pathway and figure out its limiting factor. Make that limiting factor the title of your new book. Forget to mention that this is just one of a hundred marginally important steps in any number of pathways. Subtitle your book “The Scientifically Proven Way to Super Health!” Get a gig on Dr. Oz. You’re ninety-percent there.
Your body is highly adaptable.
The body is often called a machine but it’s not really an accurate description. A machine gives specific output based on input. The body is different. We evolved within different and changing environments. Our body is fueled by ATP and can use protein, fat, or carbohydrates to make it. We can live on grains or meat in any mixture. We have all grown up differently than everyone else on the planet and respond differently to different stimuli. It shouldn’t surprise us that some people thrive on grains and some don’t. One of my daughters has an awesome talent: at the exact second a nut touches her tongue she throws up everything in her stomach. She’s absolutely allergic to them. Why? No idea. Neither her mom or dad nor her sister is allergic to nuts. This is how her body has grown and adapted to her surroundings.
So it is possible that seemingly contradictory evidence can be partly true for different people. Find out what you feel best with. I feel best following Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Less of it. Mostly plants.” My wife would eat a steak a day. Yuck. Learn what healthy regimen works for you and stick with it.
At a certain level, we are all very different
I listened to an interview recently with a microbiologist who said that he has come to view people not as individuals but as ecosystems. We are so covered with microbes that they are an integral part of who and what we are. And our microbial history weighs heavily on who we are and how we respond to our environment. Researchers now know that babies born vaginally have a different microbiome (the sum of all the microbes in and on you) than those born via C-section. Same with breast-fed vs. formula-fed babies. These paths have different cumulative effects. Not necessarily good or bad, but different. Some researchers even wonder if our microbes actually drive our cravings. What if your super sweet tooth is really your gut bacteria’s sweet tooth and it produces certain chemicals to make you want sugar? Weird stuff but further evidence that we are all different in nutritional needs and variability.
Robust nutritional research is really difficult
Here’s how I would design an experiment regarding the effect of whole grains on the human diet
Take a large number of newborns and screen them to get 2,000 individuals who are as exactly identical in genome, circumstance, and experience as possible. Separate them into two groups and sequester both groups for twenty years. Make every effort possible to ensure that everything they do is exactly the same. Same sleep, same clothing, same exercise, same foods. Allow one group to eat 16 ounces of whole wheat product a day while the other group doesn’t. Track everything. When twenty years of tracking is completed investigate for cause and correlation.
This is exactly what we do with animals. Rats have a life span from birth to death of around two years. Worms live a few weeks. Many bacteria multiply every twenty minutes. When I did research, I learned the mantra to never trust anything involving humans. This goes for humans as researchers or humans as subjects. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a piece of research is wrong but that we must be vigorously agnostic of any finding that purports to apply to everyone everywhere.
There is lots and lots of money to be made
Americans spend around 34 billion dollars a year on health supplements. That’s a lot of dough and I’m not the only one who has noticed. Diet and health is big, big business. And it is almost entirely unregulated regarding advertising. Kind of. Regulations regarding provable claims are robust. If a company guarantees that you will run a five-minute mile within a week of taking their vitamins then they had better be ready to deliver. But if that same company emblazons “Vitality and Vigor in the Mile!” across the bottle, then it is up to you to prove it right or wrong.
Of course, there are legitimate companies providing useful health products. I prefer to find my health in food but there are good arguments for certain supplements. There are a whole lot of good companies run by good people who believe in their product. Mostly they waste your money. I saw a company on Twitter recently shilling their super-duper branched-chain amino acid formula. Only $39.00 for a month’s supply! There’s no question that BCAAs are healthy but you can easily get them by eating eggs, chicken, and fish. But it’s hard to sell that advice.
Then there are the pure charlatans. They will stick anything in a box or a book or bottle and call it the ONE THING MISSING FROM YOUR DIET THAT WILL BRING YOU THE VITALITY YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR. My guess is that it’s a mix of sugar and caffeine smashed into a pill and sold for only $24.99! The only thing that will see renewed vitality is their bank account.
In other words – there are lots of folks who rip you off and smile about it.
It’s very possibly true that what makes you feel good makes your best friend feel sick. But there are solid guidelines. Stick to the guidelines, stick to the science, avoid hype and fads, love your plants, and chill out.
For more on nutrition see these posts:
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