Primitive Nutrition 68:
Waking to Realities, Part I
You might think I am here to say animal foods are not good for you. I am not. If you are going hungry, any source of calories and nutrients is good for you. But if you have a choice they are probably not optimal for you over the long term. And if you care about our modern challenges, they are not right for us, as a community.
All the meaty low-carb, Paleo, fad diets being peddled seem to me to be an unfortunate distraction from some basic and pressing facts. When you snap out of your Paleo fantasy, there will be some inescapably realities you will probably eventually have to face along with the rest of us.
The Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum have released their best assessment of the staggering burden of diabetes and other non-communicable diseases threatening our future finances.
Over the next two decades the world economy will be dealt a $47 trillion hit from these diseases. Most of these diseases are effected by nutrition to some extent, particularly heart disease and diabetes.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, by the year 2030, 1 in 10 adults is expected to be diabetic. These non-communicable diseases won't just effect the richest nations.
Developing countries will see more and more productive years in the lives of their people wasted due to these epidemics as well. This is not just a financial disaster, but a human tragedy.
Central to this problem is the global epidemic of obesity. The Lancet has looked at this issue recently, and their findings are grim.
Here you see trends in childhood obesity among selected industrialized nations. Clearly we are failing our children, especially in the United States. Everyone in public health is aware of these discouraging trends. There is also broad agreement over why they are happening. People are more sedentary yet food is more abundant. Some of the increases in non-communicable diseases are simply a result of longer life spans. But trends in childhood diabetes and obesity as you see here are clearly a result of changing diets. What is so wrong with modern diets? How are they different now?
This remarkable map is from 1941. Notice the legend to the left. The darkest regions here represent populations that obtained only 30 to 40 percent of their calories from cereals and potatoes. The more lightly shaded areas consumed between 60 and 90 percent of their calories from these fantastic high-carb foods.
This is how cereal and potato consumption broke down by population. Look at the heavy concentration of people in the 80 to 90 percent range. This is nearly two-thirds of the world population. Until very recently, the world ate very high-carb diets from mostly wholesome sources, and there was no obesity epidemic.
The world collectively became richer since then, allowing people to afford to eat foods frequently that used to be eaten only occasionally. Here you can see it was understood back in 1969 that as incomes rise, so does the consumption of animal products. Along the left, the graph shows increasing gross national product. Along the bottom is the percentage of total calories a food group represents. The most obvious loser as wealth increases is in the white section in the middle, starchy carbohydrates, At the bottom of the wealth spectrum they represent about 70% of calories. Other losers with wealth are vegetable proteins and vegetable fats. Those that increase with wealth are animal fats, processed fats, meats, and sugars. That's a disastrous combination for human health, and the trends have continued like this since then.
This graph picks up where the last one left off in 1969. You are looking at the percentage of calories derived from cereals separated by year and by the category of country - developing, industrialized, and transition. Developing countries ate the most cereals, but they are predicted to lower their consumption of them into the future. Industrialized countries ate the least and that it is not expected to change.
Compare that to past and expected trends of meat and dairy consumption. Compare the second line from the top, the developing countries, to the second line from the bottom, industrialized countries. In particular, compare the value for meat in developing countries in 1964 through 1966 with the value for meat in industrialized countries anticipated for 2030. That's nearly a tenfold difference.
Here's a visual for these trends in meat consumption starting in 1995.
You can see world meat consumption is increasing far faster than world population.
Here is how meat consumption currently varies now by region. The developed world and North America are along the bottom. It's hard to believe these regions are actually expected to dramatically increase their meat consumption from these already gluttonous levels.
Many self-styled diet experts want you to believe wheat consumption is the problem, but wheat is eaten far less now than in the past. This decline was noted all the way back in 1929.
There is no question that meat is eaten more now, though.
We've gotten so extreme we are starting to see ads on tv for gout. This guy is carrying around a symbolic bottle of uric acid.
Gout used to be associated with the rich. Now enough people have it that it pays to advertise drugs for it on television.
Gout, of course, is associated with high red meat consumption. Are you such an amazingly well-adapted Paleo meat eater that you can never experience gout?
