Nutritional Crime of the Century
There are a few people or groups you just don't screw with. You don't want to piss off the mob, the Klan, or the Crips, and you sure as hell don't want to make fun of Kim Jong Il's haircut.
But the aforementioned pale in comparison when it comes to the vindictive nature of most nutritional scientists and certified dietitians. Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating, but these last two groups — and I guess, at least peripherally, I'm one of them — have screwed you up. Maybe it wasn't intentional, but you were screwed nonetheless.
I bet you can't even look at a piece of food without consciously or subconsciously agonizing over its alleged nutritional value, judging whether it contains the correct amount of fiber, the correct macronutrient ratio, life-giving vitamins, antioxidants, and fatty acids.
Oh, you poor sap.
We puff out our chests and tell you what foods to eat, which vitamins to consume and which antioxidants (chortle) you should eat to fight cancer.
Then, then, when some study comes out, as it did last week in JAMA, that high doses of certain antioxidants (Vitamins A and E) could actually cause cancer, we cough nervously, clear our throats, and mutter something about the vagaries of science.
Take a look at the following list of chemicals, all anti-oxidants:
4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isocholorgenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid
Must be the label of the latest vitamin from the Centrum people, right? Nope, they're the antioxidants contained in a simple piece of thyme. (Thyme is the green crap your mother sprinkles on the rib roast to add flavor.)
And don't think for a second that thyme is some wonder food. I just used it as an example of how antioxidants are everywhere and how their number is legion.
Yet garden-variety nutritionists deem to study a handful of them here and there and make blanket recommendations. They ignore the possible complex interactions between them and other chemicals; they don't take into consideration that maybe the alleged healthful benefits of any one antioxidant might be dependent on being ingested simultaneously with one, two, or a dozen other antioxidants or phytochemicals. They ignore what I've publicly worried about for years, that taking large amounts might actually turn antioxidants into pro-oxidants — chemicals that actually cause free radicals to be formed.
What balls. What hubris.
And you wonder why Biotest hasn't come out with a vitamin or anti-oxidant formula? Our nutritionists are a bit more responsible. While we've been working on it for years, it's not that easy — especially if you're trying to do it the right way. It's definitely a little more complicated than the One-A-Day people would have you believe.
But the fact that vitamins and mineral supplements are even needed is a crime, one aided by nutritional science but probably originally perpetrated by big business.
According to Michael Pollan in an article in the New York Times Magazine (Unhappy Meals, January 28th, 2007) about the state of American nutrition, it was in the 1980's that food began disappearing from grocery store shelves, to be gradually replaced by "nutrients."
While Pollan is loath to point out a single historical event that heralded the beginning of the "age of nutritionism," he assigns a good portion of the blame to a "little-noticed dust-up in Washington in 1977."
In response to an alarming increase in the rate of cardiovascular disease, a Senate Select Committee, headed by South Dakota Senator George McGovern, held hearings on the subject. They prepared what looked to be a fairly innocuous document called "Dietary Goals for the United States." They'd simply noticed that cultures that had diets based largely on plants had low rates of chronic disease. They also noted that during WWII, during which time meat was rationed, the rate of heart disease had plummeted.
So they put forth some guidelines. They recommended Americans cut down on meat and dairy products.
Big mistake. Like the entities I mentioned at the beginning of my article, you also don't screw with the red-meat and dairy industries. They mooed and clucked angrily and forced the guidelines to be rewritten, lest they withhold their campaign contributions.
The Government buckled. Instead of saying, "reduce consumption of meat," it was changed to "Choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake." See? It wasn't the excess of fatty meat, but the saturated fat that's the villain.
Unfortunately, it was too late for wannabe do-gooder McGovern. They swift boated him in the very next election, thus sending a warning to other would-be health advocates that anyone who monkeyed around with the big piece of meat that had become the centerpiece of the American diet would be stuck in the proverbial freezer with the other unfortunate carcasses.
From that point on, Government stopped talking about whole foods. Food began to be discussed in terms of nutrients. Terms like saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, along with cholesterol, carbohydrates, fiber, and carotenes began to appear on labels in bold, colored letters and whether a food was good or not had to do largely with whether or not it contained these things.
