The works burger
When my dear brother in law Mike died of cancer at around sixty, I was only slightly behind at fifty. Mike had loved his fatty cheeses and sausages, and was infamous for his ‘CLUB’ breakfast fry-ups – ‘cholesterol laden unhealthy breakfast’ and love of the 'the yellow stuff' - cheese in all its glorious forms.
For myself, I’d been hyper-active in sports, and maintained the simple nutritional philosophy that I’d eat so much that it didn’t matter too much what – my body would be clever enough to take the nutrition it needed from the sheer quantity passing through. But clearly I’d slow down plus age seems to take its toll on us all, so maybe it was time to get serious about nutrition.
I didn’t think I was eating particularly badly, with a varied diet, and a dislike of desserts and take-aways. I did avoid some common foods for a combination of taste and health reasons, like sodas, sliced bread, margarine and low-fat dairy products, but without any real knowledge of what was good or bad. Of particular concern to me was my penchant for smokey sausages, bacon and cheese (not that Mike and I were related). Four-cheese pizzas and creamy cheese and bacon pasta sauces were particular favourites. And doubtless like most of us (or so I thought) I didn’t eat enough greens.
My new-found interest in nutrition was seeded also by the people I met on my Feldenkrais course, several of whom were more diet focused than those I meet in my other walks of life. Some extolled vegetables, others fruit, some were paranoid about PCBs or insistent on alkaline diets (whatever those are).
I realised that while I had (I thought) a vague understanding of nutritional concepts, it was largely based on remembered nutrition anecdotes from friends, family and the media, none of them necessarily reliable - and certainly not comprehensive - sources on this subject. Deep down I knew that nutrition is vitally important to one's health and wellbeing, but had never given it the attention it deserves.
So, I set about remedying my nutritional ignorance. I never expected how surprising the results would be…
I started at my sister’s house following Mike’s wake. She had had in interest in nutrition since her teens (I never then understood her interest in sprouts and bird seed), and regarded Andrew Weil, the well-known American as ‘fairly sound’, so I started reading his books. It did indeed all sound fairly sound indeed, and took my down the path of trying to understand my fats.
Fat are very complicated – there’s a huge variety of them. Just about everyone recommends extra virgin olive oil and tells of the perils of saturated fats and the virtues of vegetable oils. But, specifically, which oils are good, which are bad, and of that which are OK to cook with? This exploration led me down a labyrinth of research until I eventually unearthed what is by no means a consensus, but I believe is reality: the saturated fats are the best for you, the vegetable oils very dangerous – many contain the dreaded very unstable polyunsaturated fats and trans fats. Initially, this total disconnect between conventional 'wisdom' and what is healthy surprised me. But as I've thought more about the incentives on corporations and government, it just depresses me.
In the process of getting my head (and lips) around the good fats, I discovered the diversity of opinion on proteins, carbohydrates and many other Greek words, so I just carried on researching. There's a huge variety of views on nutrition in the research papers, books and websites, so it's not at all easy sorting our the wheat from the chaff. (Not that, I discovered in time, wheat is necessarily better than chaff). The bookshelves are full of every conceiveable diet and opinion under the sun. Which to believe?
I came across (thanks to Amazon's 'you may also like') Weston Price's 1938 Nutrition and physical degeneration - a comparison of primitive and modern diets and their effects. Weston Price realised what was happening with western diets, and travelled far and wide to research then-existing traditional societies, their health and diets. I was lucky to encounter this classic so early on in my research.
Price's research was a great advance, and arguably better than anything in the 75 years since, which is a blink of the eye in the evolutionary timescale. As a believer in evolution I decided that studying what our ancestors ate would be a good guide. I then discovered that this stroke of insight was by no means original: the 'paleolithic' diet concept was raised in 1985 and was now an area of profuse books and websites. The 'paleo' viewpoint is undeniably sound, but to take it literally would mean only eating animals and vegetable species native to the Rift Valley, including of course the insects and reptiles. And while we might allow barbecues, as we discovered fire some 400,000 to 200,000 years ago, we would not allow any boiling or baking, as clay pots we invented far too recently.
