The above image, no longer in use, is called the Food Pyramid. It contains within it suggestions for healthy eating. In my opinion, humble or not, it contains some of the worst dietary advice ever given.
- It puts too much emphasis on vegetables and fruits. I’ve no problem with them, I like most of them, but I think them overrated in terms of health. In my diet I have a small glass of orange juice daily, though not religiously, and broccoli and onions, green peppers and jalapeños. These turn up in recipes. (As I will be discussing Keto in this piece, I mention here that on that system, we avoid vegetables grown underground, but eat many grown above. Potatoes and yams, for example, are diet death, french fries a never-no-no. Green beans? Not a big deal.) (Keep in mind that I am 71. If you are in your 20s, 30s or 40s, eat, drink and be merry!)
- The pyramid suggests we eat less meat than fruits and vegetables by far. I even get the impression that it might want us to skip meat entirely. I get most of my nutrition from meat. It keeps me slim, and provides all the nutrients I need to stay healthy, except perhaps Vitamin C.
- I would group cheese with meats, as it is something we can eat in any quantity without affecting our weight. I skip yogurt, and do not drink milk (except with coffee). I have never liked milk. Neither did my mother.
- Fats and oils … use “sparingly?” The body loves fats of all kinds, saturated and not. In fact, our brains are comprised of mostly fat, 60% as I read it, meaning that my dad was 60% right in a certain insult he would occasionally lay on me. (For sake of humor, I am too hard on him. He never called me a “fathead.”)
- The biggest problem with the above pyramid is the bottom, the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group – 6-11 servings daily! If you want to lose weight and avoid diabetes, you will ignore that recommendation. Of course we all love bread – I can wolf it down as well as anyone. But if I do, I pay a price – my weight mushrooms.
- We can agree with one thing: Avoid sugars.
I am not saint, and do not suffer from lack of variety. When we have meals with friends and family, I do not turn away anything, as I think dieting in public is rude. It makes hosts uncomfortable. So if they put cake and ice cream in front of me, I eat and enjoy it. Eating with friends and family is a treat. So I do not live like a monk, and enjoy those sweets now and then.
Speaking of satiation, that last category, bread, cereal, rice and pasta are all primarily carbohydrates. The Keto plan, which I guess I am on (I used to call it “low-carbing”) emphasizes avoidance of carbs in all forms. The reasons are twofold: One, excess carbohydrates in the diet stimulate the body to produce insulin, a hormone that signals the body to store fat. That confuses people, that dietary fat does not end up as stored body fat. That’s why Keto works.
The other is that carb-based foods do not send the “satiated” signal to the brain, and we tend to overindulge. I know this for a fact, How many servings does the package of Oreos to the right contain? C’mon, we’ve all done it. The answer: One, two, or three.
Gary Taubes, whose name turns up later in this post, gave an excellent example of the difference between fat, protein and carbohydrates in one of his books. He wrote about the quantities of popcorn served at movie theaters. We eat and we eat and we eat, even after it stops tasting good. We do this because our body doesn’t send out the “enough” signal. Popcorn is pure carbs (although an excellent delivery vehicle for butter as well). Taubes suggested that instead of popcorn, we take a package of American cheese to the movies, and eat that. He’s not serious, of course, but the point is that we would eat one or two slices, and stop.
The Food Pyramid has been replaced now by the “My Plate”, seen to the left. It’s a simpler and easier-to-understand display. The advice that goes with it is, like the Food Pyramid, bad (in my view). It says we should eat less than we do, With Keto, appetite self-regulates, that is, we have no cravings and so no urge to eat more than we need. Even if we do overeat, we are equipped with a body that knows how to take care of that problem. I’ll leave that delicate matter at that. As with the Food Pyramid, MyPlate wants half my diet to be fruits and vegetables, discussed above. It says that any grains we eat should be whole grains (I don’t think the body cares about that). It says that we should switch to skim or low-fat milk, which is just wrong. It says to cut back or eliminate salt – more on that below, but that too is just wrong. Finally, it says to drink water instead of sugary drinks. Finally, we are in agreement.
