Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Not a week goes by where I'm not hit with some wacky, new diet direction. Just in the last 10-15 years, there have been many that went mainstream, like the Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Glycemic Index and Paleo. The churn never ends.

Even as a youngster in the late 1960's, I remember eggs suddenly becoming bad for you. Saturated fats followed, butter being replaced with margarine. We now know cholesterol in eggs isn't bad for you and trans-fats are far worse than saturated fat.

Then fats altogether became evil, and a diet based on high carbohydrate consumption was going to save our sorry, sedentary asses. Most readers know how well that worked out, as a couple generations are now addicted to simple calories with poor nutrient content. The pendulum swings back.

There are a whole slew of evils today, too many to stay on top of. Gluten, which has gone through rapid evolution in the last half century is now claimed to be toxic because we haven't adapted to it. GMO is especially evil, as big companies are behind modifying our foods for profit, not our health. The politicians are in cahoots with big agri-business, so it is all evil.  Then there are antibiotics and hormones used to raise meat, eggs and milk. These make it into our bodies and cause all sorts of maladies, so the story goes.

So what is the best diet? Is it even determinable? If so, what criteria do you use? Longevity? Fitness measures? Propagating the species? These measures aren't very well correlated. Optimizing one can be detrimental to another. In evolutionary terms, the best diet is one that lets one produce the most offspring. Once your children have grown and become of age, you can die. You've made your contribution to the gene pool. It is interesting to note that the underprivileged around the world often have bigger families and have limited access to what many would consider a high quality diet. In Darwinistic terms, a cheap, highly processed diet appears to be extremely successful.

People in wealthy societies no longer have to forage for food to survive. We've lost that connection. We've engineered food products that stimulate our evolved survival triggers. Carbs do wacky things in our brains. We crave them. Large carb intake lets us easily store energy for a long spell with no food intake. This goes awry when the long spell with no food intake never occurs, and the stored energy keeps packing on.

The reason I wanted to comment on this topic is this. People latch on to diet memes with religious fervor. They can't possibly know the long term effects of their dietary direction, but they are absolutely certain they are right. In my lifetime, nobody doubted fats were bad for you when I was young. It was just common knowledge, obvious, you didn't even question it. So what things today, are we as convinced are good, will be deemed evil in 25 or 40 years? You just can't know. But there will be things we'll know better on. Thus the folly of holding beliefs so tightly.

Diet proponents love touting statistics, as if they are irrefutable truth. If we eliminate X from our diet, Y lives would be saved each year. They also translate this into dollars saved, especially since our healthcare is becoming socialized.  They have studies to prove their beliefs. The thing is, studies these days can be twisted to prove just about anything you want. It's too easy to cherry pick the studies to back up the memes you became infected with.

So here's a question I cannot find answered anywhere. If people don't die or become ill because they change something in their behavior, such as diet, where is the rest of the analysis that says how they ultimately die still results a net gain? You're almost led to believing that behavior change will make you live forever, or when you do die, you'll just drop dead without warning and not cost the tax payer a cent.

My experience, seeing a number of relatives grow very old before dying, is that quality of life is often poor, and what you die from at very old age can often be much more costly and burdensome on loved ones than if you died from, say, a heart attack at a younger age.

As an engineer, I'm often required to perform a life cycle analysis of a new product. What is the cost to develop the product? Maintain it? Retire it? What is the environmental cost? We do this for products.

How about people expounding diets, exercise fads, safety requirements and anything that can impact longevity, also perform a complete life cycle analysis. Start by looking at quality of the whole life, cost of the whole life, and not just longevity. Americans live so much longer now than 200 years ago. You'd think just the opposite should be true from diet proponent rhetoric.

