Meat for sale (tongue and liver) at a traditional market (photo by Erik Peper).
Should I eat vegetables or meats? Should it be steaks or organ meats such as liver, heart, sweet breads? What foods contributes most to heart disease or cancer? Should I change my diet or take medications to lower my cholesterol?
Despite the many years of research the data is not clear. Many public health dietary guidelines and recommendations were based upon flawed research, researchers’ bias and promoted by agribusiness. Starting in the 1950s there has been a significant change in the dietary habits from eating animal fats to plant based oils and fats. It is so much cheaper to produce plant based polyunsaturated salad or cooking oils (e.g. Wesson and Mazola) and hydrogenated hardened oils (e.g. margarine and Crisco) than animal fats (e.g., butter, beef tallow, and lard). Despite the many claims that lowering animal fat intake would reduce heart disease and possibly cancer, the claims are not supported by research data. It is true that consuming liquid plant based oils lowers the cholesterol, but with the possible exception of olive oil, polyunsaturated oils are associated with an increased cancer and death rates in large population studies (Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial Research Group,1982; Shaten, 1997).
We assume that lowering cholesterol is healthy; however, it is usually a surrogate marker representing a hypothesized improvement in health. A short term apparent reduction in cholesterol levels or other illness markers may mask the long term harm. Only long term outcome studies which measure the total death rate– not just from one disease being studied but from all causes of death–provides the objective results. When looking at the results over a longer time period, there appears to be no correlation between fat intake and heart disease. In fact lowering fat intake seems to be associated with poorer long term health as described in the outstanding book, The Big Fat Surprise–Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by the science writer, Nina Teichol. Her superb investigative reporting describes in detail the flawed and biased research that underpinned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations to reduce animal fats and use more plant based oils.
What should I eat now?
Diet recommendations used to be simple: Reduce animal fat intake and eat more plants. Now, there are no simple recommendations because they may depend upon your genetics (e.g., digestion of milk depends whether you are lactose tolerant or intolerant), your epigenetics (e.g., maternal malnutrition during your embryological development is a major risk for developing heart disease in later life), your physical and social activities (e.g., exercise reduces the risk for many diseases), and environment. The recent popularity of the hunter and gatherer diet, often known as the paleo diet, is challenging–it may depends on your ancestors. What hunter and gatherers ate depended upon geography and availability of food sources. The Inuit’s diet in the Arctic consisted of 90% meat/fish diet while the !Kung Bushman’ diet from the Kalahari desert in Africa consisted of less than a 15% meat/fish diet as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The food content of hunter gatherers varied highly depending on geography. From: Jabr, F. (2013). How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked. Scientific American, June 3.
Use common sense to make food choices.
- Eat only those foods which in the course of evolution have been identified as foods. This means eating a variety of plants based foods (fruits, tubers, leaves, stems, nuts, etc.) and more organ meats. Ask yourself what foods did your forefathers/mothers ate that supported survival and reproductive success. Carnivores usually ate the internal organs first and often would leave the muscles for scavengers.
- Eat like your great, great grandparents. They were not yet brainwashed by the profit incentives of agribusiness and pharmaceutical industry. For more information, read the outstanding books by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
- If possible eat only organically grown/raised foods. Non organic foods usually contain low levels of pesticides, insecticides, antibiotics and hormones which increases the risk of cancer (Reuben, 2010). They may also also contain fewer nutrients such as essential minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants (Barański et al, 2014). The beneficial effects of organic foods have been challenging to demonstrate because it may take many years to show a difference. Preliminary data strongly suggests that organic foods as compared to non organic foods increases longevity, improves fertility and enhances survival during starvation (Chhabra, Kolli, & Bauer, 2013). For more information, see my blog, Live longer, enhance fertility and increase stress resistance: Eat Organic foods.
- Adapt the precautionary principle and assume that any new and artificially produced additives or chemically processed foods–most of the foods in boxes and cans in the central section of the supermarket–contain novel materials which have not been part of our historical dietary experience. These foods may be harmful over the long term and our bodies not yet know how to appropriately digest such foods such as trans fats (Kummerow, 2009).