I’ve probably told this story before, but in 2010 we traveled down the road to Boulder, Colorado. My political beliefs were far different than now. Noam Chomsky was invited to speak to a packed house somewhere on the campus, and we snagged the last two tickets. They were high in the balcony, and I had a very hard time squeezing my fat ass into my seat. I knew something had to change. I’d heard of low-carbing, but never really got in the habit. Sometime not too long after that night I got hold of a book by science journalist Gary Taubes, a best seller called Good Calories, Bad Calories. I followed the advice in the book (it is not a diet cook book; it contains no recipes), and gave up pizza, eventually all bread products, donuts, candy bars, sugared drinks of all kinds, beer, pie, cake. I love pizza. To this day, I miss it. But oddly, pizza aside, it was not hard. I found that it was much easier to totally do without things like that than to have a little bit.
In the ensuing months, my weight dropped from 232 to 210. In the ensuing years I have managed to get down to 202, but there I stop. I can go no further, the “plateau”. I love that weight, as all my clothes fit, and I look good in photos.
We’ve had holidays and vacations, and this morning I was shocked to find myself at 208. It can be a merry go-round. I do not look fat to myself in the mirror at the higher weight, but I wonder if I am self deluding.
Dietary fads come and go, and low-carbing, now going by the Keto label (short for ketosis, or the state the body is in when it is burning fat) was said to be just another fad by professional nutritionists who were hooked on calory counting. They were taught that if we burned more calories than we consumed, we would lose weight. It never works beyond temporary results. Dieting in that manner is sack cloth and ashes, leaving people hungry. Consequently, they do not last.
But there are still a lot of professionals who believe that myth, including the one who works for the magazine Consumer Reports. I’ve forgotten her name, but she did an article on healthy fast foods, and recommended one meal that contained 84 grams of carbs! As any Ketohead will tell you, that’s dietary suicide. She is old school, but apparently set in her ways.
(We have an acquaintance who, when last I saw her, was on a starvation diet, reducing her caloric intake to ridiculously low levels. In addition to this, she was horribly frightened by the alleged virus, and chastised us for not wearing masks when near her. I judged that between starvation and fear, she was having a psychotic breakdown.)
Quotes that follow are from an essay called Heads in the Sand: How Politics Created the Salt-Hypertension Myth, by Michelle Minton. I came across it in a book called Scientocracy, edited by Patrick J. Michaels and Terrence Kealey. While “salt” is in the title, she covers a wide range of dietary issues.
Similar to cholesterol and salt, dietary fat came to its place of villainy thanks to outspoken experts willing to make logical leaps based on early studies. Like [Lewis K.] Dahl, [an early and vocal opponent of salt in our diets] these early studies seem to show that populations with more fat in their diet had higher rates of heart disease. Like the recommendations to reduce salt, universal fat-reduction recommendations in the initial dietary guidelines were based on the unjustified assumption that lowering its intake would improve public health. Instead, as Americans ditched full-fat foods for low- and no-fat alternatives, we traded fats for carbohydrates and, perhaps not coincidentally, experienced a massive surge in the rates of diabetes and obesity. And like the salt debate, the debate around fat was fierce from the beginning, and the case against fat became flimsier over time, as research indicated that full-fat foods, rather than causing chronic disease, might actually offer protection against disease like diabetes and obesity. But it would take the US government decades to reverse itself, only admitting in 2015 that the focus should be on “optimizing types of dietary fats and not reducing total fat.”
I am an avid cook and am always on the lookout for good Keto recipes. Quite often those I find will recommend low- or no-salt or fat products, even substituting things like avocado for olive oil, skim milk for whole, and unsalted butter. This is a hangover. Bad diet advice lingers on long after official advice givers (as the Department of Agriculture and its food pyramid) have backed down. 2015 Seems the year when they finally came to their senses,
The salt wars go far back in history, to the Nixon presidency.
