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Screw Religion, Politics, and Abortion. Let’s Talk About Something REALLY Controversial: Diet

Posted by on Dec 22, 2011 | 38 Comments

Many of my friends and cohorts follow a particular diet.  I find diets and the accompanying supporting evidence endlessly fascinating.  People approach dietary theory with about the same fervor as… well, barefoot runners approach running without shoes.  ;-)

Here’s a quick rundown of diets I occasionally see:

  • The meat-heavy paleo diet,
  • The fruit and veggie-heavy paleo diet
  • Vegetarian
  • Vegans
  • An endless variation of the previous two that add specific foods like eggs, milk, cheese, or Spam.
  • Weight lifters that consume primarily powdered protein
  • Juice or other liquid-only diet
  • Zone diet
  • Raw food diet
  • Long distance runners that eat nothing but calorie-dense processed fast food
  • Inuit diet
  • South Beach diet
  • Nutrisystems diet
  • Body for Life diet
  • Weightwatchers
  • Atkins diet
  • All fruit diet
  • Jenny Craig
  • Gluten-free diet
  • Herbalife diet
  • My diet (food is a form of recreation and I do not discriminate)
  • and of course, the diet recommended by the USDA

Anyway, my Facebook friends know I’ve been discussing this in some detail.  Here’s the fascinating part: many of the diets are contradictory, but have some supporting scientific evidence.  The same goes with the logic of the diets.  All can be spun to make logical sense.  Paleo?  It’s our evolutionary destiny.  Vegan?  We’re biologically-optimized for it.  Avoid anything processed?  Our rate of disease has skyrocketed in recent years.  To make matters more confusing, the people prescribing to a particular dietary philosophy have some degree of success.  Sometimes that success is measured by weight loss, muscle-building, running performance, or general subjective feelings of healthiness.

But what about health?  Many people cite an increase in disease as a rationale supporting their particular diet.  Good scientists (or skeptics) look for alternate explanations.  Are cancer rates increasing because we eat too much meat?  Or there’s too many pesticides in our pineapple?  Or our eggs come from chickens that smoke too many menthols?  Maybe.

Or maybe cancer rates are increasing because more babies survive through the first years of their life.  Maybe the human gnome has a survival mechanism that culls “bad genes” in the womb and early childhood, and our advances in medical technology are allowing these individuals to survive until they succumb to cancer.

I have no idea if that explanation has any merit, but it is a plausible alternative explanation.  The problem with using “science” when discussing diet is simple- almost everyone uses correlations to support their hypotheses.  As we know, correlation does not equal causation, even if it seems to be a logical connection.  As far as I know there are no convincing peer-reviewed meta-analyses supporting one particular dietary philosophy.

Note- a book or report about a particular diet full of correlations and logical arguments, no matter how well-written and persuasive, is not a substitute for actual peer-reviewed experimental research.  This goes for diets and anything else, including my book.  Yes, barefoot running is in the same class as all of the diets discussed above- it makes sense to some, but we still need to maintain a degree of skepticism.  We have to be open to the possibility that we may be wrong.

So the big question remains- what is the ideal diet for humans?

Is it possible we can survive and prosper off pretty much any digestible food source?  Heather Wiatrowski presented a great argument in one of our Facebook discussions.  Humans are capable of reproducing (a great measure of our survival capabilities) when consuming a HUGE range of foods… even if we only have a single food source.  Throughout human history, we’ve had entire cultures that survived on very little variety.  Furthermore, a more robust diet doesn’t increase fertility.  As long as women maintain a minimal amount of body fat, humans can reproduce.

The idea more or less reflects my “moderation diet” discussed in this post.  Actually, the “moderation and variety” part could feasibly be dropped.

So what does this mean?  I’m proposing there is no ideal diet for humans.  There may be ideal diets for individuals based on intolerance to specific foods.  After all, there’s more variability within groups than between groups.  What is good for the goose is not always going to be what is best for the gander.

The amount of food is more important.  Consume more calories than you burn and you’ll gain weight.  Consume less and you’ll lose weight.  This does seem to get a little complicated when discussing metabolism as it’s not a static construct.  Regardless, the same basic calories in/calories out principles apply.

What is the solution?  Try a variety of foods.  Continue eating the stuff that has a positive impact.  Eliminate those that has a negative impact.  Most importantly, understand your optimal diet is probably a little different than anyone else’s optimal diet.

Thoughts?  Discuss in the comments.