For a while I've toyed with trying a gluten free diet. I'm quite confident I have no gluten tolerance issues. However, there are pundits out there that say gluten can cause inflammation.  My knees don't feel as chipper as they did 10 years ago. Could going on a "low inflammation" diet improve things? Maybe riding, skiing and running 600-700 hours per year for the last 17 years is just plain catching up to my 51 year old body! I've tried some gluten free items. Cathy has baked gluten free bread. I think I'd rather gnaw on particle board than eat gluten free bread. Bread simply isn't without gluten. Same with pasta. My fear is getting suckered down this path, only to find I derive no benefit and degraded something I derive great pleasure from - eating.

No doubt some readers will disagree with me on some of these points. You may ask where I stand with some of the current trends. For one, I don't have an irrational fear of genetically modified food crops. I can see far more good ultimately coming from this than bad. Sure, there may be some hick-ups along the way, but man, it would be great if food could be produced in parts of the world where it is tough to grow food now. I fear nuclear annihilation or an engineered pathogen wiping us out far more (which I worry little about) than GMO's in my food.

Don't be swayed to and fro by every "new diet revelation" that permeates the media. It will be bullshit a few years from now anyway. Make your diet as diverse as possible. Exclude nothing that people have been eating for thousands of years.  This includes all kinds of plants and animals, including eggs and milk.  Humans can survive, even thrive, on the most diverse food sources, better than virtually any mammal in existence. How many animals can switch between pure carnivore and pure herbivore?  Humans can.  You'd be hard pressed to eat too much of anything diet pundits claim is "bad" for you if you eat different kinds of things each meal and each day.


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog a few weeks ago. I find it inspirational and thank you for your writings. This diet issue prompts my comment. (I have never done this before!) I agree with your premises - today's "fad" may be tomorrow's bad news. Look - years ago even cyclists smoked! I saw that poster. Issue becomes the science (versus the results.) Campbell's - The China Study; and Esselstyn's - Preventing and Reversing Coronary Artery Disease were recommended to me by my Dr. (who reduced his cholesterol dramatically going plant based, no meds). I have gone plant based (90%) - cycled thus far (road only) 5,700 miles in '13 (like where can I buy good winter shoes?), lost 55 pounds, cholesterol drop from 225 to 139, no meds. Age 57. I do not race. I am do not want to "be a burden to the family". I get that. I visit people in nursing homes all the time. My Dad had a heart attack at 50, became quite a different man, - I was 10. He died at 68. I look at these books and I think there is some science to back them up - and think that food intake does make a difference. Maybe I am just another "fad junkie." I get that point and think it has credence. But my cholesterol drop and weight loss are good results and backed up by some science - albeit the science (The China Study) is not based on causative proven connections. But I do believe there might be a difference between the latest "fad" and what some of these other Drs. are backing up with some science. Keep up your wonderful stuff!

rick is! said...

fad diets are dumb but some of the diets you note (paleo for instance because it's the one I know the most about) make a whole lot of sense in that they primarily eliminate overly processed foods from your diet. how can that be a bad thing? I've been following a 90% paleo diet for the last year and no doubt, have a healthier overall diet as a result.

oh no! we're eating more fruits, vegetables and high quality meats and less processed and junk food than a year ago. we're obviously mindless sheep...

there are ridiculous zealots out there that will take things to the extreme and advocate eating only what was available 20k years ago but most of us (at least us athletic types, not couch potatoes) are rational human beings and can recognize the difference between fads and good sense.

Soups said...

A quote from the movie Sleeper by Woody Allen.

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.


Anonymous said...

The cost-benefit analysis (as far as longevity goes) is never fully explored. When looking at quitting smoking, the studies only look at the cost of smoking related illnesses, subtract those, and say big savings. They do not look at someone dying from lung cancer at age 65 versus someone being in a nursing home with dementia for from age 80 to 85. Even without a major illness, just living an extra 20 years means an extra 20 years of medications and perhaps a new knee or hip along the way. The other socialized cost that is ignored is social security. Living an extra 20 years is an extra 20 years of social security payments.

Or, maybe the solutions is this: http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Half_a_Life_%28episode%29