Looking for a nutritional framework to escape the diet wars?
“A new study has shown……” A phrase now filled with dread. Will this new study or opinion piece counter the beliefs that I hold dear or -trying to be less emotional- counter the conclusion I have just reached after plying through paper after scientific paper? Am I a bad person, lacking in morality for eating pastured meat? Or is it worse to eat plant protein grown in huge monocultures that are destroying the environment? Am I weak-willed for reaching for the chocolate cookie?
Nutrition evokes emotions, so deep-seated that our conscious decision-making is rendered virtually powerless. Yet, we are constantly reminded of the importance of nutrition in our health, to the point that if we are experiencing some minor symptom or inconvenience, we immediately search for what we have eaten or not eaten that may be the culprit. With that comes the guilt and the determination to do better, often to be followed by confusion and despair.
What’s needed is a nutritional framework to escape the diet wars.
My Nutritional Framework
What follows is my nutritional framework. This is a work in progress; a continual drive for “the truth” which I am fully aware I will never attain; but my curiosity and love of physiology keep me looking, while I strive to remain neutral and open.
1. Food is for sharing
Eating alone is a new phenomenon. I would posit that our ancestors would consider this behavior most odd. Eating was coming together, whether breaking from physical labor or at the family table. Snacking was unheard of. Our quest for instant gratification, epitomized by the use of social media, seems to be fueling our social isolation. I have many times tried unsuccessfully to savour a meal on my own without checking my phone. It takes enormous willpower – which I prefer to save for other aspects of my life.
Social isolation itself is known to be a factor in poor health outcomes(1) and eating just three family meals a week improves the health of children and adolescents.(2) An interesting study from Ohio State University indicated that social participation might even mitigate the pro-inflammatory effect of a poor diet.(3)
Sharing food is perhaps the most pertinent nutritional intervention.
2. Food quality – taking back control
Another mantra is that of “whole food.” Heard throughout the isles of organic grocery- and bulk food stores, this phrase conjures up images of earth mothers carefully collecting eggs from loved and happy poultry. It adds the feel-good aspect that we are in fact not taking from the earth but contributing. It is indeed ironic that as a species at the top of the food chain, we are so racked with guilt about feeding ourselves. Our reptilian brain would just gulp what was in front of it without sparing a thought for the struggling insect it was consuming but then also leaving free the insects it did not need for fuel.
Food is now packaged, processed and wrapped in layers of plastic in such a manner that it bears no resemblance to its original form. And perhaps this is the nub of the matter: we no longer recognize food as from the earth.
So, what is the problem with eating processed food in a world where we have been able to manipulate our environment like no other animal has? It seems our need for efficiency and instant gratification is again tripping us up.
The 1950s housewife loved the packaged TV dinners and boxed breakfast cereals that promised happy husbands and time to make sure the hair was perfect and lipstick on before breakfast. Increasing the sugar, mouth-feel and shelf life and decreasing the price only added to sales and contributed to dependency of these convenience foods.
Most food now consumed in the US, UK and Australasia contains added sugar.(4) This is despite good evidence of the effects of sugar on obesity and chronic disease.(5) We are now leaving our food choice and food preparation to an unseen machine churning out food-like substances keeping us sick and tired. I will leave the obvious to Jack Lalanne.
Visit your local farmer’s market, support your butcher, crumb your own fish (if you must). Reconnect with your inner hunter-gatherer!
To put a label on it, eating a “Paleo” type diet increases satiety,(6) may reduce obesity and improve cardiac risk factors while increasing muscle and decreasing fat.(7,8)
3. Let’s get satisfied
I lived (and continually struggled) through the advice of the 1980s and 1990s: eat six small meals each day, never allow yourself to get hungry for fear of cortisol and always stop eating before you are full. This way of life was a continual drain on self-control by limiting food and counting the hours until the next snack, usually ½ a protein bar, could be consumed. Food and the act of eating became more and more complex and fearful, while at the same time lining the pockets of the food industry who provide snacks, shakes and meals with the perfect macros. Taken further continually monitoring food metrics is associated (vs causal) with eating disorders.(9)
What a relief it was then to find different advice: eat when hungry and stop when full. When I suggested this to a client, she almost cried, stating “I can’t remember the last time I was full”.
A recent review of the medical literature concluded that eating 2-3 meals per day with most of the calories consumed early in the day conferred significant health benefits.(10) It is very unlikely that if you eat until you are properly full that you will want to eat again in 2-3 hours. This strategy works best when the meal contains sufficient protein and real, unprocessed ingredients.
Instead of focusing on macros, anti-oxidant and vitamin content, lets focus on taking time to nourish ourselves with real food, surrounded by loved ones and eat until we say enough.
Embodying a nutritional framework to escape the diet wars: www.omic.io
1. Hämmig, O. Health risks associated with social isolation in general and in young, middle and old age. PloS one 14, e0219663-e0219663 (2019).
2. Hammons, A.J. & Fiese, B.H. Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents? Pediatrics 127, e1565-e1574 (2011).
3. Padin, A.C., et al. A proinflammatory diet is associated with inflammatory gene expression among healthy, non-obese adults: Can social ties protect against the risks? Brain, behavior, and immunity 82, 36-44 (2019).
4. Malhotra, A., Schofield G, Lustig RH. The science against sugar, alone is insufficient in tacking the obesity and type 2 daibetes crises – We must also overcome opposition from vested interestes. J. insul. resist 3(2018).
5. Vreman, R.A., et al. Health and economic benefits of reducing sugar intake in the USA, including effects via non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a microsimulation model. BMJ open 7, e013543-e013543 (2017).
6. Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Lindeberg, S. & Hallberg, A.-C. Subjective satiety and other experiences of a Paleolithic diet compared to a diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutrition journal 12, 105-105 (2013).
7. Frassetto, L.A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Synder, M., Morris, R.C., Jr. & Sebastian, A. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. European journal of clinical nutrition 63, 947-955 (2009).
8. Jönsson, T., et al. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovascular diabetology 8, 35-35 (2009).
9. Linardon, J. & Messer, M. My fitness pal usage in men: Associations with eating disorder symptoms and psychosocial impairment. Eat Behav 33, 13-17 (2019).
10. Paoli, A., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A. & Moro, T. The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting. Nutrients 11, 719 (2019).