- Be doubtful of dietary recommendations especially if you know of counter examples and exceptions. For example, the low fat diet recommendations could not explain the French or Swiss paradox (high butter and cheese intake and low heart disease rates). If examples exist, the popular dogma is incomplete or possibly wrong. Be skeptical about any health food claims. Ask who has funded the research, who decides whether a food can have a label that states “it is heart health” and can prevent a disease, and who would benefit if more of this food is sold.
My final comments on nutrition (source unknown).
- The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The French eat lots of butter and drink alcohol and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
Eat and drink what you like especially if you enjoy it with company…speaking English is apparently what kills you!
Jabr, F. (2013). How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked. Scientific American, June 3.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/
Kummerow, F. A. (2009). The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Atherosclerosis, 205(2), 458-465.http://www.atherosclerosis-journal.com/article/S0021-9150%2809%2900208-1/abstract
Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial Research Group. (1982). Multiple risk factor intervention trial. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 248(12), 1465-1477. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=377969
Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN: 1594200823
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN: 978-0143114963
Reuben, S. H. (2010). Reducing environmental cancer risk: what we can do now. DIANE Publishing. http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
Shaten, B. J., Kuller, L. H., Kjelsberg, M. O., Stamler, J., Ockene, J. K., Cutler, J. A., & Cohen, J. D. (1997). Lung cancer mortality after 16 years in MRFIT participants in intervention and usual-care groups. Annals of epidemiology, 7(2), 125-136. http://www.annalsofepidemiology.org/article/S1047-2797%2896%2900123-8/abstract
Teicholz, N. (2014). The big fat surprise-Why butter, meat & cheese belong in a healthy diet. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBM 978-1-4516-2442-7 http://www.thebigfatsurprise.com/
A multivitamin a day keeps the doctor away to prevent nutritional deficiency and indirectly reduce cancer risks. Although most previous research studies have not demonstrated whether vitamin supplements are useful in the prevention or the treatment of cancer, the recently published randomized control trial of 14,641 male physicians in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that a multivitamin a day significantly reduced the incidence of cancer. The participants started taking the vitamin or placebo at about age 50 and continued for eleven years. This study, Multivitamins in the Prevention of Cancer in Men- The Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled Trial, is different from most previous studies. It is one of the first randomized controlled trial in which the participants did not know whether they took a multivitamin or placebo daily. Even though the effect is small, the study finds that taking a multivitamin daily reduces cancer risk.
To promote health, take a multivitamin a day; however, the benefits gained by taking a multivitamin imply that:
- We are affluently malnutritioned as our daily western industrialized processed diet is deficient in nutrients that support our immune system and health. It would be better to eat an organic food diet with lots of vegetables and fruits. Even The President’s Cancer Panel Report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, published by the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommends to consume to the “extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.” Eating an organic hunter and gatherer diet would include many other essential vitamins and minerals –some which we do not yet know—that are not included in a single multivitamin.
- Start eating a healthy diet from birth since it will have more impact to prevent cancer than adding a multivitamin a day at age 50. Most epidemiological studies have shown that a predominantly vegetable and fruit diet is associated with lower cancer rates.
- Implement a health promoting life style to support the immune system. Begin now by practicing stress management, incorporating exercise, performing self-healing strategies, and eating organic vegetable, fruits (no processed foods). For more suggestions see our book, Fighting Cancer-A Nontoxic Approach to Treatment.
How can you imply that I have malnutrition! I eat a full, balanced diet including meats, vegetables, fruits, dairy, etc. I take a multiple vitamin every day and even shop for organic foods at my local farmer’s market. In fact, I shifted my diet to follow the American Heart Disease Association and USDA Food Plate and Pyramid guidelines!
Evolution optimized human genetics for a hunter-gatherer diet but in the last few centuries our diet has radically changed and is totally different from the ideal diet of our ancestors. We now mainly eat foods that were not part of our diet five to ten thousand years ago such as corn, wheat, milk and all packaged and processed foods. We eat on the average 160 lbs of sugar instead of less than two pounds of honey a year, and steaks instead of the organ meats such as liver which would have provided essential vitamin A, D, etc.
