Monday, March 21, 2011

The Nutrition Debate #15: Did Grandma Know About Macronutrients and Phytochemicals?

We all love(d) our grandparents, of course, and I have nothing but fond memories of mine. My mother’s father was a truck farmer who owned 40 acres on Staten Island. I remember his really rough hands. Every week he drove his chain-drive, solid-tired, flat-bed truck through the Holland Tunnel to the Washington Street market before dawn. There, he sold crates of vegetables at the wholesale market where the World Trade Center was later to be built. He and his wife, my grandmother, were both fat and died at about age 75, he of lung cancer (he loved cigars) and she of Alzheimer’s.

My father’s father died at age 79 when I was only 8 but his wife, my grandmother lived to be 89 and was skinny all her life. She hadn’t eaten a tomato since 1895. Poison, she said, nightshade family. So are potatoes, of course, and eggplant, Bell peppers, chili pepper, paprika, tobacco, petunia, and belladonna (deadly nightshade). So far, they haven’t killed me. (Aside: When my wife read this column in draft, she told me her father ate unripe tomatoes as a kid and got really sick.)

I did not derive any enduring wisdom about eating from any of my grandparents. I wasn’t asking, and they weren’t saying, but YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary), to use internet slang. Increasingly, however, we hear this advice: Don’t eat any food that didn’t exist when your grandmother went food shopping, or don’t eat anything that is sold in a box or a bag; or has more than 4 ingredients; or has things in it that you can’t pronounce. In other words: eat whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods. In sum, as Michael Pollan says, “Eat Real Food”. I think that’s good advice, as far as it goes. It’s a start anyway. And you have to start somewhere if you want to improve the quality of your life and avoid getting a “progressive” dietary disease like Type 2 diabetes, or even a syndrome. Woe is me, not Metabolic Syndrome!

It’s easy to make these pronouncements, but we all lead busy lives and preprocessed foods are convenient. Besides, dietary advice is constantly changing and so much is still unknown and uncertain. Low-fat, low carbohydrate, who’s to know? Your doctor’s in charge of your health, right? And the government knows best. Well. Now you’ve gone too far for me, but if you’ve reading this column (archived at, you know this.

So, as it turns out, our grandparents made smart food choices by default! Real Food was the only option they had. But in truth there were bad choices they could have made and did make. White flour was preferred because it kept longer. And farmers have been breeding fruit to be sweeter for hundreds of years (at least), increasing the fructose load that our livers have had to deal with to protect our bodies from its toxic effects. So, fruits got sweeter, and more fructose went directly to the hepatic portal vein without the usual oxidative metabolism required of glucose. Then sucrose (table sugar), a disaccharide of refined cane sugar containing equal parts fructose and glucose, replaced molasses, and was added to lots of foods. Now, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is commonly used to sweeten foods and beverages. Our livers are in fructose overload. As a result, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is now on the increase.

And as we try to avoid saturated fat, as recommended by the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” (see installment #14), we are 1) eating more and more monounsaturated fats like olive oil, which is otherwise a “good” fat but which is more likely to become added body fat than saturated fats and 2) eating too much polyunsaturated fat, which tends to be partially hydrogenated trans fats and also contributes to an unhealthy ratio of Omega 6’s to Omega 3’s.These PUFA’s are often hidden in baked goods and in fried foods that are cooked in high-heat vegetable oils that are used repeatedly. Repeated use destroys the delicate omega 3’s and oxidizes the rest. Oxidation = rancidity.

So, the challenge is 1) to eat Real Food; 2) avoid excessive amounts of fructose; and 3) avoid partially hydrogenated trans fats from vegetable oils in store-bought baked goods and fried foods and restaurant cooking and deep fat frying.

Now, add to all this the refined grains. Although the Dietary Guidelines don’t tell you this explicitly, “refined grains” means anything made with bleached, enriched, white flour from wheat, or any other refined (milled, bleached, enriched etc.) grains. I’m not telling you this. The “Guidelines” are telling you this. They just can’t say it in so many words without getting the Industrial Agricultural Complex mad as hell. They already have the beef and lamb and pork industries up in arms. They can’t afford to get Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill up in arms too. Besides, their representatives were on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, so there wasn’t much danger of that. So was the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the quintessential nanny-state advocacy organization. Together, these groups are now in the driver’s seat of my grandfather’s chain-drive, solid-tired, flat-bed truck on the way to today’s market. Personally, I hope that market will eventually “move” too, the way the Washington Street Market did to make way for the Twin Towers.

© Dan Brown 3/4/2011

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