The other day my wife came back from a PTO meeting at our local school and noted (with a bewildered look on her face) that “The low-fat thing is alive and well, isn’t it?” Since the nutritional thinking in our household is more along the paleo/Weston Price lines of thinking, it sometimes comes as a shock that the rest of the world still thinks that Wheat-Thins and fruit juice is a “healthy snack.”
Poorly designed and haphazardly analyzed studies like The China Study reinforce the conventional thinking that has led to a national obesity epidemic. Food alone isn’t to blame, so are too much sitting, too much driving, not enough exercise, and environmentally pervasive chemicals like bisophenol-A. But poor food quality and misinformation about food are mostly to blame.
Here are a few dietary misconceptions that annoy the hell out of me:
Misconception #1: Fat Is Bad (and Saturated Fat is Especially Bad)
In the 1980’s the standard dietary advice was to reduce fat intake, and avoid all saturated fat (found in meat, egg yolks, and dairy products). Polyunsaturated fats (found in safflower oil, for example) were considered to be “good fats.”
This line of thinking originated in the now infamous Ancel Keys “seven countries” study that found correlations between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease. The main problem with this study was that Keys left out data from countries that had both high saturated fat intake and low rates of CHD. Still — Keys was a persuasive evangelist, and the low-fat/anti-meat “health” craze swept the nation. Americans have been avoiding eggs, meat, and whole-milk dairy products for decades. This might not be so bad if those missing calories had been replaced with fruits, vegetables, and healthful plant oils (like olive oil and coconut oil). Unfortunately, the caloric difference had been made up (and exceeded) with refined flour products (bread, pasta) and high fructose corn-syrup (in soda and other sweetened beverages). The result? As a nation, we’re fatter than ever.
For a more in-depth discussion of fat and saturated fat (including many detailed discussions of contemporary clinical research), check out the websites of Kurt Harris, Michael Eades, Gary Taubes, Chris Masterjohn, and Petro Dobromylskyj.
Misconception #2: Grains Are Necessary for Good Health
I’ve discussed the paleo diet in previous posts, and linked to a number of clinical trials that show eating a grain-free diet supports excellent health, strong immunity, fat loss, muscle gain, and has other numerous benefits (including cessation of allergy and asthma symptoms in my own case). In addition to the clinical research, there are thousands of anecdotes that hint at the possibility that a paleo diet (with various degrees of strictness) can reverse autism, lead to massive fat loss, and reverse chronic heartburn/GERD.
Knowing this, it’s massively frustrating to see grains at the bottom of the food pyramid (the foundation of a “healthy” diet). It’s also frustrating to have your kid offered white bread, cake, and/or white-flour crackers at every single school snack time, birthday party, or picnic (by people who mean well, love kids, and are generally “health conscious”). I really wish the “grains are healthy” misconception would die, even more than the low-fat myth.
After you’ve stopped eating grains for awhile (and effortlessly lost that extra ten or twenty pounds you’ve been carrying around for a decade or three), you start to notice what I call the correlation. It’s simple — eating starchy food at every meal prevents you from being lean (unless you are a compulsive exerciser and/or calorie counter). It doesn’t necessarily make you fat — that depends on genetics, activity level, sugar consumption, and the amount of food eaten. But generally, if you see someone with a spare tire, their “reasonable” diet will look something like this:
1) Cereal and low-fat milk for breakfast.
2) Sandwich with white-bread for lunch.
3) Pasta, rice, and/or potatoes with dinner (in addition to whatever protein source and vegetables, if any).
Even someone with a tremendous amount of self-discipline (who eschews snacks, desserts, alcohol, and sweet beverages) will have trouble getting lean with a diet like the one above.
On the other hand, consider someone whose typical diet looks like this:
1) Eggs fried in butter, cheese, fresh fruit, coffee with cream for breakfast.
2) Salad, chicken or fish, beans, and fresh fruit for lunch.
3) Almonds and dark chocolate snack.
4) Lamb-chop or steak cooked in coconut oil, greens cooked in olive oil, salad, red wine, fresh fruit for dinner.
Nine times out of ten that person is going to be effortlessly lean, even if they “cheat” on a regular basis and eat small amounts of bread, ice-cream, rice, or other sweet and starchy foods (or drink beer a few times a week). Exercise? It never hurts, but you’ll still be lean even if you don’t do much more than climb the occasional flight of stairs or do a few air squats in the morning.
Yes, I’ve just described my own diet in the second example. By no means do I think this is the only diet by which to stay lean and healthy. But it makes it damn easy. For at least five years I carried around an extra fifteen to twenty pounds from eating a high-starch, high-sugar diet (and being over thirty, and not very active). Now I’m over forty, stronger than I’ve ever been, with the same waist size I had in high school. On the inside, my blood pressure is normal, my HDL/LDL ratio is good, and my triglycerides are extremely low. I eat as much as I want and never leave the table hungry. Exercise consists of walking, working while standing up (if that even counts), a little bike-riding, and about a minute or two of strength exercise every day. I realize there are much more impressive weight loss stories out there, but my point is that it is incredibly easy to get lean when you don’t eat bread, pasta, and the like on a daily basis (not for everybody, but for most people). The reason is pretty simple — eating protein, fat, and low-starch vegetables quickly leads to satiety. Eating starch and sugar, on the other hand, make you want to eat more starch and sugar (with fresh fruit and beans being the exception; it’s difficult to overeat either food because they are high water-content and high soluble-fiber).
