Edited to remove book plugs.
The Problems with Nutrition Science
I know you might feel a bit hopeless after the last blog where I explored why we are all so confused about what to eat.
The bottom line: we are confused because we hear conflicting scientific reports, our government funds bad food and gives us corrupt advice, and the food industry benefits from keeping us confused.
I know this seems super depressing and we can be left feeling like what’s the point—I give up and I am just going to eat whatever I want because no one can agree on anything.
But don’t give in to that. That is EXACTLY what the food industry wants you to feel.
The good news is that the truth about nutrition, the basic guiding principles of how and what to eat to promote health, weight loss and longevity—AND to prevent, treat, and reverse most chronic disease is pretty simple.
I have read thousands of papers on nutrition and tried and recommended various ways of eating with tens of thousands of patients over 20 years. And I’ve seen the effects of food on weight, health, diabetes, gut issues, autoimmune disease, and lots more.
I have read between the lines, not just the headlines in the media, which are wrong about half the time, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
There is one more thing I want to cover about why we are so confused: the study of nutrition.
Nutrition science is a very tough field to study. The best study would be to take 10,000 people, randomize them, put them in a controlled environment, provide the food, feed them different diets, and follow them for 10 to 30 years.
That ain’t happening so we have to rely on basic science, smaller, shorter term studies, or population studies, which can’t prove cause and effect.
For example, when you look at meat studies, they seem to show that people who eat meat are sicker and at a greater risk of heart attacks and cancer. But those studies are done by asking people to fill out a food frequency questionnaire every year—what they ate yesterday or last week. Good luck if you can remember. I cover all of this in my book Food, What the Heck Should I Eat?
There’s another problem that makes it hard to interpret the population studies—it’s called the healthy user effect.
During the time of the studies on meat, the prevailing wisdom was that meat was bad for your health. The people who didn’t eat meat were typically more health conscious—they exercised, didn’t smoke, ate lots of fruits and veggies, and stayed away from sugar and processed food.
And people who ate meat didn’t really care much about their health, smoked more, ate 800 calories more a day, weighed more, ate less fruits and veggies, more processed food, and didn’t exercise.
Is it any surprise that they were sicker than the non-meat eaters? Not really!
In my book, I give you the take home, take it to the bank (or take it to the fridge) lessons I have learned the hard way. I wrote the book to help you to become empowered and intelligent about food.
To finally be able to answer the question, what the heck should I eat?
If our government policies, the food industry, the challenges of nutrition science, and the media make us confused and misinformed, how do we get to the truth about food and how do we answer the question nagging all of us:
What should I eat?
Is there a way of eating that will help us feel better, lose weight, have more energy, prevent and treat and even reverse most chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, autoimmune disease, and more?
This is a high stakes question—it’s not like picking out your bathroom tile. I have come to the conclusion that the answer is pretty simple.
It is based on a few key principles that almost everyone can agree on. I jokingly call it the Pegan Diet—poking fun at the extremes of Paleo and Vegan.
Both camps claim that if you eat what they recommend you will be healthy, thin, and live forever. And if you eat what the opposing camp recommends you will get fat, sick, and die early.
Clearly, they can’t both be right.
Surprisingly, there is a lot in common between the two extreme ways of eating. If we focus on what’s in common, then we can at least set some ground rules and agree on basic principles.
But before we get into WHAT to eat and the controversies about food, I want to ask you a simple question.
What is food?
Check out this label. Can you guess what it is?
Ingredients: Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Flour, Reduced Iron, B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid)], Corn Syrup, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Animal Shortening (Soybean, Cottonseed and/or Canola Oil, Beef Fat), Whole Eggs, Dextrose. Contains 2% or Less of: Modified Corn Starch, Glucose, Leavenings (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate), Sweet Dairy Whey, Soy Protein Isolate, Calcium and Sodium Caseinate, Salt, Mono and Diglycerides, Polysorbate 60, Soy Lecithin, Soy Flour, Cornstarch, Cellulose Gum, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness), Yellow 5, Red 40.
It’s a Twinkie.
Is it food? No. It is a food-like substance with 37 different ingredients, most of which are not food, like calcium sulfate, which is plaster.
What about an avocado?
It’s just an avocado. It doesn’t come in a box, package, or can, and it doesn’t have an ingredient list or a nutrition facts label. It is just an avocado. The avocado is not a man-made processed, colored, extrusion of refined oils, sugars flours, and a host of chemicals.
These are distinctions even a five-year-old can make. Why is so hard for us to figure out? The sad thing is we feed our kids things we would NEVER feed our dog. French fries and soda for your puppy anyone?
Why Food Quality Matters More Than Quantity
We have ALSO been taught that all calories are the same. It’s what our government tells us, what nutritionists and doctors tell us. It’s what the food industry tells us.
All calories are the same—it’s all about moderation.
The science shows that food is not just energy or calories but information that regulates almost every function of our body.
