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We Aren’t What We Won’t Eat by Jim Ganley

Sat, Feb 08, 2014 at 7:50PM

In addition to providing satiety, energy, and raw materials for tissue repair and growth, food is supposed to be a pleasurable experience, steeped deeply in cultural and social traditions.

The foods we prefer or dislike will be heavily influenced by our early childhood experiences. Optimally, one’s parents will provide a varied, balanced diet during the formative years, but if the mother and father had been raised on a poor diet and are ignorant in matters nutritional, it’s unrealistic to expect the children to adopt healthful eating habits on their own. It’s important to note that lack of factual information is not the problem. Reframing old behavior patterns is what needs to occur, something that public service announcements in the media cannot possibly help.  

Compounding this problem, most of us receive our ideas on nutrition via commercials in the media, the purpose of which is to market a product, in many instances taking advantage of the public’s lack of factual information. For only one example, generations have been hoodwinked into believing that margarine was helpful in preventing cardiovascular disease because of the polyunsaturated oils used in its manufacture. We have since learned otherwise. 

It’s obvious that different cultures have different cuisine. There can be some very great variations, not only in the foods preferred, but also in what foods are available. It wasn’t all that long ago that humans led a nomadic existence as hunter gatherers, subsisting on wild game, nuts, berries, and roots. Famines were an all too frequent occurrence, making the procurement of food and sex important to human survival. Nice work if you can find it.

When a kill was made by the tribe, people were apt to gorge themselves on the meat, not once ruminating over the calorie or fat content. They ate what was available and were thankful, food being as difficult to procure as it was. Today, however, it’s the abundance of food compounded with sedentary lifestyles which is putting us at risk.

Our human progenitors may have begun moving away from a plant based diet over a million years ago. Today what we know as Homo erectus possessed a larger brain and was more nomadic than more archaic humans, ultimately moving out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. They also had mastered the use of fire to be used for cooking and warmth. The fat in meat provided the additional  calories needed by the larger brain and increased movement. Human anatomical traits suggest that we are best suited for an omnivorous diet, needing both plant and animal sources of food. Specific traits include our stereoscopic vision and dentition. 

Perhaps two hundred and fifty years ago scientists began to see a correlation between what people ate, or didn’t eat, and the cause of a variety of nutrition related disease. Thus began the early stages of the science we now know as epidemiology, the study of the occurrence, prevalence, and distribution of disease among populations. However, it is individuals who get sick, not populations, and this by itself can lead to a number of false conclusions.

When the British Navy began long duration ocean voyages, it soon became apparent that the rations of salted meat and soda crackers were not keeping them well.  These seamen typically fell ill with bleeding gums, lost teeth and bleeding beneath the skin, almost as though their bodies were falling apart at the seams. 

The major culprit here was a deficiency malady known as scurvy. In 1740 Admiral George A. Anson set out to circumnavigate the globe with a fleet of 6 ships and 1,955 seamen. By the end of his voyage, 1,051 sailors had died, mostly of scurvy. Subsequently, Anson was made Lord of the Admiralty, but the cost in lives lost was daunting. Subsequently, this transoceanic voyage inspired James Lind to study, and eventually publish his Treatise On The Scurvy , which identified a compound found in limes which he called the “anti-scorbutic factor” and soon ordered every seaman in the British Navy a daily ration of one lime, solving the problem, but in so doing saddling the Brits with the pejorative moniker, “Limeys”.

What the experts, and I use the term loosely, have to say on nutrition is debatable. It would appear that no two experts are spouting the same rhetoric. Take the topic of dietary fat and cholesterol, for example. For decades we have been told that ingesting too much fat and cholesterol would give us a one way ticket to the hospital emergency room with a heart attack or stroke. First and foremost, fat and cholesterol are necessary for life. Fat functions as a source of energy as well as being a medium for the fat soluble vitamins. It also insulates from the cold. Cholesterol serves as a structural component of cell membranes as well as forming the chemical back bone for steroid hormones and comprises the myelin sheath of our neurons. Fat and cholesterol are also non toxic. I can state this because toxicologists have determined the dose of every known poison that will kill 50% of an exposed population. This is what is known as an LD-50. LD-50s have been established for such diverse toxins as cyanide, carbon monoxide, arsenic, strychnine, plutonium, and ionizing radiation. There is no LD-50 for either fat or cholesterol, so we need not lose any sleep over the scrambled eggs we had for breakfast.  