My own diet isn’t low-carb, or low-calorie. It’s definitely not Atkins (which is what most people think of if they notice you’re not eating bread and pasta). It’s closest to Mark Sisson’s “Primal” diet — what I consider to be a low-discipline diet for hedonistic food lovers who don’t mind giving up grains and fast food for the most part.
I don’t think it’s necessary to give up all grains to be healthy. A vegetarian friend of mine recently cut out gluten (found in wheat, barley, and rye) but has continued to eat brown rice, quinoa, and other gluten-free grains. He and his wife (who isn’t veg but also gave up gluten) look fantastic — at least five years younger and much leaner.
What bugs me is the misconception that grains are needed for good health. For more information about eating grain-free check out the websites of Mark Sisson, Richard Nikoley, Robb Wolf, and John Durant.
Misconception #3: Eating Fresh Fruit Makes You Fatter
This idiotic notion wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it wasn’t for Tim Ferriss’s massively popular book The Four Hour Body. Tim’s “slow carb” diet for fat loss allows beans, but not fruit (except on “binge days”). Tim bases this recommendation on a self-experiment during which he drank a large glass of orange juice every day and noted it made him a little fatter.
Now, I’m not a Tim Ferriss hater — the opposite in fact. I’m a fan, and have recommended his blog and books to dozens of friends. He has donated huge amounts to various charities and gotten personally involved. Some of his diet and health tips make tons of sense and are backed by other research (in addition to his kooky self-experiments). And even on the topic of fruit I agree with him that it’s easy to eat too much.
For example, a glass of apple juice plus a box of raisins is a terrible snack — way too much fructose. Your body will react with a huge shot of insulin, your blood sugar will crash, and you’ll feel tired and cranky after a short initial rush. I’ve seen it happen in my daughter’s preschool class. F*cking mayhem.
The same is NOT true for a whole apple, a bowl of fresh berries, or a grapefruit. Those foods take longer to eat, contain much less fructose, and will take a longer time to convert into fuel (because of chewing time and fiber).
You don’t absolutely need fruit any more than you need grains — on this point Ferriss is right. As long as you get enough vitamin C from fresh vegetables like spinach (or even from supplements) then you’ll be fine without it. But you will miss out on hundreds of powerful phytonutrients (some found only in fruit) that have health benefits we are just beginning to understand.
There is also emerging research that shows that fructose may be an ideal fuel for rapid glycogen replacement. Tim Ferriss, Kurt Harris, and the like may be premature in condemning fruit and fructose. Fruit is one of the few plants parts that evolved to be eaten – most fruits are devoid of harmful self-defense chemicals (like the lectins found in legumes and grains). While it makes sense to cut out fruit juice and most dried fruit, eating moderate amounts of fresh fruit (especially lower sugar fruit like berries, tart apples, kiwis, etc.) is going to contribute to fat-loss and good health for the vast majority of people.
Other Food Myths
I was originally going to include food combining, strict macro-nutrient proportions, and a few other dietary misconceptions on this list. I decided not to, because not all wrong ideas about food are harmful (for example if you only want to eat fruit on an empty stomach that’s not going to hurt you or anybody else). The misconceptions above — the ones that push people towards eating more refined grains, processed vegetable oils, syrups, and other empty calories (while avoiding nutrient dense foods like eggs, fatty fish, grass-fed meats, butter from pastured cows, and fresh fruit) are harmful, both to individuals and to societies.
I hate haranguing people about what they eat — it really makes people dislike you. I was a vegetarian for years — the super-annoying variety. Now I don’t lecture people unless they ask, and even then I keep it brief and go the soft-sell route. But on this site I’m going to speak my mind and talk about what pisses me off — after all you can choose not to read it if you want.
On a side note, you might wonder what the hell an electronic music producer is doing writing about health and nutrition. Or quantum mechanics and bees. I’m still trying to figure that out — I’m interested in a huge variety of topics and I can’t seem to narrow it down. I really enjoy seeing the traffic that comes to this blog, and it’s been growing and growing. So thanks for stopping by, and don’t hesitate to subscribe (in the upper right). I post about once a week and try to keep it lively.
Lastly, I’d like to recommend Dan’s Plan for people interested in weight loss (there’s also a Dan’s Plan blog). Dan Pardi is a friend of mine, extremely smart (and well educated), and has designed a comprehensive, holistic, realistic weight loss system that is getting results for many people. Dan and I don’t agree on every point (
he advocates calorie counting, which sounds like a huge pain-in-the-ass to me), but he’s sympathetic to the paleo/grain-free perspective and has a sophisticated understanding of the hormonal systems that control appetite, fat-loss, and sleep.
Correction: Dan’s Plan doesn’t count calories, but rather grams of protein and carbs (meal and daily totals).
I’ll end with a question. Which misconceptions about food, nutrition, or health piss you off?