I doubt it, considering that even Tyrannosaurus rex suffered from it, thanks to its meaty, purine-rich diet.
Meanwhile, we're eating far fewer fruits and vegetables than we need.
The result for us Americans is a chart that looks like this. Joel Fuhrman has categorized our food consumption the right way to show how low our standards have become. By far the biggest share of calories is taken up by unhealthy processed foods, followed by animal products. Unrefined plant foods and whole grains, the pillars of good health, combine to total only 12 and a half percent.
This leaves out the changing nature of the meat we eat. I find this table to be remarkable. Here you see the nutritional characteristics of broiler chickens dating all the way back to 1870. These birds have been progressively bred and raised to deliver dramatically more fat and calories. The chickens people eat now are nothing like they used to be.
As I showed you in the previous section, China is caught up in this global nutrition transition. The world's most populous country is now consuming more protein and much more fat as a percentage of total calories. These changes between 1989 and 2004 are modest compared to what we expect to see.
Rice consumption has remained flat.
And as you know by now, wheat consumption there will decline.
But all major categories of animal foods are expected to skyrocket.
The price for this is their health. Look how steep these trend lines have been for diabetes and glucose intolerance.
Obesity and metabolic syndrome are dramatically rising as well.
There is a country that is an even more dramatic example of the nutrition transition than China, though. I'll tell you about it in Part II.
Primitive Nutrition 69:
Waking to Realities, Part II
Let's return to the Lancet to see how dire the consequences of the nutrition transition can be for a country.
This chart looks at the prevalence of obesity, defined as a BMI over 30, among women in a variety of countries. At the bottom you see two Pacific Island nations, Samoa and Tonga, with Tonga experiencing an astonishing obesity rate of 70%. What is happening in the South Pacific?
The traditional diet among Pacific Islanders used to include exceptionally healthy complex carbs like taro root, yams, breadfruit, and bananas. These were considered by them to be the real food and they formed the foundation of their diet.
This diet was uniformly very low in fat and high in fiber-rich carbs.
Their nutritious traditional foods have now taken a back seat to the worst foods of industrialized society, such as refined carbs, dairy, sweets and fried foods. Meat, fish, and seafood were treated as only condiments once upon a time, but not any more.
Now they import fatty meats and junk carbs, displacing their traditional foods,
And the price they pay for this is epidemic obesity and cardiovascular disease. You can be sure they think these saturated-fat-laden animal foods taste good to them. You can also be sure these foods are ruining their health.
Let's look at the other end of this chart. Ethiopia has hardly any obesity. You can be sure there are important reasons for this beyond diet preference. Ethiopia has historically had poor food security, for example.
However, their traditional diet is worth a mention. Traditionally people there ate very little in the way of animal foods, saving those for special occasions.
Grains were their staple foods.
The Lancet series included the observation that there is a linkage between the issues of obesity and environmental degradation.
At a certain level, this should be common sense. This is not how our food is produced today.
A hundred years ago our pig farms looked like this.
Now they look more like this.
And our poultry comes from places like this.
This is because civilization looks like this now. The quaint family farms of our imaginations are not going to make much of a contribution to the overall food supply in the modern world.
Modern appetites require that enormous numbers of animals pass through the food system. Just look at how many animals were in the US alone in 2001. 10 to the sixth is one million. This has serious environmental costs.
Industrialized livestock and fish production has put us at risk for superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics.
This drug was pulled from the poultry industry once it was realized that it promoted the development of superbugs. The drug is no longer used this way, but the superbugs it created persist.
We are overfishing our oceans so severely that the global collapse of our major fisheries is projected for mid century.
Agriculture is the largest user of our increasingly scarce fresh water resources. Water shortages will put our global food security at risk.
The growth in livestock production required by all that future meat-eating is a big problem for our water needs. Climate change will increasingly threaten the animal-sourced foods sector.
The awful drought this summer in Texas may have given us a glimpse into the future of cattle production.
The fact is meat production is an incredibly inefficient use of water resources. Beef is estimated here to require 86 times as much water as potatoes to produce.