Much of this fear of fat is based upon flawed research. Decades ago, medical scientists  fed massive amounts of egg yolk to rabbits. Post mortem examinations revealed the animals’ arteries had been clogged by cholesterol deposits, but the researchers failed to realize that rabbits are strict vegetarians whose digestive systems are not equipped to handle cholesterol. Regardless, it was this junk science which gave birth to the myth correlating dietary cholesterol to cardiovascular disease.

Adding more credence to this belief, Dr. Lester Morrison, MD, in his book, The Low Fat Way To Health And Longer Life , discussed the results of autopsies performed on American GIs during the Korean War and compared them to the post mortem examinations performed on dead Korean troops. The Americans, barely into their twenties, in some cases were shown to have fairly advanced atherosclerosis. This was negligible in the Koreans of similar age, and would appear to make a solid argument supporting Morrison’s contention that too much fat and cholesterol in our Western diet is killing off many of us long before our time. But nothing in medicine, save for a broken leg, is as simple and clear cut as we would like it to be. Association does not necessarily imply cause and effect. There may be other factors and differences between the two groups accounting for the variations seen on autopsy. These could include genetics and activity levels as well as nutrition.

Coming down solidly against fat and cholesterol was another medico by the name of Dr. Dean Ornish who, in his book, Stress, Diet And Your Heart, advocates a nutrition plan nearly devoid of all fat, in which one’s fat intake in calories will measure no more than 10 to 20% of total calories. This was also supplemented with statin drugs to lower blood cholesterol, as well as meditation and light aerobic activity to help manage stress. Ornish was able to site angiographic proof that arterial plaque formation had been reversed in those following his prescribed regimen. The major flaw here was that such a program is difficult if not impossible to implement and follow for life.

Another extremely low fat diet advocate was the late Nathan Pritikin, who went on to establish Pritikin Longevity Centers in Florida and California. An engineer by education, Pritikin attracted scores of medical doctor disciples seeking solutions for their patients’ problems with cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, Pritikin died by his own hand many years ago, the prevailing theory being that he couldn’t follow his own program and became depressed. The few times I had heard him speak on the subject of health improvement, he sported a rather sallow complexion accompanied by  sour facial expression, certainly not anything that I would have aspired to emulate. 

Ultimately the American Heart Association, Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health gave their endorsement to the low fat, low cholesterol diet, going so far as having the American Heart Association give its “Red Heart Seal Of Approval” to a number of processed foods produced by the industry giants. The stickler was that while these brand name products were low in fat and cholesterol, they were loaded with sugar, artificial flavor and color, as well as a number of questionable preservatives and other synthetic chemicals, none of which boasted health enhancing properties. How can this be? Follow the money.

Also, population studies were cited seeming to demonstrate a correlation between high fat diets and increased risk of cardiovascular events. The Japanese, for only one example, follow a low fat diet and have less cardiovascular disease than those on a typical Western diet. Yet when they emigrate to the United States, their incidence of heart attacks and strokes approaches that of Americans. What the public was not told was that population studies with conflicting data were conveniently ignored. I can cite a few. 

The first has become known as “The French Conundrum”. For the most part the French have a relatively high fat diet, yet their incidence of cardiovascular disease is comparatively low when compared to cultures with lower fat intakes. It has been theorized that their intake of red wine provided a protective substance known as resveritol which, via its anti-oxidative properties, offers protection. Presently there are resveritol pills available at your neighborhood health food store. As for myself, I’ll stick with a bottle of Zinfandel.