A healthy diet is much more than nutritionally poor a high caloric foods (e.g., cereals, hamburgers, white rice or flour) with some vitamins and minerals added; instead, it is congruent with our evolutionary past —a hunter gatherer diet–which supports the growth and maintenance of our body and brain. This diet would predominantly consist of natural, non industrialized produced foods such as vegetables, leaves, fruits, berries, nuts, roots, tubers, wild fish and meats from free ranging animals. When eating this type of diet, it significantly exceeds the FDA’s Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) guidelines which is the daily intake level of a nutrient that is considered to be sufficient to meet the requirements of 97–98% of healthy individuals in the United States.
These minimum RDI for vitamins and minerals are often too low and do not include the myriad of micro and macro nutrients necessary to achieve and maintain optimum health. Nutrients do not act in alone but in concert with each other as Michael Pollan pointed out in his superb book, In Defense of Food.
Dietary guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) My Plate and Food Pyramid and organizations such as the American Heart Association are more the result of successful lobbying by large agribusiness than from research findings. By following USDA and FDA guidelines, we may set the stage for long term subclinical malnutrition which reduces our resilience to fight disease.
If the recommended modern Western diet was sufficient then there would be no need to take additional vitamin or mineral supplements to prevent illnesses. This is not the case! Controlled research studies have shown that numerous illnesses can be reduced or prevented by taking specific supplements.
- The risk of having a baby with Spina bivida (neural tube defect) can be reduced by71% when women before becoming pregnant take 400 µg of folic acid (vitamin B9) per day. Taking the folic acid supplement may not have been necessary if the woman had eating foods naturally high in folic acid such as leafy vegetable (spinach, asparagus, turnip greens), egg yolks, sun flower seeds and liver.
- Pregnant women can reduce the risk of their babies having eczema by 42 percent and egg allergies by 40 percent when they take fish oil capsules (1000 mg of Omega 3s) daily during pregnancy as compared to the women whoonly took vegetable capsule. Taking Omega 3s may not have been necessary if the woman had eating foods naturally high in Omega 3s such as cold water oily fish, flax seed, eggs produced by free ranging hens who are not fed corn or soy, and brains from mammals.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be significantly reduced when children eat unprocessed foods and lots of green, vegetables, roots.
- Teenage girls who took vitamin D supplements had significantly lower bone fractures than girls who did not take vitamin D supplements. Is it possible that chronic low levels of vitamin D (chronic malnutrition caused by our industrialized agribusiness diet) and use of sunscreen are significant co-factor in the increasing epidemic of osteoporosis in older women? Taking vitamin D may not have been necessary if the girls had eating foods naturally high in vitamin D such as alfalfa shoots, fatty fish, beef liver and whole eggs produced by free ranging hens and enough sun exposure.
Eating the industrialized produced western diet may also increase the risk developing neurological degenerative diseases. Adults with low omega-3 blood levels had significantly lower total cerebral brain volume than adults who had the highest levels of omega-3s. More importantly, adults with low levels of omega-3 levels did significantly worse on abstract memory, visual memory and executive function than the adults who had high omega-3 levels.
These research findings are worrisome; since, shrinking brains are a feature associated with neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Is it possible that our diet contributes to the expanding epidemics of Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD?
If some illness can be prevented by taking supplements, would it not be wiser to eat a diet which provides sufficiently nutrients for the brain and body?
Watch the inspirational presentation by Dr. Terry Wahls, MD, Minding Your Mitochondria, who cured her multiple sclerosis which was untreatable by western medicine. She reversed her illness by eating a hunter and gathers diet which provided the optimum nutrition for her brain. Over a period of three to a year, she got out of herwheel chair, started to ride a bicycle, and eventually rode horseback as shown in her Youtube video.
Experience the benefits of eating a hunter gatherer diet. For one month eat as a hunter and gatherer. Eat nine cups of organic vegetables, leaves, berries, roots, fruit as well as tubers, some fish, and some organ meat from free ranging animals. Do not eat corn products, sugar and processed foods. In four weeks, you may notice a difference: more energy, less inflammation and improved cognition. For dietary guidelines see chapter 9 in the book, Fighting Cancer-A Nontoxic Approach to Treatment.