Thursday, September 27, 2012

Update: Health & Happiness

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post titled Health & Happiness about some of the super-restrictive diets that seem to becoming the trend these days. I mentioned a friend of mine who had adopted one of these diets and suggested that I try it too. Well this morning that same friend shared an article on Facebook regarding the diet she follows [Paleo] that I thought was a helpful follow-up to my post. The article is from Men's Health magazine and can be found here. It's a pretty long and detailed article that explains the historic rationale behind eating primarily meat, vegetables and fruits and it makes a compelling case. However, it also includes information that questions this style of eating as the be-all-end-all for health and longevity that it claims to be. I'm just going to share a few excerpts that I found to be particularly interesting since they provide information that suggests perhaps this type of diet is not quite as necessary for health as its proponents might claim. But by all means read the full article if you're interested in the reasoning for eating a diet like this.

I highlighted points I thought were of special note and added my own comments in red.

Excerpt #1

"Some diseases have an obvious connection to diet. Celiac disease, for example, is an autoimmune condition triggered by gliadin, a protein found in gluten, a natural component of wheat and other cereal grains. Lectins are other problematic proteins found in high concentrations in beans, legumes, and cereal grains. But others have no known connection to diet, and that's where I find myself wondering if the paleo advocates are pushing their basic idea too far.

Two big problems emerge here. One is logical, the other factual.
"Here is a group of people who claim to take an evolutionary approach to life, yet show that they do not understand evolution," says Mathieu Lalonde, Ph.D., an organic chemist at Harvard. "Just because we have the same genes as our Paleolithic ancestors doesn't mean we're meant to eat the same things. There have been adaptations." For a diet plan supposedly rooted in science, how is it not acknowledged that people have constantly changed and adapted over the course of hundreds of thousands of years?!

Among them are increases in enzymes that help us digest starches and lactose (the sugar in milk). These adaptations are unevenly distributed among various populations around the world. What matters is whether a particular food is tolerated. I totally get that for some people, a diet like this can relieve symptoms they experience from a food intolerance, but it seems a little broad to suggest that it is suitable/necessary for anyone who wants to be healthy. The simplest way to figure this out, Lalonde says, is to stop eating a food or food group for 30 to 60 days and see what happens.

There's also a problem with the idea that "diseases of Western civilization" are all or mostly related to diet, or that they're even new.

Take for example Otzi the Iceman, whose frozen (thus preserved) 5,300-year-old corpse was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. Otzi was in his 40s when he was shot in the back with an arrow, which probably killed him. But if the arrow hadn't done him in, his clogged arteries suggest that he might not have lived much longer. (He also suffered from arthritis.) According to a recent study in Nature Communications, Otzi had several genetic markers that nearly doubled his risk of heart disease. In other words, a man who lived thousands of years before the mythical Trojan War had genes that strongly suggested he might eventually die of the number one cause of death afflicting 21st-century Americans.

The genes that show up on Cordain's disease checklist may not be exactly new either. In The Blue Zones, author Dan Buettner's study of the places where people live the longest, we meet residents of an isolated, mountainous region in Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy. The people who live in that area have genes with origins that date back to Paleolithic times. The good news is that the people there seem wired to live for a very long time. The bad news is that they're also at high risk for a pair of autoimmune diseases: type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

So yet again we find "diseases of Western civilization" encoded in ancestral genomes. Another inconvenient fact comes to light in studies of the healthiest, longest-living people in places like Sardinia; Okinawa; and Nicoya, Costa Rica: They all eat cereal grains like wheat, corn, and rice—lots of cereal grains, in fact—along with legumes. The Sardinians are also fond of their wine and dairy.

The agrarian diet is typically low in protein and fat but high in plant-derived carbs, while the paleo diet is high in protein and fat but relatively low in carbs. If one is "ideal," then the other must be completely wrong. Right?
It's not so simple. Lalonde believes the paleo camp is winning, and he says he's seen the studies to prove it. But plenty of lab work needs to be done before we can point to the modern diet alone as the root of all evil, or to the paleo way of eating as a cure for metabolic syndrome and other modern ills."