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38 Comments

  1. Manj je več » Prehranski premislek ali desert za letošnji obrok
    December 30, 2011

    [...] ki mi je bil v zadnjem času res všeč, je zapisal Jason na svojem blogu. Hitro se namreč zgodi, da v iskanju pravega prehranjevanja človek postane preveč enostranski in [...]

  2. John
    December 27, 2011

    I hungry. I eat food. I like veggies today. Tomorrow I want slaugtered cooked animal. Next day maybe a mix of both. How bout some soup made with leftover veggies and slaughtered fowl??? And Christmas cookies? And whatever I can get with my Sheetz giftcard from work???

  3. Danni suskin
    December 27, 2011

    I think you are exactly right. Eat whatever you like, and moderate the quantity.

    The mere fact that so many “diets” exist, and work to some extent, proves it. You can lose weight eating only M & M’s if you keep the calories down.

  4. Shane
    December 23, 2011

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I think you’ve helped me further refine my theory that we humans are just like giant cockroaches. We can live anywhere and eat anything, and that’s what mostly led to our widespread global dominance. That, and the whole opposable thumb thing.

  5. Chris
    December 23, 2011

    I like Michael Palin’s advice: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That covers a lot of ground for a lot of different biological needs.

    • Ryan
      December 23, 2011

      Michael Pollan. Michael Palin was on Monty Python.

  6. Thomas
    December 23, 2011

    Food is not only “a diet”. Food is also a source of joy, sharing, socializing and even happiness?
    Enjoy life, enjoy food – but keep the balance.

  7. Janice Nicholls
    December 22, 2011

    I have to disagree that there is no diet that is ideal for humans. I believe there is a diet that is ideal for the human race & that’s a plant-based diet. The energy and resources required to sustain our western meat-eating society is ridiculous in a world where people are starving. We need to think about humanity when choosing food. We also need to think of the well-being of the animals that share the earth with us. At the very least they need to be treated humanely.

  8. Charlie Galvin
    December 22, 2011

    The fact that there are so many foods that can be palatable to our species is the amazing feat. We’ve walked our way to most corners of our world and no matter what we found something to eat. Which leads me to believe that if you can find it in the world eat it.

    One of the important things to note on some of these people that have lived to old ages on odd diets is that they are consistent. They are true meal plans for life, regardless of health merits. They aren’t what I plan to do for three months to look good for summer. They are committed to a specific lifestyle. If you can sustain the diet for your life then I think it is the right one for you.

  9. David Sutherland
    December 22, 2011

    Human gnomes? Should I worry about this new hybrid species?

    Oh, and I’d love to see a clinical study on the effects of menthol on chickens. The trick will be making sure all those smoking chickens don’t light their coup on fire.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      Contrary to popular belief, chickens are exceptionally responsible with fire. My evidence: ever hear of a chicken starting a forest fire? No? Point proven. :-)

  10. Alex
    December 22, 2011

    I haven’t seen double digit body fat in years, without following any specific diet. Train hard, watch your portions, don’t eat much junk. Do what the lean athletes do, if you’d like to be a lean athlete.

  11. Jeff Gallup
    December 22, 2011

    For the past year, I’ve done the best I could to follow Michael Pollan’s simple guideline to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. Food meaning whole non-processed foods. For the first time in my life I’ve lost weight without every feeling like I’m on a diet.. and I know its weight that will never go back on, because there is no “end of diet” goal in sight.. taking up barefoot/minimalist running hasn’t hurt :-)

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      I’ve found the best benefit of plants is satiety- the fill you up. High volume, low calorie density. And they keep the pipes active.

  12. seret
    December 22, 2011

    Weight Watchers isn’t a diet – it’s teaching people how to eat proper and not blow out portions.

    You can eat whatever you want – just keep on track within the points allotted… spot on with your “The amount of food is more important” statement.

    So many people are afflicted with Portion Distortion.

    • Erik
      December 22, 2011

      That, for me, is why exercise trumps diet, because it greatly helps regulate one’s appetites, both in terms of quality as well as quantity. Very little will-power is necessary to eat well and proportionately when you’re in shape, I’ve found.

      • Janice Nicholls
        December 22, 2011

        I disagree. The more I run, the hungrier I get.

        • Erik
          December 23, 2011

          Perhaps you were already eating well and proportionately? If that’s you’re base,then yes, more exercise = more intake. I was referring to being out of shape, and yet still wanting to lose weight through diet. I think a lot of people fail because it takes a lot of willpower, whereas when you’re fit you tend to crave better quality foods and the quantity is more in proportion to your energy requirements.

