Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Then Should We Eat? ...some brief thoughts

As a primary care physician, and as a person who is now fifty pounds lighter than before I started medical school, I am frequently asked about health and food and diets. This is such a confusing topic for so many people. Unfortunately, I blame the medical establishment for much of this. I believe in their desire to do good, they have not only given blatantly conflicting information over the years, but they have also gotten so far in the weeds, so to speak, that they have lost touch with basic human history. They have lost touch with the traditions that were developed over thousands of years of trial and error, traditions that have shown time and again to be more healthy for the human body than whatever the current pop-science article tells the media outlets, and in turn tells us, and in turn causes more confusion when, a few years later, another article is written that tells us to do the exact opposite of what that first article told us! No wonder we are confused.

In addition, in the United States, the world melting pot of cultures, where little of those cultures remain intact, Americans are searching for their own traditional diet. Sadly, this relatively new traditional diet is almost nothing like what any traditional culture ate. This disconnect to real food is another major stumbling block for Americans.

So what are we to do? What do I tell my patients? My personal view is one that is grounded on a lot of medical, scientific, historical, and anthropologic reading. Maybe one day I will get around to writing all my thoughts on the topic. Today, I'll share one book, one theme, and one brochure...

I have previously endorsed Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. This is a fantastic book written by a non-medical author, and it provides some simple but effective "food rules".

Probably the strongest recommendation is for the Paleo Diet... the concept, not necessarily one specific book (you can find thousands of websites on this topic, and I highly recommend spending some time reading about this). The Paleo Diet is really a concept that encourages us to eat a more "hunter-gatherer" diet. This is how humans were designed to eat before the advent of modern civilization and modern agriculture... and not coincidentally, modern chronic diseases. There are a dozen or more books on the topic, and they all share the same theme, some are more "strict" than others, but there are literally thousands of websites on the Paleo Diet, so no money needs to be spent learning all about it.

Finally, I will sharemy most recent find and recommendation, the Healthy 4 Life Booklet, from the Weston A. Price Foundation. If we (the "modern world") all ate how this booklet recommends, I think we would be significantly healthier than we are today. The link is at the end of this article.

Now before you dive into reading any of these things, I should give my disclaimer. While I don't agree 100% with everything that is in my reading recommendations, I agree with almost all of it (to be honest, I don't know if I would ever agree 100% with anything on which I have an opinion!). Also, some of these recommendations have ideas that seem to contradict each other... why is this and how do I reconcile it? Well, the Paleo Diet shows us that avoiding grains and starches can be healthy for us, and I agree. The other readings tell that there are healthy ways to eat these foods. I agree with this as well. My reconciliation is to minimize the consumption of grains and starches, definitely avoiding them as a primary component in my diet, and looking at ways traditional cultures ate them (fermentation and sprouting are two methods).

So, I hope this helps a few people who are struggling with making "healthy" food choices in this world of dietary confusion.

Here is the link to the Healthy 4 Life Booklet
Also, I'll add some information about the Weston A. Price Foundation...

The Weston A. Price Foundation is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charity founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston Price, whose studies of isolated nonindustrialized peoples established the parameters of human health and determined the optimum characteristics of human diets. Dr. Price's research demonstrated that humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.

The Foundation is dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism. It supports a number of movements that contribute to this objective including accurate nutrition instruction, organic and biodynamic farming, pasture-feeding of livestock, community-supported farms, honest and informative labeling, prepared parenting and nurturing therapies.

As an alternative to the USDA lowfat, high-carbohydrate dietary guidelines, the Weston A. Price Foundation proposes Healthy 4 Life, a dietary plan in the form of a colorful booklet and poster featuring four food groups: animal foods; grains, legumes and nuts; vegetables and fruits; and healthy fats.

Rather than prescribe one-size-fits-all levels of macronutrients—fats, carbohydrates and proteins—the Healthy 4 Life plan recommends nutrient-dense versions of animal and plant foods, with particular emphasis on healthy traditional fats like butter, lard, egg yolks and coconut oil. The plan does not specify specific amounts of fats or carbohydrates because the need for these macronutrients varies with the individual. Those who engage in high levels of physical activity can incorporate more carbohydrates in the diet without gaining weight; those needing to lose weight or control blood glucose levels require more healthy fats in the diet as fats provide satiety and help keep blood sugar within a normal range.

The proposed 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines perpetuate the mistakes of previous guidelines in demonizing saturated fats and animal foods rich in saturated fatty acids such as egg yolks, butter, whole milk, cheese, fatty meats like bacon and animal fats for cooking. The current obesity epidemic emerged as vegetable oils and refined carbohydrates replaced these healthy, nutrient-dense traditional fats. Animal fats supply many essential nutrients that are difficult to obtain from other sources.


  1. We are vegan (not a fad thing, people have eaten like this forever in variour religions and cultures), but I too LOVED In Defense of Food! Great post!

  2. Here's a suggestion: eat what you gather, grow, or kill yourself. I can pretty much guarantee you won't be fat, and you'll either be fit or starving.

    Once the grocery store shelves are empty, it'll be the only way.

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