Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Nutrition Debate #39: Back to the Future

Edgy diet plans are often described as fads, and they usually are. I remember 50 years ago, when I was on the Stillman Diet -- high protein, 8 glasses of water, and amphetamines (!), as I recall -- I lost 65 pounds. After a while, fortunately, I tired of it and switched to ‘the grapefruit diet.’ That was a fad diet, and today there are many such examples that do not deserve consideration or even mention.

Recent diet trends are a lot healthier for people and the environment. They are rooted in “real food.” This began, I think, with the concept of organic foods. This trend evolved to include another dimension besides health: to try to do the “right thing,” take the high road, adopt a moral and ethical way of eating and living. To illustrate, responding on the Oprah program to a question about eliminating meat from the diet, Michael Pollan said, “That’s a personal choice. I could eat meat in …(a) very limited way, from farmers who were growing it in a way (grass fed) that I could feel good about how the animal lived – and that we’re not taking that grain (corn) away from people who need that food.”

Michael Pollan publicized the “grass fed” movement in his best-selling and compelling read, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It was followed by other derivative books by him and others urging that we eat “real food.” This was a “back to the future” moment in dieting for me. It advocates that we eat only basic, fresh foods, the kinds that are found along the sides of the modern supermarket. The idea is to avoid processed and manufactured food sold in boxes and bags.

Of course, “the devil is in the details.” Does “grass fed” mean that the beeves were not “finished” on grain for a week or two before slaughter? “Organic” eggs can mean that 70% of the food the hens ate was organic. Another detail - hens often eat a “vegetarian” diet. Chickens are omnivores, so I want hens to eat insects, naturally. Vegetarian is not healthy for them (or me)! A hen that eats a vegetarian diet (mostly corn meal) is going to produce eggs that have too many Omega 6 fatty acids and not enough Omega 3’s.

That’s why I buy eggs at farmers’ markets where I know the purveyors. I’ve been to their farms, and I know their hens are ‘pastured.’ That means they are moved from pasture to pasture (with their coop) to places where cows or sheep or pigs have recently grazed. I also know the eggs are Grade AA. That means really fresh – at most only a few days old – and very tasty.

The latest, big trend in dieting is Paleo (Joke: Do you have to eat like a caveman?) It takes “back to the future” to new lengths, based in part on ethnographic and anthropologic antecedents, as well as modern biochemistry and the science of fat metabolism. One of my favorite blogs is Archevore, by Kurt Harris, M. D. His basic premise: avoid the Neolithic Agents of Disease. NAD is his phrase to describe changes in the human diet that were introduced with the advent (10,000 years ago) of the Neolithic Age. They are 1) wheat (and the closely related gluten grains barley and rye); 2) excess amounts of fructose (including the 55% in HFCS and the 50% found in sucrose aka cane sugar or table sugar); and 3) polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) from processed vegetable oils made from seeds and grains (corn, soybean, Canola, sunflower, safflower, etc.). They are loaded with Omega 6’s and easily oxidized and damaged by storage, high heat and repeated use, such as deep fat frying.

The Paleo trend has generated considerable discussion online. Last summer, controversy emerged at the Ancestral Health Symposium in Los Angeles. It centers on ‘safe starches.’ This is a debate between the ‘establishment’ low-carb community, many of whom are pre-diabetics or type 2 diabetics, and the emergent Paleo crowd that tends to be younger, healthier and interested in a program that successfully may prevent and even heal “middle age and chronic health problems through diet.” Paleo is newly popular as a modern diet trend and is still evolving (pardon the phrase). It also has a broader potential application, as it is not intended solely for those who have a diagnosed metabolic disorder (e.g. T2 diabetes, insulin resistance or impaired glucose tolerance or symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome, including obesity). In that sense, it is a debate between the therapeutic and the prophylactic dieters: how to regain your health vs. how to stay healthy. The ‘safe starches’ debate will be the subject of the next column.

© Dan Brown 2/5/12

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