        • Erik
          December 23, 2011

          Perhaps you were already eating well and proportionately? If that’s your base, then yes, more exercise = more intake. I was referring to being out of shape, and yet still wanting to lose weight through diet. I think a lot of people fail because it takes a lot of willpower, whereas when you’re fit you tend to crave better quality foods and the quantity is more in proportion to your energy requirements.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      I agree- Trisha pointed this out on FB, too. Weightwatchers DOES sell their own branded products, though, and I’ve known people that eat only their products. That can’t be good. The idea of WW is spot-on, though.

  13. kai keliikuli
    December 22, 2011

    Well said. Fad diets sell because they externalize the problem and the solution.

  14. Angie Bee
    December 22, 2011

    I concur.
    You also could throw in that what you eat depends on what is available based on the season as well as winter being a time of year when people want to eat more.

    Too many variables and complexity or a simple answer to fit everyone.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      Good point, Angie. This can be an issue with our society here in the US or any culture throughout history. Since we populate pretty much the entire planet, our species needs the ability to thrive off an incredibly variable diet.

  15. Erik
    December 22, 2011

    Here’s what works for me: Exercise trumps diet, then, dietarily, quality trumps quantity, natural trumps processed, and fruits & veggies carbs trump grain-based carbs unless you do something energy-intensive all day, like travel by bicycle or dig ditches. Finally, fun toxin-taking done in moderation.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      I like you, Erik. :-)

      • Erik
        December 23, 2011

        I like the way you think Jason.

  16. Ari
    December 22, 2011

    One thing about your list of diets. Gluten free is not a choice for 1 out of 140 people. It’s celiac disease and people like me who have it get a little offended when our illness is called a diet.

    As for healthy food philosophy Michael Pollan has it right. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      Ari, Shelly (my wife) is gluten-intolerant. I don’t consider her dietary intake a diet, rather a life necessity.

      There are people that have no issues with gluten, yet choose not to consume it. Those are the folks the “diet” refers to.

  17. Paul
    December 22, 2011

    If you want to tackle this in the full spirit of scientific skepticism you claim to embrace, you should eschew pat theories like calories in v. calories out. As you suggest, differences in metabolic rate throw that math off kilter VERY quickly. Especially true when people develop insulin resistance from carb/sugar consumption and find their bodies stuck in between spikes and troughs in blood sugar, packing away sugar as fat because they can no longer metabolize it effectively.

    I strongly suggest reading Gary Taubes’ writing on the matter. In particular read “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” You may be convinced by this skeptic that the kind of calories you eat matter much, much more than the volume of calories you eat.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      Paul, as a blogger, I’m banned from actually USING scientific skepticism.

      :-)

      BTW- this is one of the ideas behind my idea of dietary moderation- avoid too much of any one thing, like carbs/sugar for example.

  18. Vanessa
    December 22, 2011

    Well said. I’ve been fostering a similar theory: a nutrient-based diet. I think that as long as we’re getting the NUTRIENTS we need (vitamins/minerals/a healthy balance of fats/carbs/protein, etc).. we can function optimally, no matter what diet we choose to follow. Combine that with your moderation diet, I think we can now co-write a book and make millions ;)

    • Jason
      December 22, 2011

      I’m in! ;-)

  19. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    December 22, 2011

    Google “Twinkie Diet” sometime. A dude did a study where he consumed nothing but Twinkies and green beans, and monitored his caloric intake. He lost a ton of weight and had amazing blood results.

    I’ve also watched a report on a guy who lived to be 100 on a diet of nothing but fat-back and buttered toast.

    I think lifestyle factors have a lot more to do with overall health than type of food consumed. And I agree…amount of food consumed is very much a part of that.

  20. Brad
    December 22, 2011

    Your FB post was like a trial balloon to see how much traffic you can get from a post.

    You are a genius. I have much to learn from you.

    I personally practice the lazy diet. I eat what is available though I try to eat as “healthy” as possible (whatever that means) from the available food.

    oh, and beer and gin are sometimes part of my diet.

    • The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
      December 22, 2011

      I’d call it “research” Brad.

      • Jason
        December 22, 2011

        I’d lie if I didn’t post this topic due to the voracious discussions that follow. Not only is it interesting, but it is traffic gold. :-)

  21. krista
    December 22, 2011

    damn straight. Wish I could disagree.

  22. Trish Reeves
    December 22, 2011

    I agree with you 100%, although I don’t possess the proper skill to discuss it as well or thoroughly as you. So in other words, I couldn’t have said it better myself.