The wastefulness of animal-sourced foods is a hard truth that most environmentalists have not yet faced. This inherent inefficiency is very easy to understand. The conversion of food into tissue and work is energetically inefficient in all animals. Plants are far more energetically efficient than animals. More and more energy is lost as layers of animals are added to the food chain. This is why so few animals are carnivorous. The top of a very big food chain is therefore a vulnerable and unstable perch on which to sit. We’d be smart to come down from there.
The extreme inefficiency of animal food production becomes clear when we calculate the number of calories that can be extracted from a given amount of land by different agricultural strategies. Oats produce more than 25 times the calories per acre as beef.
Wheat is comparable to oats in its calorie yield per acre.
And potatoes are way out in front of both of them.
As efficient as these crops are, bananas absolutely blow them away.
Notice at the bottom of this chart all the protein soybeans produce per acre.
Soybeans produce twice as much protein per acre as any other crop and up to 15 times the protein per acre as meat. These facts have such important implications for the quality of our future, and yet fad diet promoters demonize all these foods - fruit, grains, potatoes, and beans - and advocate that you eat more meat instead. These are the retrograde voices in the food world. Their heads are buried in the sand. They offer no real solutions.
But what about grass-fed beef? you may ask. Surely that is environmentally responsible, right? This myth will be exposed in Part III.
Primitive Nutrition 70:
Waking to Realities, Part III
Some people believe they are getting around the environmental costs of meat-eating by selecting grass fed beef. I'm not sure why they believe this.
If you are concerned about land use or greenhouse gases, the regular feedlot system is much better.
Just think about it. Giving an animal growth promotants like hormones and antibiotics makes it more efficient at converting *its food into muscle and fat mass that will eventually be food for the meat-eater. Therefore it needs less resources and less time to develop all that meat, milk, and fat. This is a major argument in favor of the use of these artificial methods. How is it better for the environment to eat an animal that requires more land and more resources to produce the same number of calories?
Look at the table to the left. The second to last line shows you how much more mass feedlot beef produces per animal. On the right you see how this translates into land use. Organic grass fed beef is a disaster for land use. More land means more ecosystems destroyed and more wild animals like coyote killed as a part of wildlife damage management, as it is euphemistically called.
Grass fed requires three times more land and produces 60% more greenhouse gases. That doesn't sound like a solution to our environmental challenges to me. There are real solutions out there, and they are not expensive, feel-good ways to basically just keep doing the same old things.
One proposed solution for satisfying humans’ meat cravings is the growing of artificial meats. That would certainly make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions and land use. Those vertical black bars are for beef. The red is for cultured meat. Check out the difference in land use in particular, which is the second category from the right. You need to look really closely to see the size of cultured meat's footprint.
Scientists understand the current appetite for meat is unsustainable using traditional methods. That's why they're experimenting with such extreme measures as synthesizing meat from feces. Compared to what we're doing now, it's really not that crazy an idea.
But what about those health challenges from non-communicable diseases? Can we take pills to compensate for our meat- and fat-laden diets? Unfortunately, a really smart person can talk himself into taking many dozens of supplements in an effort to maintain good health. But nutrition doesn't work this way.
There are many thousands of chemicals in foods that interact synergistically with each other. Supplements can't do for you what truly healthful foods can. Going overboard with supplements is not a solution.
The solution, of course, is a whole food plant-based diet. It's clear it is environmentally better, but how much could it help our health? The World Health Organization estimates an increase in our fruit and vegetable consumption to quite modest levels could seriously reduce the global burden of heart disease and cancer.
Adopting a vegetarian diet could even more sharply reduce disease. When you see a study reach a conclusion like this, realize that most of these vegetarians are probably not eating a particularly healthy diet. They are only eliminating meat to get these benefits. This doesn’t tell us much about the rest of their diets.
By returning to our historical plant-based, high-carb diets, we could bring down those terrible trend lines projected for non-communicable diseases. The people who dismiss The China Study don't want you to spend too long pondering findings like what you see here. Colin Campbell and his associates found that rural Chinese men eating low-fat plant-based diets had less than one sixteenth of the rate of deaths from coronary artery disease as American men. I don't understand how anyone can ignore a statistic like that. Campbell seems radical when he asks us to make the big changes in lifestyle this information implies, but that's only because of our cultural bias. These rural Chinese did not see themselves as radical. Their diets were quite normal to them.