Meanwhile, whole, natural foods like carrots and potatoes and spinach sat unheralded and unnoticed in their bins like the fat girl at the prom. Plain ol' food began to be regarded as ordinary and decidedly unscientific.
The food industry then began to re-engineer foods to contain more of the nutrients that science and government had deemed good and less of the nutrients that were deemed bad. Food, for better or worse, got all sciencey.
Since fat was bad (the Government had said so!), the food supply was reformulated to give us low-fat Snackwell cookies and low-fat pasta. We were soon pancreas-deep in high-fructose corn syrup. (Hey, it's low fat!)
Trouble was, America got really, really fat on this diet. Eating the carbs that were brought in to replace evil fat made us fat, which, if you ask any cattle rancher, should have been no surprise at all because, as Pollan points out, man has been using carbohydrates to fatten up animals for thousands of years.
With all this reliance on carbohydrates, foods became more and more refined. In a matter of speaking, they came to you pre-digested. The fiber was removed, which meant it had to be fortified with vitamins, and only those vitamins that nutritionists deemed important or healthful. The flour was pulverized into dust. This drywall mix masquerading as food was more easily digested than even plain sucrose or glucose. Eating it day after day caused repeated Everest-like spikes in insulin, often leading to Type II diabetes.
As quoted in Pollan's article, one nutrition expert claims America is "in the middle of a national experiment in mainlining glucose."
Of course, the nutritionists and scientists really didn't do much to clear up the picture when they released the Women's Health Initiative early last year. The newspapers slapped it on their front pages: "Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risks, Study Finds."
The study had tracked the dietary habits of nearly 49,000 women (ages 50 to 70 at the beginning of the study) over eight years. Women were told to decrease their daily intake of fat to 20 percent of total calories. After 8 years, the low-fat biddies had the same health problems as their normal-fat counterparts.
The trouble was, the study was as riddled with holes as a reduced-fat Swiss cheese. Pollan points out that the focus of the study was "fat," rather than any particular food, like meat or dairy. So women could comply simply by switching to lower-fat animal products.
Secondly, there was no distinction between types of fat. Fats from olive oil or fish were congealed together with fats from meat or dairy. Lastly, the women lied their hefty asses off. When the study began, the average participant weighed 170 pounds and ate only 1,800 calories a day.
When it ended, the average woman lost only one or two pounds after supposedly having dropped to 1,400 to 1,500 calories a day. Crappola. Studies on food assessment indicate that the people eat on average between a fifth and a third more food than they remember or claim, and these women were probably no different.
Regardless, the average fat bastard saw the headline and celebrated with a cheeseburger. The average person went back to eating tons of fat, along with tons of processed carbs.
This nutritional fog raised by nutritionists and scientists has continually been thickened by the food industry. All this reengineering of food has led to what Pollan calls simplification of the food chain.
Chemical fertilizers have simplified the soil. By cherry picking the chemicals and nutrients that go into the fertilizer, crops have probably been deprived from thousand of trace elements, chemicals, and nutrients that are common to good ol' fashion naturally fertile ground. As a result, according to the USDA, the nutritional quality of food in America has declined significantly. Today's tomato ain't yesterday's.
Sure, scientists can add back (fortify) certain nutrients, but again they're cherry picking; adding back only those they deem important. What are they missing?
Simplification has also affected the diversity of food species. Humankind has historically eaten some 80,000 edible species, but today, just four crops account for two-thirds of the calories we eat today. As omnivores, we require between 50 and 100 different chemical compounds and elements to maintain health (not to mention the possible healthful benefits of thousands of known or unknown phytochemicals).
Pollan finds it hard to believe that we get everything we need from a diet that consists largely of processed corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice.
Another serious problem is the shift from a leaf-based diet to a seed-based diet. The aforementioned four crops are all grains. Grains make good economic sense. They're very efficient at transforming sunlight into macronutrients. These macronutrients can then be easily transformed into animal protein by feeding them to food animals and easily transformed into Pop Tarts, Cocoa-Puffs, and all the other carb-rich foods in the grocery store.
The trouble is, omega-3 fatty acids come largely from leaves, not seeds. Seeds contain more omega-6 fatty acids. By the strictest definitions of health, humans should have perhaps a 1 to 1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Unfortunately, since we eat so many grains — since the animals we feed on eat so many grains — we're omega-lopsided. That 1 to 1 ratio is more on the order of 10 to 1 or even 20 to 1 in favor of omega-6 fatty acids.