How do we decide which foods that we discovered in other continents, and which food preparations that we have developed over the millennia, are sound? To answer this, we can only really turn to what has worked over the millennia in ancestral cultures, and what has not. And given the complexity of homo sapiens and the thousands or tens of thousands of years required to adapt to new foods, we should be deeply suspicious of anything novel, however cheap or alluringly wrapped. For what has worked ancestrally, we turn to the likes of Price.
So I carried on reading and researching: read on, and check out the references...
(There are a few more scary graphs here)
My key conclusions:
Read on for my take on different food types...
Trans fats do not occur in nature and so our bodies have never adapted to them. They clog us up. They are prevalent in processed foods, in food cooked in vegetable oils at high temperature, and in rancid oils. The safe intake of trans fats is zero.
The lipid [fat] composition of diets based upon cereal grains, legumes, vegetable oils and other plant products is vastly at odds with that found in wild game meat and organs, the primary, evolutionary source of lipids to which the human genetic constitution is optimally adapted (Cordain 1999? page 36).
Whether or not you like the ethics, we have evolved to preferentially eat animals, and especially fat animals. I've discovered that from a nutritional perspective eating meat is like buying houses - buy the worst house on the best street; eat the worst meat of the best animal. Fillet steak is beautifully tender and is great for building muscle. If you want also to build your bones, joints, organs and brain, then eat the whole animal. Sardines and shellfish are great in part because you eat the whole animal (not that shellfish have much in the way of bones or brains). Our distant ancestor were scavengers, thriving on brains and marrow. Later they became active hunters, but hunters (like lions) prefer the organs and innards to muscle (see Stefansson).
Being aware that cured meats are suspicious, I thought about making my own. So I looked at Jeremy Schmid's recent Bangers to bacon. Every recipe called for Colorquick. The glossary describes it thus: "Colorquik is the standard preserving agent used in dried, smoked and cured meats. It prevents botulism, enhances flavour, and helps retain the natural pink colour of meat. Colorquick must not be used as common salt! It is a highly poisonous substance. It must be measured with accurately and used with extreme caution [author's italics]. Always store Colorquick out of reach of children.'' And we are supposed to eat that?
Fish is excellent.
Cereals are deadly, and one of the prime causes of Western diseases. Grains are monocotyledonous (monocots), a quite different variety of plant from the dicotyledons (dicots) that our ancestors evolved to eat. Grains have spent evolutionary history adapting to avoid being eaten by mammals, two of their primary weapons being phytates and lectins. These are anti-nutrients, reducing our ability to absorb essential nutrients including calcium, zinc, iron and copper. If you think you've adapted to eat grain, consider the implications of scary figure 1. See for example Cordain. If you must eat grains:
Dairy is very suspect. We did not evolve to eat milk after weaning, nor to ingest non-human milk. Diary contains fat, protein and sugars, notably lactose. Dairy fat is fine, assuming organic etc. Dairy protein is dubious, especially casein. If you think you're lactose tolerant, consider the implications of scary figure 1. If you eat diary:
An interesting if sad conclusion is that much of the so-called health foods are far from it. Avoid:
Never heat food/drink in, or eat/drink hot food from, plastic containers. I've replaced food storage with glass, and drinking bottles with stainless steel. Avoid any plastics in contact with food, especially type 3 (PVC), 6 (polystyrene) and 7 (polycarbonate) plastics. Leakage is temperature dependent so NEVER microwave or heat food in plastic. Ideally, don't store at room temperature in plastic. Freezing is safe, and refrigeration is probably safe. Use glass or stainless steel for storage wherever possible. (Note that much tinned food is lined with BPA plastic).
The discoveries I made were to me surprising, fascinating and vital, to my on ongoing health, and probably yours.
I never realised that:
My concerns over Mike's diet and my own love of creamy pasta sauces and cheesy pizza were correct, but for diametrically opposite reasons than I expected. The cheese, cream and sausages are excellent nutrition (and probably the accidental reason for my current good health). The dangers lurks beneath, in the pasta and pizza base. Refined carbohydrates are the number one enemy, but replacing them with wholemeal helps not at all. Alas the cheese, cream and sausages do have their own risks in our so-called advanced society - I now actively seek organic, unpasteurised, and no-nitrates (among a larger list of no-chemicals).