This excerpt includes several points that seem to indicate that elimination of certain food groups is not necessarily key to longevity or exceptional health. If you read my previous post, that was one of my main points. I just have trouble buying into the idea that this is THE answer to being healthy, and that eating cereal, beans, or an occasional slice of pie will lead to autoimmune disease and inevitably your early demise, or even that you can't be supremely healthy and in exceptional physical condition if you eat those foods. I'm fairly certain you can.

Excerpt #2
"Right about the time I started working on this story, a friend who lives "off the grid" in an undisclosed location told me about his most recent fitness discovery: By doing hard physical labor and living without central heat and air conditioning, he'd become leaner than he'd ever been when he'd used conventional diet and exercise. 

So, as an experiment, I turned our thermostat down to 66 for the winter as I switched to a kinda-sorta paleo diet. That is, I eliminated almost all grains after breakfast, which was a lot harder than it sounds in a family of five. (Try eating meatballs without the spaghetti.) I went from having a nightly beer to maybe a couple of drinks on weekends. I added a salad every evening and ate fruit throughout the day. I also tried to take a nightly walk with my wife or one of our kids. The rest of my life, including three gym workouts a week, stayed the same.

By mid-March I'd lost about 10 pounds. When the weather warmed up, I noticed that shorts that had fit me the previous summer were hanging off my hips.

Since I changed three things at once—diet, exercise, and ambient temperature—I can't say which was most effective. But I bet it was mostly the diet.
Good things tend to happen when you replace processed foods with fruits, vegetables, eggs, lean cuts of meat, and the occasional baked potato. =Common sense, not a drastic elimination diet.

"I disagree with how paleo is justified," Lalonde says, "but they get the food mostly right. They're nutritious meals of whole foods."

My toes-in-the-water experiment with the paleo diet showed me that it's a simple system for limiting calories. To keep weight off, I'll probably have to stick with the plan for life, and that brings me back to the original question that the paleo diet claims to answer. Are grains really so bad? Are we all better off if we avoid them whenever possible? The only way to know for sure is to cut them out of your diet for a month or two.

You may or may not feel better (I feel about the same as I did before), but you'll probably end up lighter—exactly what you'd expect from any diet based on either eliminating or overthinking. If your diet works, it's because you've learned to follow a set of rules that keep you from eating stuff just because it's there. So if you are honestly intolerant of these foods you might feel better [less inflammation as the diet claims] but you'll lose weight mostly because you're limiting calories just like any. other. diet. Except this presents an extra challenge for long-term sustainability because it calls for elimination of multiple food groups that most people consider part of a normal balanced diet and will have difficulty avoiding entirely for the rest of their lives.

In that sense, we are still cavemen. The right foods in the right volume were a matter of life or death for them. Survival often meant finding new sources of calories. For us, the problem is reversed. Staying lean means deciding what we can live without."

This is the first article I've read about one of these diets that wasn't written by someone pedaling the diet [i.e. someone who has written a book or plan or blog on following one of these diets] and for that I feel like I can give it a little more weight. When you read articles on the caveman/primal/paleo diet blogs and websites they will convince you that you have one foot in the grave and will never be able to achieve any kind of physical fitness so long as you eat foods as poisonous to the body as peas [insert eye-roll]. You can see why I have a hard time buying the philosophy.

I'll reiterate that I have no doubt that there are benefits to a diet like this, especially if you have a food intolerance that is relieved by avoiding all of those foods. However, I remain unimpressed by extremist ideas of any kind because they're usually kind of a joke. This diet in my opinion is categorically no different from the Twinkie diet that a nutrition professor famously tried a couple of years ago. He ate only Twinkies and various other junk foods every 3 hours and every single number by which human health is  measured improved for him. It worked because it was a form of extreme calorie restriction, you guessed it..... just like every. other. diet. Nonetheless, it was a goofy idea that would be absurd for someone to attempt to use as a means of losing weight and being healthier. So maybe a diet of meat, vegetables and fruits is a little more reasonable than Twinkies but the results will be the same. You'll probably lose weight and one day you'll probably break down and eat something you "can't have."

Thus I stand by my philosophy of everything in moderation. Eat. Run. Play. Sleep. Repeat.

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