Campbell's views are just the logical extension of mainstream nutrition science. The National Institutes of Health know plant foods can fight these diseases through their thousands of phytochemicals.
These chemicals aren't completely understood today. We just know they seem to be among our best weapons against these diseases over the long term.
At this point it seems the only reasonable strategy to take advantage of the ability of phytochemicals to fight disease is to actually eat plant foods. Supplements may never catch up to the real thing.
A great way to fight modern health challenges may be to go back to the future, as this author puts it, and rediscover all that plants can do for us.
There are some big obstacles standing in the way of a cultural shift back to plant-based diets. This is the Primitive Nutrition Series, so let's stick with that perspective to consider these obstacles. First, you may have heard of the thrifty gene hypothesis. The basis of this idea is that genes that enabled efficient fat storage were advantageous for animals that might have faced occasional food scarcity. These genes are a mismatch for us today because most of us never experience serious food scarcity. That makes sense and it may well be true. Imagining the challenges of the past, you could also imagine an evolved preference for high calorie foods like fats and concentrated sugars that could supply the extra energy required for that fat storage.
These preferences might play out in a way that resembles addiction. This study showed that in obese rats, extended access to normal human junk foods like bacon, sausage, and cake created such powerfully compulsive eating behavior that even electrical shocks could not deter them from eating more.
Monkeys have been shown to crave high-fat foods in response to emotional stress. Does that ring any bells?
Brain scans of humans reveal responses to food that suggest addiction, and this is not a phenomenon limited to the obese.
Then there are individual biological variations that effect our food choices. For some the same signals that compel us to have a sweet tooth may also increase the likelihood of alcoholism.
Some of us are so-called supertasters, experiencing most flavors more intensely.
These people are less likely to eat fatty and sugary foods, which is great, but they also may avoid healthy vegetables, too, resulting in a greater risk of disease.
As you know by now, as people become wealthier they tend to eat more meat. This may be because meat is unfortunately associated with social power. Primitive impulses may explain the desire of some of us to climb the food chain.
These researchers found people actually tasted the same foods differently based on whether they believed it was made from real meat or not, and this correlated to their cultural beliefs.
There have been other experiments showing how easily influenced people can be by the ways foods are named or how they are described to them. If you're sure you need meat because it tastes good, it may just be in your head.
It's been shown that children can be warmed up to vegetables that they otherwise might not have chosen to eat simply through repeated exposure. If children can be transitioned to healthy foods, so can you.
This program showed that when children take part in gardening, not only are they more likely to eat more vegetables themselves, their parents are, too. I've had trouble finding similar programs to the one described here that instead expose children to the nitty gritty of the production of meat products. I doubt we'll see that anytime soon.
Do you remember that amazing comment by Uffe Ravnskov about a diet that actually reversed heart disease? Here is a man with an MD and a PhD who rejects such a promising approach, one that could prolong life and save money at the same time. He just can't emotionally accept the idea of giving up fatty foods in favor of fruits and vegetables. He suggests eating unhealthy, addictive foods would be be better for one's inner sense of peace. Inner peace?
Would he say the mice that withstood electric shocks to eat bacon and cake had greater inner peace? Just because someone has an education doesn't change the fact that he or she has primitive impulses. These rats may have seemed addicted to these terrible foods, but they didn't know any better. They couldn't concoct flimsy rationalizations for their unhealthy choices like Ravnskov could. All low carb promoters are subject to all the same innate tendencies as the rest of us. They may find it impossible to critically reassess their beliefs, even if they hadn't staked their careers on these absurd diets.
It has been persuasively argued that humans have evolved a capacity for self-deception.
Robert Trivers has a lot of interesting things to say about this, including this nugget about academics, who seem especially good at self-deception. Do you think low carb promoters do not deceive themselves? Do you think we should trust their research findings? I'll show you why you should stay skeptical in Part IV.