I now entirely avoid vegetable oils. I cook with olive oil, butter and lard, or duck fat when available. And I look after my oils, and any oily produce, carefully to avoid rancidity. I used to enjoy from time to time chips, crisps and fried foods - fish burgers being a past favourite. I know realise how appallingly unhealthy these are, unless fried at home.
I have been amazed at how easy it has been to change one's diet to a healthier one, given knowledge. There are various theories on why we developed our powerful brains - was it for language and social skills, for complex movement patterns like throwing a spear, or for, as inquisitive omnivores, working out what to eat, and what not to? My preferred theory is that they all developed together, as evolution's easiest way to increase one capacity is to increase all capacity by just growing more brain. However it developed, a big part of our intelligence - and in days past our culture - is our ability to work out what to eat, and what not to, in a multitude of environments. I found that as soon as I developed the knowledge, my taste buds followed suit. I do not miss one iota the food I now avoid. This is a capacity built into us all, called intelligence.
Homo sapiens is an amazingly robust creature - we can eat bad food for decades before the effects become apparent, but we cannot eat it forever (or, if we try, our forever becomes shorter than others'). Fortunately, we are self-repairing organisms. Within months or at most years every cell in our body has been replaced. Moving fully to a proper diet will repair you in these timescales. My approach to a better diet is lifelong from now.
Another concern I had when I embarked on this venture would be that it would diminish my love of food and cooking, perhaps reduce it to some formulaic approach. Quite the opposite has happened - my interest in and enjoyment of food has reached new highs, and having given up 'refined' foods have reached new highs in taste, texture and variety.
But I have discovered too something really quite depressing. We all know that corporations are pursuing private profit at the expense of our health, but I had never appreciated to what degree. They are literally poisoning us. Corporations and the pursuit of financial profits at all cost is part of our so-called Western culture, as much a part of it as the diseases of civilisation. How has it got to the the state where we are supporting a culture that undermines our very wellbeing? Or, more importantly, how do we turn around our own culture to get it working for us? I don't know, but one good way to start is by rejecting the crap corporations offer us and officials advise us to eat, and buying and eating good, real, local, unprocessed food.
Books and sources that I have read in forming my views on nutrition. I have tended to use books that summarise and interpret the research, rather than research repots themselves. I have therefore divided the references into sections:
Recommended as basically sound
Allport 2000: Susan Allport, The Primal Feast - Food, Sex, Foraging and Love, 2000. A lovely book that's a delight to read, covering a wide span of evolutionary issues as per the title. (This could usefully be read with Wrangham 2009).
Banting 1864: William Banting, Letter on Corpulence - Addressed to the Public, 1864. In the late 19th Century, we knew what was good for us, and what wasn't, more or less. Part of the credit of this must go to Banting, whose name became a verb meaning to eat healthily. His classic letter is available on the web, for example here. For a good summary of Banting see the prologue to Taubes 2007 or see an online summary here.
Cordain, Loren: See his most cited articles at http://thepaleodiet.com/dr-cordains-top-10-published-research-articles/
Cordain 1999: Loren Cordain, Cereal grains: humanity’s double-edged sword, 1999. An short, technical and fascinating account of how cereals have supported ahe development of civilization, but compromised the development of man. In Simopoulos AP (ed): Evolutionary Aspects of Nutrition and Health. Diet, Exercise, Genetics and Chronic Disease, World Rev Nutr Diet. Basel, Karger, 1999, vol 84, pp 19–73. Available as pdf at http://www.direct-ms.org/pdf/EvolutionPaleolithic/Cereal%20Sword.pdf. See also this overview article
Cordain 2002: Loren Cordain, Fatty acid analysis of wild ruminant tissues: evolutionary implications for reducing diet-related chronic disease, 2002. A study that concludes: Literature comparisons showed tissue lipids of North American and African ruminants were similar to pasture-fed cattle, but dissimilar to grain-fed cattle. The lipid composition of wild ruminant tissues may serve as a model for dietary lipid recommendations in treating and preventing chronic disease.. In other words, avoid corn-fed cattle. Luckily in New Zealand, practically all cattle is grass fed.
