Death By Food Pyramid

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Even though I have been on vacation, it doesn’t mean I stopped learning. I just finished reading Denise Minger’s Death By Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Ruined your Health….and How to Reclaim it! It was an excellent book and it made me realize how I may have been wrong with my thinking on nutrition. I let my own personal bias settle into my arguments on proper nutrition.  In the book, Minger breaks down the history of the food pyramid, the shoddy science behind it, and what optimal nutrition may truly be. I recommend getting the book and reading it yourself, but let me go over some of the important points.

It all began in 1968 with senator George McGovern. After seeing a CBS documentary on “Hunger in America“, the senator decided he needed to help reform nutrition. McGovern met Nathan Pritikin, who was an inventor turned diet guru, who wanted to eradicate heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Enter Lester Morrison, a cardiologist who believed a drop in heart disease during World War 2 was due to a low fat, low cholesterol rationed diet. Pritikin was intrigued by Morrison’s experiments using the mock rationed diet, helping people slash their cholesterol levels and increase their survival rates. Pritikin found out that he was suffering from heart disease and following a low fat, sugar free, salt free, vegetarian diet with regular exercise, reduced his cholesterol and reversed his heart disease. He then created the Pritikin Longevity Center and his work became popular, ending up in articles, books, and even on 60 Minutes. In his protocol, he not only reduced fat, but sugar, refined grains, salt, and highly processed foods. The media keyed in on the low fat aspect and the other factors became lost in the background. McGovern, after discovering that he too was battling heart disease, decided to follow the Pritikin protocol and reduced his cholesterol from 350 to 170. Pritikin eventually took his own life while enduring a arduous fight with leukemia. McGovern was determined to carry on Pritikin’s work and reform nutrition in America. He formed a committee and similar to Pritkin, they recommended all Americans eat a diet low in fat, meat, dairy, sugar, salt, and highly processed foods. The food industry was unimpressed to say the least with these recommendations, and under pressure, McGovern agreed to revise the recommended dietary goals. The food pyramid was eventually born out of this early effort at nutrition reform. It was built upon, as the author included in the title of her book, shoddy science, sketchy politics, and shady special interests.

Minger rips into the shoddy science in the next section of the book. This is a very valuable part of the text that gives you information to evaluate the so called nutrition experts/gurus and how to make sense of nutritional research, including how to read a scientific paper. Some of the most popular theories for the cause of heart disease were actually based on some weak science. Nutrition scientist Ancel Keys, came up with the diet-heart hypothesis. The diet-heart hypothesis is the belief that saturated fat raises cholesterol, thus causing heart disease. He used observational associations which could never prove cause and effect. As Minger puts it, “It’s like trying to solve a murder with only a picture of the crime scene.” As you can see, it’s not very reliable. John Yudkin, who I have mentioned before in my summary of his book Pure, White, and Deadly, came to the conclusion that sugar was the true cause of heart disease. I became convinced of his argument, but unfortunately, he was just as guilty as Keys of using shoddy science. So these men battled it out with their theories and Keys ended up as the victor. Unfortunately, the rest of America appeared to be the victims. Following the low fat recommendations has led to massive health problems. These men were neither heroes or villains in this story of nutrition, and I believe both men were truly trying to solve the heart disease mystery. It’s apparent that their egos became involved and each one was trying to prove they were right. The author makes note that both men were on to something with their research, that both sugar and fat play a part in poor health, and they probably could have accomplished something much greater if they could have worked together, instead of against each other. Each man tried to single out a single macro nutrient, which in a sense, gave them a tunnel vision according to Minger.

So what’s the real cause of heart disease and poor health? “It depends”, a popular saying that I have been hearing in the exercise science field as of late, and I believe it applies to nutrition too. The combination of fat and sugar in specific ways, may be the true cause of heart disease but there are many other variables involved which include genetics, exercise, and stress. The author also touches upon the destructive powers of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), analyzes meat consumption and plant based diets. She also talks about what the ideal nutrition plan may be based on what we have learned from the past.  Minger identifies three diets that appear to have the most scientific promise in boosting health, Paleo, Mediterranean, and plant based diets. All these diets omit the following which is why they are successful:

  • Refined Flour
  • Refined Sugar
  • Industrially Processed Vegetable Oils
  • Chemical Preservatives and Lab Produced Anythings
  • Any creation in a crinkly tinfoil package, microwavaeble tray, or fast food take out bag

The three identified nutritional strategies can be enhanced with a few things. Due to scientific evidence, limiting your meat consumption and cooking it gently is a solid strategy for Paleo followers. Mediterranean enthusiasts should take into account the nutritionally high content of snails and wild edible greens that are commonly eaten on the island of Crete. Fasting is also an important part of Orthodox Christianity which is very popular there. Plant based devotees should get their blood checked and be aware of any signs of nutritional deficiencies. Minger was a one time vegetarian herself, mentions that an entirely plant based diet without any intake of animal products are in a way, experimental, because no human population in the past has lived exclusively on plant foods and thrived. If there are deficiencies, they may not appear for decades, or even until the next generation. And lastly, if people choose to follow a low carb, high fat diet, watch for sky rocketing LDL levels which may identify that this type of diet is not for you based on your genetics. One last interesting thing from the book to note, while some associations could be made with high cholesterol and heart disease, which remember, aren’t iron clad, those with higher cholesterol levels were actually less likely to die of health problems unrelated to heart disease, such as cancer. Something to think about.

I highly recommend reading this book and I only tapped the surface with my summary here. There is a wealth of interesting and useful information in it’s pages. It opened my eyes to looking at research and even realizing when my own bias creeps into a post. Nutrition is probably an individual thing that you must explore to find out what works best for you. Veganism and vegetariansim did not work well for me and an extremely low carb diet spiked my LDLs significantly. I feel that a Paleo diet with low to moderate carbs, moderate protein, and moderate fat seems to work best for me based on how I feel, and my blood work.  I would not know this if I hadn’t experimented with the different approaches. I have seen those who thrive on extremely low carbs, and those who say they thrive on plant based. Find your own truth. Question nutrition experts and nutritional research. Your health is worth it!

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