In a lab, all calories are the same when you burn them. But not when you EAT them. Your body is a complicated biochemical, hormonal soup controlled mostly by what you eat.
Our gene expression, our hormones, our immune system, our gut flora, our brain chemistry, our muscle mass, our metabolism, and more are all changed with EVERY single bite of food.
Food is the code that programs your biology. You can literally upgrade or downgrade your biological software with every single bite.
It turns out the QUALITY of our food matters more the QUANTITY of the food we eat. And it’s a lot easier to control WHAT we eat than HOW MUCH we eat.
The QUALITY of the proteins, fats, and carbs is super important.
Sure, you are getting protein, fat, and carbs if you eat factory-farmed feedlot hamburger full of hormones, antibiotics, along with fries and a soda. But is that the same as eating grass-fed beef, olive oil, and broccoli? Those are also protein, fat and carbs.
Of course not!
If you live on soda and donuts, it will send a very different set of instructions to your body than if you eat real, whole foods and lots of fruits and veggies.
Another simple principle is to ask yourself the question: is this man-made or nature-made? It doesn’t take a nutrition PhD to figure that out.
Is a pop tart nature-made or man-made?
Here’s my rule: If nature made it, eat it, if man made it, leave it.
Before you stick something in your mouth ask yourself:
Is this food? Or is this a food-like substance?
You should NOT eat foods containing ingredients you wouldn’t find in your cupboard.
Anyone have Polysorbate 60, or Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate or Yellow dye 5 and Red dye 40 hanging around in your house? How about butylated hydroxytoluene? Yum!
Didn’t think so.
Every day we find out more about the toxicity of these additives, yet they stay in our food.
There are 3000 food additives on the market. The average American eats 5 pounds of additives a year.
It Matters How Our Food is Grown and Raised
Whether you are vegan, paleo, or just believe in eating healthy, we can all agree we should be eating whole foods, that we should avoid processed foods, sugars, refined oils, food additives or foods laden with antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides.
We can also agree that we should be eating foods that don’t destroy the environment by depleting the soil, draining our aquifers and water reserves, or poisoning our waterways with fertilizers and pesticides.
And that we shouldn’t be eating factory farmed animals because it is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. In fact, our current food system is the number one contributor to climate change.
Not to mention the horrors of animal abuse and the overuse of antibiotics that leads to the development of superbugs killing humans because no antibiotics work.
We also need to ask ourselves—Do our food choices pass the sniff test? In other words, do our food choices make common sense?
Should we really be eating 5 pounds of food additives a year?
Or 133 pounds of refined flour and 152 pounds of sugar a year per person? These are pharmacologic doses of proven addictive substances we never ate 200 years ago.
Should we consume 10 percent of our calories from refined GMO soybean oil—something that didn’t even exist 150 years ago?
Should we really be feeding our kids sugary cereal full of dyes that turns the milk funny colors?
You don’t need an advanced science degree to understand that our bodies did not evolve on this stuff.
Or know that the scourge of chronic disease, which now affects one out of every two Americans could be related to the radical change in our diet in the last 100 years from whole real unprocessed food to our current toxic diet.
And the products of our industrial food system don’t just make us fat and sick. It also damages our brains and robs us of our ability to live full and happy lives.
Kids who go to school with chips and soda for breakfast can’t focus, concentrate, or learn. This creates an achievement gap, which is one of the reasons why the US is 38th in math and 24th in reading in the world.
Those kids end up not going to college and having lower paying jobs and struggling their whole lives.
So, what am I saying?
By eating the right food, we can not only get healthy, lose weight, and live longer but we can reverse climate change, save our scarcest resource—water, and end desertification.
We can reduce poverty and violence, make kids smarter and more successful, and even save our government and economy by reversing the economic burden of chronic disease.
That’s right—it is because food is the nexus where everything comes together.
So then what ARE the basic principles of eating well?
We should not eat processed industrial food and we should eat real whole food that doesn’t harm us, the planet, or the economy.
Anyone switching from the typical American diet where 56% of our calories come from processed foods, where the average American consumes 44 gallons of soda a year to a diet of real food—whether it is vegan or Paleo or anything in between—WILL get healthier.
But that begs the question, “What is the best diet for us humans?”
Keep in mind that we are all genetically unique and need to find a way of eating that matches our needs.
But at the end of the day, your body is the smartest doctor in the room—it will tell you what works and what doesn’t—by what happens to your weight and how you feel.
Now even though we’re all unique, there are still some basic guidelines we can follow to achieve our best health.
In my book out February 27, 2018, Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? you will learn exactly what to eat, how to shop and cook, and have all the tools you need to live a long and healthy life.
I uncover the truth about the food we actually eat—what is healthy and not in each group of foods we eat—meat, poultry and eggs, dairy, beans, grains, veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds, beverages, and more and guide to you to a science-based, sensible way of eating for life that keeps you, our planet, and our society healthy. I also address the environmental and social impact of the food we eat.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD