Some Random Thoughts on New Year’s Eve

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Being true to my blog purpose, I hope you all resolve to minimize putting junk in your mouths in 2016.  It’s not that hard.  But you first must be able to distinguish food from junk.  Let this be a brief and random summary of that distinction.

First, if an item is full of calories and empty of essential nutrients, it’s junk.  By and large, almost all “processed” items are junk (note that I resist misusing, and degrading, the term “food” when modified by the adjective “processed”).  Consume whole foods that are appropriate for the anatomy and digestive systems of human beings.  What is appropriate for humans?

You don’t need a Ph.D. in comparative anatomy to recognize that the human anatomy is that of the herbivore.  Nothing in the human anatomy fits the anatomical requirements and features of an omnivore, despite Michael Pollan’s bestselling tome.  Nor, obviously, does it possess the features of a carnivore’s anatomy.  We were made to eat vegetation.  We are best served by eating whole, not processed, vegetation.  Here are some guidelines:

Eat oranges, not orange juice.

Eat olives, not olive oil.

Eat applies, not apple juice.

Eat potatoes, not “French fries.”

Eat broccoli, carrots, spinach, pinto beans, peas, strawberries, garbanzo beans, brown rice, whole grains, onions, garlic, kale, and cauliflower – all those things you will find in the uncrowded produce section in your grocery store.

Don’t eat potato chips (or any “chips”), peanut butter, Wonder Bread, oil (yes, that includes no olive oil), soda, crackers, frozen “dinners,” pizza, cheese, meat, yogurt, granola bars, enriched cereals (yes, that’s pretty much all of them), anything with added sugar, anything with added oil, anything with added anything – all those things you will not find in the uncrowded produce section in your grocery store.

Now – in the interest of public safety and health – here are a couple caveats.  Let’s say you want to deviate a bit from the “don’t put junk in your mouth” guidelines, and nibble a bit on meat for New Year’s Eve.  Do not apply the “no processing, whole foods” rule to items that are not appropriate to your herbivore anatomy – especially not to meat.  Real carnivores can eat just fine following their version of “no processing, whole food,” which they do when they snatch their prey, rip it apart with their teeth, and scarf it down on the spot.  That works just fine for self-respecting carnivores.  It does not work fine for herbivores, for whom “unprocessed whole meat” is categorically unsafe, even in the short term (yes, in the long term meat is unsafe for human consumption, no matter how you process it).  But to survive meat-eating in the short term, be sure you process it by cooking it thoroughly.  Humans can eat as though we were omnivores only because we can cook, at high heat, items that we are not made to safely process by our digestive systems.  So if you continue to eat meat, do not eat unprocessed meat as a real carnivore would.

Finally, last night our PBS station aired a discussion around being “in defense of food” (whatever that is supposed to mean?), hosted by Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Predictably the program began by identifying a few unassailable enemies of modern health: sugary sodas, chemically processed stuff of all kinds, products that egregiously add sugar, fat and salt just for their role in taste addiction, and products that are made from ingredients that no one can understand.  This builds credibility with viewers who know these products are killing us.  But eventually the program moves to the predictable obfuscation, with Pollan repeating his advice to eat real food, not too much of it, mostly from plants – and casually assuring the viewers that if they “eat mostly plants” that they have no fear of eating too much meat.  There are a couple problems with this. First, eating mostly plants has no reference point.  Does that mean eating most of one’s calories from vegetation?  Or does it mean that vegetation occupies the most volume, or most weight, on your dinner plate?  What does it mean?  I ask this because I could easily eat “mostly plants” by volume or weight, and consume most of my calories from meat and dairy.  In fact, the plates that were visible throughout the show were entirely inadequate to support most people’s caloric needs if they were representing the “mostly plants” mandate based on calories – the accepted measure for food consumption.  For example, if you are eating eighty percent of your calories from vegetation, you will need to consume far more food than that which appeared on the skimpy plates in the show.  If you are getting all of your calories from vegetation, you will need to consume about four times the volume of food that was visible on the program’s plates.  Which calls in question the “not too much” food admonition from Pollan – because if you are currently getting over half of your calories from fat and protein, as  you would be on the Western or Standard American diet, you will need to substantially increase the amount of food you consume to meet your daily caloric and nutritional requirements.

So the program leaves the views at best confused; at worst mislead.  And this is exactly the goal of this kind of modified infomercial that has increasingly become a mainstay of public television.  The industry that supported this program strives to create confusion and obfuscation, so that everyone viewing it can rationalize what they are currently doing as appropriate and at least reasonably healthful.

Let me end with a rebuttal to this message.  In short, the program’s message was to eat whatever you want to, with the notable exception of absurdly processed products.  This is not a good or safe message.  Sound nutrition demands much more.  Making a joke of epidemiology, which the program does, is not respectful to science.  And make no mistake about it; epidemiology is a science and arguably the most important scientific vehicle for exploring nutrition.  Rejecting the power of inferential statistics is both unscientific and unprofessional.  It reminds me of the decades-long success of the tobacco industry in arguing that no “causal relationship” could be proved in relating tobacco consumption to lung cancer and myriad adverse health effects.  And finally, the program showed studies that raised “questions” about nutritional conventional wisdom, without even mentioning the industries that supported those studies, nor that the studies have been thoroughly discredited by credible researchers.

Bottom line:  when it comes to nutrition, go with solid nutritional science and with impartial nutritional scholars – not with journalists.

Happy New Year!