Another study conveniently ignored is “The Irish Brothers Study”. This was a prospective study following 800 pair of Irish brothers, one brother of each pair having emigrated to America. The results, coordinated between Harvard in the U.S. and Trinity College in Dublin, showed that the brothers who remained in the Emerald Isle had a much lower rate of heart disease than their American siblings yet, and this is important, they had a higher calorie, fat, and cholesterol intake. They also expended considerably more energy in physical work.

Some other research was done by anthropologists, medical doctors and dentists who lived among and studied primitive native populations. Anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, in his book

Not By Bread Alone , chronicles his time spent living among Eskimoes between 1906 and 1918. He noted that the Eskimo diet was very high in fat and cholesterol, but their health was better than those of comparable age on a Western diet. Stefansson himself noted that his own health had improved while subsisting primarily on meat, fish, and whale blubber.

Dentist Dr. Weston Price, DDS studied primitive cultures from around the world during the 1930s, noting that the less contact these people had with Western influence, the better their dentition and overall health. To bolster his case, he provided photographs of the subjects of his study which he discussed in his treatise Nutrition And Physical Degeneration.

Dr. William Mann, MD of Vanderbilt University studied the Masai tribe of Africa. These people typically eat a very high protein, high fat diet comprised of meat, milk and blood from the cattle they tend. Once again, they appear to have suffered no ill effects from their lifestyle, but they also walk an average of twenty miles per day herding their animals, something impractical for those of us living in Western society.

A totally different lifestyle was discovered by Dr. Denis Burkitt in his study of the African Bantu. The Bantu are vegetarian, following a plant based diet comprised of yams, sorghum, and peanuts. Burkitt learned that these people eat more than ten times the dietary fiber of Westerners, enjoy good health, and seemed to have been free from diverticular disease, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids, possibly as a benefit of their high fiber intake.

Closer to home, statisticians find comparable rates of morbidity and mortality between Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons. Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarian while Mormons are meat eaters.

In the American Southwest, the native Navaho, Hopi, and Apache have eschewed their traditional diet in favor of processed American cuisine. Not coincidentally, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, elevated blood lipids, and morbid obesity are epidemic.

What are we to make of this apparently contradictory data? I have presented this information to demonstrate that there is much that we do not know about the correlation between nutrition in health and in disease. It may be that each culture, via natural selection, has adapted itself to what kinds of food are available. Little was known of DNA and genetics at the time when many of these studies were done, yet even today the experts would lead us to believe that if we all ate the same, then we would all be the same. But all available information tells an entirely different story. We’ve seen one group of people on a high fat / high protein diet do extremely well. We’ve also seen other groups follow a low fat / high fiber regimen with similar results. The common denominator running through all of this research is that whole, minimally processed, nutrient dense foods are preferable to the refined, calorie dense variety.

Gold’s Gym, Manchester, NH........1989

The gym owner proudly announced to me that he had recently purchased nutritional computer software designed to analyze his members’ diets and make very specific recommendations as to what improvements were needed. The member would enter the data on what they were presently consuming and, in short order, would be presented with a printout on what they should be eating and drinking. In theory this sounded like a panacea, but in practice it failed to deliver the hoped for results.

“I don’t get it,” he complained to me early one afternoon, several weeks after this nutrition program had begun. “The printouts are uniformly stating that the members need more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Most of them are also told that they need more calcium via dairy products and that they should start eating more substantial breakfasts.”

I failed to understand the nature of the problem until he explained the source of his frustration.

 “They’re all telling me that they don’t like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Nor do they like dairy products, and don’t like to eat breakfast.”

Lacing up my sneakers prior to squatting, I laughed and gave the gym owner my take on this situation.

 “That’s because they like themselves just the way they are!”

Eventually Gold’s Gym and most other health clubs realized that there was little profit in teaching their members how to eat right. Instead, the thrust today is in the purveyance of magic pills with a bedtime story.THE END


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