This imbalance may be largely responsible for many of the chronic diseases that afflict Western society, most notably heart disease and diabetes.
That brings me to the ultimate absurdity. Medicine is learning to keep alive the people made sick by the Western diet. We're making great strides in treating heart disease and work continues on treating diabetes and obesity. Cholesterol itself is a tremendously lucrative industry all by its lonesome. Sure, why not? It's the perfect disease: no symptoms, and what constitutes "normal" is almost completely arbitrary and changes from year to year.
And it's getting worse, not better.
Compound all of this with the fact that approximately 17,000 new food products are introduced every year, and whether we eat them or not is not so much up to any rational decision on our part, but the collective power of marketing muscle, cherry-picking science, and journalists eager to fill column space. In a particularly absurd example of nutritional folly and business opportunism, the Coca-Cola company will soon be adding select vitamins to its flagship drink.
I can just hear it now, "Drink your Coke, honey. It's good for you."
Pollan's article didn't squeak by the world of conventional dietitians and nutritionists without notice. Stephanie Atkinson, the President of the American Society of Nutrition, fired off an angry letter:
"...Blaming scientists for our poor eating habits may fit nicely with his view that old is good and new is bad, but here he is guilty of oversimplification and reductionism that he allegedly abhors.
"To cite one recent example of the benefits of nutrition science research, folate fortification of flour in the US and Canada has resulted in six-fold reduction in infants born with neural tube defects."
Ironically, Ms. Atkinson is inadvertently supporting Pollan's assertion. If we hadn't processed the flour in the first place, we probably wouldn't need to fortify it with folate!
And while her letter of complaint might not indicate any mass militancy on the part of the American Dietetics Association (ADA), a number of other registered dietitians have told me that if they stray from "accepted" dietary dogma, if they're not in lock step with the mighty ADA, they risk losing their license, certification, magic powers, or whatever they've been given that allows them to claim to be a registered dietitian.
It seems all that bad food has angried up their blood.
Pollan, however, tries mightily to offer us some hope. He offers some rules of "decidedly unscientific" rules of thumb, many of which are no doubt familiar to long-time readers of this site.
Among them is to not eat "anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." I've long followed a similar but slightly modified version of that rule:
Don't eat anything that comes in a box.
This is obviously an over-simplification, but stuff that comes in a box and is contained in wax paper is generally over processed.
Another useful point is to buy foods from farmer's markets as often as possible. Foods there are generally grown close by (fresh), and hopefully, without all of the nutritional disadvantages presented by big agriculture.
While Pollan didn't make this point, my recommendation is to make sure the meat you buy was grass fed, and if possible, raised organic. That way, you'll have at least some assurance that your meat has the proper God-intended omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
Pollan also recommends cooking your own food as often as possible, but that's probably self-evident. Only then can you know where the food came from and what it contains.
Lastly (at least the last one of his recommendations I concur with), eat like an omnivore, i.e., introduce as many new foods to your diet as possible. Never tasted a rutabaga before? Throw it in the food cart. Never tried kale? eat it up. And perhaps most importantly in embracing nutritional diversity, eat leaves.
"The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover your nutritional bases," advises Pollan.
That's pretty sound advice.
Obviously, while most readers of this site are interested in health, we're also interested in pushing the boundaries of human achievement, physically and esthetically. Hence, I'll continue to eat protein powders and the like simply because it's too damn hard to get all that protein from meat and — based on a lot of evidence presented in this article — too damn unhealthy to eat all that animal meat.
Similarly, I'll continue to use supplements to further athletic performance or help alter body composition, but it seems plain old good health shouldn't be such a mystery. Maintaining nutritional health should be easy, not like some real-life Da Vinci Code, complete with its own conspiracies and evil characters.
Note: This article is dedicated to Testosterone Nation member mtotry, who I caught buying a freakin' packet of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vitamins in a foil packet at the counter of our gym.
Another note: The first compilation of TC's best Atomic Dog columns is now available as The Testosterone Principles. Got a friend who sorely needs some inspiration or some laughs? Know a teenager who hasn't found his way yet? Got a girlfriend who doesn't "get" men? The Testosterone Principles is the perfect solution. For more information, click HERE.
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