Davis 2012: William Davis, Wheat Belly, 2012. Worth reading past the irritating section headings and pathetic analogies. A convincing argument against eating wheat, modern wheat in particular and high GI grains in general. Unfortunately he doesn't not always differentiate which of these categories his various conclusions refer to. Interesting discussion on the radical changes in wheat varieties in the last few decades: In parallel with increased consumption, we also have the silent replacement of wheat from four-foot-tall Triticum aestivum with high-yield dwarf strains and new gluten structures not previously consumed by humans.
Diamond 1987: Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, 1987. The title refers to agriculture. A good, short article available on the web.
Di Cagno et al. 2004, ''Sourdough bread made from wheat and nontoxic flours and started with selected lactobacilli is tolerated in celiac sprue patients' '. They conclude that a long fermentation time for bread decreases the level of gluten intolerance in humans. They call this a 'novel tool'. I suspect it is a re-discovery. See www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14766592
Dufty 1975: William Dufty, Sugar blues, 1975. An entertaining journey through the history of sugar and it deleterious effects on individuals and societies. Most people know that should reduce sugar intake but find it difficult. Read this, and it becomes easy.
Eaton and Konner 1975: Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner, Paleolithic Nutrition — A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications, New England Journal of Medicine 1985. The original article on Paleolithic nutrition, followed up by the same authors with Paleolithic nutrition revisited - A twelve-year retrospective on its nature and implications in 1997 and Paleolithic Nutrition - Twenty-Five Years Later in 2010.
Fallon 1999: Sally Fallon, with Mary Enig, Nourishing traditions - the cookbook that challenged politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats, 1999. An excellent book, half cookbook and half theory. First time through I just read the theory sections, which provide an excellent summary of Weston Price, Sugar Blues and many others that I have not read, other than through Sally's excellent selective quotations. According to Wikipedia: "Sally Fallon, an advocate for the nutritional theories of Price, recruited Enig to utilize her nutritional training to co-write a book to popularize Price's work in 1989 called Nourishing Traditions […]. It explained Price's findings and provided recipes of traditional foods such as chicken liver pâté, sauerkraut, sourdough breads and bone broths, as well as raw milk, kombucha, probiotics (yogurt, kim-chee), trans-fat avoidance, organ meats, coconut oil, and butter and has sold more than 400,000 copies as of 2011". Sally Fallon is chief architect of the Weston Price society (which I've joined) at westonaprice.org
Lindberg 2010: Staffan Lindberg, Food and Western disease. An excellent work, summarising the state of scientific knowledge as at 2010, and including the author's own comparisons of Swedish and Kitavan health. Hir review of the state of knowledge make healthy acknowledgement of the systemic biases in many scientific studies, which is perhaps why he seems to be referenced more for his Kitavan subdues than his comprehensive analysis. Essential reading.
Joseph Mercola. A very sound source IMHO. I have listened to his YouTube interviews which are very interesting. You have to put up with his ranting, but it's worth it for the content. I haven't read any of his books yet. He brands himself Dr Mercola.
Minger 2010: Denise Minger's blog site, this entry on Wheat is murder. See http://rawfoodsos.com/2010/09/02/the-china-study-wheat-and-heart-disease-oh-my. In informal blog speak but full of fascinating information and links. She does a critical re-evaluation of the data behind the China Study
Price 1938: Weston Price, Nutrition and physical degeneration - a comparison of primitive and modern diets and their effects, 1938. The bible. Weston Price realised what was happening with western diets, and traveled far and wide to research then-existing traditional societies, the health and diets. Read others for academic theories on whats good for you, read Weston Price for what is demonstrably good for you.
Rheaume-Bleue: Kate Rheaume-Bleue was interviewed by Joseph Mercola on her new book ''Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox', 2012, which I haven't read yet but is high on my list.
Shanahan 2009: Catherine Shanahan with Luke Shanahan, Deep Nutrition - Why your genes need traditional food, 2009. A very interesting book, apart from somewhat dubious pre-occupation with […], and endless promises of what the book will later reveal. But it does eventually reveal it. A very healthy focus on the inter-generational aspects of nutrition. Essential reading for potential mothers to be, and don't wait until you're pregnant, either. Nutrition-wise, Catherine advocates the 'four pillars of world cuisine':
All very sound: add seafood and organics, and it's close to perfect
Stefansson 1956: Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The fat of the land, 1956. A fascinating account of how many traditional societies thrived an an exclusive meat diet, and there preference within that for animal fat. Stefansson spent years on such diets in his travels, and underwent a controlled test of such a diet in Europe. The second half of the book drags on, but the first half is a fascinating read.