Primitive Nutrition 71:
Waking to Realities, Part IV
If you try hard enough, you’ll probably always be able to find intellectual support for terrible diet choices. There are many media voices who, unlike Colin Campbell, are only too happy to tell you what you want to hear. Their claims may seem well-supported by research. But not all research is created equal. Fortunately, someone has given us tools to distinguish the good from the bad.
Even without an awareness of the instinctive and unhelpful cravings humans - including smart humans - have for fat, meat, salt, and sugar, we would have good reason to be skeptical of much of the nutrition research we see. In 2005 John Ionnidis made the shocking claim that most findings in peer-reviewed journals are false. His arguments are very well reasoned, and I think they apply nicely to nutrition research.
Here are my favorites of the ideas he presents. First, the probability that a research finding is true depends on the prior probability of it being true. When you see a study contradicting the consensus view on an important topic, like the study I showed you that claimed that saturated fats aren’t associated with heart disease, odds are the study is flawed. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For anyone to seriously reconsider whether saturated fats associate with heart disease, that study would have had to have been of a very high quality. Instead, it had numerous flaws.
Next, the smaller the study, the less likely it is to be true. Nutrition studies often have very few participants. Small studies lack statistical power. Think of the pro-Paleo study that had full data for only six people. No one should make much of that one. The next of Ionnidis’s ideas I’d like to mention is huge. The greater the flexibility the researchers have in both the design of their study and how they measure outcomes, the less likely the findings are to be true. I have shown you in The Best Low Carb Research videos how their studies are usually designed to have unhealthy control diets. Therefore, those studies were poorly designed and used definitions that were too flexible.
Those studies may have called a control diet low fat or low glycemic index, but they were still bad diets so they couldn’t really tell us anything. I've shown you how much they try to distract you from their repeated failures to lower LDL cholesterol. That’s an example of the use of oddly selective outcomes. Another great example of that is the study I showed you that said a Paleo diet was more satiating per calorie than a Mediterranean-style diet in patients with ischemic heart disease. That sounds like a pretty weak result because it is. You have a right to be suspicious of all studies with signs of tampering or claims of victory on oddly narrow grounds.
Next, the greater the financial interest and prejudice in a field, the less you can trust research findings. Nutrition studies fit this one to a T. If a study is funded by a non-neutral organization, that matters. If the researcher has staked his career on a fad diet, that matters. Don't forget the Upton Sinclair quote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" Pretty much all the studies in my The Best Low Carb Research videos fail this rule of thumb. The last one of Ionnidis's insights I’d like you to think about now is that the hotter the scientific field is, the less likely the findings about it are to be true. It seems every week a study related to diet makes the news. As long as there is a fat, unhealthy public looking for a quick fix, nutrition research will continue to be a hot field generating lots of dubious claims.
Knowing all this, it makes sense that Ben Goldacre and colleagues found that most health claims appearing in the reporting you read in the news are based on shaky science and are therefore more likely to just confuse people rather than help them. That’s especially true of dietary advice.
There are a other reasons to question the scientific claims you read, but you get the idea.
With 2 and a half million articles being published in 25,000 journals, they can't all be winners. I think if you take the time to read lots of nutrition studies as I have, you'll find that those that say meat and saturated fat are good for you have more red flags, are less frequently cited by other researchers, and are more often authored by individuals who are less-widely-respected in their fields than those that find great results for plant foods. In other words, they are on the fringe.
I am going to reuse this slide here because I think it expresses an idea that is important for people casually reading about nutrition to understand. Many controlled trial studies are focused on people who are metabolically broken. Metabolic dysfunction receives lots of attention because that's where the big money is. Diabetes and obesity, as I've shown you, cause huge economic losses. Drug companies pour a lot of money into these problems because they stand to make a lot of money if they find pharmaceutical therapies that help.
Just do a search on typical terms related to metabolic dysfunction.
You'll probably notice that much of the science out there is attempting to define good diet starting with bad health.