Throughout the 1960s, the evidence and views of the research community remained stubbornly inconclusive on the issue of salt. Yet many key figures had been swayed by Dahl’s research. One of these was Dr. Jean Mayer, scientific advisor to Pres. Richard Nixon. In 1969, Nixon chose Mayer to lead the White House Conference on Food, nutrition and health, a symposium of the nation’s top nutrition experts convened to review the existing evidence and reach a consensus about the top health questions of the day. Dahl was among those invited by Mayer to participate in the symposium, as was anti-fat proponent Ancel Keys (a key influence on dietary guidelines). Though the conference’s focus was on hunger and malnutrition, it frequently turned to the problem of “over-nutrition.” It also served as an arena in which the increasingly acrimonious salt debate would play out in full view of the public.
Over the decades the salt wars heated up, and money flowed freely to produce studies that said we should reduce salt in our diet as a means of resisting hypertension. But there was a problem – an equal number of studies said that reducing salt intake, far from advancing public health, was detrimental to many people. It is now accepted wisdom that salt intake is OK and healthy, but like all things in life, should not be done in extreme excess. For myself, I do not and have never worried about salt.
It was against this double shift that journalist Gary Taubes published his provocative and award-winning article on the debate for the journal Science. After interviewing some 80 researchers, clinicians, and administrators involved in salt policy, Taubes concluded that it’s fever emanated from the fact that the evidence for salt reduction was so tenuous; it generated the perceived need for consensus among those researchers who advocated it. Furthermore, protecting the appearance of consensus demanded that controversy either be dismissed or explained away as the product of a profit-motivated lobby.
The last hobgoblin to be discussed in the piece is cholesterol. It was a classic case of correlation=causation that led Senator George McGovern, scientists and the American public to believe that dietary cholesterol (eggs) were bad for us. After all, doctors performing heart surgeries came across clogged arteries and concluded that it we should avoid cholesterol in our diet. McGovern in the 1970s was head of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He also had a personal health scare, and became a client of diet guru Nathan Pritikin, who recommended a diet low in fat and free of sugar, meat, added salt, or processed foods. He also recommended running three miles a day, which McGovern did. The results were impressive for McGovern personally, so much so that his committee in 1977 would demonize cholesterol and any foods with with it, mostly eggs. (This same committee at that same time also went after salt and dietary fat.)
Time magazine cover from 1984 featuring two fried eggs in a strip of bacon on a plate in the shape of a smile. The accompanying headline, “Hold the Eggs and Butter; cholesterol is proved deadly,” help spread the dogma that diets high in fat and cholesterol almost invariably lead to heart disease. Yet after 15 years of bland breakfasts, Time featured a nearly identical cover, but with a slice of melon in place of the bacon in the face now smiling. Cholesterol, the magazine reported, is no longer something to worry about. The reversal on cholesterol came as a result of emerging research that the original warnings were not – and had never been – supported by science. It would take the US government an additional 16 years to update its own guidelines, finally forced to admit in 2015 that cholesterol was no longer a nutrient of concern.
So from the time of the 1977 McGovern committee recommendations, which were codified as official recommendations in the Department of Agriculture until 2015, nearly forty years, bad dietary advice prevailed. As McGovern’s committee was also influential in demonizing fat and salt in our diets, it can be said that this one man did more damage to the health of ordinary Americans than any other in history. As a direct result of McGovern’s do-gooding we have experienced an obesity epidemic, with nearly 31% of us overweight. Type 2 diabetes rose from 2.6% to nearly 10% of us today.
So a bad idea takes off, and cannot be stopped even by good science. As Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
I am now 71 years old and long past the time that I could eat and drink anything I wanted without paying a price. All of the above is not meant to convey dietary advice. I am only talking about what I do because it works for me. I want to stay trim and in good health. For readers, take it all with a grain of salt. Ahr ahr.