Taubes An American science writer and author of two excellent books. Highly recommended reading. The first is long, comprehensive and monumental. I challenge anyone to read it thoughtfully and then adhere to conventional 'wisdom' on avoiding saturated fats, eating vegetable fat and feasting on carbohydrates. Or indeed, to calling the foundations of modern nutritional policy 'science'. The second book is a shorter, more digestible summary of the first. I recommend reading both, carefully. See also garytaubes.com Taubes 2007: Good Calories, Bad Calories - Fats, Carbs and the controversial science of diet and health Taubes 2011: Why We Get Fat, and what to do about it, 2011, titled The Diet Delusion in the UK See also his seminal 2002 article Nutrition/What if it's all been a big fat lie?.
Watson 1971: Lyall Watson, Omnivore - The role of food in human evolution, 1971. An interesting summary of how food shaped us. I particularly liked his accounts of how eating is built into our motivation - he gives a lovely example of the Racoon. Lyall Watson understudies Desmond Morris.
Wrangham 2009: Richard Wrangham, Catching fire - How cooking made us human. A fascinating account of how our ancestors relied on cooking from our earliest days, and the nutritional and social consequences of it. An excellent chapter on the perils of raw food diets. (This could usefully be read with Allport 2000).
Popular food writers
Pollan: Popularist American author of some entertaining and well written books on food, including In Defense of Food - An Eater's Manifesto, The Omnivore’s Dilemma - A Natural History of Four Meals, and Food Rules - An Eater's Manual. While I've read and enjoyed these books I learned little nutritional from them. In Food Rules, he includes many witty and memorable guidlines, but some are very suspect. An example is his adage that Eating what stands on one leg (mushrooms and plant foods) is better than eating what stands on two legs (fowl), which is better than eating what stands on four legs (cows, pigs, other mammals). Ethically, maybe. Nutritionally, nonsense. He concludes his Omnivore’s Dilemma with the advice Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. It's now an often quoted phrase. It's a shame and lost opportunity that someone read by so many can sum up his conclusions so uselessly. I'd re-state it as Eat unprocessed, organic food. As much as you like. Minimum grains.
Weil: Andrew Weil, a well known 'complementary' health advocate and author from the US. Very popular, very commercial and much of his advice is accompanied by a 'buy now'. In my view, despite this, he's basically sound, but is only slowly realising (or at least promulgating) the emerging understanding of fats and carbs - for example his August 2012 ''Lard making a comeback
The conventional wisdom of the last 40 years has been that saturated fats in our diets - that is, fats such as lard that are solid at room temperature - are a principal cause of high cholesterol and rising rates of heart disease. However, those conclusions now seem to be based on rather shaky science. A more recent scientific analysis of 21 studies determined that there is no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease. Instead, the principal culprit in the obesity epidemic, and a major contributor to heart disease, appears to be overconsumption of sugars and carbohydrate-intensive foods.
His published works therefore are out of date on these subjects, but I look forward to his new editions. See www.drweil.com
Read but discarded as misguiding
Campbell 2004: Colin Campbell, The China Study, 2004. How to mis-use statistics to claim that China's epically-scoped study proved that the'cure' for Western Disease was a "whole food, plant based diet", i.e. vegetarianism. Luckily I know statistics and could see his confusion of cause and effect. I saw also the film Forks Over Knives, a scary view (and a good story) but of the same bogus logic. At least a temporary sway into the nutritional (not moral) desert of vegetarianism improved my cooking of vegetable dishes.
Books I haven't read myself yet, but intend to…
1 In New Zealand, the Harmony brand and all organic pig farms are true free range, Freedom farms are 50% free range. The SPCA blue tick indicates 50%+ free range. The pork industry's Pigcare label is irrelevant - it just means complies with NZ law. (TV3) ⇑