That's why Stephen Phinney's old study of cyclists stands out so much from the other low carb research. If there is only one study in the literature arguing a particular diet is good for fitness, there is a high likelihood that represents a fringe idea. Low carb researchers usually stick to the diabetic and the obese because only the desperate and confused would fall for such ridiculous dietary advice. Frequent exceptions to this observation are the studies focusing on sports nutrition, but just like Phinney’s article, those seldom consider long term health issues.
There are other serious obstacles to a shift to a food culture that addresses our real modern challenges. Some of us frequently have to eat in restaurants, and those restaurants usually sell foods that appeal to our primitive impulses. They want to draw you into their restaurant, and then they want you to part with your money. Appealing to your primitive instincts is an effective way to get you to do that. Why else would we see meals so loaded with calories, fat, meat and salt? These meals are the very definition of calorie-dense and nutrient-poor, and unfortunately they make up about 35% of the calories Americans consume.
What hope does the average person have of eating healthfully in a restaurant when professional dietitians can't even estimate the calories in the foods they serve with reasonable accuracy?
And then there is the way our government subsidizes food. Unhealthy foods have hidden costs at the front end when you buy, with artificially lowered prices thanks to subsidies, and at the back end, when they cause you to require medical care or compromise your productivity. Those costs, not to mention the environmental costs, aren’t on the price tag when you buy butter or meat, but they will be paid by someone nonetheless.
If you are really interested in how evolution informs your food choices, think about this.
Early man's most fundamental adaptation was adaptability and versatility. Those who survived and passed on their genes were those who were best adapted to their situation in their time. Do you think they deluded themselves back then trying to recreate idealized diets from their distant past? No, they used their intelligence and ingenuity to find the right food solutions for them in their world at that moment. We must do the same now. Our world today is different than theirs. It's time to use our big brains to adapt again.
If we look to our historic roots, we should recognize how short-sighted and destructive we can be.
We humans have a historic tendency to destroy ecosystems in pursuit of meat.
If we open our eyes, we will see we have the opportunity to eat the healthiest, most humane, most responsible diet in human history, if only we would be smart enough to recognize it.
We should do our part to create a food culture that helps all of us to be healthy because ultimately, we will all pay the price one way or another if we don't.
What I'm advocating isn't radical. I think a great place to start our new adaptation is the Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy Eating Plate, which is based on good science.
If you implement this, you won't be too far from what I think is best. I would disagree that oils have a special place in the diet.
As Joel Fuhrman points out, they are essentially empty calories.
I would also follow their line of reasoning about calcium just a little further. If you are eating a healthy plant-based diet with lots of greens and beans to get your required calcium, you probably don't have to concern yourself with the other purported benefits of milk regarding high blood pressure and colon cancer. Plant foods are arguably much better for those issues. They also lack the unwanted baggage of dairy. So I don’t see the rationale for dairy consumption.
And I would choose the vegetarian proteins they name instead of meats for all the reasons I laid out at length in the Protein Choices section. I don’t need unhealthy baggage along with my protein, either. I’ll take some extra nutrition to prevent disease, though.
One can use all the arguments I've presented, whether based on nutrition, evolution, environment, or cost, to dramatically cut back on your meat consumption and still stay well inside the mainstream. But can I make an argument based on all that that will compel you to go completely vegan?
Probably not. Ultimately going vegan is about your own conscience. What kind of life do you think these animals deserve to live?
For me, knowing that I don't need their bodies to be healthy, I cannot justify hurting them.
You could hope drugs will one day fix our broken metabolisms.
Or that genetically modified organisms will solve world hunger.
Or that geoengineering will fix climate change. Maybe all these will help us.
But before placing all your hopes in these, my suggestion would be to follow this old saying first.
When you are in a hole, stop digging.
I'm not trying to sell you on a fantasy or a fad. This is the world as it is. Engage these realities. Be more responsible. Be more aware. Be healthier.
Be more compassionate. Whole food veganism is the single best response I know to all these problems. It can make the world a better place for us and them.
If a top competitive athlete doesn't need to exploit these animals...
And if a top fitness pro doesn’t need to exploit them, then I don't, either. That's why I made the choice to go vegan.
I would rather let these animals be. Where nutrition ends, that's where ethics begin.